The Poet of Romance and Revolution

Pablo Neruda with Faiz Ahmed 'Faiz'

If you met him on the street you would never imagine that he was a poet, and not your run of the mill poet, but  among the most important poets of the 20th century, not only in Urdu, not only in  the subcontinent but in the entire world of the 20th century. I have always wondered how could someone who invariably dressed in rather unimpressively stitched, unromantic terry-cot Safari suits, someone who could at best pass off as a joint secretary in the ministry of shipping or something similar, be such a wizard with words and not only with words but with content and with form?

The answer to this question lies perhaps in the linguistic cultural traditions that Faiz had inherited, the extent to which Faiz was able to build upon, deepen and add to this inheritance through his own reading and through the insightful guidance of his teachers like Maulvi Mohammad Sialkoti, Shams-ul-Ulema Syed Mir Hasan, Professor Yusuf Salim Chishti, Ahmad Shah ‘Pitras’ Bukhari, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa ‘Tabassum’, Maulvi Mohammad Shafi, Dr Mohammad Deen Taseer, Maulana Abdul Majid Salik, Maulana Chiragh Hasan ‘Hasrat’ and Pandit Hari Chand ‘Akhtar’.

In fact the tradition goes back into the past, a few centuries if not more and it may not be a bad idea to trace the tradition upon which Faiz meticulously built the grand imposing and dare I say everlasting edifice of his poetic discourse.

Over the last three centuries Urdu has produced one great poet every 100 years or so, the 18th century was the century of Meer, the 19th belonged to Ghalib and the 20th was the century of Faiz. Whether this trend will continue in the present century, though, seems a little doubtful.

There have naturally been many other significant poets in these three hundred years but and this is a big but, there have not been too many aside from these three that have created a new discourse in poetics.

Meer was to use the metaphor of the broken, shattered, distraught heart to describe both his own personal loss as also the pillage and destruction of Delhi, an adopted city that he came to love and hold dear, not only physically but also metaphorically. The deserted streets and empty houses became symbols of the passing away of a lifestyle and an aesthetic urbane milieu.

Ghalib was to infuse the Ghazal with a depth and a multilayerity that the form had not hitherto seen. Ghalib also contributed significantly to freeing the Ghazal from the constricting grip of a cold heartless beloved, a successful rival and the perpetually unsuccessful lover-the poet-drowning himself in wine or wallowing in masochistic self pity.

There were others before him, Wali Daccani and Meer Taqi Meer to name just two, who too contributed to this broadening of the horizons of the Ghazal. What Ghalib did was to introduce content that had, by and large, not been explored by versifiers. Ghalib raised fundamental questions of existence and being, raised doubts about received world views and established that the Ghazal was capable of tackling complex ideas.  The imagery of Ghalib’s poetry drew as much from his immediate surroundings and the rich cultural heritage of  south Asia Central Asia that had in turn drawn from the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, tales and fables that also resonated in the Torah, the Bible and the Quraan.

He lived in strange times, an order was dying and the new was yet to replace it, Ghalib was a witness to these cataclysmic times. The rapid collapse of the Mughal court led to the replacement of a system of patronage with unending uncertainty and penury. The revolt took away with it the last vestiges of an order that India had known and the ruthless crushing of the uprising led to an era of unprecedented changes whose impact was to inform the creation of literature in a fundamental and far reaching manner.

The rhythm and organization of life, its ethos and aesthetics, the system of patronage, everything that gave a sense of continuity to life  of the period was changing, mutating and getting transformed. Ghalib, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply shaken by these events and suffered the consequences of this upheaval.

It is in times such as these that questions began to be raised about the capacity of the Ghazal to encapsulate these rapid changes and express them in a substantial and comprehensible manner. Ghalib was among those who tried o address this question and was to say[1]:

The range of the Ghazal is inadequate – I need a larger canvass for my expression[2]

Questions began to be raised about received ideas and accepted world views, new forms of expression began to be explored, prose made its mark, Urdu Journalism began to come into its own and both verse and prose began to engage with this ever changing world. Creatively this was among the most fertile periods for Urdu and for many other Indian languages.

