A call for revolution, and romance: The poetry of Faiz

By Vikas Datta,

Is there any common ground between revolution and romance, as expressed in poetry and music? Lenin didn’t think so, admitting he loved hearing a Beethoven sonata, but couldn’t listen to music much since it made him want to pat people’s heads, though his “devilishly difficult job” called for him to beat their heads instead. But it is not difficult to identify parallels – for one, both activities call for a great deal of passion. The Indian subcontinent can boast of several people who effortlessly straddled both spheres. One of them was Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz,” who even won the Lenin Peace Prize.

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“Maqaam raah mein koi jacha hi nahi/ Jo kuu-e-yaar se nikle, to suu-e-daar chale” (No stop on the way was suitable/I left the street of the beloved and climbed up the scaffold)”, goes the maqta, or the last couplet, of one of his best-known ghazals, giving a glimpse of how he viewed himself.

Faiz (1911-84) more than held his place among this illustrious line-up of revolutionary-romantic poets including Allama Iqbal himself, Josh Malihabadi, Hasrat Mohani who originally gave the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” but also penned “Chupke Chupke Raat Din…” – that splendid ode to the memory of one’s first love and many other paladins of Urdu’s “Tariqqi-Pasand Tehreek” or Progressive Movement.

What made him stand out is the way his poetry permeated society. Some couplets frequently figured in conversation, both in his heyday when there was a greater propensity to use ‘shers’ to enliven speech, and now when this skill seems to be dying out. “Aur bhi dukh hai zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva…”, “Dil na-umeed to nahi, nakaam hi to hai…”, Ik fursat-e-gunah mili, wo bhi chaar din..” would definitely strike a chord among the older generation.

Secondly, Faiz had the good fortune of having some of the subcontinent’s greatest singers implant his creations in public consciousness with their masterful renditions – Noor Jehan with “Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang” (picturised on the ethereal Shamim Ara in film “Qaidi”), Nayyaara Noor performing “Ham ke thehre ajanaabi…”, Mehdi Hasan with “Gulon mein rang bhare..”, Begum Akhtar performing “Shaam-e-Firaaq..” Farida Khanum singing “Donon jahan teri mohabbat mein har ke…” or Iqbal Bano’s spirited “Hum dekhenge..”.

A Marxist but not a card-carrying communist, Faiz was involved with the Communist Party of Pakistan, and the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy – an attempted coup by a curious combination of leftist politicians and a maverick general. While it was unsuccessful, further military coups would not be – bedevilling Pakistani polity for quite some time to come. It won him a stint in jail, during which he wrote some of his best poetry.

His later life was quite turbulent including quite a bit of jail, exile and the regime’s hostility, interspersed with spells of political favour. Faiz may have however abandoned any more political adventurism but never shied away from devoting his poetry to keep attacking tyranny, imperialism, iniquity, hypocrisy and inhumanity. This was his verse’s abiding motif, best brought in “Subh-e-Azaadi” – his heartfelt lament on the day of freedom for the two newly-independent countries amid internecine bloodshed between their peoples.

“Ye daag-daag ujaala, ye shab-gazidaa sahar/Woh intezaar tha jis kaa, ye wo sahr to nahi… (This tarnished dawn, this still dark dawn/This is not the morning we waited for..)” and on to a pessimistic end mourning that the destination is still far off.

He could also express endearingly romantic thoughts. In “Mujh se pehli…”, he goes: “Teri surat se hai aalam mein baharon ka sabaat/Teri aankhon ke sivaa duniya mein rakha kiya hai… (also used in a Hindi film song) or reconciling his twin motifs as in “Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar kya kijiye/Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn magar kya kijiye…” or “Kab nazar mein aayegi bedaag sabz ki bahar/Khun ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaaton ke baad”.

But his best work – even more than the oft-cited “Bol” and “Tanhai” – was the anthem “Hum dekhenge” attacking the Zia ul-Haq regime’s tyranny.

In its first public performance in Lahore in 1985 – on his first death anniversary – it led to a near riot. Wearing a sari (banned by the regime), Iqbal Bano ignited passions when she reached “Sab taaj uchale jayenge/Sab takht giraye jayenge….” At this, the impassioned, jampacked audience joined in, chanting “Inquilab Zindabad”, proving their spirit had not been crushed by the dictatorship. Power was switched off, but she continued singing – the performance has become iconic.

Incendiary but inspiring and romantic too – that was Faiz’s poetry all over.

(20.07.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])