Kaifi Azmi: Magical Versification, Distinctive Distillation -- Dr. Anwesha Arya

Kaifi Azmi: Magical Versification, Distinctive Distillation -- Dr. Anwesha Arya

When you read his verse in English, it is hard to imagine the mind that waltzed to Urdu syntax. Hindi cannot do justice to Kaifi Azmi either. No language other than his own can truly translate for listeners or readers his unusually soft, lyrical laments. 


It is unfortunate that not every one of us is born with an innate ability to distil the language we want to know, and simply understand it. I want to hear Piaf (refers to Edith Piaf, died 1963, aged 40) sing in French and know just, how she feels, but also just know the words. If only Neruda was nearly as stunning in English as he is in his colloquial Spanish! I even bought the Penguin volume of his verse, where the poems appear in original, alongside their English transliterations, in my hope to glean some of the magical versification, and lyrical metre, only to find English cannot carry Spanish passion. English has a passion all its own.
 
That is the difficulty of translations. So much is lost. However, we must have them, so something, some essence of the original, at least, can be found. So in 2001, when Viking-Penguin India brought out Pavan Varma (Indian Foreign Service, presently a Member of the Rajya Sabha, the equivalent of the House of Lords in Indian Parliament)’s translations of Kaifi’s selected poems, I looked forward to reading Dadababa, as I’ve always known him, like I had experienced Neruda--through the prism of the original, beside the English translation. 
 
There is a magician’s trick to his compositions of conversationally simple sentences. Yes, simple. That simplicity is quite impossible to fake, or create. It is downright difficult, at least. 
 
By the time I met him, he had unfortunately been living with the after-effects of that cruel paralytic stroke, for several years. It was up to my imagination to listen for that particular lilt of his voice, when he had recited Aurat with his yet-to-be-wife, my grandma-in-law, in the audience.
 
 

It was her immense generosity that spawned a poetic vein in the man I met and married, when we were still only in our teens. Before I knew how much this family would come to mean to me, I went to interview Shaukat Kaifi, for the special Prithvi Theatre edition of their annual that year. She is a fiery, force of nature, and grand in every sense; a poetess in her own right. In the message she inscribed in the volume of poems she presented us on our wedding day, she wrote in Urdu, wrote about her desire for our dream of love to blossom and stay true. Her daughter (Shabana) translated those Urdu words and re-wrote them alongside in Hindi Devnagri script, so we could read it ourselves. 
 
Like I said, I dream of distilling language through the very act of listening, or reading or writing. Language lovers, anywhere, must feel the same. And I will not share the words here, for they are private, but that was the most valuable gift we got that day, we tied the nuptial knot between our families.

 
People who make their own traditions are powerful, in a way that cannot always be explained. Dadababa was born with a different name—Syed Athar Husain Rizvi (spellings vary, but it never was ‘Akhtar’) but he chose to use within his pen-name the roots of where he came from, Azamgarh (pronounced with a double initial A, as in Aazamgarh), in Uttar Pradesh. 
 
When they brought their lives together, and lived as one, Dadiamma then took on his first name and adopted it as her married second name. That is how she is known, not as Shaukat Azmi, (because, after all, her parentage and ancestry are quite distinct from his) she is Shaukat Kaifi. So, ditching the patriarchy he was provoking when he wrote Aurat, in the spirit of the Socialist-Marxist quest for an elusive equality, she links his first name to her own. 
 
Names are constantly looked upon as signifiers of our past, of where we come from. But here were a couple heralding where they wanted to go, toward a new world of their own making. And they did.
 
From the slivers of their life I saw, as a nine-year-old, visiting my own Marxist father’s comrade, listening in on crucial conversations, which would shape my own thinking -what I saw, I aspired to. There is a poem of his I hold dear because it is about that aspirational dream, to achieve that dint of simple peacefulness, at the end of each day. It is simply about sharing cups of ‘cha’. 
 
And in the final analysis, isn’t that what it’s really all about. Recalling a quiet moment, when you were really at your happiest; or, if that’s too overstated, then at least at your most peaceful? Remembering the quietude of a cup of tea, in the company of someone who matters more, yes, just more than one’s self? I hold that poem as my memory of a quiet couple, who changed a world through their actions and interactions, through their beliefs and convictions, inspiring others to reach up and outward.
 
Whenever I went to see him, he talked about missing my father’s mind, the constant questioning quality of a man that is lost when he breathes his last. He asked me about books they shared, ...if only I could remember more! I could fabricate things, but dishonesty is frail, it cannot last. 
 