The Ghazal, even as it was being challenged, began to explore newer areas of expression and non Ghazal verse like the Marsia (the elegy) the Masnavi (long narrative poems) had begun to make their mark. This is also the time when poets began to move out of the traditional themes of poetry writing and poetry as political commentary became increasingly acceptable, this trend received a big fillip with the publication of the Musaddas by Khwaja Altaf Husain ‘Hali’

The process of social comment in poetry had gradually been gathering steam for a while, Jafar Zatalli’s street-wise satire about corrupt and debauch nobility in the miniscule reign of Farrukh Seyar (1713-1719) and Nazeer (1735-1830) Akbarabadi’s long poems about Poverty, Hunger, old age, old prostitutes and eunuchs and about all kinds of artisans, street performers and the like had begun to lay the ground for a new poetic and literary discourse. Jafar had to pay with his life for heaping scorn on Farrukh Seyar, he was executed on the orders of the king in 1713 and Nazeer was virtually ignored till the late nineteenth century and had to wait till the 1950s to get his due.

The devastation that was visited upon Delhi, Lucknow and vast areas of India in the aftermath of 1857 led, on the one hand to a sense of hopelessness and constant harking back to a glorious past and on the other hand to a seething anger against the British and their collaborators. The former was to trigger to several reformist movements while the latter fed the growing anti imperialist mood, leading to mass mobilizations and also to the creation of the poetry and prose of protest These two streams, mass protest and the writings of protest and for change, inhabited a by and large common space many practitioners of one also indulged in the other many activists were writers and many writers were activists.

Both the reformists and the anti imperialists used the written word, prose and verse to communicate their ideas and despite a handful of, largely ignored, dissenters the debate between art for art sake versus art for life’s sake was settled in favour of art for life’s sake rather quickly.

Ghalib died in extreme penury in 1869 and Faiz published his first collection in 1941. Many new trends in poetics, that had begun to emerge in the time of Ghalib, had developed rapidly during the intervening 70 years.

The rapid decay of the Mughal empire and its vestiges, the replacement of the traditional patterns of patronage, the large scale collapse of traditional crafts, the increasing destitution of large sections of population was leading to a glorification of the past and at another to a search for alternatives to these devastating changes and to calls for Indians to take their fate into their own hands and to recapture the past glory of India. Echoes of these sentiments were to be heard in Hali and later in Iqbal and so the question that Ghalib had raised with reference to need of a larger canvass was answered through the emergence of the Nazm, in the main through the writing of Iqbal.

Iqbal’s contribution to the evolution of the Nazm is substantial and if there is one poet who can claim a place among the greats along with Meer, Ghalib and Faiz it can only be Iqbal. It is perhaps his engagement with the ideas of Khudi (being, self, ego) and Pan Islamism, ideas that did not have too many takers among the intellectuals of the 20th century and therefore despite impressing a large number of  those that appreciated him, Iqbal fails to leave behind a continuing tradition.

Though Iqbal does not leave behind a school of poetry that was to carry forward his ideas, the vehicle  of the nazm, that he chose as the medium for propagating his ideas, left a lasting impact and the Nazm was, in the early decades of the 20th century, put to effective use by a very large number of poets  writing against colonial depredation and using the Nazm to mobilize public opinion.

Despite these developments, the Ghazal did not yield ground easily; in fact for a while the upholders of ‘tradition’ strongly resisted this new onslaught, initially of metred  and later of the unmetred Nazm.  The Nazm did not replace the Ghazal fully; in fact till much later there were not too many poets who took to this new form to the total exclusion of the Ghazal. Even Iqbal, who can rightly claim credit for firmly establishing the Nazm, continues to use the Ghazal for political comment, for instance

Race, Nationalism, Church (religion) and colour

How cleverly have the masters created these illusions[3]

The time that Faiz appears on the poetic scene with his first slim collection of poetry in 1941 is the time when the entire subcontinent is in ferment, Faiz is already recognized as a powerful new voice, he has met Dr. Rashid Jahan, Mohammad Deen Taseer, Syed Sajjad Zaheer and in 1936 becomes one of the founders of the All India Progressive writers’ Association (AIPWA) or PWA as it popularly came to be known.

