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Among his contemporaries

February 17, 2011


Faiz, being awarded The Lenin Prize

When the wing of the muse touched the young Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal was widely recognised as the leading poet of the day with his best poetry already written and about to take his last bow from the mortal world, and Josh Malihabadi was consolidating his reputation as a firebrand poet of youthful fervor with a song of the revolution on his lips. By the time Faiz came to the end of his long and distinguished poetic career, Urdu poetry had undergone a sea change with very different styles and themes ruling the roost.

Faiz was not a silent spectator or bystander to this tumultuous swirl all around. His slender poetic output exerted a far-reaching influence and contributed in establishing some of these developments but his poetry resonates with some of these changes. Among his earliest poems, written when Faiz was still trying to establish his own voice as a poet, is an act of homage to Iqbal occasioned by his death, describing him as a khush-nawa faqir; among his last poems is a ghazal with a somewhat different style and imagery, clearly intended as a tribute to Makhdoom Mohiuddin, a younger contemporary and fellow ideologue of Faiz the Progressive. The two poems are separated by a lifetime, the work of a poet which was to transform the contemporary scene in Urdu poetry.

Closer in years to Iqbal, Faiz seems to have a greater affinity with Ghalib, who stretches across the years to come across as more a contemporary than a classic. With Iqbal, he shared his birthplace in Sialkot and educational institutions in Lahore, but there are important points of departure. Putting behind him the great poetry of Baang-i-Dara and Baal-i-Jibreel, Iqbal moved on to Zarb-i-Kaleem with its systematic denunciation of the modern world, the poetry subservient to the message. No less committed to his sociopolitical beliefs, Faiz did not bear the prophet’s mantle and his poetry never grew under such burdens. In spite of this, Faiz did not attack or dismiss Iqbal as some of the more diehard went on to do during the heyday of the Progressive Writers’ movement. In his later years he also rendered some of Iqbal’s Persian verses into Urdu, which renders no great service to Iqbal or to Faiz.

Even more remote is Josh whose fiery rhetoric has the tendency to degenerate into the bombastic, the sound and the spectacle of thunder and lightening, a world away from subtle tones and soft hues of Faiz. The age difference between the two must be a few years, but Josh and Faiz seem to belong to different eras, with Faiz a modernist and Josh clearly belonging to the Romantics with a dash of the Byronic in him.

It seems strange that in my childhood I have seen and heard both of them recite their kalam in the same mushairas, with Josh’s style of delivery outshining all others, specially Faiz, whose recitation remained unimpressive to say the least. I also recall reading a satirical poem of Josh, published in the literary magazine Savera from Lahore in which he parodied the popular style of Faiz and his contemporaries, faqat chand roz aur, meri jaan faqat chand hi roz. Parodic in intent, it reads better than much of Josh’s later-day poetry but it is clear that the aged eagle is stretching its wing in an attempt to avoid being overtaken by the younger birds.

The closest parallel to Faiz is Noon Meem Rashid and although Faiz’s popular reputation far outshone others, the two of them still seem to be interlocked with each other like Siamese twins, the kind of colliding and contrasting pairs Urdu critics love to compare, right from Mir and Sauda to Zauq and Ghalib and Nasikh and Atash down to Anis and Dabeer. It is a strange attitude and I find it in the comparison of Manto and Krishan Chander in that period, a comparison which never worked for the benefit of either of the two. Rashid has the distinction of writing the introduction to Faiz’s first collection of poetry and later on, he and Faiz frequently commented upon each other’s work and in their personal relationship showed no outward sign of any sibling rivalry.

As Faiz became more and more popular with the masses, Rashid’s poetry developed in a different direction and made a quantum leap with his collection La Masawi Insaan, published in 1969 from Lahore. In a long conversation included in this collection by way of a preface, Rashid is critical of the “decorative” (zebaishi) style of Faiz. During this period Rashid himself had moved away from his earlier romanticism to the politically informed cantos of his days in Iran to the existentialist and humanist concerns of his later poems, which remain peerless in modern Urdu poetry.

In the same conversation, Rashid pronounced Miraji to be the most notable poet of his generation. Miraji analysed Faiz’s poem in Is Nazm Main, his serialised commentary and explication of contemporary poems. Following Miraji’s premature death, Faiz penned an introduction to Miraji’s translations from world poetry, Mashriq-o-maghrib Ke Naghme, showing a clear preference to Miraji’s prose over his poetry.

A question about Miraji figures in my vivid memory of an interview with Faiz recorded just after he had come back from his exile in Beirut. I mentioned Miraji in the same breath as Faiz and Rashid, but was immediately corrected by Faiz Saheb who told me that Miraji was much junior to him. I was taken aback and later on reported this to the poet and critic Hameed Nasim, who patiently explained to me that Miraji’s span of poetry covered only a few years while the same span was nearly half a century for Faiz, yet Miraji showed great virtuosity and growth as a poet.

In an anecdotal reference, the London-based poet Saqi Farooqi has cited some incidents in which Faiz seems to have rubbed Rashid the wrong way but such things belong not so much to the critical climate of opinion than to gossip. In a similar manner Faiz’s name is paired off with that of Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi but the reference this time is an essay which Qasimi wrote after Faiz’s death.

It seems more logical to read Faiz in the context of other Progressive poets of the day, including Majaz, Sardar Jafari, Sahir Ludhianvi and Makhdoom. Majaz dedicated the first edition of Aahang to the long-promised foreword by Faiz but the deebacha notwithstanding, he died before realising the potential of his early work. In their worst moments, the Progressive poets sound like each other or diluted versions of Faiz, whose influence nobody could escape. The single exception is that of Akhtarul Iman whose early poems are weighed down by an excessive dose of Faiz’s influence but with maturity, he blossomed into one of the finest modernist poets, with the gritty-edge of his poetry remarkably different from Faiz.

Few could resist succumbing to the influence of Faiz in the realm of the ghazal. Hasrat Mohani and Firaq Gorakhpuri are the names which come immediately to mind from among the several poets from the period when Faiz’s reputation was in the making, and soon afterwards, Nasir Kazmi set a new trend in the period following Partition, consciously going back to the language and expression of Mir. As a ghazal poet, an interesting case can be made out of Faiz as falling within the tradition of Sauda, Mir’s great contemporary.

Poet Zehra Nigah, on whose first collection Faiz wrote a laudatory introduction, once told me that Faiz used to recommend Sauda to her. Right till his final days, Faiz wrote about the younger poets whose work he happened to like. Among others, he wrote introductions to several collections, ranging from a brief note on Munir Niazi to a more detailed one on Iftikhar Arif’s first book Mehr-i-Do Neem. The few lines he wrote on the blurb of Saher Ansari’s first collection, Namood, meant that he had set a high standard and did not want younger poets to lower the bar.