Archive for the ‘Urdu’ Category

Life as a painful predicament, and Urdu’s gloomy poet (Column: Bookends XCV)


“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence…” observes a character in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. This sentiment was already known to Urdu ‘shayars’ right from Mir, with their poetry bearing discernible undercurrents of melancholy and despondency till it reached an epitome with this 20th century practitioner whose entire corpus is unvarnished pessimism at a transient but painful existence, and the closest you can find existential nihilism in this poetic tradition.

“Ik muamma hai samajhne ka na samjhane ka/Zindagi kahe ko hai, khwaab hai deewaane ka” goes one of his best-known couplets. This actually begins a ghazal, which then goes: “Zindagi bhi to pasheman hai yahan laake mujhe/Dhoondti koi heela mere mar jaane ka” and ends: “Har nafs umr-e-guzashta ki hai maiyyat, ‘Fani’/Zindagi naam hai mar mar ke jiye jaane ka”. Another in this vein is: “Na-muraadi hadd se guzri haal-e ‘Fani’ kuch na pooch/Har nafs hai ek janazah aah-e-betaseer ka”.

Searching for gleanings of positivity in the oeuvre of Shaukat Ali Khan ‘Fani Badayuni’ (1879-1941) would be in vain, for he was fittingly known as “Mayusi ka shayar” and “Sahaab-e-gham”. Influenced by both Mir and Ghalib, he however seemed to have assumed all the pathos they often but not overwhelmingly depicted as his sole outlook, but in his own distinct style. Perhaps his unfortunate life might be the reason.

Born in Badaun district in a zamindar’s family reduced in circumstances after property confiscations in the aftermath of the 1857 Revolt, Fani started writing poetry – despite strong parental disapproval – when quite young, briefly using his own given name as his ‘takhallus’ before plumping for ‘Fani’.

Having done law from the Aligarh Muslim University, he tried to practise in Bareilly, Lucknow, Aligarh and Agra, but he had a poet’s heart and he couldn’t make much headway in the legal profession. He started an Urdu magazine but he was no better in business too, and had to close it down after losses. Embroiled in property disputes and having to sell his inheritance at a fraction of its value, and abandoned by ‘friends’, Fani moved to Nizam’s Hyderabad in 1932.

His patron there was one of India’s most helpful friend of litterateurs but one whose contribution has largely been forgotten- Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad (1864-1940), twice prime minister of Hyderabad State (1901-1912; 1926-1937), extolled as Yamin us-Sultanat (right hand of the realm) and a poet himself. Fani was offered a judge’s position but declined as it would have meant leaving the city and instead took a job as a school headmaster. He was not temperamentally inclined to courtly life, and late nights at the court of the Nizam’s son Moazzam Jah took a toll on him, affecting his job from which he was eventually removed.

Dying barely a year after his benefactor, Fani summed up the last phase of his life in bitter terms – in a ghazal beginning “Shauq se nakaami ki badaulat, kuchae dil hi chooth gaya/Saari umeeden toot gayein, dil baith gaya, ji chooth gaya” and ending “Fani ham to jeete ji voh maiyyat hai be-gor-o-kafan/Ghurbat jis ko raas na aayi, aur vatan bhi chooth gaya”.

As per his poetry at least, he didn’t set much store from life or existence. One of his celebrated ghazals begins: “Duniya meri bala jaane, mehengi hain ya sasti hain/Muft mile to maut na loon, Hasti ki kya hasti hain”.

‘Hasti’, or say, a consciousness of existence, was a motif, like some contemporaries, but his treatment was different. While Syed Ali Mohammad ‘Shad Azimabadi’ said: “Suni hikayat-e-hasti to darmiyan se suni/Na ibtida ki khabar hai na inteha maloom”, and Asghar Hussain ‘Asghar Gondvi’: “Sunta hoon bade ghaur se afsaana-e-hasti/Kuch khvab hai kuch asal kuch andaz-e-bayan hai”, Fani went: “Na ibtida ki khabar hai nan inteha maaloom/Raha yeh vahm ke ham hain so voh bhi kya maloom”.

