ONE is tempted to begin the review of Raza Mir’s The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry by quoting Gulzar, a versatile genius and a great lover of Urdu. While commending Mir in the foreword of the book for his meticulously researched work, the poet expresses his love for his first language, as he says:
“Urdu is a nation unto itself. Wherever it travels, it creates its own world. It was born in India, but does not belong to India alone. It is the official language of Pakistan, but does not belong to Pakistan alone. When it reached Oslo (Norway) it settled there. It went to Great Britain, and created its own home. It reached Canada and a community emerged. It reached the United States…”
In no genre of Urdu is the sweetness of the language as prominent as in its poetry. Raza Mir, a Hyderabadi Indian, now teaching management at William Paterson University, US, has done a commendable job in publishing as many as 150 poems of 50 poets in the Roman script with English translations. Had he been given the assignment of translating the poetry into Persian or any subcontinental language, the job would not have been so very challenging. The sensibilities and the nuances of Urdu and English are very different, but much to Mir’s credit, very little has been lost in translation.
Hailing from an Urdu-speaking family, Mir was taught English, Hindi and Telegu at school, but growing up in a literary atmosphere, he realised his inability to read and write in what he calls his “putative mother tongue” a shortcoming which he later painstakingly overcame. However, it was on the insistence of his wife Farah, who was unfamiliar with the script, that he authored the book. Says the husband, “It was she who laid out the idea of this book for me in detail, as a volume that would not only help her dip her toe in the vast ocean that constituted Urdu poetry, but also provide her with an entry point into the language itself, with occasionally intimidating metaphors and linguistic peculiarities.” The Taste of Words is not a book for those who aim at advanced study of the subject which is why Mir doesn’t go into technicalities. His readers are expected to have access to the Internet because he often mentions websites relating to Urdu poets and poetry.
In order to make the modern reader understand the points that he raises, Mir uses similes that are contemporary. For instance, in order to drive home the immense popularity of Dagh Dehlavi he says that the poet’s public recitals enjoyed the same degree of appeal in the late 19th century as A.R. Rahman’s concerts do in the present era.
Mir also briefly mentions, though the subject merits to be discussed in greater detail, how musical renditions in concerts, movies and recordings have made Urdu poetry immensely popular. Some already published poems were set to tune by music composers, but in the case of film songs the tunes were mostly composed first and the lyricists were asked to “fit in the verse” later. That they wrote memorable poetry within the restrictive musical framework is a big achievement. Credit goes to Urdu poets such as Sahir, Shakeel and Majrooh, and Hindi lyricists like Neeraj and Shailendra, for blending poetry with melody. While on Shailendra one has to admit that geets were his forte, but when a situation in a movie demanded he also penned fine ghazals.
In his introduction to the book, Mir writes a brief history of Urdu poetry from Amir Khusro (who wrote in Hindvi and Persian) to the early 21st century poet Zeeshan Sahil. He explains different trends and schools, such as the Progressive Writers’ Movement and their rival Halqa-e-Arbaab-Zauq, but doesn’t take sides. He does point out, though, that while content was the first priority of the Progressives, form was of foremost importance to those belonging to the other group.
Mir then points out how Urdu suffered in the two countries that emerged in August 1947: “The Partition geographically divided a poetic fraternity, and produced different tensions on both sides of the border. While the Urduwallas on the Indian side had to contend with a new regime of suspicion and intolerance, the Pakistani poets (especially the progressives) faced persecution by the elite class for advocating social change and wealth redistribution.”
Thanks to Mir one gets to know about the poets from his part of the subcontinent (Hyderabad in Telangana). For instance, not many Urdu poetry enthusiasts in Pakistan would be aware of poets like Sulaiman Khateeb and Sarwar Danda who, according to Mir, “produced exquisite social commentaries through humorous poetry.”
The brief introduction of Dakkani poetry is just as informative as Mir’s short introduction to some unknown female poets of yore. His surfing through the net leads him to discover the works of many poets, in words as also in musical renditions. He had, for instance, never heard of a poet called Lata Haya, whose tributes to Urdu in verse makes interesting reading.
Moreover, the chapter introducing different genres of poetry such as ghazal, nazm, qaseeda, qata and marsiya is bound to add to the knowledge of those who are not very well versed in Urdu poetry.
The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry
By Raza Mir
Penguin Books, India