They shared a love of poetry, I did too, but at sixteen I was too embarrassed to share my own musings. My husband has ridden on his back, literally and figuratively. The grand-father, who in spite of a debilitating physical condition, carried his grandson like a splendid steed, riding to adventure. So, my man carries within him the gentleness and the gigantic ability to dream, and create beauty from stark, heavy truth. That is a poet’s calling, to set before us the world that is in tatters, but with a hope that someone with the right sewing kit will turn up, and patch together a finer future, the kind that matters.
 
It was a hazy future that swam before my misty eyes, in 2007. My life was a bit of a mess, from a crazy, personal crisis. Dadababa, in his extraordinary way, has gathered together a family from those unconnected through blood. His grand-daughter, who was studying at an English school, was raising money for the charity he instituted, to further the education of girls from Mijwan, his home-town, in Azamgarh. She invited my husband, Sagar, to read Aurat (in English), at a gathering at her school, in Central London. 
 
As fate would have it, he had an acting assignment that evening, so I stood-in for him. Mentally, I was fraught; in no frame of mind to be around people, or have people around me. But because I went and read that day, to the bright faces of English girls, far removed from the reality of having no option of a school to attend, something happened. 
 
As I read out the words, they spoke to me. Dadababa has a way of distilling words till they are raw. His verse, whether in rhyme scheme, or rhythmic metre, have the ability to rouse. In our contemporary world, where rabble-rousing means riot-mongering, it may be difficult to imagine a time when people needed awakening. But in that hushed hall, a spotlight on my face, radiating luminous warmth I’m unfamiliar with, as I’m not the actor in this family, I want to stand up as I read those words, even in translation. I wanted to ‘get up and go’, as he was summoning me to.
 
And in so many ways, I did. Remembering a man I had the privilege of calling grandfather (albeit through marriage) is as pleasurable, as it is painful. He cannot see the joy in the faces of his great-grandchildren as they mimic what generations of babies in this family have done, by repeating a tiny rhyme to feed an imaginary bird on their outstretched palm. Yet, he is in the very essence of their upbringing, surrounded by the simple magic of words, of speaking sounds aloud, and letting them wash over you with their inherent meaning, till they soak in, percolate, assimilate.  
 
Kaifiyat lives on, by Siraj Syed
 
Kaifi Azmi, born 14-01-1918, was a giant of a literary Urdu poet and Hindustani film lyricist. ‘Kaifi’ and ‘Azmi’ was a composite pen-name that he adopted, the ‘Azmi’ coming from Azamgarh, his home-town, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Born Athar Husain Rizvi in a landlords’ family, he started writing poetry at 11 and joined the Indian Communist Party at the age of 19. Soon afterwards, he moved to Bombay (present-day Mumbai).
 
 
Already and acknowledged poet, he turned film lyric-writer in 1951-52, to earn some money, at a time when the family needed some cash as they were expecting baby. His first film was titled Buzdil. The Azmis’ first child was named Shabana. Later, a son was born, called Ahmer. In film circles, he is known as ‘Baba’ Azmi, ace director photography. 

Among his notable film songs were those from the films Kaagaz Ke Phool, Shama, Haqeeqat, Naunihal, Hanste Zakhm and Arth. In an amazing experiment, he wrote the entire dialogue of the film Heer Ranjha (directed by Chetan Anand, his dear friend and revered film-maker) in verse, in addition to the outstanding songs of the film. He won the National Award and Filmfare Award for the screenplay and dialogue of M.S. Sathyu’s masterpiece, Garm Hawa, which was a masterly enactment of the wounds of partition on Muslims in India. Film-maker Saaed Mirza cast him a major role in his last film, Naseem.

Kaifi’s last song was written for an unreleased, film, Chand Grahan, in 1997. Kaifi never let an attack of paralysis become an obstacle in his daily routine. His last few years were spent in his village Mijwan (district Azamgrah), which he helped transform into a highly-developed place. Indian Railways run a train dedicated to his memory, called Kaifiyat Express, between old Delhi and Azamgarh. He died on 14 Januray 2002. Fourteen years on, The Kaifiyat lives on.
 

Dr. Anwesha Arya works and lives in the one place she has felt at home in the world: London. Along with her background as a historian and anthropologist, she has 15 years of experience in research and film-making, in the fields of gender, human rights and women’s empowerment. Anwesha has undertaken her doctoral research at the University of London, where, in 2008, she pioneered AWARE (Awareness of Women’s Active Rights Empowerment), an advocacy group on human rights. Her doctoral research tackled the intersection of ancient religion, law, society and culture, through a case study of dowry murder in contemporary India. She lives with her partner of twenty years, and their young family, in Camden. 
 
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