September 29, 2020
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Appreciation

The Poetry Of 'No'

Beginning a new series on progressive Urdu poets with this appreciation - Sahir Ludhianvi's Aesthetic Experiment - that the author plans to follow with similar profiles of Faiz, Makhdoom, Kaifi Azmi and others.

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The Poetry Of 'No'
The Poetry Of 'No'
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Mujh ko is ka ranj nahin hai, log mujhe fankaar na manein
Fikr o sukhan ke taajir mere sheron ko ash-aar na manein

[I do not regret that people do not consider me an artist
That the traders of thought and words do not consider my poems poems]

With these characteristically bold lines, Sahir Ludhianvi announced his aesthetic experiment. He intended his poetry to be a manifesto of the working class rather than a part of the Funoon e Lateefa [The Delicate Arts]. The above lines by Sahir underscore the tension between the literary canon of Urdu poetry and the overt poetic experiment undertaken by many of the writers of the Progressive Writers' Association [PWA]. The PWA placed the exigencies of a realist narrative in prose and poetry ahead of the dominant tropes, metaphors and styles of what passed as 'classical' Urdu poetry. Sahir, a loyal soldier of the PWA cause, was always ready to locate his poetry within the movement. He sought to eliminate any sense of metaphysical mystery from his poetry. Earlier poets had reveled in ascribing mystical origins to their work. For example, Ghalib speaks of his poetry thus:

aate hain ghaib se ye mazaameen khayaal mein
Ghalib, sareer e khaama, nawaa e sarosh hai

[These ideas come to me from the void;
Ghalib, the scratching of pen on paper is the flutter of angels' wings].

Sahir rejected this mysticism, and instead highlighted the material origins of his poetry in the frontspiece of his book Talkhiyaan [Bitter Words]:

Duniya ne tajrubaat o hawaadis ki shakl mein
Jo kuch mujhe diya hai, wo lauta rahaa hoon main

[What the world, in the form of experiences and accidents
Bestowed upon me, I am returning]

It is not unusual for poets to position themselves as aesthetic rebels. Ghalib, for instance, made a career out of it, by verses like:

na sataish ki tamanna na silay ki parwah,
gar nahin hain mere ashar main maane na sahi

[Neither a craving for appreciation, nor a caring for reward,
If my verses are meaningless, so be it]:

Even the recent poets like Javed Akhtar castigate critics by calling them traders, the ultimate insult a leftist poet can deploy:

jaanta hoon main tum ko, zauq e shaairi bhi hai
shaqsiyat sajaane mein, ek ye maahiri bhi hai
phir bhi harf chunte ho, sirf lafz sunte ho
un ke darmiyaan kya hai, tum na jaan paaoge
 

[I know you appreciate poetry
After all, it is a personality-building skill
But you just pluck letters, hear words
What lies between them, you [shopkeepers] will never know].

The difference between these announcements of difference and those by Sahir is that Sahir actually used his poetry to explain why he consciously repudiated the canon, and to theorize why a non-progressive canon would ultimately reject him.

Sahir's poetry must be understood/read? as a coherent art form. It is as fine-grained as Ghalib's and Meer's ghazals, as lyrical as Faiz's nazms and as inflected with philosophy as a musadddas by Hali or Iqbal. His priorities though, with respect to content, provoked him to practice a different kind of form, one that is unfortunately easy to dismiss, if one accepts the premises of the canon. In this way, Sahir’s poetry can be used as a device to critique the current traditions of criticism in Urdu poetry, particularly those that leave PWA poets in the shadows while obsessing over so-called classical traditions.

Sahir was born into a zamindar family. His parents however, separated soon after his birth, and Sahir never really enjoyed the material comforts of his class position. He was evidently a fractious and combative, if emotionally mercurial youth. The legend goes that he was expelled from college after a spectacular failed romance. At the age of 23, in 1943, he published his first book Talkhiyan, arguably the best-selling work of Urdu poetry after the Deewaan-e-Ghalib. He began editing a number of journals including a fortnightly called Savera. After the decolonization of the subcontinent, Sahir stayed in Lahore and continued to bring out Savera. But in 1949, he was forced to flee when the Government of Pakistan issued a warrant for his arrest for some articles in his journal which were critical of the Pakistani state. Sahir's conflicted relationship with Pakistan is reflected in the following ironic verse:

chalo us kufr ke ghar se salaamat aa gaye lekin
khuda ki mamlekat mein sokhta khaanon pe kya guzri

[Thank God we arrived safe from the land of infidels;
But in God's own kingdom, what happened to the brokenhearted?]