The time when Faiz becomes secretary of the PWA in Punjab he was only 25 Mohammad Deen Taseer was 39 and both Sajjad Zaheer and Rashid Jahan were 37.  Obviously this young man had built a reputation even at this young age, for compared to him these three were seasoned campaigners.

Rashid Jahan and Sajjad Zaheer along with Ahmad Ali and Mahmud-uz-Zafar had contributed to Angarey (Ambers) a collection of short stories that had triggered a storm among the conservatives, because the stories attacked the oppression of women in the name of religion, they attacked superstition and feudalism. Angarey was banned in 1933 by the colonial government, because the book “hurt the religious sentiments of a particular community”.

It was the banning of the book that eventually lead to the formation of the PWA, an organization committed to oppose Imperialism, Fascism, feudalism and to work for the spread of progressive ideas through literature and to fight for an end to exploitation of man by man. Incidentally Mohammad Deen Taseer Married a British Leftist Christabel and Faiz was to later marry Alys, the younger sister of Christabel. The recently assassinated Governor of Punjab in Pakistan was the son of Mohammad Deen Taseer and Christabel and a nephew of Alys and Faiz.

The PWA held its first conference in Lucknow, presided over by Munshi Prem Chand in 1936 and Faiz became the secretary of PWA Punjab in the same year.

The PWA  and Faiz with it, represented a continuation of a tradition that was rooted in the  people centric poetry of Nazeer, a tradition that, like Meer, saw personal tragedies and sufferings as part of a larger social loss, a tradition that had   from the time of Ghalib, begun to move away consciously from hackneyed themes in poetry and had begun to imbue poetry with meaning, to engage itself with complex thoughts and ideas and to question and reject the ossified moribund and inane discourse of ‘conversations with the beloved’ that the Ghazal had been reduced to, a tradition that had roots in the reformist zeal of Hali and his contemporaries and most significantly a  tradition that was inspired by the struggle against imperialism and oppression going back to the 1857 revolt of the peasants and the sepoys. The poetic and literary tradition that Faiz and his comrades upheld was also a tradition that had as its precursors the literary campaigners for change like Iqbal.

Faiz like many of his contemporaries had the advantage of drawing from the traditional cultural resources and scholarship of the Persian and Arabic literature. Faiz incidentally had done his masters in both Arabic and English literature, Arabic  Persian and Urdu he had begun to study from early childhood.

Faiz’s father Sultan Mohammad Khan had begun life as a shepherd who was paid to look after the animals of the village for rupees 2 a month,  The young shepherd had a thirst for knowledge and education that saw him overcoming almost impossible odds to rise to the position of the chief secretary of  Abdul Rehman Khan, the then king of Afghanistan, being appointed the Ambassador of Afghanistan in Britain, studying Law in London, becoming a barrister and returning to Sialkot to  practice and being decorated with the title of  Khan Bahadur. When Khan Bahadur Sultan Mohammad Khan died he was under a colossal debt and his children had to sell off most of his property to pay off the debts.

So Faiz had seen it all, growing up in plenty, losing it all in his early youth and then to gradually rebuild his life. Along the way he taught edited literary Journals, served as war correspondent, edited Pakistan Times and Imroz, worked actively in Trade Unions,  arrested on charges of Conspiracy, spent years in Jail, more years in exile, awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, edited Lotus from Beirut, even as the city was bombed and throughout this tumultuous life, He continued to write, 7 volumes of Poetry, and almost as many in prose, including critical essays, memoirs, articles on a diverse range of issues and much more.