His poetry, collected in two modest-sized volumes “Baqiyat-e-Fani” and “Irfaniyat-e-Fani”, could be quite trenchantly bleak: “Fani davay-e-dard-e-jigar zahhar to nahi/Kyun haath kaanpta hai mere charah-saaz ka” or “Dam bhi Fani kisi ke gham tak hai/Dam na hoga agar yeh gham na hoga”, or “Hashr ka din bhi dhal gaya Fani/Dil ki rudaad mukhtsar na hui”. Even love received short shrift: “Aap ne anjaam dekha ishq ka/Aapne Fani ki turbat dekh li” or “Dil hi nahi hai jis mein na ho dard ishq ka/Voh dard hi nahi hai jo har dam siva na ho”.

Despite his gloom, Fani is most readable, for he does not take himself too seriously. One ghazal ends: “Yaad hai Fani tujhe koi kahani aur bhi/Khatam kar afsana gham, dil pareshan ho gaya”.

It could be his own exit cue too!

(06.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


Existentialism’s genesis in 19th century Urdu poetry (Column: Bookends XCII)


Debates on man’s purpose in life have been as old as his existence and, at some phase, call in question the role of the world – is it friendly, hostile or supremely indifferent? Taking the last position was a school of thought, predominantly European, where the individual’s start is marked by “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless, absurd world. But do the angst-ridden quartet of writers and philosophers – Kierkegaard (Dane), Dostoyevsky (Russian), Nietzsche (German) and Sartre (French) – who are acknowledged as Existentialism’s pioneers deserve all the credit or should we look closer to home?

A consistent but concise definition of Existentialism has been difficult to frame, but Sartre came the closest in describing it as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”. Also among its key features is the notion of the Absurd, which is not the dictionary definition but rather that there is no meaning in the world beyond what humans give it.

It is not very difficult to trace these sentiments expressed in the 19th and 20th century Europe, earlier in time and space to Asia – 12th century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in one of his quatrains, translated and popularised by Edward Fitzgerald, says: “Into this Universe, and why not knowing,/Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,/I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

And on the inexorable, mechanistic workings of destiny and the futility of imploring divine intercession, the Sage of Naishapur says: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” and “And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,/Lift not thy hands to IT for help–for It/Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”

But there was a poet from the Indian subcontinent itself who excelled in transmuting the mysterious absurdity of life and the human condition into verse – verse which is still popular and heard, though most of the hearers may not know anything of its antecedents.

His most famous couplet is on the ineffable paradox of life – and death: “Ab to ghabra ke ye kahte hai ke mar jaayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge”, while another famous ghazal, immortalised by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar, is the one beginning: “Layi hayat aaye qaza le chali chale/ Na apni khushi aaye na apni khushi chale” – and what could be a more poetic expression of Existentialism.

These are among the few surviving examples of the corpus of Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’ (1789-1854), the most popular poet in an era which boasted Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda and the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ himself among many others.

The son of an ordinary soldier who educated himself to rise to poet laureate at the imperial court when just a teenager, the poetic preceptor to the emperor himself and was titled “Khaqani-e-Hind” after the fabled 12th century Persian poet, ‘Zauq’s fame has unfortunately dissipated after him. But circumstances were against him – as the emperor’s Ustad meant he never had enough time for his own work, of which a major segment was anyway lost in turmoil Delhi went through in 1857. Contemporary accounts also played a part – while film “Mirza Ghalib” was ambivalent, the TV serial on Urdu poetry’s most recognised poet was slightly more partisan in favour of its hero, who is shown thinking aloud in one scene, that poetry should not merely be esteemed on the basis of usage of wordplay, polished language and skilled rhyming, but on content and style – as exemplified in his own oeuvre!

But even if only the second of his ghazals cited above had survived, it would have been enough to cement his reputation. Succeeding couplets, including those not featured in Saigal and the Begum’s renditions, go: “Behtar to hai yehi ke na duniya se dil lage/Par kya karen jo kaam na bedillagi chale”, “Ho umr-e-Khizr bhi to kahenge ba vaqt-e-marg/Ham kya rahe yahaan abhi aaye abhi chale”, and “Naazaan na ho khirad pe jo hona hai vo hi ho/Daanish teri na kuchh meri daanishvari chale”.

