Urdu poetry

Poetic Dignity in Public Discourse

Finding its soul in an embrace of melancholy and nurtured by ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity’, poetry has forever been a language of the heart and as Milan Kundera reminded us, ‘when the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object’. A moving medium of expression that explores the deep recesses of our being, poetry awakens us to suppressed emotions. It rouses sensitivities to a point where grief becomes the music of the soul and moments of happiness, a cherished interlude in an ordinary life’s long story of substantive nothingness. As a welcome compensation for loss, poetry navigates around the sharp edges of life without underprizing it. Its potency and universal appeal are in the ‘tremor and draw’ of words that please the senses and arouse the spirit. The expression of intense sensitivity anchored in the pulsating vibrance of rhyming words enhances its appeal. Its lyrical pull magnifies the force of the message of togetherness, compassion, justice and injustice, love and hate, identity and difference, submission and assertion, anger and anguish, et al, in a symphony of life’s many hues. Poetry creates its own music and is about moments in life with which it is entwined. It assembles “language into art”, freeing the poet to be both “dignified and bold”: It “fills the air, rustles the leaves” as the poet weaves the truth of his age in the image of his own experiences. Sahir Ludhianvi’s introduction to his poetry says it all –

“duniyā ne tajrabāt o havādis kī shakl meñ
jo kuchh mujhe diyā hai, vo lauTā rahā huuñ main”

“Whatever the world has given to me by way of experience and accident, is what I am returning”

The soul of the author is laid bare in his poetry- a ‘voice that survives the silencing of the voice’. Inspired by compelling emotions and sheltered in the depth of private spaces, poetry, as an expression of the self is profoundly personal. Its popular resonance is a function of the common truths that it mirrors, of which Seemab Akbarabadi has famously said;

“kahānī merī rūdād-e-jahāñ ma.alūm hotī hai
jo suntā hai usī kī dāstāñ ma.alūm hotī hai”

“My story is the story of the world
He who hears it, considers it his own.”

The poet’s function is to ensure that his reality and that of the world around him does not remain outside the poetic realm. His canvas is broad enough to hold the many colours of life in a natural coalescence. He is a ‘philosopher of the heart’, a chronicler of the past, a purveyor of the present and a projector of the future. His vision bears the imprint of lived experiences and bridges the divide between sentiment and life’s reality. Shakeel Badayuni brings out the interface between life and literature thus:

“Mēn Shakeel, Dil Ka Hoon Tarjuma, Ki Mohabbaton Ka Hoon Raazdaan
Mujhe Fakhr Hai Meri Shayari, Meri Zindagi Se Juda Nahi”

Shakeel, I am but an echo of my heart,
A confidante of the emotion of love,
I am proud, my poetry and life are not apart.

In their wider philosophical imagination, the litterateurs interrogate the injustices of the times ‘in the still sad music of humanity.’ Whether in depicting despair, the ecstasy of the pain of unrequited love, hopelessness, the romanticism of protest or the heroism of the brave, all have found immortality in literature. So it is that the histories of the Age and nations are encased in their literature that clothes the bones of history in the culture of our times. In uniting philosophy, feeling and verve, art keeps alive the wisdom of the ages that shows us the way. Bertolt Brecht reminded us that art is “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Treasured compositions of the masters that encase profound wisdom and sensibilities of their time in the sublime arrangement of words define for us our humanity, giving us the music of our lives and the light that brightens our path.

All literature flavours and deepens the expression of intense human emotions, particularly the pain of loneliness, the ache of separation from loved ones, and a sense of rejection and helplessness. Jai Shankar Prasad’s celebrated poem ‘Ansoo’, for instance, is an overwhelming enunciation of personal grief.

“Iss karuna kalit hriday mein
Ab vikal ragini bajati
Kyun hahahakaar swaron mein
Vedana aseem garajti?”

“In this compassionate heart
A restless melody doth now resound;
Wherefore in the sounds of lamentation, loud
Doth agony illimitable roar?

The intensity of grief, being emancipatory, spurs an urge to reclaim life despite its torment. The poetry of grief is, therefore, also a poetry of hope.