In the short speech that Faiz made while accepting the Lenin Peace Prize Faiz was to say, I do not find anything in my writing or my conduct that qualifies me for this great Award, the only reason that I can think of is the fact the great ideals that I and my friends have been associated with, that is the desire for peace and freedom,  are ideals that are so grand and beautiful that even those associated with them, even though peripherally, acquire respectability.[4]

He concluded the speech with these words

I am confident that humanity that has never accepted defeat at the hands of its enemies will once again emerge victorious and finally the foundations of our mutual existence will be built not on war, hate, oppression and acrimony but something that had been pointed out by the Persian poet Hafiz a long time ago

Faulted are the foundations of all that I have seen
But for the foundation of Love that alone is without fault[5]

His remarks about his being undeserving of the Lenin Peace Prize and his confidence in the ultimate victory of the human spirit are things that define Faiz, he was humble and this humility was not an act, it was not put on, all those who were with him in jail for four years and more, have in their writings and recollections talked about his gentle and undemanding nature.  He was gentle and mild-mannered and yet firm  and steadfast in his commitment; his poetry drew strength from these two constituents of his being.  Joan Baez, one of the most popular singers of the Anti Vietnam War campaign in the US used to sing a song that was titled “What have They Done to the Rain” and before she sang the song she once said, this is a very powerful song, because it protests gently, what she was probably suggesting was the fact that if you stand with just causes, with truth, you do not have to shout from roof tops, your conviction in justice and truthfulness shines through even without unnecessary aggression. Faiz was like that and so was his poetry.

Faiz was soft spoken, genial, affable, and polite to a fault, spoke little, and rarely got into arguments, what he had to say, he said through his pen, more powerfully in verse and more like a tolerant teacher in his prose. The sole source of the adulation that he received and also the brickbats, the persecution, the imprisonment was his writing.  Left to himself he would not hurt a fly, he was probably afraid of Lizards. That is the idea one gets from recollections of those who were with him in prison and yet his poetry talks of revolution, of snatching crowns, toppling thrones, of uncontrollable rivers in spate. His poem, ‘Beware of My Being’ on Bangla Desh speaks in the tongue of the oppressed, warning all oppressors to steer clear, ‘beware, for I am an ocean of Venom[6]’.

The poem is also a testimony to the courage of Faiz, to write such a poem at a time when Bangla Desh was being born, at a time when the establishment in Pakistan and many others besides, saw the East Pakistanis as people who had betrayed the cause of Islam. To stand with those who rebelled against oppression and to speak on their behalf called for exemplary courage.

Where did such a soft spoken man, such a harmless looking soul, draw the strength for verses such as these?

In the stray interviews and conversations that Faiz had with his friends and his prison mates he fondly remembers all his teachers and in beginning almost all of his collections with a couplet from one of the masters like Ghalib, Saadi, Sauda, Meer, Iqbal, Hafiz and Bedil he underlines his debt to his literary inheritance.

Many of his teachers that he was close to, were drawn towards the progressive movement, the impact of the Socialist revolution in Russia had stirred up the colonized people all over the world. The rise of Fascism was seen as a threat to all freedom loving people and the formation of the PWA must have come as a catalytic force that gave a purpose and direction to Faiz’s writing.

The solid grounding in the classical languages and the opportunity to be a favourite pupil of some of the finest minds in Lahore of the 30s, his exposure to, and deep interest in, English and western literature generally and progressive literature particularly provided him a larger canvass. He, more than many of his contemporaries, was able to draw profitably from these diverse resources and the result was visible from his early writings.

Languages, cultures, the arts – painting, music, poetry and prose- flourish in times of flux, in times of great upheavals and turmoil, for it is in times such as these that cross pollination of ideas, of content and form takes place at an unprecedented scale. The formative years of Faiz, the years when he was growing up were times of great flux. There was the ever growing upsurge of popular resistance to colonial oppression, when Jalianwallah Bagh Massacre took place, Faiz was barely 8 but when Bhagat Singh was hanged Faiz was 20.