Most superlative are the last two deeply imbued in a pessimistic resignation: “Duniya ne kis ka raah-e-fanaa mein diya hai saath/Tum bhi chale chalo yun hi jab tak chali chale” and “Jati havaa-e-shauq mein hai is chaman se ‘Zauq’/Apni bala se baad-e-saba kahi chale”.

The ghazal seems a primer for a contemplative soul – and we can only bemoan other gems lost in ‘Zauq’s unpublished work!

(15.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Celebrating diversity, humanity and beauty: India’s first modern poet? (Column: Bookends LXXXIX)


He was a poet both for, and ahead of, his times, pioneering not only the development of a language and form of poetry but also fashioning a modern ethos – one recognising the diversity of his land and its people, of principles of faith transcending outward appearances and rituals, and of the centrality of the individual in existence. And then he had a refined aesthetic sensibility in depicting various facets of the human condition – especially love and beauty – and mysteries of existence, no less than Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam.

“Us ke farogh-e-husn se jhamke hai sab mein nur/Sham-e-Haram ho ya ho diya Somnath ka” is an illuminating and eloquent call to go beyond the apparent, but Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ gives us much more in this vein: “Kis ko kehte hai nahi main jaanta islam-o-kufr/Dair ho ya Kaaba matlab mujhko tere dar se hai”, “Labrez jalwa us ka saara jahan mein yaani/Sari hai voh haqeeqat jaave nazar jahan tak” and then “Kiska Kaaba, kaisa qibla kaun haram hai kya ahram/Kuche ke us ke bashindon ne sab ko yahin se salaam kiya”.

He also sought to inspire humans about their potential and purpose: “Mat sahal hamein jaano phirta hain falak barson/Tab khaak ke parde se insaan nikalta hai”, “Ab aise hai ke sana ke mizaaj upar bahm pahunche/Jo khaatir khwah apne ham huye hote to kya hote” and “Ilahi kaise hote hai jinhein hai bandagi khwaish/Hamen to sharm daman geer hoti hai khuda hote”.

This can help explain why Mir’s poetry seems as relevant today, was praised by his celebrated successor Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ (“Rekhta ke tum hi ustad nahi ho ‘Ghalib’/Kehte hai agle zamane mein koi ‘Mir’ bhi tha” – though they differed on a cast-out lover’s fate! Mir says “Yun uthe aah us gali se ham/Jaise koi jahan se uthta ha” and Ghalib holds “Nikalna Khuld se Adam ka sunte aai hai lekin/Bohot be-abru hokar tere kooche se ham nikle”), has been rendered by some great singers, and has a devoted band of scholars – Indian, Pakistani and foreign – studying it.

One of his most famous ghazals “Patta patta boota boota haal hamare jaane hai” was used in both Bollywood and Lollywood (“Ek Nazar” with Amitabh Bachchan-Jaya Bhaduri, 1972, and “Chirag Jalta Raha” with Mohammad Ali and Zeba, 1962) – though with changed lyrics, courtesy Majrooh Sultanpuri and Fazal Ahmed Karim ‘Fazli’ respectively.

Then his ghazal beginning “Faqeerana aaye sada kar chale” became one of the most hauntingly beautiful use of the form in a Bollywood film – remember “Dikhaye diye yun ke bekhud kiya” from “Bazaar” (1982)? The title is actually the sixth or seventh sher and the song makes use of it, the next two and the one before it!

Mir was a prolific poet, with over 1,900 ghazals in his six voluminous diwans which also have a significant number of masnavis, rubais, qasidas and more (Ghalib’s fame rests on 234 ghazals) as well as a collection in Persian.

Then in Persian only there is “Nukat-us-Shura”, a biographical dictionary of contemporary Urdu poets,”Faiz-e-Mir”, containing stories of sufis and faqirs, meant for his son’s education, and “Zikr-e-Mir”, an autobiography – which is not a very reliable account of his life but gives a good feel of turbulent 18th century north India, where the once-mighty Mughal empire was powerless, and invaders – internal and external – looted and massacred with impunity. And there is a collection of rather salacious anecdotes too.

