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Birthday special: Nehru’s tryst with poetry

Several poets of his times have written poems which celebrate Nehru’s ideas, bemoan his passing away and reinforce commitment towards his vision of India as an inclusive and liberal country

Photo courtesy: INC
Photo courtesy: INC

Ashutosh Sharma

Great poets and politicians hardly find themselves on the same page. But then India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was a rare exception. Immensely respected for his literary genius and human values, Nehru was equally admired as a statesman by the poets of his times.

Nehru himself was much influenced by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “More than any other Indian”, he wrote in his book, The Discovery of India, “he (Tagore) has helped to bring into harmony the ideals of the East and West, and broadened the bases of Indian nationalism. He has been India’s internationalist par excellence, believing and working for international co-operation, taking India’s message to other countries and bringing their messages to his own people”.

He has repeatedly mentioned Tagore in his celebrated book Glimpses of World History, an anthology of letters written to his daughter Indira Gandhi from jail, as well.

The connoisseurs of Urdu poetry would vouch for the bond that Raghupati Sahay better known as Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi shared with Nehru.

Josh—who bitterly regretted for a life time after migrating to Pakistan against his friend Nehru’s advice—had once remarked that “Nehru was a good human being and a bad politician.”

The folklores around the songs of Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar refuse to fade away. Many fondly recall how a poignant song like Aye Mere Watan Kay Logo and later Chahunga Main Tujhe which featured in Dosti, 1964, bedimmed Nehru’s eyes in public functions.

Firaq—who taught English literature in Allahabad University—would often say in jest that “only two and a half men know English in India; first was Firaq himself, second, the then President Dr S Radhakrishnan, and Nehru being the remaining half.” He was nominated to Rajya Sabha by Nehru for his tireless work towards promoting secularism, communal harmony and national integration.

Nehru’s friendship with noted Hindi poet Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan is also well known. Nehru, as they say, would introduce senior Bachchan as “this is a poet” and his wife Tejias “this is his poetry” to friends.

It may have become fashionable these days to denigrate Nehru for all the ills plaguing the country, the poets of his times wrote several poems which celebrated Nehru’s ideas, bemoaned his passing away and reinforced commitment towards his vision of India as an inclusive and liberal country. In their poems, they fully acknowledged how he struggled to build a modern India after it gained independence at a very difficult juncture in international politics.

The most popular modern Punjabi poet, Shiv Batalvi—who is the youngest Sahitya Akademi awardee—wrote Suraj Da Marsia (A dirge for the sun), as a tribute to Nehru after he passed away on May 27, 1964. He was 74.

In his poem, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sahir Ludhianvi has lauded Nehru for his commitment towards secularism and humanism and putting socialism as a concrete social and economic objective before the Congress and the country. Comparing him with Christ, he wrote:

Sari qaumon kay gunahon ka kada bojh liay,

umr bhar surat-e-Issa jo sar-e-daar raha !

Jisnay insanon ki taqsim kay sadmay jhelay,

phir bhi insaani akhuwwat ka parastaar raha !

(Bearing the burden of the sins of all communities,

One, who spent his entire life on the cross just like Jesus !

Who braved the traumas of the partition of the people,

Still remained, of universal brotherhood, a firm believer)

Asserting that despite Nehru’s passing away his ideas would continue to live on, Sahir goes on to endorse Nehru’s wishes, his declarations and dreams: “Having dispersed his ashes, now disperse his dreams.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Kaifi Azmi wrote a song Meri Awaaz Suno, Pyaar Ka Raaz Suno (Hear my voice, hear the secret of love). The song was sung by Mohammad Rafi and featured in Naunihal, 1967. In his song, Kaifi has beautifully depicted how Nehru loved children as much as he loved his country. The song also talks about the trademark attire of Pandit Nehru with a red rose on the buttonhole of the khaddar sherwanis and half-jackets.

Here’s a video of the song:

Kaifi, in another poem, Nehru, likened him to a lighthouse in an ocean. He also invoked the imagery of Christ's hands being nailed to the cross while describing Nehru.

Hath me us kay kya tha jo deta humain,

Sirf ik keel uss keel ka aik nishaan !

(What did he had in his hands to offer us,

Nothing but one nail and its mark !)

Interestingly, both Sahir and Kaifi were Marxist who denounced capitalism and championed the cause of the deprived, disadvantaged and the marginalised sections of the society. Similarly, another pioneer of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and eminent Urdu poet, Ali Sardar Jafri, penned two poems on Nehru’s death: Rahbar Ki Maut (Death of a leader) and Sandal-o-Gulab Ki Raakh (Ashes of sandal and rose).

In the second poem, Jafri, described Nehru as a “messenger of the spring and prophet of a new social order.” And his first poem reaffirms and reinforces commitment towards Nehruvian values to meet multiple challenges in the way of nation-building.

Ab humari aankh mein hai us ki band aankhon ka noor,

Ab humaray jism mein hai us ki rooh-e-beqaraar!

Us ka parcham le kay maidaan mein nikalna hai humain,

Farsh-e-gul se door angaaron pe chalna hai humain !

(Now, we have in our eyes the dreams of his closed eyes,

His restless soul resides in our body now!

We’ve to come to the battlefield waiving his flag

Away from flower petals carpeting the floor, we’ve to walk on embers!)

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