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An endearing rebel
Family matters: The Azmis — (from left) Shaukat, Baba, Kaifi and Shabana

An endearing rebel

Even 100 years after his birth, Kaifi Azmi remains as relevant today as he was then13 Jan 2019 | 11:05 AM

The man who wrote these immortal lines, however, remains the same even today — an unstoppable lyrical force. As the world celebrates renowned poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary on January 14th, he and his poetry need no particular date to be celebrated. Every word he wrote is a celebration of life, of visionary zeal, a radical philosophy that defies time and its limited constraints.

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Nonika Singh

Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam, tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum...

The man who wrote these immortal lines, however, remains the same  even today — an unstoppable lyrical force. As the world celebrates renowned poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary on January 14th, he and his poetry need no particular date to be celebrated. Every word he wrote is a celebration of life, of visionary zeal, a radical philosophy that defies time and its limited constraints. 

No wonder all those touched by the man and his timeless poetry can recite his revolutionary verses impromptu. Chandigarh-based theatre thespian Rani Balbir Kaur who created a play on Kaifi can’t pick any particular poem that epitomises his beliefs best or which can be dubbed his finest —  Aurat, a feminist anthem or Doosra Banwas, a cry of an anguished heart post demolition of Babri Masjid or the songs he wrote for innumerable films notably Haqeeqat and Heer Ranjha. 

Written in verse, his screenplay for Heer Ranjha is considered his seminal work. In public memory though it’s songs like “Main yeh soch kar uske dar se utha” and “Ab tumhare havale watan saathiyo” in Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat ring a bell. The anecdote of how Chetan and he, both deemed ill-fated till then, came together is too oft-repeated to bear repetition. Instead, Chetan’s son Ketan Anand talks about the special relationship his father shared with Kaifi. He recalls how despite being such good friends they would address each other rather formally with the perfunctory saheb appended to each others’ names. Interestingly, he also remembers how they would communicate in silence. They would discuss a situation, remain quiet for an hour or so and suddenly Kaifi would leave. Then Kaifi would call up the next day and proclaim ‘the song is ready.’

 Ketan’s own experience with Kaifi who wrote songs for his films like Toote Khilone  and Hum Rahe Na Hum was no less memorable. He adds, “He would instinctively know what one wanted and would often make pertinent suggestions too.” But he never ever carried his greatness as a chip on his shoulders, remembers Ketan. “He would treat you as an equal, never even once letting the significance of who he was bog you down.” 

While Ketan would not be drawn into the great, greater, greatest debate but just as Kaifi’s contemporary Sahir Ludhianvi stood steadfast and never diluted his poetry, Kaifi was no different. Surjit Patar, an eminent poet, agrees that there was no dividing line between the poet and lyricist in Kaifi whose nazms are as much his favourite as songs like “Aaj socha to aansu bhar aaye”. Patar rates Kaifi as an authentic original whose poetry was bereft of hyperbole. Says Patar, “Even when he spoke of significant concerns and drove home some home truths it was never pomposity-laden euphemism but an understatement.” 

Many a time, his original poems were used as songs in films. The ever popular, “Mein yeh soch kar” was one such original.  Chetan liked it so much that he created a situation in Haqeeqat to incorporate the beautiful poem. Incidentally, Kaifi had written it for his wife of over five decades, Shaukat, after a lovers’ tiffs before they tied the knot. 

That he was a romantic at heart was visible in his songs like “Yeh nayan darre darre” and “Dheere dheere machal” and in real life too. His daughter Shabana Azmi  never tires of recounting her parents’ love story and has even proposed a film on it. Yash Chopra had considered the idea. 

In fact, Kaifi’s missionary zeal and his tireless work for the upliftment of society would make perfect ingredients for a biopic. Ever-sensitive to the suffering of a common man, it was not Mumbai’s glamour which had beckoned him there but his work for Communist Party of India’s paper Qaumi Jung. An important member of the Progressive Writers Movement, how and what he wrote, lived in a commune earned a pittance Rs 45 a month; much of his life, uphill struggle, his achievements and more is already in public domain. 

Rani’s play Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam brought to the fore how he singlehanded brought Mizwan in UP where he was born as Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi on international map by setting up an NGO and ensuring both livelihood and education for women there. Kaifi aur Mein based on Shaukat’s memoirs that has been enacted several times by Shabana and Javed Akhtar also highlights the simple joys of his personal life. 

Today, as Shabana plans a flurry of activities to mark hundred years of her father’s birth, many hidden facets of his life and poetry will come to fore. Shabana often recounts how it took her a while to come to terms with being a different daughter of a different father who believed in being the change he envisioned. 

Shabana calls him a man in a hurry. The world knows him as a rebel with a cause, a radical poet, a symbol of resistance who was undeterred till he achieved his goal. Ketan dubs him a Sufi who summarised the essence of Bhagvad Gita in the opening lines of Hindustan Ki Kasam. Whichever way you describe him, here was a man whose pen moved to break shackles. 

“Pyar ka jashn nayi tarah manana hoga, gam kisi dil mein sahi gum ko mitana hoga.” A comrade whose words found a match in his actions, perhaps he is best described by another poet Javed Akhtar, also his son-in- law. Ajeeb aadmi tha wo, mohabbaton ka geet tha, bagawaton ka raag tha, kabhi woh sirf phool tha, kabhi woh sirf aag tha (If fire raged in his heart, softness pervaded his being… a man of few words but fiercely intense when he put them on paper). 

After suffering brain haemorrhage which paralysed him in 1973 he may have written Aaj andhera meri nas nas mein utar jayega, ankhen bujh jayengi, bujh jayenge ehsas-o-sharror, but the light he showed to the world shines like a beacon. 

“Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe….Rut badal daal agar phoolna phalna hai tujhe” …he beseeched women to do and himself changed many seasons, many lives. Centenaries may come and go Kaifi was, is and will be there forever. As Khalil Gibran said, “I existed from all eternity and, behold, I am here; and I shall exist till the end of time, for my being has no end.”

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