NON-FICTION: THE QUIET POET

September 23, 2018

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Eminent Urdu poet and literary figure of repute Ali Sardar Jafri raised a valid point when I interviewed him way back in 1991. He said that Pakistani singers — even of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan — did not sing the kalaam of great Urdu poets from his part of the subcontinent such as Firaq Gorakhpuri, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Makhdoom Mohiuddin and Jannisar Akhtar, which was why they are not known to the masses in Pakistan, except for the few who are immersed in Urdu poetry.

The other day I mentioned the name of the post-independence Indian poet of eminence — Shahryar — and an otherwise well-educated person wore a blank expression in response. About a minute or so later he said, “The only Shahryar I can think of is the one who wrote the lovely songs of Umrao Jaan. The ones that have haunted me for years include ‘Dil cheez kiya hai aap meri jaan leejye’ and ‘Justuju jis ki thi usko tou na paya hum ne’.”

I will come back to the poet’s small, but impressive, contribution to film songs later in this review of Shahryar: A Life in Poetry by the Delhi-based prolific writer Rakhshanda Jalil, who has over the years done a commendable job in writing about Urdu literature for the non-Urdu-reading public in and outside her country. In this latest work, she deals with Shahryar’s life and times and points out how they find expression in his verse. In what she calls “a critical biography”, Jalil places Shahryar’s works in “the continuum of modern Urdu poetry.”

While many in Pakistan may not know the eminent Urdu poet Shahryar, a slim volume may help correct that oversight

Belonging to a family of Malkhani Rajputs, Shahryar was born in 1936 in Anwala, a small town in the Bareilly district when his father, a senior police officer, was posted there. Unlike his elder brother, Shahryar did not fulfil his father’s desire to see all his sons in police uniform. Instead, he went to Aligarh; first he was enrolled at the City School and later at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

He was named Kunwar Akhlaq Muhammad Khan, but at the suggestion of Khalilur Rahman Azmi, his mentor at AMU, he adopted ‘Shahryar’ as his pseudonym, which was how he has been addressed and referred to since then.

In the mid-1950s AMU was bustling with great figures of the academic world and young Shahryar was fortunate to be there in what can be called the golden years of the university.

In 1958 after graduating in the arts, he took admission in the Masters programme in psychology only to realise that he was not cut out to study the subject. He had by then started writing poetry in Urdu and it was, therefore, natural that he should decide to do his Masters in Urdu literature.

Thanks to his organisational skills, in his final year Shahryar became the secretary of the students’ body and editor of the Urdu department’s magazine. Before his results were announced Shahryar was given an opportunity to join the editorial staff of Hamari Zubaan, the weekly magazine of the Anjuman-i-Tarraqi-i-Urdu (Hind) by Aale Ahmed Suroor, then professor at the department of Urdu and secretary of the Anjuman. Shahryar’s column Mera Safah [My Page] brought the young writer fame and recognition in no small measure. In the meantime he continued writing poetry while still under the wing of Azmi, in whose house he lived for several years. He dedicated his first collection of poems — Isme Azam, (1965) to Azmi. “Whatever I am, however I am, is only — and solely — due to Khalilur Rahman Azmi,” he wrote in Urdu, of course. He was then only 19.

Always well dressed and endowed with good looks, not to forget his qualities as a fine conversationalist, Shahryar won friends and influenced people. He began to teach at his alma mater. Whether he was a competent teacher or not is a point debated by his students, but the best comment came from one of the greatest living Urdu critics, Gopi Chand Narang, who said, “His mind was neither academic nor analytical; it was only creative.” Sadiqur Rahman Kidwai, who was at Aligarh and later became the head of the Urdu department at Jawaharlal Nehru University, maintained that flourish and rhetoric were absent from Shahryar’s poetry and personality. Even in mushairas he would read out his poems and leave quietly. One feels that his habit of not projecting himself was also evident in the fact that he abstained from the trend of naming himself in the maqta — the last couplet of a ghazal.

Even in mushairas he would read out his poems and leave quietly. One feels that his habit of not projecting himself was also evident in the fact that he abstained from the trend of naming himself in the maqta — the last couplet of a ghazal.

Shahryar’s poems, like his prose or, for that matter, his talks at seminars, were free from verbosity, rightly claims Jalil, who has done reasonably well in translating his poems. This lack of verbosity was partly because his ethos was that of a modern educated man.

Did he belong to the Progressive Movement in literature or was he a modernist? This was a question that plagued his readers. Jalil resolves the controversy when she says, “Shahryar was at pains to maintain a distance from labels: he has said how, neither entirely a Progressive nor a modernist, he took what he liked from these two, often opposing, schools of thought. He believed that the intellectual and emotional content of a creative work as well as its style and technique were all equally important; merely its topic could not be important.” He thus placed Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal ‘Ye dagh dagh ujala, yeh shab guzeeda sehr’ above his contemporaries’ emotional outpourings on the mayhem that came in the wake of independence from colonial rule.

Shahryar was at ease in expressing himself both in nazms and ghazals. A point worth mentioning, however, is that in his later years his nazms became shorter without hampering the thought content.

Back to Shahryar’s film lyrics: it was his old friend, filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, who got him to write songs for three of his films: Gaman (1978), Umrao Jaan (1981) and Anjuman (1986). As in the case of Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi, to mention two celebrities, Shahryar’s lyrics — either written for films or slightly changed from his verses for publication — enriched the corpus of film poetry. He penned lyrics for three more of Ali’s unfinished films and those who got to listen to them were all praise for them, just as those who remember the score of Yash Chopra’s Faasle — for which Shahryar also penned the lyrics — are. But somehow, Shahryar could not find a comfort zone in Bollywood; he would have done extremely well with the king of ghazals, the composer Madan Mohan.

Shahryar passed away in 2012, spending the last one year in bed. He fought a losing battle against cancer and left behind his children, a large number of friends and admirers and six collections of poems.

For those into poetry, Jalil’s slim volume is a collector’s item. However, one slip is jarring. She claims that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib had paid great tribute to Mir Taqi Mir when he said that his entire collection of poetry could not match the worth of just one couplet of the senior poet: “Tum mere paas hotay ho goya/Jab koi doosra nahi hota.” That couplet was, in fact, by Ghalib’s contemporary Momin, to whom Ghalib had paid the tribute, not to Mir.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Shahryar: A Life in Poetry
By Rakhshanda Jalil
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9353029309
226pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 23rd, 2018