These were epochal times and Faiz was drawn to the ideals of Freedom, equality and Socialism Faiz was attracted to these ideas like so many others including Raghpati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri, Shabbir Hasan Khan ‘Josh’ Malihabadi, Asrar ul Haq “Majaz”, Moin Ahsan Jazbi,  Jan Nisar Akhtar, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and others were drawn to and influenced by these events and developments.

So aside from his inheritance and his own addition to this inheritance and what he imbibed from his teachers, the two other elements that had a defining influence on Faiz and his poetry were, firstly the all encompassing sentiment for freedom, no one could escape the subterranean simmering that threatened to explode any moment, and did from time to time and secondly the growing influence of Marxism and the fight against Fascism that  intellectuals, poets, writers, artists, filmmakers and others were joining in large numbers all over the world. Behind this upsurge was of course the ideal of building an equitable and just order and to stand with the soviet people who formed the vanguard against Fascism.

All these elements combined in the writing of Faiz to give it a unique colour. His vocabulary, his symbols, his similes were rooted deeply in the traditional diction of  Urdu, even when he coined new expressions, he drew from the large traditional reservoir  that he had at his disposal and the cadence did not sound alien to the listener.

Writing about the poetry of Majaz, Faiz had once said, ‘what distinguishes Majaz from other progressive writers is the fact that he sings of the beauty of the revolution…… he is not a drummer boy for the revolution’. This comment aptly describes almost all of Faiz’s poetry as well.

While talking about his own understanding of the place of literature and the role of the writer he was to say “To be aware of the collective struggle of Humanity and to participate in this struggle to the best of one’s ability, is a demand that life places upon us, literature too places the same demand upon us…… Art is a constituent of this life and the creative struggle is one aspect of this (wider) struggle.”[7]

What is unique in the writing of Faiz is his grasp of both the Ghazal and the Nazm. Faiz was equally dexterous in both forms, many of his contemporaries tried their hand at both forms but some were known as poets of the Ghazal and others were poets of the Nazm, but Faiz is equally at ease in both forms.

Major Mohammad Is’haaq, Faiz and some other accused in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case were kept in the Montgomery Central Jail, Sajjad Zaheer was sent to the Central Jail Machh in Baluchistan while Captain Poshni and Ata Mohammad were despatched to the Central Jail Hyderabad. Major Is’haaq used to mail Faiz’s latest writings to the other accused in different jails. Sajjad Zaheer wrote to Major Is’haaq about   ‘Unrequited Love’, a ghazal of Faiz that he had received a few days earlier. The letter has been reproduced by Major Is’haaq in The Prison Chronicle[8]

“This Ghazal that you call Wasokht is a fine work, each Sher is like a scalpel, each one deserves praise and appreciation especially

If we worried about our wounds, we were accused

Of not singing paeans to the artistry of the sword wielder[9]

Say nothing of Ja’afar Ali Khan ‘Asar’, Faiz would have received appreciation for this, even from  Mirza Nausha( Ghalib).”

Jafar Ali Khan ‘Asar’ Lakhnawi, one of the finest critics of Urdu literature, especially of progressive Urdu literature was to assess Faiz in the following words

“The poetry of Faiz, having risen through various stages of development has scaled heights that have perhaps never been reached by any other progressive writer.

Ghalib had complained of the limited canvass of the Ghazal, to Faiz must go the credit of expanding the horizons of the Ghazal and for firmly establishing the political Ghazal as a form distinct from the Gul-o-Bul, Hijr-o-Visaal, Masjid-o-Maikhana kind of dichotomies that the Ghazal had come to be known for. Unfortunately among many well meaning fans of the form it continues to be known as such, thanks to singers and listeners who refuse to explore changes in the form and the content of the Ghazal and continue to wallow in empty sentimental prattle.  To Faiz must also go the credit for establishing that meanings and possibilities that lay concealed within the recesses of the layered raiment of the Ghazal, presented possibilities that poetry and poets had still to explore.

