Born in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, on February 14, Valentine's Day, if Hasan Akbar Kamal had a romantic streak in his temperament, it could easily be blamed on the popular saint or the exquisite building associated with passion. And Urdu poetry could hardly be thought of in isolation from love and its related sentiments.

“It was a serene moonlit night. Full moon, that is. And while strolling on the rooftop of our railway bungalow, I composed my first couplet. I was just 14 or 15 years old then and a class X student,” says Kamal in an interview with Dawn at his residence.

At home, in the street or marketplace, you must have heard this song sung by the Vital Signs group Hum hein Pakistani, hum tau jeetein gay haan jeetein gay.... Few would have missed such popular songs as Kabhi tum idhar say guzar kay tau dekho; Hai tera karam, Maula; Koi Khushbu jaisi baat karo, written and published in book form under the title of Khushboo jaisi baat karo by Hasan Akbar Kamal and sung by popular vocalists such as Alamgir, Nayyara Noor, Tina Sani, Gulbahar Bano and Sajjad Ali.

Although TV songs added to the popularity of Kamal immensely, he was already an established poet, critic and educationist. His second collection of poetry, Khizan mera mausum, had earned him the coveted Adam Jee literary award in 1980. So, he is neither too proud of these lyric poems, nor is he apologetic for writing them. “If I had considered writing lyrics something below a genuine poet's dignity, I wouldn't have written them,” says Kamal. “If for nothing else, I see them as a means to practise and hone my craft.” However, he is opposed to poets and writers seeking short-cuts to popularity, and says “Greatness and popularity are not synonymous. Some detergents, soaps, skin-whitening creams and hair-blackening products are more popular than Faiz, Abdullah Husain, Quratul Ain and Intezar Hussain,” he says to make his point.

His poems and ghazals have been appreciated by such literary stalwarts as Raees Amrohvi, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Farman Fatehpuri, Mohsin Bhopali and Saleem Ahmed. His father being a railway employee, the family had to move home as he was periodically transferred from town to town. Having lived close to nature in towns of Bhawalpur, Khanpur, Naushki and Sukkur, references to natural phenomena are common in Kamal's highly imaginative verses

Kamal bad-i-khizan aurh kay hein khwabeeda/ Woh peir jin ko naee konpalon ki hasrat hai
The simple couplet that he wrote in the light of the full moon had given him the confidence that he could become a poet and he seriously pursued the career that afforded him joy, satisfaction and recognition. “I sent a ghazal to Lail-o-nahar, a prestigious literary magazine edited by Sufi Tabassum, who returned the piece of paper with a big and encircled 'no'. Instead of being discouraged, I resolved that I'd strive and have my poems published in that very magazine.
“And finally, after a year and a half of hard work, I succeeded in writing a ghazal that was good enough to find a place in Lail-o-nahar.”

After doing his master's in English, he met Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi in his Lahore office in 1969 and sought his guidance for the publication of his first poetry collection. “Qasmi sahib said as he was leaving for his native village in Sargodha the following day, and he would see the manuscript on return. But at night he found time to read my poems and called me in the next morning. There a publisher was waiting for me in his office. Qasmi sahib sent me to an artist for helping him design the cover, and hence my first poetry book, beautifully printed, materialized without much hassle.”
Asked why he, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Parveen Shakir, Shahida Hasan, etc, mastered and taught English, but chose to compose poetry in Urdu, he says “I dream, cry and pray in Urdu. So, it is natural that I should choose to give expression to my feelings in Urdu.” He, however, admires English language and literature and other world literatures he read through English. “Through English, I learned how common truths and traditions, discussed by our poets and writers, found mention in other literatures,” he says and adds “However, I'm not in awe of them. I am proud of the literary assets of Urdu and other local languages.”
Kamal kay mazameen establishes him as a critic. His essays in the book are as captivating as his poetry. The merit of the book is best described in Dr Farman Fatehpuri's remarks Kamal kay mazameen, 'kamal kay (wonderful) mazameen hein'. The book may have a surprise for readers who do not know that prominent religious scholar Allama Talib Jauhari
is a poet also and has already published Harf-i-Namu as
his first collection of poetry, which has been critiqued by Kamal.
The books he has written are Sukhan (poetry collection), Khizan mera mausam (poetry collection), Kamal kay mazameen (criticism), Jahan-i-Ishq (poetry), Chacha khairu (children's novel), Mallah ka bhoot (children's novel), Rustam Khan (children's novel) and Adamkhoron ka jazeera (children's novel). A collection of naats is in press.
Asked how he came to adopt teaching as a profession, he said “I wished to study science to become a doctor. But I had had a fracture in my right hand and when I appeared in the high school examination, a writer was assigned to me who had very poor handwriting and was slow to take down what I dictated to him. That dashed my hopes as I obtained the third division in my high school examination. So, the next choice for me was teaching. Armed with a master's in English, when I arrived in Karachi, Shanul Haq Haqqi asked me if I was interested in joining Pakistan Television as a producer. Since I had appeared in a test and interview for teacher at the Delhi College and was hopeful of getting the job, I politely declined the
offer.” Prof Hasan Akbar Kamal began teaching at the college
in 1970 and retired as head
of the English department in 2006.
Prof Kamal is a respectful and obedient student as well as a respectable and loving teacher. When I first contacted him for an interview, he said he would not be available during the next couple of days as he was driving around his teacher visiting here from Multan. “My teacher from my college days, Prof Latifuzzaman Khan, is staying with me and I have to take him to places and people in the city. So, sorry, I won't be available as long as he is in the city.”