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Farewell, Shahryar

The passing of Urdu poet Shahryar is a monumental loss to Indian literature. Awarded the 2008 Bharatiya Jnanpith, Shahryar's greatest contribution lay in his felicity with ghazals, in crafting new tropes to express modernity's dilemmas and adding new meanings to familiar ones. This is a tribute to his life and work and his special niche in Indian poetry.

COMMENTARY

Farewell, Shahryar

Mehr Afshan Farooqi

because he had already worked on them so hard, or having stepped on the path of creativity, the poems fl owed easily from his pen.

In the 1950s, the Progressive Writer’s

The passing of Urdu poet Shahryar is a monumental loss to Indian literature. Awarded the 2008 Bharatiya Jnanpith, Shahryar’s greatest contribution lay in his felicity with ghazals, in crafting new tropes to express modernity’s dilemmas and adding new meanings to familiar ones. This is a tribute to his life and work and his special niche in Indian poetry.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi (maf5y@virginia.edu) is at the University of Virginia.

dilchaspi jo duniya ko hai mujh mein rahe qaim ek mor naya aaye ab meri kahani mein1

[May the world’s interest my work endure May a new turn emerge in my story.]

S
hahryar’s passing is a monumental loss to modern Urdu poetry and to the world of Indian literature. Although he had been ailing for the past year and had not been writing much for several years, he consistently remained Urdu’s most recognisable poet. Indeed, the award of the 2008 Jnanpith (announced in 2010) reinforced his stature as contemporary Urdu’s preeminent poet.

Born in Aonla in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district in 1936, Shahryar’s given name was Akhlaq Muhammad Khan. Shahryar was not one of those early geniuses who start writing poetry at a young age. There were no poets in his family. In high school, he was drawn to sports, especially hockey. But as he noted in an interview, there was an abiding, deep, inexplicable sadness within him. His father worked for the police department and wanted him to be a police officer – a prospect quite daunting for the sensitive young man. He decided to leave home rather than serve in the police department.2

Shahryar’s life took a different turn when he met Khalilur Rahman Azmi, a noted poet and Urdu critic who was several years his senior. They became good friends. It was Azmi who directed Shahryar’s energy and melancholy towards poetry. As Shahryar admitted many times, Azmi’s influence drew him to write; it was Azmi who suggested the pen name Shahryar and who even went to the extent of publishing his own poems under Shahryar’s name.3

Eventually, as an undergraduate student, Shahryar began to compose his own poems. The anxiety of measuring up to Azmi’s standards compelled him to polish and perfect his ghazals over and again before showing them to his ustad. Azmi did not offer much by way of corrections, according to Shahryar, perhaps

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Movement was a strong ideological force in the literary milieu. Azmi was not a Progressive in a narrow sense of the term. He was in fact branching out from the agenda-driven philosophy of the Progressives and exploring the angst of human existence in a world baffl ed by relentless change. It is obvious that Shahryar looked up to Azmi as an ustad but he was not overly infl uenced by Azmi’s poetic style. Shahryar’s early work introduced a poet who was ambivalent, searching for something but not knowing what he wanted, wanting to dream but eluded by sleep. After completing his BA, Shahryar toyed with the idea of getting an MA in Psychology.4

However, he dropped the idea and instead earned a Masters in Urdu from Aligarh Muslim University in 1961.

After a short period of struggle during his search for permanent employment, Shahryar was appointed lecturer in the Urdu department in Aligarh in 1966. An interesting feature of his teaching career was that he never taught poetry. He preferred to teach fiction. He was well-liked by his colleagues. In fact, a remarkable quality of his personality was his antibohemian attitude. He did not have any hang-ups about his image as a recognised poet but was as “normal” as anyone else, and enjoyed watching fi lms, cooking, playing with children and spending time with friends.

Among his younger contemporaries at Aligarh was Muzaffar Ali, who later became a noted film-maker. Ali was an admirer of Shahryar’s poetry in college and when he made his first feature fi lm Gaman (1978), he got Shahryar’s permission to include two of his ghazals in the fi lm as they appropriately described the emotional state of the fi lm’s protagonist. The ghazals, siney mein jalan, ankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai, and ajeeb saneha mujh par guzar gaya yaro, sung in the rich, deeply resonant voice of Hariharan became quite popular.5

But it was Shahryar’s lyrics for Ali’s beautiful cinematic retelling of Umrao Jan

COMMENTARY

Ada (1981) that brought ghazals written for cinema to an entirely new level. The success of Umrao Jan Ada’s lyrics brought a lot of offers from Mumbai cinema for Shahryar. But he did not allow the dazzle of a career as film lyricist to blind him. Although his film lyrics brought him another level of popularity and recognition, he knew that that kind of fame was not what he wanted. In an interview for a documentary film on his life, made under the aegis of the Sahitya Akademi, he said that no serious poet could write fi lm lyrics.6

Work

Shahryar made his mark on Urdu’s literary scene in 1965 with a collection of poems ambitiously titled Ism-e-Azam or The

7

Great Name.

