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PTI Photo/ Vijay Verma
Amitabh Bachchan, Union Minister Veerappa Moily, Alok P Jain (2ndL) and Akhilesh Jain (R) present 44th Jnanpith Award to famous Urdu poet Akhlaq Mohammed Khan 'Shahryar' (C) in New Delhi.
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Farewell, Shahryar
Shahryar’s passing is a monumental loss to modern Urdu poetry and to the world of Indian literature.
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Shahryar’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, his image as one of Urdu’s most recognizable poet had been consistent. Indeed, the award of a Jnanapith (2008; announced in 2010) had reinforced his stature as Urdu’s pre-eminent contemporary poet.

I was surprised by the perfunctory, half-baked, obituaries in the Indian press that reported his passing. Predictably, the focus of these notices was on his contribution of lyrics to Mumbai cinema; some however did care to mention that he had been the chair of the Urdu Department at Aligarh University (retired 1996) and was the editor of a well-known literary journal She’r-o Hikmat. I am assuming that more serious assessments of his contribution to Urdu letters will follow in Urdu journals, but I am compelled to pause at the moment of his departure and reflect on his special niche in Urdu poetry and the void that has been created by his death. I think 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.

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 transcends time. Such poetry becomes synchronic with our day to day life. The history of the ghazal, its popularity, then decline, and, the story of its triumphal survival are twined to 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 was so relaxed and effortless that it makes complicated themes appear simple:

ye chal chalao ke lamhein hain ab to sach bolo
jahaan ne tum ko ke tum ne jahaan ko badlaa hai


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

tamaam shahr mein jis ajnabii ka charchaa hai
sabhii ki rai hai voh shakhs mere jaisaa hai


[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:

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; the list is awesome. 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 ones. For example, words such as baarish, maauj, kishtii, daryaa, bhanwar, musaafir (wave, boat, river, whirlpool, traveller, rain) used in the she’r quoted above are often deployed by Shahryar to explore both the sensuous and the ontological meaning of existence.

dil mein tufaan hai aur aankhon mein tughyanii hai
zindagi ham ne magar haar nahin mani hai


[storm filled heart and eyes in flood
life I am still not defeated]

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

duur tak ret ka taptaa hua sahraa thaa jahaan
pyaas kaa kiskii karishmaa hai vahaan paani 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 of my favourites evokes emotions beyond translation:

tujh ko kho kar kyuun ye lagtaa hai ke kuchh khoyaa nahiin
khwaab mein aaye gaa tu is vaaste soyaa nahin


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

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, Irfan Siddiqi. His closest friend, poet-litterateur Mughni Tabassum to whom he dedicated his last book of poems Shaam Hone Vali Hai (Evening is Upon Us, 2005) died soon after. Shahryar’s ode to Tabassum in Shaam is unsettling in its prophetic mood:

To Mughni Tabassum:

ay aziiz az jaan Mughni
terii parchaain hun lekin kitnaa itraata hun main
Azmi kaa marna Najma ka bichharnaa
bhuul kar bhii ye khiyaal aayaa nahiin mujh ko
ke tanhaa rah gayaa

terii ulfat mein ajab jaadu asar hai
terii parchaain rahun jab tak jiyuun
ye chaahtaa hun

ay khudaa
chhoti si kitnii bezaraar ye aarzu hai
aarzu 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 fleeting thought
That I was now alone.

May I be your shadow as long as I live.
Dear god, grant me
This small, insignificant wish;
this wish that I dare to have

because you are there.]

Perhaps it is fitting to say farewell with his own words: bichhRey logon se mulaaqaat kabhii phir hogi -- we will meet again someplace, somewhere.

dilchaspi jo duniya ko hai mujh mein rahe qaaim
ek moR nayaa aaye ab merii kahaanii mein


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


Mehr Afshan Farooqi, Assistant Professor at University of Virginia, is the editor of The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature

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