Sahir moved to Bombay where he had a spectacularly successful career as a lyricist for the Indian film industry. His songs not only exhibited a lugubrious gravitas [Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai, Even if this world is attained, so what], but also revealed the playfulness of lovers [Hum aap ki aankhon mein, is dil ko basaa de to, What if I domiciled this heart in your eyes?], or even charming buffoonery [Sar jo tera chakraaye, ya dil dooba jaaye, aaja pyare paas hamaare, kaahe ghabraae, kaahe ghabraae, If your head spins, or your heart sinks, come on buddy, come to me [have a massage], why fear].

Sahir used film lyrics to give voice to an entire range of themes, from the quotidian to the passionate to the reflective. Indeed, the legacy of Sahir and others like him have kept Urdu alive in popular Indian idiom through the medium of film song. In 1956, Sahir wrote his opus poem Parchaiyan [Silhouettes], a broken hearted paean to lost love and an anti-war manifesto rolled into one. He rarely published his non-filmi work, after Talkhiyaan, barring Aao ke koi khwaab bunein [Come that we may weave a dream] in 1971, but even that had several repeat poems from Talkhiyaan. However, he continued to be active in the mushaira circles, and his book of selected film songs Gaata Jaae Banjara [The Gypsy Sings On] can be found on many a bookshelf alongside other Deewans, Kulliyaats and Kalaams.

His poems are being hummed in streets, his songs are keeping an idiom alive and his non-film poetry still is a best-seller. Sahir is an important element in the poetic sensibilities of the common people. But what does he merit by way of analysis? In his famous analysis of Urdu literature, Mohammed Sadiq, after a chapter on Ghalib, Iqbal, and even Akbar Ilahabadi, dismisses Sahir in one paragraph. His analysis begins with "though deficient in imagination, Sahir has a strong intellectual approach."

Despite the fact that several Urdu journals have devoted special issues to his work, Urdu critics like Intizar Husain have lauded him as a literary giant, and his songs continue to inspire many Urdu writers, one rarely sees a literary or hermeneutic analysis of Sahir's poems in English. Barring a fine and empathic, if critical analysis by Carlo Coppola, most of Sahir's critics in English dismiss him as a pamphleteer, an ideologue or a propagandist. This treatment is not only Sahir's unfortunate lot. In the specialized world of Urdu criticism in English, there appears to be an implicit agreement that the works of PWA writers, while they may be lauded as devices of organizing, are aesthetically inferior, and even harmful to Urdu poetry's classical traditions.

Why have these progressives been given such short shrift? I believe that this is not unique to Urdu literature. In fact, it is a highly common aspect in any literary criticism. It is not unusual for the canon in any field of literature to be wary of aesthetic experiments and to regard its outcome as aesthetic failure. Thus, in the present literature on Urdu poetry, poets like Sahir Ludhianvi remain forgotten, like the workers who built the Taj Mahal, whose lot he empathizes with, seen here in a dialogue with an imaginary beloved:

meri mehboob, unhe bhi to mohabbat hogi
jin ki sannaa'i ne bakhshi hai ise shakl e jameel
unke pyaaroN ke maqaabir rahe be naam -o numood
aajtak un pe jalaai na kisi ne qandeel

[My love, they too must have loved
Whose craft has given [the Taj] its beautiful visage
Their loved ones lie in unmarked graves
Where no one even lights a candle]

Sahir’s work fortunately continues to demand the attention of the serious critic. His work is littered with explicit references to the fact that his is an aesthetic experiment. Not only do his film songs offer a glimpse into the lyrical exuberance he was capable of, his extremely serious and often-depressed non-film poetry shows him to be someone who has cast himself as society's interlocutor. In Mere Geet [My songs], Sahir writes;[:]

