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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Faiz is Beautiful but Can You Really Call Him a People's Poet?


I recently came across a short debate I had with Mr Sohail Hashmi on Kafila. I found rereading it quite interesting so thought I’d post it up here for posterity.

Mr Hashmi, of course, is a writer I much admire and I have, especially, read his writings on the architectural heritage of Delhi with great interest. In this instance he wrote a lovely piece on Faiz, Urdu’s greatest poet of the modern era. What I took issue with, though, is Mr Hashmi’s characterisation of Faiz as a “people centric” poet and one whose “ideas glisten with the truth and democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people”

My first comment on the article was:

“Thanks for this fascinating account Mr Hashmi.

Although, personally, I’ve always battled with the notion that Faiz’s poetry was “people centric”. If it was, it was in a very top-down, almost patronising sort of way. Can any poetry, written in Rekhta (and here I make a very stark distinction between Urdu and Rekhta as should be done) ever be truly “people centric”? Are “people centric” themes enough to award Faiz with the honour of the subcontinent’s most imprtant poet, this hardly a handful people in the sub-continent could actually understand his overtly Persianised Urdu? You must admit, to claim to talk on behalf of the people, when the people can’t even understand you is a bit rich.

Urdu is one of the few languages which exhibits such extreme literary diglossia that the literary form (at least in poetry) is almost incomprehensible to its native speakers. Bengali is another sub-continental language which did exhibit a similar trait with an artificially sanskritised form of the language (shadhubhasha: cholit bhasha :: Rekhta:Urdu) but thankfully, that elitist trend has died out and almost all literature in Bengali today is in cholit bhasa (i.e. the normal spoken language).”

To which Mr Hashmi replied:

“You have touched upon some very complex issues and no simple explanations are possible.

Between the time that Faiz began writing to the time that he died, Urdu ceased to be a language of public discourse in large parts of the subcontinent, at least in the parts where it was born as Hindavi, that is the Ganga Jamuna doab and in the parts where it grew into a full fledged language that is Deccani .

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

URDU became the official language of Pakistan where it was the mother tongue only of the Muhajirs and was banished from the land where it was the language of Prem Chand, Kanhaiyalal Kapoor, Krishan Chand, Ram Lal, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Tilok Chand Mehroom, Firaq, Arsh Malsiyani and also of Josh,Sahir, Shakeel, Jazbi, Majaz, Majrooh and Kaifi. Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them? I don’t know how many blacks had access to the English in which Langston Hughes wrote his anti racist poems, how many Russians understood Yevtushenko or Maykovsky, when they wrote on issues that concerned the working class of Russia.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas written in Awadhi,because he wanted the image of the ideal being to be presented before the people, has had to explained to Awadhis for the last 400 years, the same is true of Jaisi’s Padmavat and Rahim’s Dohas.

some of what a great poet writes about the people is understood by them immediately, some takes a while to be understood and some is understood after a couple of generations. it is this that makes him/her a great poet. the only way a poet can be understood totally by the people is for the poet to write not only in the language of the people but also write only about the here and now. This way lies 15 minutes of glory and impermanence and an absence of literature that speaks to generations. you can not demand that literature that lives beyond its time and deals with issues that go beyond the immediacy of now must also be understood totally, fully and completely by those who live at the moment of the creation of that literature.

Faiz has fortunately written both kinds of poetry, the time bound and the time less and that is one of the reasons of his being recognised as the greatest poet of the 20th century. He has written BOL, he has written Tarana, he has written Hum Dekhengegy, all three have become slogans of our times, he has also written hazar karo merey tan se, Nisar mein teri galiyon pe, Do aawaazen etc that need to be understood gradually. Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at.“

Me:

“Thanks for that detailed reply. Couple of points:

I should have done this earlier, but let me define the term Urdu (since the term means so many things). From my first post, I used ‘Urdu’ to mean the common spoken language of the urban people of much of North India. What you might call baazaari Hindustani. The term ‘Hindustani’ when used to mean a sort of middle language between High Hindi and High Urdu is fairly new. The term Hindustani was coined by the British and throughout the Raj the term was used as a synonym for what we call Urdu today. For example, John T Platts dictionary calls qaaf the “twenty-seventh letter of the Urdu or Hindustani alphabet”. In most of modern India, Hindi is also used as a synonym for Urdu. For example, Hindi Movies etc.

