Listening to Faiz in Ahmedabad

Raat yuun dil mein teri khoi hui yaad aai
Jaiseay wiraanay mein chupke se bahaar aajae

Last night, your memories came back to me, as though
Spring stealthily should come back to wilderness

Like cooling drops of dew, a few lines of poetry became succour from the summer sun. To celebrate the centenary year of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s birth, a collective of civic groups based in Ahmedabad, India, organized a reading of the poet’s work. Sadiq Noor Pathan, a published poet and program executive at the local All India Radio station, began with a recording of Faiz reciting his work. Playing a 1980s recording of Ashaar, Tanhaai, and Bol, Pathan introduced us to the gentle and powerful quality of South Asia’s leading modern Urdu poet’s verse in the poet’s own voice.

…Ghulam Farid, Pathan’s peer, next sang the ghazal Gulon mein rang bhare, Faiz’s refrain to his beloved – freedom – from Zindan Naama (Prison Letters):

Maqaam, Faiz, koi raah mein jacha hi nahin
Jo qu-e-yaar se nikle, toh soo-e-daar chale

No place appealed to us anywhere on the way, Faiz,
Leaving the loved one’s lane, we turned to the gallows

Here, Faiz forsakes any middle-ground when it comes to his beloved, i.e., his freedom. He talks of leaving qu-e-yaar ,his beloved’s lane, and heading to soo-e-daar, the spot where he may be executed. He declares he would rather die than give up his freedom to speak and write. Writing from Montgomery prison in Punjab, when he was jailed for four years from 1951-1955 on charges of plotting to overthrow Liaqat Ali’s government, Faiz here invokes both freedom from injustice, and his freedom to write when the government had banned his work from being published or recited.

Recreating this mood of defiance, Pathan next played a recording of Noor Jehan singing Mujh se pehle si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang (Do not ask of me, my beloved, that same love), recounting an anecdote where the singer sang the verse at a state function defying the government’s ban on reciting the jailed poet’s verse. This evocative verse, one of Faiz’s most well-known and loved works that later appeared in a film as well, voices his dilemma of reconciling romantic love for his beloved with a deeper engagement with the region’s socio-political reality. In her book ‘100 Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’, Dehradun-based translator Sarvat Rahman deftly describes this transition in Faiz’s thought and work. ‘From the depth of his poetic being, imbued with sufi ideals of Hafiz and Rumi and all the great Urdu poets, came to him the awareness that his earlier quest for the beloved, and his later one for social justice for all humanity, are of the same nature. Both demand of him his utter devotion and, ultimately, the sacrifice of his life. He gives them both the same visage to begin with,’ writes Rahman.

Pathan played a clip of Bollywood great Dilip Kumar speaking about Faiz. Reciting Mauzooe-e-sukhan (Subjects of verse) slowly, with pleasure, the actor concludes Faiz to be the greatest poets he has encountered in what he describes as his limited mutayala(reading) and mushahida(observation). We then listened to accounts from letters Faiz wrote to his wife Alys from jail where he describes the beauty of the climbers and the sky he could see from his barrack window, the lyricism of perhon ki shaakhon pe thaki chaandni (moonlight resting wary on tree-tops) , and the music in his defiant Aaj bazaar mein paa-ba-jolan chalo (walking through the markets, chains around our feet).

Pathan concluded with a few lines from Intisaab (Dedication), one of Faiz’s last verses, a call-of-arms to the stone cutter, the courtesan, the factory worker, the postman. The reading went on half hour longer than scheduled. When we stepped out, the sun had become shade.

The full post is on Himal magazine’s website.

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