Koi to sood chukaye, koi to zimma le
us inquilab ka jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai
— Kaifi Azmi (Inteshar)
Jab bhi choom leta hoon, In haseen aakhon ko
Sau chiragh andhere mein jhil-milane lagte hain
(Aik Bosa. Kaifi Azmi)
Just feel the ‘kaifiyat’ (impact) of these two ashaar; totally different in its content, feel and effect. Same was the ambience that pervaded the Stein auditorium on Tuesday evening; on one side the poetic excellence Kaifi Azmi, wrapped in chaste, dignified and yet tickling romance in Urdu was being read by his daughter Shabana Azmi, simultaneously translated into English by Sudeep Sen, author and poet, to a thick, stunned, silent audience.
The romance filled the air, the humor tickled, a coyness prevailed over the women of all age -- within fractions of minutes, it would flippantly take a revolutionary jolt by the rendition of his creations like Makaan which defines the plight of the construction workers who build a house brick by brick, then its owner guards it by a chowkidaar so that these workers don’t enter it. It awakens women to stand up and walk with pride when they hear Kaifi’s ‘Aurat’ which asks women to de-glamourise themselves, stand up and walk along their menfolk and be the change they want to see in the society.
Professor Anisur Rehman, a noted scholar, moderated the unique session.
The occasion was a book release, published by Bloomsbury titled ‘Kaifi Azmi -- Poems/Nazms: New and selected translations’. This specially-curated volume contains 50 carefully chosen poems from his immense oeuvre bringing together some of the finest translators, poets, scholars, filmmakers, namely Husain Mir Ali, Baidar Bakht, Sumantra Ghoshal, Pritish Nandy and Sudeep Sen, who is also the editor. It is a bilingual English-Hindi collection which also contains a selection of rare archival photographs of the life and times of Kaifi Azmi going back to his childhood.
The occasion also saw Kaifinama, an extraordinary one-and-half-hour film on life, times and poetry by Kaifi Azmi made by Sumantra Ghoshal and presented by Mijwan Welfare Society that the poet started for the welfare of this tiny distant village in UP, with no pin code and which did not have its presence on the Indian map. But it was his birthplace, where he lived and worked from mid seventies after he got a paralytic stroke on his left side till he breathed his last in 2002.
So, the stage was lit up with colourful attires the panel wore -- Shabana wrapped in red from sari to flower, a colour of passion, professor in blue, poet in black and filmmaker in white, with lights that made it poetically dramatic.
The session was an insight into the poet’s life, through not only his daughter but several personalities in the film --- together it successfully reflected the way Kaifi Azmi wove his philosophy in his life, and practised what he wrote in his verses.
Shabana recalled,“Once I asked Kaifi sahab, ‘You speak of changing the society. What if you don’t see the change happening despite your efforts?’ He said to me, ‘When you make attempts to bring a change, always keep agunjaish (space) that it may not come but if your efforts are constant and genuine and your perseverance, unbroken, change will come, even if it does after you are gone.’ ” Notably, the actor and activist didn’t attempt to patronise him by calling abba, but Kaifi sahab. It was genuinely visible that she didn’t require to do so --- for it was admiration of the philosophy of life and his stature among people that inspires her most.
She recalls how he wouldn’t care if ₹10,000 would be stolen from his pocket but he was very particular about the Community Party Card and his favourite Mont-Blanc pen, and would never exchange them with anyone.
Kaifi started writing in films after it became difficult to run the house in just ₹45 that he would get from the Party and ₹30 from his poems penned for the newspapers/magazines.
Interestingly, his move to films was strategic too. All the Progressive Art Group writers were requested by PC Joshi to move to writing in films, so that film scripts and lyrics have some gravitas. Therefore, people like Shailendra, Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhiyanvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri and Jan Nisar Akhtar started writing for Hindi films. The poetry that was vanishing from films was thus brought back and Kaifi Azmi had a significant role in this. All his songs became immensely popular ---from Waqt, Haqeeqat, Heer Ranjha, Kaghaz Ke Phool etc.
Sudeep Sen who beautifully translated ten of Kaifi’s works for this book had never met Kaifi nor did he know Urdu. He recalls, “The first time I felt the power and magic of Kaifi Azmi’s poetry was as a child, when I heard my mother reading out his poem, ‘Aurat’ (‘Woman’), at a family gathering during the Durga Puja festival in New Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, a predominantly Bengali neighbourhood. The opening line and refrain —
(Uth, meri jaan! Mere saath
hi chalnaa hai tujhe.)
‘Rise, my beloved! You’ve got to walk with me’
I was smitten by the depth and parabolic lyricism of Kaifi’s words instantly, drawn to its political core in a way that I might not have understood then, but that has certainly shaped my poetic ideology as an adult.
To translate the musicality of Urdu words and imbibe its euphony in translation, I measured each word carefully, and made a musical chart. This had no words but only rhythm of his words. My translations are done very much from the point of view of a practicing English-language poet—and the most important barometric impulse was that they should read like good poems in English.”
The book is worth a collector’s pleasure.