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

I fail to grasp how this is relevant to getting Faiz to write in a register which is widely understood but, for what it’s worth, the GoI’s attempts to invent a new standard (sanskirtised) register of Hindi-Urdu have failed rather miserably. That Gandhi anecdote is nice but only half true. Gandhi oscillated quite a bit on the language question (which was typical of him) between Hindustani in both scripts as well as only using the Devanagri script.

Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

That might be one reason. Or it just might be that he wanted to occupy a literary space that only Urdu could provide. Either way, Faiz is not at fault. What I am wondering is whether applying labels such as ‘people centric’ etc to his poetry is not misleading.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas…

Uh-oh. ‘Literacy rate’ refers to written not spoken language, Hashmi sahib. Jaahil bhi bol aur sun paate hain. If recite Bidrohi by Nojrul to an illiterate Bengali he will understand it. Prem chand would be understood by all Dehlavis; even Krishan Chandar. I doubt that the same could be said of say ‘Aaj Bazar Mein’.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them?

IMO, it would be crushingly patronising to not do so; reminds me of Gandhi’s pledge to not allow Harijians to run the Harijan Sabha but for it to be run by upper castes and Ambedkar’s rage at this.

Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at

Exactly my point; let us admire the beauty of Faiz without clouding his appraisal with terms that take his poetry beyond poetry into political activism. Art for art’s sake and all that; because as soon as we start assigning it some utilitarian function, say, we state that his poetry, to, quote Zaheer from your piece, carries “democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people” when the only a microscopic minority can even understand what he’s saying, that we start sounding rather hollow.”

Sohail Hashmi:

“you are absolutely right in using the term Urdu for the spoken language of much of North India, Urdu was the language of this region till a little after 1947, with the selection, on paper, of Hindi as The Official Language the spoken language of much of north India has undergone drastic changes in the post 1947 period and Urdu has by and large been replaced with a strange mixture of what you call the Bazaari Hindustani and the Sanskritised Hindi constructed by the Rahtra Bhasha Samitis in the post independence India.

The term Urdu, used for the language that was commonly spoken in the north Indian plains itself is also a rather recent development, the prose of Ghalib when it was first published was given the name Oud-e-Hindi by Ghalib, and Rekhta that Meer and Ghalib wrote their poetry in was derisively called Rekhta – mixed Language by the Persian Ustads of the immediate post wali period. So Urdu that was known as Hindi/Rekhta written in the Persian script by and large till the time of Ghalib and a little later was transformed at Fort Williams into Hindustani/ Urdu if written in the Persian script and Hindi if written in the Nagri Script
My reference to the divisive politics that created the language equals religion discourse was to the process, initiated at the fort williams and carried forward by the votaries of Hindi/ Hindu/ Hindustan and Urdu/Muslim/Pakistan that changed the very nature of the language that was commonly spoken and understood till the immediate pre independence period. It is this changed nature of the language that has created the situation in which most of Faiz’s poetry and also the poetry of Sahir, Majrooh and Kaifi and others begins to sound unfamiliar to those whose grandparents would have had no problem in understanding it.

As for literacy and illiteracy the point that I am making is that there is a difference between the vocabulary of the illiterate and the literate and therefore written language is always a little if not very different from the spoken add to that the difference that has always existed between the language of Poetry and that of Prose, Meer in his time and Firaq much later were two poets who wrote in a language that was closest to the spoken Hindi/ Hindustani/ Rekhta/ Urdu and still there is much in their writing that an illiterate will not understand.

Faiz was writing in a language whose literary traditions and style he was more familiar with and could therefore express himself better in. to my mind He wrote in a language that he thought he could best express himself in, that was a language he inherited as the language of literary discourse and he wrote on issues that were dear to him or he felt strongly about, issues that he grew up with and held dear I think he wrote poetry with a strong political message, you might not think so. So be it.”

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