Mirza Ghalib’s inimitable expression of sorrow in the following verses is a thoughtful reminder of the futility of the transient pleasures of the flesh.

“zulmat-kade meñ mere shab-e-ġham kā josh hai
ik sham.a hai dalīl-e-sahar so ḳhamosh hai
yā sub.h-dam jo dekhiye aa kar to bazm meñ
ne vo surūr o soz na josh-o-ḳharosh hai
dāġh-e-firāq-e-sohbat-e-shab kī jalī huī
ik sham.a rah ga.ī hai so vo bhī ḳhamosh hai”

“In the darkness of my home there is enthusiasm for a
sorrowful night,
A candle which is a signal of dawn is silenced.
Come and see at dawn the fate of the evening’s celebration,
neither is there commotion of the gathering nor
intoxication of pleasure.
Only a candle remains, burnt by the companionship of the
night and extinguished in the wound of separation.”

Sahir Ludhianvi’s eloquent depiction of helplessness is a grudging recognition of the harsh realities of the struggle for existence and the resurgence of the will to fight for justice and human dignity.

“majbūr huuñ maiñ majbūr ho tum
majbūr ye duniyā saarī hai
tan kā dukh man par bhārī hai
is daur meñ jiine kī qīmat yā dār-o-rasan yā ḳhvārī hai”

“I am helpless, as are you,
Helpless is this whole world.
Despair weighs on my mind
The price of living
is either the gallows or wretchedness.”

And he expresses his solidarity with the commoners and commitment to their dignity:

“lekin ai azmat-e-insāñ ke sunahre ḳhvābo
maiñ kisī taaj kī satvat kā parastār nahīñ
mere afkār kā unvān-e-irādat tum ho
maiñ tumhārā huuñ luTeroñ kā vafādār nahīñ”

“But O golden dreams of human pride,
I am not a worshiper of royal glory.
You (mankind) are the essence of my thoughts,
I am yours, my loyalty is not for the exploiters.”

Pravin Shakir’s powerful lament against oppression must weigh with every sensitive soul and serves as an inspiration for our collective pursuit of justice.

“pā-ba-gil sab haiñ rihā.ī kī kare tadbīr kaun
dast-basta shahr meñ khole mirī zanjīr kaun
merā sar hāzir hai lekin merā munsif dekh le
kar rahā hai merī fard-e-jurm ko tahrīr kaun”

“Who can devise a plan for my liberation, with feet in chains?
Who can unlock my shackles in this confined city?
My head is for you to take, but let my judge see,
Who my prosecutor is.”

Asrarul Haq Majaz’s exposition of resolute will to pursue a larger cause retains its motivating appeal for those who want to make a difference.

“Raste mein ruk ke dam le loon meri aadat nahin
Laut kar vaapas chala jaaoon, meri fitrat nahin”

“To stop and rest on the path (of a cause) is not my habit,
To return back is not in my nature”

And Gulzar’s recall of the eternal dilemma of a finite life and its infinite obligations is compelling.

“Aahista chal zindagi, abhi kai karz chukana baaki hai.
Kuch dard mitana baaki hai, Kuch farz nibhana baaki hai”

Slow down, Oh life! Many debts are yet to be paid,
Some pain is yet to be erased and duties discharged

As a product of his environment in a dialectical relationship, the poet’s lament, advisories and admonitions, even when expressed in personal terms, have a larger message in a broader social and political context. The philosopher in the poet is thus an agent of progressive change. Because the power of expression defines the measure of the message itself, the emotion of our freedom struggle was captured in the gems of literature, which are now a part of the nation’s political folklore and inspiration for a continuing struggle against injustice and oppression. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Vande Mataram’, Bismil Azimabadi’s ‘Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna’ and Ram Prasad Bismil’s ‘Mera Rang De Basanti Chola’, inspired by the spirit of freedom without bitterness and hatred for the colonial masters, galvanised the entire nation to attain independence. Such is the power of these songs of freedom that succeeding generations of Indians continue to venerate them for their moral appeal.

