Kaifi Azmi – a ‘maulvi’ who turned to music and Marx

Remembering Kaifi Azmi, the poet who wrote and recited fiery poems for the downtrodden, disadvantaged, underprivileged, dispossessed and deprived till he breathed his last 16 years ago

Photo Courtesy: Social media 
Photo Courtesy: Social media
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Ashutosh Sharma

“I was born in a slave India, grew up in an independent India and would like to die in a socialist India.”

This dream of eminent Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi took a serious beating, like many of his contemporary idealists, with a vision for a secular and progressive India. He was shattered by the communal disharmony that followed demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. In his epic poem Doosra Banwaas, which was written against the backdrop of communal violence that followed the incident, Kaifi imagined the return of Lord Ram to the banks of Saryu in Ayodhya and lamented that Ram got a second exile on December 6.

This is how veteran actress Shabana Azmi remembers her father: “My earliest memory of Abba is that of him sitting on a writing table in his kurta-pyjama, smoking incessantly and writing till wee hours of the morning. As a child, I was convinced that a poet was a euphemism for someone who didn’t have any work.”

Shabana fondly remembers that her concern for slum-dwellers started with her father’s poem Makaan which talks of the irony of labourers who help construct a building with their blood and sweat but are not allowed to enter it after the construction work gets completed.


Kaifi was born as Sayyid Akhtar Hussein Rizvi in January 1919, in village of Mizwaa(n) in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. The family was deeply rooted in religion. Not so surprisingly, Kaifi, the son of a landlord, was admitted to a madrassa in Lucknow for religious education. But here he developed social consciousness, organised students of the seminary and held demonstrations. This is how he became a comrade instead of a maulvi. Kaifi never underwent any ideological change after the first and the last transition. In his early 20s, he become a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and when he died, he still had a CPI card in the pocket of his kurta.

Since he was born in a Shia family, there was a tradition at his home to mourn the 72 martyrs of Karbala during Muharram every year. In his childhood, Kaifi too would take part in religious congregations and cry over the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammad's grandson, and his 72 companions in Karbala of 680 AD.

“After becoming a member of the CPI, Kaifi followed the tradition and kept crying. The only difference was that, earlier, he would shed tears over a few names who gave up their lives in the battle between the righteous and unrighteous. But even later in his life, he kept shedding tears over these few names as a symbol of tens of thousands of sufferers,” writes late eminent poet Nida Fazli in his book Chehre. “Kaifi’s entire poetic work is the story of these tears in different words.”

“It wouldn’t be appropriate to call Kaifi an atheist. His communism was also a manifestation of his family’s extended religious belief system,” Nida writes. “Every oppressor in the society was a Yazeed (it was on the orders of Yazeed’s soldiers that Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Hazrat Husain, was murdered) to Kaifi and he would see Hussainiat in every exploited and oppressed person in the world.”

Kaifi wrote fiery poems for the downtrodden, disadvantaged, underprivileged, dispossessed and deprived and recited the same from the stages of poetic congregations all through his life. Even a paralytic stroke and chronic bouts of breathlessness every now and then could not dampen his spirits and he remained as rebellious as ever.

Nida Fazli writes in his book that Kaifi’s style of poetry recitation was also part of the tradition that he inherited during childhood from Muharram gatherings where poems of mourning, Marsiya, would be recited to commemorate the martyrdom of Ahl al-Bayt, Imam Hussain and Battle of Karbala.

“Kaifi was unique among his contemporaries. I’ve listened to Hindi poets like Suman and Bhawani besides Firaq and Josh in Urdu. But listening to Kaifi reciting poems from the stage used to be quite an experience. He would invariably cast a spell on the audience and take home all the applause and adulation.”

He further writes: During his youth, when Kaifi was reciting his epic poem Aurat in a mushaira, a woman sitting in the audience was telling her friend, “What kind of poet he is? The way he is beseeching, which woman will agree to go along with him.” But before he could finish reciting his poem, the woman had already taken the biggest decision of her life amid thunderous applause of the gathering. She broke off her engagement to another man and eventually married Kaifi against the advice of friends and family members.

After his marriage to Shaukat, Kaifi reluctantly took to writing for films, after finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. In an interview to The Indian Express in 1998, Kaifi recalled how Communists were thought to be dangerous people and his chance meeting with Guru Dutt and resulted into him writing immortal songs for Kagaz Ke Phool. “Religion, language, state, caste and community are being used to create division among people. People are being deliberately diverted toward these issues even as imperialism in its new avatar as MNCs is besieging the country,” he was quoted as saying.

Asked why communism failed in the erstwhile USSR, he replied, “A totalitarian dictatorial regime had taken sway in the name of communism, so it was natural for it to be thrown off.”

Kaifi wrote his first ghazal at the age of eleven, and is counted among literary giants like Shailendra, Sahir, Majrooh and Jaan Nissar Akhtar, who raised the standards of film lyrics and set benchmarks. Here’s a collection of seven songs and ghazals written by Kaifi Azmi, who Khushwant Singh described as Shehanshah of Urdu shayari :




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