But it in his ghazals that Mir holds his own. Does his “Nazuki us ke lab ki kya kahiye/Pankhudi ik gulab si hai” pale before Shakespeare’s “From fairest creatures we desire increase/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” (Sonnet 1) or “For nothing this wide universe I call/Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all” (Sonnet 109) or Robert Burns’ “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose”? Was his “Mir janagal tamam bas jaave/Bin padhe hamse rozgar ae kaash” any less than Omar Khayyam’s “Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire/To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,/Would not we shatter it to bits — and then/Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”

Want to read Mir but don’t know Urdu? The laudable and Columbia University’s Frances W. Pritchett’s magnificent site provide transliterations. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi’s magisterial “Sher-e-Shor Angez” is ruled out but you could seek Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell’s “Three Mughal Poets: Mir, Sauda and Mir Hasan”. Mir’s memoirs can be found in English – courtesy C.M. Naim – and for a fictional view, there is Khushwant Singh’s “Delhi”.

(25.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

A poet from Deoband and his epigrams in verse (Column: Bookends LXXXI)

By Vikas Datta (09:29) 

Homer tells us that Odysseus, on returning home, wreaked havoc on the suitors and their servitors who had occupied his home in his absence and the only one he spared was a poet – for being divinely inspired. From bards to balladeers to lyricists, poets have always been respected for crafting the most enduring and popular record of the human condition. And they offer some of the best – subtle but impactful – observations on society and politics – like this towering Urdu poet from Deoband.

The world of Urdu poetry is a glittering galaxy and one has to be a sufficiently bright star to stand out, but Dr. Mohammad Nawaz Khan ‘Nawaz Deobandi’ manages with his stirring poetry, akin to epigrams in verse, and transcending the individualistic approach characterising most of traditional Urdu verse. But, then, he also cannot be slotted in the “tarraqi-pasand” (Progressive) school, having blazed out his own trail – based on humanistic considerations rather than ideological.

Though he has just two published compilations, those who attend prominent mushairas will be familiar with the tall, burly, full-bearded bespectacled poet with a baritone that can range from soothing to thundering. I myself came to know of him at the Red Fort mushaira earlier this century – and one of his couplets remained in my mind, particularly because I could not write it down in time. In those days, the internet was not that boundless receptacle of information it has become now, and it took me many years before I found the full couplet, which reads: “Yeh jala diya voh bujha diya, yeh to kaam hai kis aur ka/Na hawa ke koi khilaaf hai na hawa kisi ke khilaaf hai”.

That is an underlying characteristic of Nawaz Deobandi’s poetry – simple language but with some imaginative, vivid imagery and sometimes apparent paradoxes to express profound truths and depth of thought. Take some of his best-known couplets: “Badshahon ka intezar kare/Itni fursat kahan faqeeron ko” or “Ek jugnu bhi diyon se saath roshan tha magar/Jab andhera ho gaya log pechane use”, or for that matter, “Sitam bhi roz ho kuche mein, qatle-e-aam bhi ho/Mazaa to tab hai tadapne ka intezam bhi ho”.

He just needs a baker’s dozen of words to render unforgettably life’s basic lesson: “Gungunata ja raha tha ek faqeer/Dhoop rehti hai na chhaon der tak” and takes a few more to offer some valuable advice on living (and dying): “Zindagi aisi jiyo tum, dushmano ko rashk ho/Maut ho aise ki duniya der tak maatam kare”.

His poetry offers a perceptive look on our times – whether it be the loss of innocence: “Neend aati hai sun kar inhe akhbaar ki khabren/Bachhe mere pariyon ki kahani nahi sunte”, on (self) advertising: “Usi ka maal to bikta hai is zamane mein/Jo apne neem ke patton ko zafran kahe”, on growing social rifts: “Shahron mein aise to haalat nahi the pehle/Ranjish thi yeh fasaadat nahi the pehle”, on gratitude: “Jin par loota chuka tha duniya ki daulaton/Un warison ne mujh ko kafan nap kar diya”, on ‘trust’: “Raz pahunche hamare ghairon tak/Mashwara kar liya tha apnon se” and much more modern human conditions.

He does not avoid the subject of love but deals with it in his own style: “Main mareez-e-ishq hoon, charahgar, to hain dard-e-ishq se bekhabar/Yehi tadap hi iska ilaaj hai, yeh tadap na ho to shifa na ho”.

