The resistant poet

January 01, 2017


Great poets are a phenomenon to observe. Not only do they enrich lives aesthetically and spiritually, they also raze obsolete poetic structures and lay solid foundations for new, vibrant creative construction. Shaikh Ayaz was such a poet; he overhauled Sindhi poetry and gave it a completely new orientation, thereby connecting it with the wider world.

Ayaz (1923-1997) was a prodigious writer and left behind a rich literary legacy — 40 books of poetry and 20 books of prose. His three-volume autobiography, his memoirs about Karachi, and his jail diary are a treasure trove of observations on history and literature. He edited literary journals, was chief editor of a newspaper, and translated into Urdu the Shah jo Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai.

Along with Sindhi, Ayaz also wrote in Urdu, publishing two books of Urdu verse: Boo-i-Gul, Nala-i-Dil and Neel Kanth aur Neem ke Pattay. His poetry was translated into Urdu by Fehmida Riaz (Halqa Meri Zanjeer ka); into Punjabi by Ahmed Saleem (Jo Beejal ne Akhiyan); and into English by Asif Farrukhi and Shah Mohammad Pirzada (The Storm’s Call for Prayers). His verses have also been translated into Hindi, Greek, German, and Russian.

When Ayaz came on the poetic scene, Sindhi poetry was marked by dreariness. Lacking any resonance with the people and culture of the land, it was a hollow imitation of an alien poetic tradition. Ayaz introduced new idioms, metaphors, symbols, forms, metres, and themes, infusing Sindhi poetry with contemporary spirit and replacing the Persian influence with indigenous rhythm and vocabulary.

On his 19th death anniversary, a look at how Shaikh Ayaz changed Sindhi poetry

Ayaz also changed the form of classical Sindhi poetry. For 200 years, classical Sindhi genres like bayt and waaii were restricted to rustic expressions of mystic or religious themes and confined to folklore. Ayaz brought this isolated genre into the mainstream and made it a vehicle for a vast and varied range of expression by enlarging its scope, themes, and using modern language, but his genius was not confined to renovating the poetic form. His major contribution was making poetry an agent of political and social change. Ayaz didn’t see his poetry as idle speculation in the realm of the abstract, or as a mere expression of personal emotions, hollow artistic or aesthetic sensibilities. He considered poetry to be transformative rather than transmissive. For him, poetic talent was of less importance than the truth: [Only if you could understand / Poetic talent is not important / But truth is more important / The truth that ignites fire / That fire is more important].

Ayaz’s poetry did ignite that fire which was set to burn obsolete and regressive orders and systems. His poetry was on the lips of students, farmers, labourers and the common people who were fighting tyrannical regimes. As a witness to many historical events of his time, from wars to Partition, from martial law in the country to hegemonies of empires in the world, he was conscious of the great misery of the common people under repressive regimes, oppressive feudal systems, and religious bigotry. He not only expressed this suffering, but also challenged autocratic and despotic forces in his powerful voice: [This whole land is jaundiced / Every evening on the horizon is yellow].

For Ayaz, this jaundiced land could not be cured unless a revolution shook its foundation and destroyed the repressive edifice: [Sing of revolution / So that this land and sky open up their mouth / Every nook, every city, and village / Could reply to the call of revolution].

Challenging the repression and calling for change brought many repercussions. Ayaz’s books were banned. He was imprisoned several times. His opposition to religious hypocrisy and bigotry brought him in direct conflict with fundamentalists. He was branded a heretic. A vicious campaign was launched accusing him of writing obscene, immoral, and anti-state poetry, but he did not bow down to the pressure. He accepted the allegations and declared: [I demanded freedom / I removed the iron collars / From the necks of slaves / These magical songs of mine / Broke the chains of centuries / All now pick my tears / Thinking them precious pearls / Yes, I accept my crimes].

Ayaz was a cosmopolitan poet. His vision was not limited a narrow stretch of land — for him, the whole world was his home. Oppression anywhere in the world pained him as much as suffering in his land. Whether bombings in Leningrad or the killing of innocent people in Vietnam; whether the murder of Patrice Lumumba in Congo or Salvador Allende in Chile; whether the repressive regime of Joseph Stalin in the USSR or the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain, he opposed injustice anywhere as fervently as he opposed it in his own country. If there was a victory of the wretched and oppressed in any place, Ayaz considered it his own victory: [O’ oppressed and wretched of the world / If anybody was unchained from liberty / I felt as if my neck is unburdened].

Ayaz stood where his contemporaries such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pablo Neruda, and Nazim Hikmet stood. Like these great poets, he not only painted the rosy cheeks of the beloved, but also sang the sorrows of the people. Like them he also faced repressive regimes and bore with patience accusations and vilification, but even in the middle of a bleak night he pointed to the light of hope and whispered words of change.

The writer is a teacher, translator, and short story writer.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017