From L to R: Shorish Kashmiri, Ghulam Rasool Mehr and Ehsan Danish.—Courtesy Jaam-i-nau
From L to R: Shorish Kashmiri, Ghulam Rasool Mehr and Ehsan Danish.—Courtesy Jaam-i-nau

THOUGH he had penned over 50 books, Ehsan Danish had to work as a labourer, ink-man (at a printing press), cook, peon, mason, watchman, gardener, carpet-weaver and helper at a bookshop. In later years of his life, he earned his livelihood as a book seller. By then he had become a well-known and popular poet of Urdu.

Born Qazi Ehsan-ul-Haq, Ehsan Danish had little formal schooling and could not continue his education after the fourth grade because of his parents’ abject poverty, but he had become so erudite through long years of profound study that at a later stage he stood as an examiner for Punjab University’s MA Urdu papers — the same university where he had worked as a labourer. This self-made, self-taught poet was initially impressed with Josh Maleehabadi’s style and diction. Later, he found his voice and was ultimately reckoned as an important poet of modern Urdu poem.

Some writers have erroneously mentioned that Ehsan Danish was born in Baghpat, Meeruth district. But, according to Ehsan Danish’s own account in Jahan-i-Danish, his autobiography, he was born in Kandhla, a town in UP’s Muzaffarnagar district. Since he has not bothered to mention any precise dates, his year of birth too is mired in controversy and it is quoted either as 1911 or 1915, though the year 1914 seems more likely to be correct. Baghpat was his ancestral town where his father, Qazi Danish Ali, had some agricultural land. Ehsan Danish’s maternal grandfather brought him up and when he died Ehsan’s father moved to Kandhla.

Poverty forced him to abandon education and seek work. As a teenager, he did some menial jobs and after a while decided to go to Lahore, a town where he ultimately settled and spent the rest of his life. Here he did some odd jobs and then became a mason but he was a poet by nature and began composing poetry, too. In those days, it was a common practice in Lahore to get a few verses printed in pamphlet form and sell it in the street by singing. Ehsan Danish did just that but then quit and became a helper with a mason who was a contractor at Punjab University. Here he worked as a labourer and was able to spare some time to spend it at the library. He would do hard physical work and read voraciously. As put by him in his autobiography, when after a few decades he went to the university to receive his cheque as the chief examiner some of his old co-workers identified him and were overjoyed.

He had a ‘lucky break’ when he met a gardener who helped him find a job as a watchman at Lahore’s Shimla Pahari, a recreational spot. Being posted as a night watchman gave Ehsan Danish a chance to do what he always wanted to do to his heart’s content: reading books and composing poetry. There was not much to do as a night watchman and in the quiet of the night he would read, roam and compose poetry. Soon he was getting his verses published in literary magazines and reciting at mushaeras. His poetry made him quite popular and he rubbed shoulders with rich and famous.

During a Naat mushaera he met the governor house’s head gardener. Impressed with his poetry, he offered Ehsan Danish a job as a gardener at governor house. Ehsan Danish accepted the job but soon quit it and became a peon in the railways, only to quit it and work at a bookstall.

His constant struggle to earn a livelihood had left Ehsan Danish bitter against capitalism and capitalists. But he had never been a leftist or Marxist in true sense of the word as early religious influence had left some indelible marks on him. His portrayal of poverty and singing of the dignity of labour earned him the title of Shaer-i-Mazdoor, or the poet of the labourers.

Aside from poetry, Ehsan Danish’s extensive reading had made him a true scholar. He had become an expert in the matters related to prosody, usage and lexicography. He penned a number of books on these topics and used to guide young poets and writers. His works Khizr-i-aarooz, Tazkeer-o-taanees, Lughat-ul-islah, Urdu mutradifaat and Dastoor-i-Urdu are invaluable guides for students and scholars alike. His personal collection had a large number of rare books and manuscripts.

Jahan-i-Danish is his autobiography and its sequel named Jahan-i-digar was published posthumously. Some of his other books are Nava-i-kaargar, Jaada-noor, Aatish-i-khamosh, Hadees-i-adab, Dard-i-zindagi, Nafeer-i-fitrat, Chiraghaan, Daarain, Maqamaat, Sheeraza, Ramooz-i-Ghalib and Meeras-i-maumin. Some of his works are still unpublished. He was awarded Nishan-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Imtiaz for his services to Urdu literature and language.

Ehsan Danish died on March 21, 1982 in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2016