But Nawaz Deobandi is at his best when his shers display some deft wordplay – apparently easy but more difficult to do than it looks. Take this particular one from a ghazal he says was based on “dialogues” – “Aa bhi jaao ke ham bulate hai/Tum bulate ham jo na aate to”.

Then, by juggling the word order, he gets: “Dekh kar socha to paya faasla hi faasla/Soch kar dekha to tum mere bahut nazdeek thi” and the superlative: “Ban jaye agar baat to sab kehte hai kya kya/Aur baat bigarh jaaye to kya kya nahi kehte”. Skillful use of synonyms results in this valuable lesson: “Agar bikhne pe aa jao to ghat jaate hai daam aksar/Na bikhne ka iraada ho to qeemat aur badhti hai”.

But most powerful is his intense nazm which begins: “Darham barham dono sochen/Mil julkar ham dono sochen/Zakhm ka marham dono sochen/Sochen, par ham dono sochen” and ends with the powerful: “Tipu ke arman jale hai/Bapu ke ahsan jale hai/Gita aur Quran jale hai/Hadd yeh hai insaan jale hai” and “Har tirath-sthan jalege/Saara Hindustan jalega/Tab sochenge?/Socho! Aakhir kab sochenge?”

And that is the most important message of his poetry – Think, by – but not only for – yourself!

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

The other talent of a celebrated Bollywood music maestro (Column: Bookends LXXV)

By Vikas Datta (08:55) 

Beginning his film career even before India became independent, he is the only one to have composed for both K.L. Saigal and Shah Rukh Khan, work with Noor Jehan, Suraiyya and Lata Mangeshkar as well as persuade classical music legends Ustad Amir Khan, D.V. Paluskar and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to sing for films. Credited with many unforgettable melodies from Bollywood’s most iconic films, Naushad also possessed a secret talent – but then, he hailed from a city of poets!

In his nearly seven-decade-long film career, Naushad Ali (1919-2006) could draw on the services of some outstanding lyricists – Asrar Hussain Khan ‘Majrooh Sultanpuri’, D.N.Madhok, Fazle Qadir Sethi ‘Zia Sarhadi’ and Mohammad Haidar Khan ‘Khumar Barabankvi’ – though his enduring partnership was with Shakeel Ahmad ‘Shakeel Badayuni’ (especially when Mohammad Rafi sang the song). What was ironical was that he himself was quite a gifted poet across all forms from ghazals to nazms and geets, and verses for special occasions as well.

And this was not the extent of Naushad’s literary forays – he also penned stories for two films (including his old dream project which became “Palki” starring Rajendra Kumar and Waheeda Rehman), and an “Aap-beeti” or autobiographical account. This – in chaste, courtly Urdu and with chapter headings like “Sur ki kathin rahe”, “Is rahguzar par kaun kaun mila” and “Jahan ki rut badal chuki” – is a rich kaleidoscope of his early life in hometown Lucknow, his musical development (inspired by childhood visits to the ‘urs’ of Haji Waaris Ali Shah at Dewa in neighbouring Barabanki), his film career and experiences with the doyens of Bollywood.

But it is poetry that was Naushad’s forte – and like his music, which figures in less than 100 films but include “Anmol Ghadi”, “Shahjehan”, “Andaz”, “Baiju Bawra”, “Mother India”, “Mughal-e-Azam” and even “Pakeezah” – he went in for quality, not quantity. His collection of poetry, “Athvan Sur”, barely comprises 100 pages of poetry but what figures is pure gold.

Most of it comprises ghazals and proves him to be a “Lakhnavi” to the core. “Abaadiyon mein dasht ka manzar bhi aayega/Guzroge shahr se to mera ghar bhi aayega” and “Achchi nahi nazakat-e-ehsaas is qadr/Sheesha agar banoge to pathar bhi aayega” and ends “Jis din ki muddaton se hai ‘Naushad’ justju?/Kya jaane din hamen voh mayassar bhi aayega?”

He can’t shake off his actual calling: “Abhi saaz-e-dil mein taraane bahut hai/Abhi zindagi ke bahaane bahut hai” and – in probable reference to his compositions imbued with classical and traditional Indian music – says “Dar-e-ghair par bheekh maango na fann ki/Jab apne hi ghar mein khazaane bahut hai”, ending: “Hain din badmazaaqi ke ‘Naushad’ lekin/Abhi tere fann ke diwaane bahut hai”.