In the present state of political discord, a case for such conversations of yore in the service of our social compact is self-evident. Clearly, the persuasive power of public discourse is located in the dignity of thought, embellished by the elegance of expression and deep emotions that are indelibly etched in public memory. Literature’s “conversational casualness that loosens the buckles on our argumentative armour” invests it with a unique capacity to communicate the most strident of criticisms without rancour and vitriol, redeeming contentious discourse of avoidable animosities and bitterness that wound the soul. Savour, for instance, A. E. Housman’s baring of his heart in a devastating critique of exploitation and human misery with humility and grace.

[“They say my verse is sad: no wonder/ It’s narrow measure spans/Tears of eternity and sorrow/ Not mine, but man’s.”]

Consider also the power of Pablo Neruda’s non-antagonistic felicity about history’s constant reminder that “tyranny cuts off the head that sings, but the voice at the bottom of the well returns to the secret springs of the earth and out of the darkness rises up through the mouth of the people.”

Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ‘Tarana’, expounding the certainty of the triumph of freedom, is a beacon in an unending struggle against oppression.

“ai ḳhāk-nashīno uTh baiTho vo vaqt qarīb aa pahuñchā hai
jab taḳht girā.e jā.eñge jab taaj uchhāle jā.eñge
ab TuuT gireñgī zanjīreñ ab zindānoñ kī ḳhair nahīñ
jo dariyā jhuum ke uTThe haiñ tinkoñ se na Taale jā.eñge”

“O dwellers of the dust, stand up, the time is drawing near,
When thrones will crumble, when crowns will be cast aside.
Now chains will shatter, beware prisons,
Those rivers that rise with a roar, won’t be held back by mere straws.”

Mohammad Iqbal’s ode to human dignity remains unparalleled.

“na tū zamīñ ke liye hai na āsmāñ ke liye
jahāñ hai tere liye tū nahīñ jahāñ ke liye”

You are not for the world or for the heavens:
The world is for you, not you for the world”

And also,

“tū shāhīñ hai parvāz hai kaam terā
tire sāmne āsmāñ aur bhī haiñ
isī roz o shab meñ ulajh kar na rah jā
ki tere zamān o makāñ aur bhī haiñ
sitāroñ se aage jahāñ aur bhī haiñ
abhī ishq ke imtihāñ aur bhī haiñ”

You are a falcon, it is in your nature to fly
For you there are other skies beyond this sky
Don’t let the verb of dawns and dusks enmesh you
For you have other lives, other goals to pursue
Beyond these stars are worlds yet to unearth
There are more trials of love to test your worth

Indisputably, the force of communication is in the choice of the elegant spoken and written word in articulating contemporary narratives. Only then can we redeem ourselves of Ghalib’s damning censure: “Har ek baat pe, kehte ho tum, Ke tu kya hai; Tum hi kaho ki ye andaz-e guftagu kya hai” [“Whenever I speak, you ask ‘Who are you?’ Tell me, is this the way to converse?”]. Oscar Wilde’s profound declaration, “It is by utterance that we live,” and Mir Taqi Mir’s exaltation of poetry in defining life as the purpose of his existence is a loud affirmation of the integrality of life and literature in addressing the moral imperatives of our world.

“ga.ī umr dar-band-e-fikr-e-ġhazal
so is fan ko aisā baḌā, kar chale
kaheñ kyā jo pūchhe koī ham se ‘Mīr’
jahāñ meñ tum aa.e the kyā kar chale”

I spent my life composing lyrics, and raised the worth of poetic art,
What shall we say, Mir, if someone asks, why were thee hither sent, what did you achieve?

It is, therefore, time to deepen our conversations with high purpose, inspired by poetic imagination and infused with literary excellence, to civilise interpersonal and public discourse. Let us delve deep into the world of language to find its value for our times. On the occasion of India’s 77th Independence Day, this piece is dedicated to the creative genius of litterateurs and poets, particularly those who defined for us our magnanimous nationalism and introduced us to a poetic dignity of thought.

Ashwani Kumar is a Senior Advocate and former Union Minister for Law and Justice. He also served as the Union Minister of State in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.