The book was well received and acclaimed by both critics and the wider audience. Its appeal lay in the ravani, the flow and accessibility, of his language and the ease with which ideas crossed ideological boundaries. His poetry was not burdened with rigid philosophical posturing; instead, it attempted to share experiences. The publication of his fi rst collection seemed to have opened the door to a flood of creativity. Ism-e-Azam was followed by Satvan Dar or Seventh Door (Shabkhoon Kitab Ghar, Allahabad, 1969). By the time his third collection, Hijr ke Mausam or Seasons of Separation was published in 1978, Shahryar was established as one of the leading poets in Urdu.

Azmi’s death (of cancer) in 1978 must have been a big emotional setback for Shahryar. His friendship with Azmi had literally been the cause and force behind his poetic effl orescence.8

The poems in Khwab ka Dar Band Hai (The Doorway of Dreams Is Closed, 1985) show him resisting loneliness, haunted with sleeplessness, grappling with night’s relentless darkness: 9

Voh jo asman pe sitara hai use apni ankhon se dekh lo, use apne honton se chum lo, use apne hathon se tor lo, ke usi peh hamla hai raat ka.

[That star in the sky Gaze at it with your eyes Kiss it with your lips Pluck it with your hands For it is the target of night.]

This short poignant nazm (poem) is emblematic of Shahryar’s existential angst and the struggle to capture the evanescent moments of joy. Plucking the twinkling star from the sky to protect it from the attack of the forces of darkness is a bittersweet victory. The star is safe but it does not twinkle anymore.

Khwab ka Dar Band Hai won Shahryar the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1987. His poetic outpouring continued through the 1980s and 1990s: Qafi ley Yadon ke, Suraj ka Intizar, Neend ki Kirchen, Mere Hissey ki Zamin.10

The last book of poems Shaam Hone Wali Hai was published in 2005. This is an outstandingly consistent engagement with his muse.

Shahryar’s greatest contribution to modern Urdu poetry was his felicity in composing ghazals, a style of poetry that demands technical perfection and is packed with emotions at once personal and universal so that it can transcend time. Such poetry becomes synchronic with our day-to-day life. The history of the ghazal, its popularity, decline, and the

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may 26, 2012 vol xlviI no 21

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story of its triumphal survival are intertwined with the history of Urdu itself. The predictable melancholy of the classical ghazal had to be infused with modern themes and moods in order to adapt with the times. Change, chaos, bewilderment – experiences of modernity’s dilemmas had to become part and parcel of the modern ghazal. Shahryar’s ghazal engaged with change with a piercing directness. Yet his poetic style is so relaxed and effortless that it makes complicated themes appear simple: 11

ye chal chalao ke lamhein hain ab to sach bolo jahan ne tum ko ke tum ne jahan ko badla hai

[In these moments of separation/departure Speak the truth; has the world changed you Or you have changed the world.]

tamam shahr mein jis ajnabi ka charcha hai sabhi ki rai hai voh shakhs mere jaisa hai12

[The stranger who is the talk of the town Everyone thinks I am like him.]

The modernist ghazal in the hands of masters like Shahryar acquired awareness, a particularity of the individual’s experiences in a complex world that is mostly unsympathetic. In a bold departure from the beaten path his poems also explored the sensuousness of the experience of love: 13

labon se dhum barish asman tak jati maujein badan kishti musafir ke liye girdab tha voh

[tumultuous kisses rain waves rising sky high my body’s boat traversing a whirlpool.]

Above all, Shahryar was able to access a wide gamut of complex emotional states that form the existence of the individual in the modern world: fear, stress, restlessness, boredom, anger, passion, loyalty, disloyalty, apathy, coldness, love and forgetfulness. Many of these emotional states were not dissimilar to the themes of the classical ghazal, and reflected a continuity that was important, but Shahryar’s pen crafted new tropes and added new meanings to familiar tropes. For example, words such as barish, mauj, kishti, darya, bhanwar, musafi r (wave, boat, river, whirlpool, traveller, rain) used in the she’r quoted above were often deployed by Shahryar to explore both the sensuous and the ontological meaning of existence.

dil mein tufan hai aur ankhon mein tughyani hai zindagi ham ne magar har nahin mani hai14

[storm filled heart and eyes in fl ood life I am still not defeated.]