Then the typical ‘Dabistan-e-Lakhnau’ approach: “Tabassum hai bijli, qayamat nazar hai/Ada jo bhi zaalim ki hai fitnaa gar hai”, and then in a complex construction (also a beloved trademark of the school): “Husn parde mein ho aur nazara bhi ho, rukh se pardah uthana zaroori nahi/Aaj parde mein raz-e-mohabbat rahe, saamne sab ke aana zaroori nahi”.

He also dealt with philosophical thought – with a ‘Ganga-Jamuni’ sensibility: “Na mandir mein sanam hote na masjid mein khuda hota/Hami se yeh tamasha hai na ham hote to kya hota”.

He has a handful of nazms – most of which are related to his profession like “Modern Music” (ending “Sangeet hai ya koi kabadi ki dukaan hai/Saazon ka faqt shor hai sangeet kahan hai/’Naushad’ dua karta hai bas haath uthaye/Sangeet ki kashti ko khuda par lagaye”) “Lata Mangeshkar ki gayki ki silver jubilee jashn mein” but also “Operation Theatre ki taraf ravangi”, “Lakhnau ke Shia-Sunni fasaad se mutaasir hokar” (beginning “Koi mujha bata de voh Lakhnau kahan hai/Tahzeeb aur adab ka manzar kahan hai….”) and on the 1984 Bhiwandi riots.

Then his heartfelt tributes: “‘Naushad’ mere dil ko yaqeen hai yeh mukammal/Naghmon ki qasm aaj bhi zindah hai voh Saigal”, “Voh Bade Ghulam Ali Khan jo the apne fan mein yekta/The sabhi ghulam inke voh khayal ho ke ‘tappa'”, “Sangeet ke jahan mein voh mir-i-karvan the/Kya be-misaal gayak apne Amir Khan the”, “Allah Allah, Rafi ki awaaz/Rooh-e-Mahmud o jaan-e-bazm-Ayaz/Is ki har taan is ki har le par/Bajne lagte the khud dilon mein saaz”, “Jab tak is duniya ki mehfil mein raha tu ae Mukesh/Zindagi ke saaz par tu geet kite ga gaya” and to Madan Mohan: “Apni mauseeqi pe sab ko fakhr hai/Tujh ke mauseeqi ko lekin naaz hai”.

Naushad the composer can rest on his laurels, but I hope this brief introduction helps Naushad the poet get his due too.

(19.07.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

The Idea of India – in Hindustani verse (Column: Bookends LXX)

By Vikas Datta (08:55) 

Focussing initially on nature and vistas, poetry has, in the past century at least, become a largely urban phenomenon – both in subject and location of poets – and Urdu poetry is no exception. But there are still those who look beyond urban settings and preoccupations to incorporate pastoral rhythms, songs of the seasons and festivals, and other patterns of rural life in their verse. This veteran, for one, bears the distinction of receiving his pen-name from India’s first prime minister.

Familiar to those attending prominent ‘mushairas’ (till quite recently) as a stately, bespectacled man with a distinctive white streak running diagonally down the left side of his beard Mohammad Shafi Khan ‘Bekal Utsahi’ (1930-) is one of India’s pre-eminent poets. Lauded by his peers from Raghupati Sahai ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’ to Ali Sardar Jafri to Bashir Badr, he has been prolific across all genres of Urdu poetry spanning ghazals, nazms, geet, dohas as well as naats and salaams – his kulliyat (collected works) is over 1,100 pages long.

Born in Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur town, he started off his career as a poet in the mid-1940s as ‘Bekal Warsi’ taking his pen-name from a comment about him at a visit to Dewa Sharif, the dargah of Haji Waaris Ali Shah (founder of the Warsi order of Sufis) in Barabanki. But this did not remain for long. In 1952, he was reciting his geet “Bharat ka Kisan” at an election rally addressed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who too was so impressed – as the story goes – and quipped this was “one of our ‘utsahi’ (enthusiastic) shayars”. And hence, ‘Bekal Utsahi’ it would be.

