Ahmad Faraz, the poet whose words delivered young hearts into a frenzied gallop, has himself been dwindling into obscurity. This is ironic, for in recent history we find no other Urdu poet who could draw to his recitations such mind-boggling throngs in a multitude of ethnicities, language communities and nationalities. Parveen Shakir once told me that, even in Bangladesh, Faraz’s poetry readings attracted massive crowds, the majority having no inkling of poetic Urdu.
I was once visiting Hyderabad of the Deccan, sitting in the lobby of a fashionable modern hotel — there a Hindu qawwal was singing a ghazal of Faraz that our poet wrote in emulation of Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth Sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of this very Deccan. When the singer reached the last half-verse of the ghazal, a line on to which the poet had tacked his full name ‘Ahmad Faraz’, I took the liberty of approaching the stage, asking the qawwal now to follow this with the original ghazal of the Golkonda ruler. “But Sahib,” he said, “Faraj-ji’s gajal [Faraz-ji’s ghazal] is so much better.” Yes, this was the Faraz trend; he was declared better than even the classic poet of Urdu canon, better than the 16th/17th-century Quli Qutb Shah in the very kingdom of Quli Qutb Shah himself.
But Faraz has suffered a multiplicity of ironies, and this because of the confluence of so many literary and historical contingencies. He was described almost always as a “revolutionary poet”, “rebellious poet”, “defying poet”, “outspoken poet”, “unyielding poet” and “peoples’ poet who spoke in the metaphors of prophecy and vision.” We hear that Faraz struggled for the downtrodden and the poor, and that he lamented the division of Imperial India and worked for Pakistan-India peace. All of this is intriguing and dramatic, and all of this seems like the attributes of a noble soul, but it has to do more with activism and popular leadership and statesmanship than with poetry.
What seems to have happened is this: Faraz was claimed by journalistic vendors of sensationalism who confused his social personality with his poetic being. Socially he was certainly outspoken, iconoclastic, loud, even abusive and abrasive — but this was his social posture. Faraz-the-poet was sublime, soft as silk, a lover who was always gentle; he was like a piece of live coal burning ever so slowly as the particles of ashes conspire to extinguish it.
And all of this is really far from the essence of Ahmad Faraz’s fine poetry. In fact, what seems to have happened is this: Faraz was claimed by journalistic vendors of sensationalism who confused his social personality with his poetic being. Socially he was certainly outspoken, iconoclastic, loud, even abusive and abrasive — but this was his social posture. Faraz-the-poet was sublime, soft as silk, a lover who was always gentle; he was like a piece of live coal burning ever so slowly as the particles of ashes conspire to extinguish it. His metaphors were not of “prophecy” nor of “vision”; no, his metaphors were soaked in romance, longing and desire. He spoke of fireflies, butterflies, pearls; he invoked the moon and stars descending from the heavenly spheres to catch a glimpse of his beloved. If his words were ever harsh, that was an exception; and if he wrote “poetry of resistance and dismissal”, its volume is very thin.
One of the unique characteristics of Faraz in the pantheon of latter-day poets is that he internalised and integrated into his poetic being the core of Urdu ghazal, the core we call taghazzul. Taghazzul means a fully crafted, romantic lyricism that carries the descriptive features — the sarapa — of the beloved and her/his attitude to the lover. The sarapa can only be described in metaphors, and the beloved’s attitude tests the invincibility of the lover’s romance. Faraz’s lyricism is unparalleled in contemporary Urdu poetry. As for his romance, it is this which delivered young hearts into a frenzied gallop. The vast majority of his audience did not care about his political views or his rebellion. Indeed, almost all top ghazal singers of his time sang his ghazals — but none of these ghazals have any political undertones or overtones, or allusions of defiance, or suggestions of breaking out of the revered traditions. They are all romantic, lyrical, glowing love-poems.
Given the mis-emphasis, Faraz was surrendered to the non-expert amateur enthusiast. Very few serious critics focused on him. The entry on him in Wikipedia, for example, has all of its references drawn from media journalists, every single one of them. Why no scholar? No literary expert? Why this abandonment of one of the most outstanding lyricists of our times? But there is, in fact, another twist of irony here: Faraz’s enormous popularity militated against his access in the chambers of high critics; he was considered a crowd-pleaser, a performer unworthy of sober literary analysis. So nobody wrote about his poetics in its fullness.
But perhaps the deepest irony with regard to Faraz is his darkening image from the gallery of Urdu poetry. His death anniversary on August 26 came and went — it made no ripples. This is the same Faraz who was followed by restless cheering crowds from Karachi to Peshawar, and from Lahore to Patna, and from the River Thames to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The columnist is Dean of the Institute of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, and Visiting Distinguished Professor of Comparative Liberal Studies at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 3rd, 2019