'Firaq': The poet who celebrated India's assimilative culture

Equally fluent in Hindi and Urdu, Persian and Sanskrit, he incorporated elements from his deep, self-taught knowledge of the Vedic and Puranic ethos into his poetry

Firaq receiving an award from Nehru (IANS Photo)
Firaq receiving an award from Nehru (IANS Photo)


Scholars have devoted tomes to it, politicians have waxed long about it, but it was an Urdu poet who furnished the most abiding, yet concise expression of the idea, history, and ethos of India.

And that too in less than a dozen words -- though with two compound formulations, while including his pen-name too: "Sarzameen-e-Hind par aqwam-e-alam ke 'Firaq' / Kafile baste gaye, Hindustan banta gaya."

This composite and syncretic sentiment forms the bedrock of the poetry of Raghupati Sahai 'Firaq Gorakhpuri', considered among the foremost Urdu poets of all time, and one who enriched and further indigenised the tradition.

Equally fluent in Hindi and Urdu, Persian and Sanskrit, he incorporated elements from his deep, self-taught knowledge of the Vedic and Puranic ethos into his poetry.

If he could proclaim: "Meri ghutti mein padhi this ho ke hal Urdu zabaan/Jo bhi mein kehta gaya husn-e-bayan hota gaya", he could also pen: "Dilon ko tere tabassum ki yaad yun aayi / Ki jhilmila uthe jis tarah mandiron mein chirag", or "Yeh kaifiyat o rang nazara yeh bijliyon ki lapak / Ki jaise Krishna se Radha ki aankh ishare kare".

Or take "Koi meri aankhon se dekhta teri bazm-e-naaz ki vusatein/Woh har ek gosha makaan makaan woh har ek lamha zaman zaman" to render the wonder of Arjuna as he sees Lord Krishna's 'Vishwaroop' on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

And he was deft in vivid imagery: "Raat chali hai jogan ho kar, baal sawanre lat chitkai/Chippe 'Firaq' gagan par taare, deep bujhe ham so jaayen" and rhythm: "Shaam bhi thi dhuan dhuan husn bhi tha udaas udaas/Dil ko kai kahaniyan yaad si aa ke rah gayi".

Renowned Urdu critic, Prof Gopi Chand Narang termed 'Firaq' the poet "of the labyrinths of emotions, the sensuousness and transcendence of beauty, and the merging shades of pain and ecstasy", while his nephew and biographer Ajai Mansingh credited him for having woven "the fabrics of the dynamic Indian philosophy and ethos into the matrix of Persian-dominated Urdu poetry, and sprinkle(d) it with the psychedelic rainbow colours of Puranic mythology and the common man's vocabulary".

His poetry thus, Mansingh said, expressed "the richness and complexity of the composite Indian culture and ethos evolved through centuries of assimilation and adaptability".

Yet, his Hinduism was organic and never sectarian. 'Firaq', in fact, once refused to give a talk on a prominent revivalist seer, saying he had insulted other religions gratuitously. His focus was always on humans: "Devtaon ka Khuda se hoga kaam/Aadmi ko aadmi darkar hai" or "Shaikh ji ban gaye farishte-sifat/Adamiyyat se haath dho baithe".

And while he was friendly with all other Urdu poets, older, contemporary, or younger, he was also close to Munshi Premchand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan (an academic colleague), Mahadevi Verma, and Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala'. And apart from a poet, he was a noted literary scholar too - especially on Hindi and Urdu, and the first major poet shown reciting and explaining his verse on TV

'Firaq' drew on lot on his own experiences in his poetry. However, as his nephew wrote, most accounts of his life, including his portrayal in Ali Sardar Jafri's 'Kahkashan' are not very accurate or fair.

Born on August 18, 1896 in a prominent landed family of Gorakhpur, he was an observant and insightful child who keenly took in the religious rituals of his large joint family, the discussions of his elders, and the rhythms of rural life of the area.

Setting the stage for his future career, his father Gorakh Prasad Sahai, a lawyer by profession, was also keenly interested in Urdu poetry, writing as 'Ibrat Gorakhpuri'.

However, like his father, 'Firaq' faced his share of tragedies - the untimely passing away of two siblings, and two of his own children. In marital life, he was deceived by a family friend who passed off his own cousin as a bride, instead of the one proposed.

This led to a marriage in name only -- and after four decades, the untimely death of his firstborn, made him send away his wife. In the last three decades of his life, he lived largely alone ("Waqt-e-piri doston ki berukhi ka kya gila/Bach ke chalte hain sab girti huyi deewar se"), and was taken advantage of by "well-wishers".

His professional life was happier. A gold medallist from Allahabad University, he qualified for the PCS, and was also offered the ICS, but declined and joined the freedom movement. Jailed for participating in the Non-Cooperation Movement, he was noticed by Motilal Nehru - who had been bested by his father in several court cases, and became an aide to him and Jawaharlal Nehru, living at Anand Bhawan.

He then left to do his MA, began teaching in Lucknow and Kanpur, before his alma mater invited him to become a professor. At the Allahabad varsity, where he taught his lectures not only engrossed his own students, but drew others from other disciplines to throng his class and the corridors outside.

'Firaq' was bestowed with several honours, including the first-ever Jnanapith for Urdu, and a Padma Bhushan.

In his last years, Indira Gandhi's government funded his medical treatment, and when he passed away in March 1982 -- days after his friend and fellow poet Shabbir Hasan Khan 'Josh Malihabadi', Parliament paid him homage. His last journey drew immense crowds and his students insisted it go through the varsity.

Tinged by personal experience, the poetry of 'Firaq', sometimes has an melancholic undercurrent, even when he talks of love: "Na koi vaada na koi yaqeen na koi umeed/Magar hamen to tera intezar karna tha", or drinking: "Aaye the hanste khelte maikhane mein 'Firaq'/Jab pi chuke sharab to sanjida ho gaye".

This is not the case always: "Khush bhi ho lete hai tere be-qaraar/Gham hi gham ho ishq mein aisa nahi" or "Main aaj sirf mohabbat mein gham karunga yaad/Yeh aur baat ke teri bhi yaad aa jaaye".

In his worldview, there is this dichotomy: "Kam se kam maut se aisi mujhe umeed nahi / Zindagi tu ne to dhoke pe diya hai dhoka" but also: "Yeh mana zindagi char din ki / Bahut hote hai yaaron char din bhi".

There is much more to his large oeuvre - but his humour must also be credited.

As an anecdote goes, returning home on train from a mushaira, he met a Parsi businessman called Batliwala. This gentleman said he was so happy talking to 'Firaq' that he wanted to meet him when he came to Allahabad and asked his address. 'Firaq' replied: "I live on Bank Street. Come there and tell anyone your name. They'll bring you to my house."

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