The name set the tone for his poetry, which reflects the Ganga-Jamuni” tradition of his birthplace (a part of the Avadh region) and is the best example extant of Hindustani, featuring copious use of Hindi words, and at times, Avadhi dialect, with chaste Urdu. And ‘Bekal’, though at his best with rural themes, is not confined by them and can also deal with complex issues of the human condition and society in a deceptively-simple manner, with some very distinctive imagery.

“Tere hai sab rang-tarang jawaani ke/’Foothpathon’ par bhooka bachpan kiska hai” is from one famous ghazal beginning “Pyaase chehrah tapta sawaan kiska hai/Hijr ka mausam bheega daman kis ka hai”.

“Jo mera hai woh tera bhi afsana hua to/Mahaul mohabbat ka begaana hua to” is one of his most known ghazals, in medium ‘behr’ (meter) and an unusual “qafiya-radif” (rhyming) scheme. The few shers of the version I quote were heard in a mushaira, and differs somewhat from the printed version – it is possible he may have subsequently amended it.

“Tum qatl se bachne ka jatan karo ho/Qaatil ka jo lehza shareefana hua to”, “Kamzarf to itni mohabbat na pila/ Labrez zeesht ka paimana hua to” and finally “‘Bekal’ ne tujhe dushman-e-jaani bhi kaha hai/Tujh se bhi achanak yaraana hua to”.

He can use a much shorter meter too: “Jab se hum tabah ho gaye/Tum Jahanpanah ho gaye”, “Husn pe nikhar aa gaya/ Aaene siyah ho gaye” and ending “‘Bekal’ ek hamen saza mili/Log begunah ho gaye”.

‘Bekal’ is equally deft in using the longer meter, of the classical tradition, but in his unique style. “Kahin ret ko sagar saunp gayin kahi pee gayin khud apna jal nadiyan/ Kahi ranaiyan raaj haveli mein hain kahi jogan ban gayi chanchal nadiyan” or “Kab tak haath ki rekhaon mein dhoondega taqdeer re jogi/Kya jaane kan nagin ban kar dass le koi lakeer jogi”.

He also used the old form of ‘doha’ too: “Panghat se gori chali bhare gagriya neer/Ghazal bhajan sabb tyag den ‘Ghalib’ aur ‘Kabir’ “, or he advises himself: ” ‘Bekal’ ji dohe likho geet ghazal ke naam/ Abhi samae hai kaam ka phir karna bisraam.”

But geet, in the native dialect, is his speciality and his focus was unusually wide – be it the Holi festival: “Nachi hai ithaas ke angaan mein Holi ki yaad/Jhul raha hai hai aag ka jhola phool bana Parhalad…” or Eid: “Har taraf rahmat-o-anwar ki ranaiyaan hai/Ham nasheen Eid ke din…” patriotism as in “Vaqar-e-Vatan” or elegies to Lal Bahadur Shastri (“Subh-Tashqand”) and Rajiv Gandhi.

Ever the experimenter, he was one of the first to adapt the refined sensibility of the Japanese haiku. “Jeevan dhoop aur chaaon/Sailabi nadi ke tat par/Mere piya ka gaon” or “Kya kya hai sansar mein/Ghar se bahar nikal ke dekh/Saude sab bazaar mein”, or even “Sansad bhitar shor hai/Bahar dahshatgard ka zor hai/Kursi par hi zor hai” and many more.

Bringing varied colours and sensations of our composite civilisation in his poetry, ‘Bekal’s work is a veritable Idea of India in verse – and deserves a wider audience and recognition. Anyone keen to translate or even transliterate?

(14.06.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. He can be contacted at )

Maverick freedom fighter and poet of romance (Column: Bookends LXI)

By Vikas Datta (09:58) 

Disproving Percy Bysshe Shelley’s description of poets as “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, he combined his illustrious poetic career with membership of the Constituent Assembly that drafted free India’s constitution. This responsibility followed a four-decade stint as an outspoken, unbending freedom fighter across the political spectrum, during which he was possibly the first to demand complete independence and coin the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”. Yet his abiding fame is due to the haunting lyric of a youthful, unsuccessful but unforgettable love.

A man of many parts – poet, journalist, maverick politician and radical freedom fighter – Maulana Syed Fazlul Hasan ‘Hasrat Mohani’ (1875-1951) was a member (at various times) of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party of India.