Faiz and Majrooh, among others contributed significantly to the evolution of the Political Ghazal. There has been a suggestion that Majrooh initiated the process before Faiz, but the fact remains that the Political Ghazal as we know it today owes much more to its popularity through Faiz than it does through the writings of Majrooh.

Majrooh, decidedly one of the leading lights of the PWA, did not get the kind of recognition he deserved, perhaps due to a much smaller body of work, also because unlike Faiz he did not remain in the thick of political turmoil and so his poetry was not as sought after as was Faiz’s. The rather abrupt and at times abrasive manner of Majrooh could have also contributed to this. These things should not, ideally, count in an objective assessment of a writer’s worth, unfortunately they do.  Despite what others might say, Majrooh himself recognized the contribution of Faiz to progressive poetry in the sub continent and said “Faiz was the Meer Taqi Meer of the Progressives” this is high praise indeed, Ghalib who was loath to acknowledge anyone as his superior recognized only Bedil and Meer as Ustads (great teachers) so when Majrooh describes Faiz as the Meer of the progressives, he is giving him an exalted position. One needs to remember that Majrooh can never be accused of excess, not in the area of appreciating others at least.

What sets Faiz above his contemporaries in both the Nazm and the Ghazal is his rich vocabulary, his ability to draw upon mythological symbols, events, references and fables and to reinterpret them[10], to create visual images in the mind of the reader through a careful selection of words[11], and create new images through the use of Eisenstein like montages of clashing images[12].

The contribution of Faiz, except for a handful of post modernist detractors who tried to belittle him, out of pique, unconcealed envy and perhaps a feeling of inadequacy in the face of his talent, was recognized by most of his contemporaries and many of his seniors. Raghpati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri, A senior in age by as much as 15 years, an extremely proud man and rather economical in his recognition of the talent of others was to lavish fulsome praise on Faiz when he said

“Faiz established a new school of Poetry, the creative skill, affection, creative dexterity and breadth of vision with which Faiz relates the event of love with other significant social concerns was something entirely new and worthwhile in the love poetry of Urdu.”

Noon Meem Rashid a contemporary poet and someone who was in the vanguard of  those who were at the time experimenting with non rhyming or what was then called blank verse spoke of Faiz in terms  that are no less than laudatory. “Faiz is alone among contemporary poets who, with his imagination, wishes to create an alluring heaven of pure beauty, but has also glimpsed the reality that lurks behind the golden drapes of beauty and romance’

Professor Aal-e-Ahmad Suroor, and Asar Lucknawi were two of the most respected critics of Urdu literature in their times and are read, consulted and quoted extensively in literary debates even to this day.

Suroor in his earliest writings about faiz was to say ‘The poetry of Faiz is like a resplendent rain bow consisting of pleasant influences of English Literature and worthwhile and valuable elements of the Asian civilisation.”

Syed Sajjad Zaheer, a contributor to Angarey, one of the moving spirits behind the formation of PWA along with Mulk Raj Anand Mahmood-uz-Zafar, and a key accused in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case and a close associate of Faiz, was asked to write the preface of Zindan Nama and this is what he had to say about Faiz’s poetry:

“The values that the poetry of Faiz represents and upholds are the values of progressive humanity the world over, they are such an inseparable part of his writing that nowhere do they appear either to be different from our finest cultural and civilasational values, nor do they lead to any cleavage between the unique style of the poet and his soft, sweet and lyrical writing. His moving similes and metaphors carry the fragrance of our land, his ideas glisten with the truth and democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people. If the purpose of cultural development and growth is to free humans from material and spiritual poverty, fill their hearts with compassion, give them the strength of character and the vision to stand up for justice and truth and to, enrich our collective and individual lives both externally and internally, then the poetry of Faiz seeks to reach out and touch all these cultural goals.”

