Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Javed Akhtar

(An as told to interview with Javed Akhtar)

Do you dare snuff out the moon?

A hundred years after his birth, revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz is still a pebble creating ever-widening ripples



Faiz Ahmed Faiz

GROWING up in a family of poets, I was surrounded by poetry. But to me, it is Faiz who was the brightest star of the brightest literary movements in undivided India. My first memory of Faiz is a package that came in the mail. It was an autographed copy of his first collection of poems — Dast-e-Sabha. I was nine years old at the time and staying with my maternal uncle, the poet Majaz Lakhnavi, who like Faiz was part of the Progressive Writer's Association. By the time I was in school in Aligarh, Faiz's words were very much a part of my life.

There was something extraordinary about Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He was more than a big poet. He was a big man with a tremendous amount of humility.

The word mein, me, never made an appearance in his poems. Poetry was to create awareness, to create the desire for dreams, social justice, gender equality and to stand up for the downtrodden. To be a poet is not to be didactic and dry in order to make a large statement at the expense of beauty. To be a poet is not to be holier than thou. Faiz understood this. To him art was for life and not just for art's sake.

Loud and clear Faiz addresses trade union workers. He was president of the Postal Workers Union in 1949

There have been other poets who wrote about politics but somehow they were prosaic and violent in a way that Faiz never was. His work is an unbelievable synthesis of art with social and political values. Of course, Faiz also was phenomenally popular. In this age, artists can cater to the lowest common denominator and be assured that they will become a celebrity. Faiz maintained a standard and still was so hugely followed.

Faiz was like a pebble tied to a string and thrown in the water to create larger and larger circles. Faiz kept tradition intact but he pulled it to modernity. He didn't break from poetic conventions and maintained an extreme literary aesthetic, a painterly one. Faiz could infuse an evening in prison with a heady beauty. Take these images, (from a version of Zindan Ki Ek Shaam translated by Agha Shahid Ali) where he describes each star as a rung in the spiral staircase of a descending night. The poem continues...

Dil se paiham khayal kahta hai/ Itni shireen hai zindagi is pal/ Zulm ka zahar gholnewale/ Kamran ho sakenge aaj na kal/Jalvagahevisaal ki shamayein / Vo bujha bhi chuke agar to kya/ Chand ko gul karen, to hum jaane.

To be a poet is not to be didactic or dry to make a large statement at the expense of beauty. To be a poet is not to be holier than thou. Faiz understood this

(This thought keeps consoling me/though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed/in rooms where lovers are destined to meet/they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,/nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed/ no poison of torture make me bitter/ if just one evening in prison/can be so strangely sweet/if just one moment anywhere on this earth.)

Talking heads Faiz with journalist Asaf Jilani and thespian Zia Mohyiuddin during an interview with BBC Urdu Service, London

I first met Faiz in the 1960s when he had come to India after a long absence. He read in our house to a gathering of poets and Bollywood stars. Amitabh Bachchan was there as were many major poets of the time. When people read their poetry, they usually read it with energy. They take care of the intonation, rhythm, of the whole performance. Not Faiz. He read his poems with no special enthusiasm; as if it was a mildly tedious duty he had to perform. That day, a cheeky poet asked why he didn't read his poetry as well as he wrote. Faiz replied that he couldn't possibly do everything well and asked the poet to read instead.

Faiz has definitely influenced an entire generation. He has added to the aesthetics of Urdu poetry. Today, Urdu is in a strange situation. The language has been politicised for the past 100 years and sacrificed at the altar of the two-nation theory. In India, it is constantly given step-motherly treatment. On one hand, there are a growing number of people who appreciate Urdu poetry but the language is also becoming nostalgia. By its very nature, it is secular, anti-fundamentalist and embraces anti-archaic values but we are denying it its place in our heritage. The birth centenary of one of its greatest poets is occasion to reflect on this. I want to end with quoting my favourite lines of Faiz.

Dil na umeed toh nahin , nakaam hi toh hain/ Lambi hain gham ki sham magar sham hi to hain. (I haven't lost hope, but just a fight, that is all/ The night of suffering lengthens, but just a night, that is all).

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