A devoted follower of Tilak, he agitated for full independence when the leadership of both the Congress and the Muslim League was content with dominion status, had a role in setting up the CPI, was faithful to the Muslim League but chose to stay back in India after partition. In all this, he had the distinction of standing up to Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Sardar Patel! And he made sacrifices of livelihood, property and time, spending quite a few spells in jail (at a time when political prisoners were treated like common criminals and imprisonment was really rigorous and entailed hard labour) for his political and editorial activities.

Alongside, Hasrat Mohani has to his credit 13 ‘diwans’ comprising more than 700 ghazals and other forms of poetry in roughly half a century; as well as “Nukaat-e-Sukhan” on the techniques of poetry with examples from extant Urdu poetry, “Sharah-e-Diwan-e-Ghalib” or an exegesis of some of Ghalib’s ghazals; “Mushahidat-e-Zindaan”, an account of his life behind bars and conditions in the Raj’s jails in the early 20th century; anthologies of his writings and some English translations of his own works.

Some poems to the Hindu deity Krishna, both in Urdu and a simplified version of the Awadhi dialect, were also part of the poetic ouevre of ‘Hasrat’ who delighted in visiting the Braj area during Janmashtami. One goes: “Kuch hum ko bhi ataa ho ki ae hazrat-i-Krishn/Iqlim-i-ishq aap ke zer-i-qadam hai khaas” and “‘Hasrat’ ki bhi qabool ho Mathura mein haziri/Sunte hai aashiqon pe tumhara karam hai khaas.”

As a poet, ‘Hasrat Mohani’ (deriving from his home village of Mohan, a few miles north of Lucknow) is credited with reviving the Urdu lyric tradition – by the expedient of shearing off artificiality it had accumulated during its stint in the courts of decaying and decadent polities and making it a vehicle capable of conveying more common-place but realistic and sincere thought, depth of feelings and reactions to the environment.

The maulana looked an unlikely romantic. When he arrived at college in Aligarh in his traditional dress (sherwani, flared pajamas) and a ‘paandan’ in his hand, he was promptly named ‘khalajaan’ (or auntie dear) and kept to the same garb over the years while also growing positively cantankerous. But take his most famous work -“Chupke chupke raat din aansu bahana yaad hai” – made famous by ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali though not all its 16-odd couplets are rendered – and its tender descriptions of the various stages and moods of love make it seem he had an unusually fertile imagination or a vividly colourful adolosecence.

Be it the initial memory: “Baahazaaran iztiraab-o-sad-hazaaran ishtiaq/Tujhse vo pahle pahal dil ka lagana yaad hai”, the loss of poise: “Tujhse milte hi vo bebaak ho jaanaa mera/Aur tera daaton mein vo ungli dabana yaad hai”, the sudden volubility: “Tujh ko jab tanha kabhi paana to az-rahe-lihaaz/Hal-e-dil baaton hi baaton mein jataana yaad hai”, the hidden trysts: “Do-pahar ki dhup mein mere bulaane ke liye/Woh tera kothe pe nange paaon aanaa yaad hai”, the fear of parting: “Aa gaya gar vasl ki shab bhi kahin zikr-e-firaaq/Woh tera ro ro ke mujhko bhi rulaana yaad hai”, and the sad parting: “Waqt-e-rukhsat alvida ka lafz kahne ke liye/Woh tere sukhe labon ka thar-tharaanaa yaad hai”.

This was not a one-off. Love, and the range of moods it engenders, are a frequent motif in his poetry – “Haqeeqat khul gai ‘Hasrat’ tere tark-e-mohabbat ki/Tujhe to ab wo pehle se bhi barh kar yaad aate hai”, “Haal khul jayega betaabi-e-dil ka ‘Hasrat’/Baar baar aap unhen shauq se dekha na karen” and many more.

And it is as a poet that ‘Hasrat’ is remembered in both India and Pakistan – in the names of schools, roads, libraries, and institutions in Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and Karachi and on postage stamps (Pakistan in 1989, India in 2014).

He might have foreseen it: “Guzre bahut ustaad magar rang asr/Bemisaal hai ‘Hasrat’ sukhan mera abhi tak.”

(12.04.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )