Kaifi Azmi: Shehanshah of Urdu shayari who wrote on Somnath and Ayodhya
A look at the life and work of legendary Urdu poet and film writer who was born on this day in 1919 in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. His poetry continues to bedazzle lovers and rebels
Kaifi Azmi was born into a religious family in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. Not so surprisingly, Kaifi, the son of a landlord, was admitted to a madrassa in Lucknow. But very soon he developed his own social consciousness and started organising students of the seminary to hold protest demonstrations. Consequently, he was asked to leave the religious school. After this incident, Kaifi never underwent any ideological change in his life. This perhaps triggered his ideological makeover and was how he became a comrade instead of a maulvi.
“I was born in a slave India, grew up in an independent India and would like to die in a socialist India,” he would say. But the communal disharmony that followed demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, left him deeply dismayed. In his epic poem Doosra Banwaas (second banishment), Kaifi imagined the return of Lord Ram to the banks of Saryu in Ayodhya and lamented that Ram got a second exile on December 6.
Jagmagaate Thay Jahaan Raam Kay Qadmon Kay Nishaan
Pyaar Ki Kahkashaan Leti Thi Angdaai Jahaan
Mod Nafrat Ke Usi Raahguzar Mein Aay…!!!
(That place where Lord Rama’s footsteps once shone, a tranquil galaxy of love existed, right there—hatred has made its home)
In the wake of raging protests against the anti-citizenship law, many right wingers have taken offence to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem, ‘Hum Dekhain Ge’ for supposedly attacking the Hindu belief system. One wonders how the same set of people would see Kaifi Azmi and his poem, “Somnath” in which he has slammed Ghazni and defended idolatry.
Wahshat-e-Butt Shikani Dekh Ke Hairaan Hoon Mein
Butt -Parasti Mera Sheva Hai Ki Insaan Hoon Mein
Ekk Na Ekk Buut To Har Ekk Dil Mein Chupa Hota Hai,
Uskay Sau Naamon Mein Ekk Naam ‘Khuda’ Hota Hai
(Dumbfounded I am, looking at the cruelty of the idol breaker. It’s instinctive for me to worship idols since I am a human being. There is always an idol within every human heart. Among the hundred names given to this idol, for sure, one name happens to be God.”
Kaifi became a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in his early 20s and when he died, he still had a CPI card in the pocket of his kurta. A member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, he came to Bombay and joined Ali Sardar Jafri and wrote for Qaumi Jang, the party newspaper edited by Sajjad Zaheer.
Eventually, he became an eminent film writer and lyricist. In Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964), a film meant to boost the country’s morale after the debacle in the 1962 war, Kaifi wrote ‘Kar Chale Hum Fida Jaan-o-Tan Saathiyon’ that has become an iconic patriotic song. Similarly, his ghazals such as Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar and Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho among others, remain as enchanting.
He won accolades for his work in critically acclaimed movies like Kaagaz Ke Phool, Heer Raanjha, Garam Hawa and Manthan, was awarded three Filmfare Awards, the Padma Shri Award for Literature and Education, and the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, one of India’s highest literary honors, during his lifetime.
Since he was born in a Shia family, there was a tradition at his home to mourn the 72 martyrs of Karbala during Muharram every year. During his childhood, Kaifi too would take part in religious congregations and cry over the martyrdom in 680 AD of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, and his 72 companions in Karbala. “After becoming a member of the CPI, Kaifi didn’t not give up this tradition. The only difference was that, earlier, he would shed tears over a few names who gave up their lives in the battle between the righteous and unrighteous. But later in his life, he would shed tears over tens of thousands of people suffering injustice and oppression,” writes late poet Nida Fazli in his book Chehre. “Kaifi’s entire poetic work is the story of these tears in different words.”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate to call Kaifi an atheist. His communism was also a manifestation of his family’s extended religious belief system,” Nida writes. “Every oppressor in the society was a Yazeed (it was on the orders of Yazeed’s soldiers that Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hazrat Husain, was murdered) to Kaifi and he would see Hussainiat in every exploited and oppressed person in the world.”
Kaifi wrote fiery poems for the less privileged and recited the same at poetic congregations in his mighty voice. Even a paralytic stroke and chronic bouts of breathlessness every now and then could not dampen his spirits. Nida further writes that Kaifi’s style of recitation was also part of the tradition that he inherited during childhood from Muharram gatherings where poems of mourning, Marsiya, would be recited to commemorate the martyrdom of Ahl al-Bayt, Imam Hussain and the Battle of Karbala. “Kaifi was unique among his contemporaries. I’ve listened to Hindi poets like Suman and Bhawani besides Firaq and Josh in Urdu. But listening to Kaifi reciting poems from the stage used to be quite an experience. He would invariably cast a spell on the audience and take home all the applause and adulation.”
During his youth, when Kaifi was reciting his epic poem Aurat in a mushaira, a woman sitting in the audience was telling her friend, “What kind of poet he is? The way he is beseeching, which woman will agree to go along with him.” But well before Kaifi could finish recital, the woman had already taken the biggest decision of her life. She broke off her engagement to another man and eventually married Kaifi against the advice of friends and family members.
Uth Meri Jaan Mere Saath Hi Chalna Hai Tujhe
(Arise, my love, you have to walk beside me)
In her foreword for the books authored by the great poet, this is how veteran actress Shabana Azmi remembers her father: “My earliest memory of Abba is that of him sitting on a writing table in his kurta-pyjama, smoking incessantly and writing till wee hours of the morning. As a child, I was convinced that a poet was a euphemism for someone who didn’t have any work.”
Shabana fondly remembers that her concern for slum-dwellers started with her father’s poem Makaan which talks of the irony of labourers who help construct a building with their blood and sweat, but are not allowed to enter it after the construction is completed.
Responding to a question why communism failed in the erstwhile USSR, Kaifi in an interview to the Indian Express dated September 9, 1998, had said: “A totalitarian dictatorial regime had taken sway in the name of communism, so it was natural for it to be thrown off.”
He passed away on May 10, 2002. A train named ‘Kaifiyat Express’ which runs from his hometown Azamgarh to Old Delhi, was launched by the government as a tribute to the people’s poet.