There is always hope in his poetry surprising us in twists and turns: 15

Dur tak ret ka tapta hua sahra tha jahan Pyas ka kiski karishma hai vahan pani hai

[where there was an endless, burning desert whose miraculous thirst brought water?]

Shahryar occasionally produces an unsettling she’r suggestive of the great classicist Mir Taqi Mir’s searing poetic style. One favourite evokes emotions beyond translation:16

tujh ko kho kar kyun ye lagta hai ke kuchch khoya nahin khwab mein aye ga tu is vaste soya nahin

[I had lost you but I felt I had lost nothing I didn’t sleep for you would be in my dreams.]

Passing

Shahryar now will be in the company of his fellow poet-friends with whom he embarked on his poetic journey, Khalil ur Rahman Azmi, Kumar Pashi and Irfan Siddiqi. His closest friend, poet-litterateur Mughni Tabassum to whom he dedicated his last book of poems Shaam Hone Wali Hai (Evening Is Upon Us, 2005) died soon after. Shahryar’s ode to Tabassum in Sham is unsettling in its prophetic mood:17

To Mughni Tabassum:

Ay aziz az jaan Mughni

Teri parchain hun lekin kitna itrata hun main

Azmi ka marna Najma ka bicharna

Bhul kar bhi ye khiyal aya nahin mujh ko

Ke tanha rah gaya

Teri ulfat mein ajab jadu asar hai

Teri parchain rahun jab tak jiyun

Ye chahta hun

ay khuda

choti si kitni bezarar ye arzu hai

arzu ye main ne ki hai

is bharose par ke tu hai

[Dearer than life, Mughni I’m your shadow but how arrogantly I strutted It’s your love’s strange magical affect That in Azmi’s death, Najma’s separation I never had a fl eeting thought That I was now alone. May I be your shadow as long as I live. Dear god, grant me This small, insignifi cant wish; this wish that I dare to have because you are there.]

Predictably, the focus of the perfunctory obituaries in the Indian press was on his contribution of lyrics to Bombay cinema; some cared to mention that he had been the chair of the Urdu department at Aligarh University (though he had retired in 1996) and was the editor of a well-known literary journal She’r-o Hikmat. More serious assessments of his contribution to Urdu letters will follow in Urdu journals, but we must pause at the moment of his departure and refl ect on his special niche in Urdu poetry and the void that has been created by his death. It is very important to reach out to a general, educated audience of Urdu lovers that must be craving to learn more about Shahryar at this time.

To close this tribute, here is a she’r from one of his later ghazals which he loved to recite and which also represents the essence of his poetic thought and style:18

Zindagi jaisi tawaqqo’ thi nahin kuch kam hai Har ghari hota hai ihsas kahin kuch kam hai

[life is not what I/we expected it to be, something is missing Every moment there is this feeling, something is missing.]

Notes

1 Shahryar (2005), Shaam Hone Wali Hai (Aligarh:

Litho Press), 41. 2 Shahryar and his father were reconciled later. 3 I am grateful to Shahryar’s son, Faridoon

Shahryar, for sharing some special memories of his father with me. His father told him that Azmi had written some of the early poems published under his name. Also, the children’s names, Humayun and Faridoon, were suggested by Azmi.

4 This is interesting because it shows that he did not consider an MA in Urdu necessary for his trajectory as an Urdu poet.

5 These two ghazals are from the first 1965 collection, Ism-e-Azam (Aligarh: Indian Book House), pp 81 and 99 respectively. They are also included in the 1978 Hijr ke Mausam (New Delhi: Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu), pp 10 and 30.

6 The documentary titled Khwab se Khwab Tak was directed by Obaid Siddiqui and released in 2000. It is 27 minutes in length.

7 Ism-e Azam is also the key to the magical world of illusions.

8 Shahryar wrote a short but poignant poem in memory of Azmi, Khalilur Rahman Azmi ki Yaad mein, I could not verify the date when it was written but it is included in the last 2004 collection Shaam Hone Wali Hai.

9 Hijr ke Mausam, p 58.

10 Qafiley Yadon ke, 1986, Delhi; Suraj ka Intizar, 1988 (Lahore, Naya Pakistan Publications); Neend ki Kirchen, 1995 (Aligarh: Educational Book House); Mere Hissey ki Zamin, 1999 (Aligarh: Educational Book Depot).

11 Shaam Hone Wali Hai, p 19.

12 Ibid: 19. 13 Ibid: 39. 14 Ibid: 16 15 Ibid: 16 16 Ibid: 36.

17 Ibid: 15. This is the very first poem in the collection. 18 He recited this ghazal in his acceptance speech for the Jnanpith Award.

Economic Political Weekly

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may 26, 2012 vol xlviI no 21

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