mere sarkash taraane sun ke duniya ye samajhti hai
ke shaayad mere dil ko ishq ke naghmon se nafrat hai
mujhe hangaama e jang o jadal se kaif milta hai
meri fitrat ko khoonrezi ke afsaanon se raghbat hai…
magar ai kaash dekhen wo meri pursoz raaton ko
main jab taaron pe nazren gaadh kar aansoo bahaata hoon
tasavvur ban ke bhooli vaardaaten yaad aati hai
to soz o dard ki shiddat se pehron tilmilaata hoon…
mai shaayar hoon, mujhe fitrat ke nazzaaron se ulfat hai
mera dil dushman e naghma saraai ho nahin sakta
jawaan hoon main, jawaani naazishon ka ek toofaan hai
meri baaton mein rang e paarsaai ho nahin sakta
mere sarkash taraanon ki haqeeqat hai, to itni hai,
ke jab main dekhta hoon bhook ke maare kisaanon ko
ghareebon, muflison ko, bekason ko, besahaaron ko
Sisakti naazneenon ko, tadapte naujawaanon ko…
To dil taab e nishaat e bazm e ishrat laa nahin sakta
main chaahoon bhi, to khwaab-aawar taraane gaa nahin sakta

[When the world hears my angry songs, it assumes
That perhaps my heart abhors love songs
That I derive pleasure from the turmoil of war and conflict
That by nature, I love stories of bloodshed…
But ah! That they could glimpse those blazing nights
When I cast my eyes on the stars and weep
When forgotten encounters flash upon memory's eye
For hours, I tremble with the intensity of my grief…
I am a poet, the love of nature is my instinct
My heart can never be the enemy of song writing
I am young, and youth is a storm of passion
My words can never be inflected by the color of temperance
If my angry songs have a reason, it is this
That when I see the tillers of land go hungry
When I see the poor, the oppresses, the helpless
The sobbing beauties and the writhing handsome youths…
My heart cannot bear to partake of the happy society of high culture
Even if I wish, I cannot write dreamy songs.]

One can safely conclude that any critique of Sahir's work on the grounds that it is programmatic is ultimately correct. What one must however concede is that his poetic attempt to render art into a manifesto is a conscious aesthetic choice on his part, not a product of a deficiency or a lack. Sahir injected a sense of bitterness and brusqueness in his poetry that was intense and sometimes nearly unpalatable. Consider for example, the standard trope deployed by socialist poets who positioned love as a barrier to a revolutionary agenda.

Faiz writes lovingly to his beloved, mujh se pehli si mohabbat, meri mehboob na maang [My love, do not ask me for those affections of yore]. Sahir on the other hand, betrays a patriarchal condescension in his impatient tone of 'get with the program' to an imaginary beloved in mujhe sochne de [Let me think]:

nau e insaan pe ye sarmaaya o mehnat ka tazaad
amn o tehzeeb ke parcham tale qaumon ka fasaad…
lahlahaate hue kheton pe jawaani ka samaa
aur dehqaan ke chhappad mein na batti na dhuaan…
ye bhi kyon ha, ye bhi kya hai, mujhe kuch sochne de
kaun insaan ka khuda hai, mujhe kuch sochne de
apni mayoos umangon ka fasaana na suna
meri nakaam mohabbat ki kahaani mat ched

[Among humans, the contradiction of capital and labor
Under the banner of peace and culture, communities riot…
The wavy fields bestow a promise of youth
While under the farmer's roof, there is neither candle nor stove…
Why does this happen, let me think!
Who is this God of ours, let me think!
Do not bring up the story of your defeated youth
Do not bring up the issue of my lost love.]

Similarly, one finds it difficult to reconcile Sahir's various poems on war, which shifted their stance depending on the position of the party-left in India. At heart, Sahir was a pacifist. Growing up as he did in the aftermath of World War 1, with its economic deprivations and having seen as a youth the economic ravagement created by World War 2, Sahir wrote his best poems when he advocated against conflict. In 1956, following the Suez Canal crisis, he wrote Parchaiyan [Silhouettes], which focused on the domestic fallout of war:

us shaam mujhe maaloom hua, kheton ki tarah is duniya mein
sahmi hui doshezaaon ki muskaan bhi bechi jaati hai
us shaam mujhe maaloom hua, is kaargah e zardaari mein
do bholi bhaali roohon ki pehchaan bhi bechi jaati hai

[On that evening, I learned that in this world, like fields
The smiles on the nervous faces of beauties is also traded
On that evening, I learned that in the marketplace of capital
The intimacy of two innocent souls is also traded.]

Sahir ends parchaiyan with a powerful plea against future wars:

guzishta jang mein ghar hi jale, magar is baar
ajab nahin, ke ye tanhaaiyaan bhi jal jaayen
guzishta jang mein paikar jale, magar is baar
ajab nahin, ke ye parchaiyan bhi jal jaayen

[In the last war, homes were burned, but this time
Even the loneliness may burn away
In the last war, only bodies burned, but this time
Even the silhouettes may burn away]

Strange then, that in 1971, when the left parties in India assumed a strident anti-Pakistan position, Sahir dutifully churned out Jang hi sahi [Let there be war]:

hum aman chaahte hain, magar zulm ke qilaaf
gar jang laazmi hai, to phir jang hi sahi

[We desire peace, but a peace that opposes tyranny
If war is inevitable, let there be war].

Also, in an unpublished reference, Carlo Coppola claims that Sahir changed one of the lines in his already published poem taj mahal to placate the criticism of left parties. The line, seena e dahr pe naasoor hain, kohna naasoor [It is a boil on the body of the earth], made in reference to the Taj Mahal was apparently criticized by the left parties because they felt that the Taj, being the product of the effort of laborers, deserved more respect. Sahir changed the line to daaman e dahr pe us rang ki gulkaari hai [It is embroidered on the hem of the earth with that color]. The line merges seamlessly with the next line, jin mein shaamil hai tere aur mere ajdaad ka khoon [In which is intermingled the blood of our ancestors], as a means of critiquing the elitist origins of the Taj Mahal.

Sahir comes across as a victim of the programmatic isomorphism of the PWA, as its unseeing vanguard. However, one must understand him in context: as a powerful poet of 'no', as the self-appointed conscience of society, the ironic critic of the right and the strident persuader of the left. Indeed, his non-film poetry is heavy, occasionally shrill and pompous. One can link it to the circumstances of his own life, his highly publicized failed romances, his reputation as a difficult person to live with, and his lackings in social skills. But I submit that these details of his personal life should not be brought to bear in judging his poetry. One must see him as a relentless critic of various cultural and social institutions, examining them for signs of prejudice and exploitation. Occasionally, such an approach comes across as rank irritation, but even his most complaining voice is imbued with a wonderful lyricism. Consider for instance one of his anticolonial poems titled Madame, directed at an imaginary English lady:

log kehte hain, to logon pe ta'ajjub kaisa
sach to kehte hain ke naadaaron ki izzat kaisi
log kahte magar aap abhi tak chup hai
aap bhi kahiye, gharibon mein sharaafat kaisi
nek madame! Bahut jald wo daur aayega
jab hamein zeest ke adwaar parakhne honge
apni zillat ki qasam, aap ki azmat ki qasam
hum ko taazeem ke meyaar parakhne honge

[If people say it, what is there to be surprised?
It is true, the indigent have no honor
People say it, but why are you quiet?
Say too, that the poor and politeness don't mix
My good madame, that time will come soon
When we will have to re-evaluate generations
By my wretchedness, and by your greatness I swear
We will have to re-evaluate the standard of respect]

Sahir's critique is especially trenchant when he puts liberal nationalism in the dock. In a poem titled 26 January, he acerbically lays out the failed promises of the Indian nation-state:

aao ke aaj ghaur karen is sawaal par
dekhe thhe hum ne jo, wo haseen khwaab kya hue…
bekas barehnagi ko kafan tak nahin naseeb
wo waada-haa e atlas o kamkhwaab kya hue…
jamhooriyat-nawaaz, bashar-dost, amn-khwaah
khud ko jo khud diye thhe, wo alqaab kya hue

[Come, and let us ponder on the question
Those beautiful dreams we had dreamt, what happened to them
Helpless nakedness does not even merit a shroud
What happened to those promises of silk and satin
Democrat, humanist, pacifist
What happened to all those self-conferred titles?]

There is a bitterness in these verses that starkly contrasts, with, for example, Faiz's almost wistful treatment of the same subject. For example, responding to his exile by the Pakistan government, Faiz writes:

nisar main teri galiyon pe ai watan, ke jahaan,
chali hai rasm ke koi na sar utha ke chale

[I sacrifice myself to your lanes, my motherland
Where it has been decreed that none should travel with their heads held high].

However, while Faiz exhibited a theoretical unease with nationalism, Sahir practiced it with uncompromising passion. Ironically, it is this passion that allowed him to be unselfconsciously harsh in his critique of various aspects of the state. Consider, for instance, his trenchant critique of India's language policy, written in 1968 when the government suddenly decided to mark the 100th anniversary of Ghalib's death. Titled jashn-e-Ghalib [Ghalib's Celebration], the poem critiques the treatment meted out to Urdu by Indian policies:

jin shehron mein goonji thhi, Ghalib ki navaa barson
un shehron mein aaj urdu, be-naam o nashaan thehri
aazaadi e kaamil ka elaan huaa jis din,
maatoob zabaan thehri, ghaddar zabaan thehri
jis ahd e siyaasat ne ye zinda zubaan kuchli
us ahd e siyaasat ko marhoomon ka gham kyon hai
Ghalib jise kehte hain, urdu hi ka shaayar thha
Urdu pe sitam dhha kar Ghalib pe karam kyon hai

[In those cities, where Ghalib's voice echoed for years
In those very cities now, there is no trace of Urdu
The day we announced our independence
It became an oppressed language, a traitor language
The political will that crushed this living tongue
Why does that very politic mourn Urdu's dead
The one who you call Ghalib, he was a poet of urdu
Why bury Urdu to praise Ghalib?]

Sahir of course reserved his greatest critique for the institution of religion, which he saw as the ultimate tool of exploitation. Not only did he attack the very basis of religion [for example, he wrote: aqaid wahm hai, mazhab qayaal e qaam hai, saaqi [Belief is but superstition, religion an inferior idea, O saqi], he also despaired of a world where religious leaders were allowed to control the aspirations of the people, meanwhile, conjuring up an era where the power of atheistic critique would rule:

bezaar hai kanisht o kaleesa se ye jahaan
saudagaraan e deen ki saudagari ki qair
ilhaad kar rahaa hai murattab jahaan e nau
dair o haram ki hailia ghaaratgari ki qair
insaan ulat raha hai ruq e zeest se naqaab
mazhab ke ehtemaam e fusoon parwari ki qair

[This world is sick of the temple and the church
You who peddle the power of religion, beware
Atheism is now placing the foundation of a new world
You who call out in the name of shrines, beware
Humanity is unveiling the real face of life
Religion's wily artifice, beware.]

Sahir comes across as a bundle of contradictions. His film ditties show a songster of infinite abilities who can give eloquent voice to the subtlest of emotions. His non-film poetry was extremely depressed, angry, programmatic and manifesto-driven. It was however littered with references to his deliberate attempts to craft a new aesthetic. He was sharply dismissive of his colleagues who put traditional aesthetics ahead of what he saw as a poetic responsibility to change the world:

zamaana bar sar e paikaar hai pur-haul sholon se;
tere lab par abhi tak naghma e Khayyam hai saaqi!

[The world is in mortal combat with deadly flames,
And you continue to sing the songs of Omar Khayyam, O saaqi!]

Within his poetry, Sahir always downplayed his own personality. In the tradition of many PWA poets, he never used his taqallus, his poetic signature, in any of his ghazals. In poem after poem, he approvingly predicted his own effacement, such in his highly famous main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon [I am a poet of a moment of two]:

kal koi mujh ko yaad kare
kyon koi mujh ko yaad kare
masroof zamaana mere liye
kyon waqt apna barbaad kare

[Will anyone remember me tomorrow
Why should anyone remember me tomorrow
Why should this busy world
Waste its time on me?]

But ultimately, Sahir was a poet. And given that he was an uncompromising Marxist, it is interesting to see what Marx himself had to say on the subject of poets and adulation:

Write a friendly letter to Freilgrath. Don't be afraid to compliment him, for all poets, even the best of them, are courtesans, more or less, and they have to be cajoled to make them sing.Our Freiligrath …is a real revolutionary and an honest man through and through - praise that I would not mete out to many. Nevertheless, a poet - no matter what he may be as a man - requires applause, admiration.I think it lies in the very nature of the species…

Ultimately, we must celebrate Sahir, to accord him his pride of place in the canon of Urdu poetry. In ending, one must invoke the four lines that come closest to Sahir's celebration of his own importance as an interlocutor, as the one who broke up the cultured and hypocritical parties thrown by the capitalist, the usurer, the priest, the nationalist, the lover, the colonialist, and sometimes, the poet.

vajh e be rangi e gulzaar kahoon to kya ho
kaun hai kitna gunehgaar, kahoon to kya ho
tum ne jo baat sar e bazm na sun-na chaahi
main wahi baat sar e daar kahoon to kya ho

[What if I told you the reason the spring had no color?
And what if I became the accountant of the sinners' sins?
The words you did not want to hear in the genteel gathering
What if I said those very words on the gallows?]


Mir Ali Raza helps edit Samar, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection.


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