Asrar-ul-Haq Majaaz was born in Radauli on the 19 October in 1911 or 1910 and died at 44 on 5 December 1955. After his initial education at Agra and Lucknow he came to Aligarh and completed his graduation in 1936. This was the year when Ali Sardar Jafri was expelled from AMU for indulging in political activities and also the year when the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), formed a little earlier in London, held its first conference under the chairmanship of Munshi Prem Chand at Lucknow, the city that Majaaz called his home.
Majaaz was among the first set of writers and poets who joined this fledgling organisation that was soon to emerge, along with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA), as the most influential Anti-Fascist, Anti-Imperialist and Progressive Literary and cultural movement that the subcontinent has seen.
By the time this handsome, witty young man of 26 joined the PWA, he was already established as a poet of some renown in the culturally and critically alive Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) of the 30s The AMU set up as the MAO college by Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875 with the objective of spreading modern education among the Muslim elite and to prepare them to take their ‘rightful place in society’ had, in the 60 odd years since its formation, grown into a centre of Progressive Anti British resistance with many rising critics, writers and poets, like Sardar Jafri, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Asmat Chughtai, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Shahid Latif and others, who were to shape the direction not only of urdu literature in the next two to three decades, but many from this list, were also to leave a deep imprint on popular cultural perceptions through their engagement with Bombay Cinema.
It was this group of politically committed writers, poets and critics, peers and seniors of Majaaz including Shabbir Hasan ‘Josh” Malihabadi and Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Goraklhpuri, who counted Majaaz among their friends. The constant companionship of these left leaning writers was to inform Majaaz’s own sensitivity to the world around him, the deep influence of the ever growing struggle for freedom, the impact of the ideology of Socialism and the looming threat of fascism and Love tender, strong, expectant, demanding and yearning Love, were the other elements that informed the poetic universe of Majaaz.
“Aahang“ the first and the most popular anthology of Majaaz’s poetry was published in 1938, two other anthologies “Shab-e-Taab” and “Saaz-e-Nau” were to follow. Sometime after his graduation Majaaz joined as editor of the All India Radio Journal that began publishing from Delhi. According to Akhilesh Mithal, a friend of Majaaz, the journal was named Awaaz by Majaaz and it was because of his close association with the journal that Lionel Fielden, the then Controler of All India Radio (1935-43), began addressing Majaaz as Mr. Aawaz. Ahmad Shah Bukhari “Patras” was appointed as director General of All India Radio in 1943 and there was a falling out between the new boss and Majaaz and Majaaz left.
He now jumped full time in the activities of the PWA and along with Sibte Hasan and Ali Sardar Jafri Began publishing Naya Adab, the most influential journal of progressive literature of its time. With the closure of the Magazine, Majaaz changed jobs again, becoming Assistant Librarian at the Harding Library (now Hardyal Library) Delhi, while helping Fasih-ud-Din Ahmad in editing the literary journal Adeeb.
Like many of his contemporaries Majaaz too paid a visit to Bombay but unlike his peers, his poetry did not have many takers, just a couple of his lyrics were used in films and these were pieces that he had not written for films. He felt dejected and forlorn; he did not fit in the hurried and hectic life of the metropolis and soon returned. His inability to fit in and be successful in the manner expected of him probably drove him into depression, his alcoholism had been becoming a serious affliction, he was admitted to the Ranchi asylum to help him give up, after a while he returned to Lucknow and to the bottle.
Around this time Majaaz came into some money and his drinking partners arrived, they sat and drank on the terrace of a tavern, one after the other the free loaders left and Majaaz sat alone, that cold winter night of 15 December 1955, drinking till brain haemorrhage killed him.
The ease with which Majaaz captured in his writing the rhythm, the cadence, the effervescence, the melody, the movement, the beauty and the joyful throbbing of life all around him and the felicity with which he communicated it to his audience and his readers was nothing short of magical. Among the best examples of this is to be found in his celebrated poem Raat aur Rail (The Night & the Train). See a reading of the poem by Gauhar Raza in the video at the beginning of this post.
Each stanza, each line, each phrase in Raat aur Rail, seems to speak to you, you are transported into a forest, flown to a mountain slope, hurtled through a deep and dark tunnel, you can feel the hot steam of the exhaust on your face and the sparks flying in the night and suddenly it is no longer a steam locomotive, It has turned into a force of revolutionary change, It is Human ingenuity and the human spirit, expanding, growing, all conquering.
Nazr-e-Aligarh, a poem that he wrote as a tribute to his alma mater, was soon to become the official anthem of the university. Nazr-e-Aligarh deserves to be placed right near the top in the list of inclusive nationalist poetry written during the struggle for freedom like Saare Jahan se achcha etc.
While talking of Majaaz, the man who suffered two nervous breakdowns, was an inmate of an asylum and who succeeded, in his short life of barely 44 years, to enrich Urdu Poetry with a new flair and vigour, we tend to overlook the fact that unlike his more celebrated peers, Majaaz along with close friend and Aligarh contemporary, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, belongs to the initiators of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, they had no predecessors and were not followers, they joined and led the PWA. They were the pioneers and the poetic aesthetics of the PWA owes much to them, especially to Majaaz.
When melody and lyricism combine together with refined content, you have the poetry of Majaaz, the kind of poetry that turns the reader/listener into a connoisseur of his poetry and a fan of the poet. Majaaz was probably the first and to date the last Superstar poet of the sub-continent. Before the arrival of the phenomena of Majaaz on the scene, readers and Mushaira audiences liked or disliked the writings of a poet and made up their mind about the poet based on where they placed his poetry, but the practice of falling in love with the persona of the poet arrived on and perhaps also disappeared from the scene with Majaaz.
Asmat Chughtai, one of the finest writers of fiction that the subcontinent has seen, was both a contemporary of Majaaz in Aligarh and a fellow member of the PWA. In a piece titled “Majaaz, mera dost mera dushman” (Majaaz my friend, my enemy) Asmat talks about this phenomena – young girls used to keep a photograph of Majaaz or a copy of his first anthology ‘Aahang’, under their pillow and to dream about him.
Majaaz’s popularity was not confined to young women and college girls, he was equally popular among the males in his peer group. Being popular among your own group is not too difficult, especially when you are good looking, fun loving, have a ready wit, remember good jokes, know when and how to relate them and to cap it all are also a fine poet. At times, however, these very traits, make an artist or a writer unpopular among her/his peers especially among one’s seniors. What distinguishes Majaaz is the fact that he was popular across this barrier and also among poets of his time, many of them his seniors by many years.
In the context of Aligarh this was no mean achievement because uppity juniors were constantly being told not to speak unless spoken to, His skills as a poet, the high standards that he set for himself, his choice of words and phrases that established the depth of his understanding and the natural melody of his compositions created a world of images and ideas that made everyone bow to his talent.
It was this talent that prompted both “Josh” Malihabadi and “Firaq” Gorakhpuri to count Majaaz among their friend, both were more than a decade older than Majaaz but the three spent a lot of their time together, reciting poetry, discussing literary issues and debating contending traditions and off course making fun of each other. Their sharp witticisms and repartee have acquired the status of legends, having entertained four generations of Majaazists.
It has been said that those who are extraordinarily talented, do not live long but are able to extract so much more from life in the little time at their disposal that lesser mortals like us can never hope to do in our long drawn out lives. Perhaps something like this happened with Majaaz as well, he put more life in each instant of his existence and was able to give to life much more than he took from it.
Majaaz who was certainly aware of his poetic talent was perhaps unhappy at not receiving the kind of critical recognition that he knew his poetry deserved. Not being as successful in worldly terms as he richly deserved to be and an unsuccessful affair of the heart was probably too much for this soft spoken, gentle, romantic revolutionary poet from Lucknow. He sought to buy forgetfulness and ended up paying a very heavy price.
What he has left behind is more than enough to keep him alive forever. He dedicated his first anthology ‘Aahang’ to “Faiz”, “Jazbi”, “Makhdoom” and “Sardar” Jafri, for him “Faiz” and “Jazbi” were his heart and “Makhdoom” and “Sardar” Jafri were his hands and his arms. In the foreward to Aahang, “Faiz” said Majaaz’s revolutionism is different from the revolutionism of other poets, the common revolutionary poets are full of sound and fury about the revolution, they indulge in breast beating and issuing battle cries but cannot sing of and celebrate revolution… Majaaz is not a drummer boy for the revolution he is the musician.
it is unfortunate that this remarkable poet and his poetry is known primarily to an ever diminishing circle of those who have access to the language that Majaaz wrote in, outside of this charmed circle there are just a few who have been exposed to his poetry through the very limited exposure that Bombay cinema had to Majaaz.
His short visit to Bombay produced Aawaara, one of the most powerful expressions of urban angst, a more forceful depiction of the loneliness of a stranger in a metropolis is difficult to come across. Parts of the long poem were used in the 1953 Shammi Kapoor starer “Thokar” the lyrics were set to music by Sardar Malik and sung by Talat Mahmood.
‘Sheher ki raat aur mein naashaad-o- nakaara phirun
Jagmagati jaagti sadkon pe aawaara phirun’
Gauhar Raza recites the full poem here:
Guru Dutt was the other filmmaker who paid his tribute to Majaaz by using two of his couplets in his celebrated film Pyasa in a sequence about a private Mushaira in the house of the villan.
So as far as Majaaz is concerned, these two bits of poetry are all that the general non Urdu knowing population has access to. The latter of the two pieces are just two couplets that are almost lost on the viewer unless the film is seen more than a few times and the former is a mere two or three stanzas from a long poem that is both a powerful indictment of the unfeeling, distant, impersonal and callous metropolis and an articulation of the angst that it provokes in those newly exposed to its gaudy and naked display of power, wealth and glitter.
Just as those who dreamt of and worked for a better future for the deprived and the dispossessed of this nation have been reduced to bit players in the larger history of the struggle for freedom, many of those, like Majaaz, who spearheaded the cultural upsurge that accompanied the rising tide of the struggle for emancipation have also been airbrushed out of our collective memories.