Faiz was in his own life time translated in dozens of languages of the subcontinent and scores of other languages across the world. Alexander Surkov, A well known Urdu Scholar from the erstwhile USSR wrote the preface to the Russian translation of Faiz’s poetry, the article was translated by Seher Ansaari[13] in Urdu, an English translation by the author of the present piece is reproduced here as a conclusion of  this hurridly put together piece.

While we sat in a room in the office of the writers association in Moscow,  reading poetry and talking about the possibility of publishing a Russian translation of  Faiz’s poetry the conversation moved away from poetry to a discussion about contemporary politics

What are your plans in the immediate future ?

Faiz looked at me, in the depths of his dark eyes I noticed a certain sadness while a gentle smile played on his lips,

“I’ll first go to London to meet a few friends who have recently arrived from Pakistan and then I’ll go to Karachi, to Lahore, home…..”

“But you know what it is like there…..”

“All the more reason for me to go back to my country”

“Imprisonment then is a certainty……..”

“Perhaps……. if serving a lofty ideal involves a trip to the jail, one must undertake the journey”

“And if it is worse than a prison term?”

The poet looked out of the window, at the Statute of  Tolstoy in the middle of the garden, at the cold autumn sky, the smile was still there, a  short pause later, he spoke, in his typical low and measured tone,

“If there is something worse than a prison term, it will certainly be bad, but you know well the struggle has to carry on”.

Faiz with his elder daughter, Saleema Hashmi


[1] Translating poetry is not my cup of tea, what I have sought to do is to place a literal translation, to communicate,  the general idea, in my view poetry can best be understood in the original, translations are at best very rough approximations, some more some less.

[2] Baqdr-e-Shauq nahin, zarf-e-tangna-e-Ghazal

Kuchh aur chaahiye wus’at mere bayaN ke liye     —GHALIB.

[3] Nasl, Qaumiyat, Kaleesa, Sultanat, Tehzeeb, Rang

Khwwajgi ne khoob chun chun kar banaaye maskraat —- Iqbal

[4] Reproduced in Dast Tah-e-Sang pp 9-12

[5] Khalal Pezeer Buwad Har Bina ke mi beeni

Bajuz benaaye mohabbat ke khaali az khalal ast

[6] Hazar Karo Mere Tan se ye Sam ka Darya hai Sar-e-Wadi-e-Sienna pp 85-86

[7] Faiz,  preface to Dast-e-Saba, pp 5-6, written in central Jail Hyderabaad 16.9.1952

[8] Roodaad-e-Qafas, Zindaan Naamaah pp 9-46

[9] Gar fikr-e-zakhm ki to khataawaar hain kr hum – Kyon mahv-e- madh-e-khoobi-e- tegh-e-ada na thay.

[10] Nisar Main Teri Galiyon ke….pp 65-67 Dast-e-Saba and

Hum dekhenge, Mere Dil Mere Musafir, pp 53-54

[11] Sarod-e-Shabana, Naqsh-e-Faryadi, p15.

Sham, Dast-e-Tah-e-Sang, p33,

Manzar, Dast-e-Tah-e-Sang’ p79,

[12] Pass Raho, Dast-e-tah-e-Sang, p73.

[13] Ek Hausla Mand Dil ki Aawaaz, Sar-e-Vaadi-e-Sienna pp13-18

This article has already appeared, in a slightly modified version, in ‘Think India Quartely’, special issue on Faiz Ahmad Faiz, January-March 2011.

15 thoughts on “The Poet of Romance and Revolution”

    1. to paraphrase Sahir

      aap bewjha pareshan se kyon hain hazrat

      or to take a leaf out of Faiz and to twist it

      yeh bhi hain aise kai aur bhi mazmoon honge


  1. wow…its a fabulous account of how Urdu poetry developed and how Faiz was ‘the poet’ of 20th century……enjoyed a lot….and more importantly learned a few new things about Urdu and its literature……


  2. learnt a lot about Urdu poetry, politics and the role of art in 20th century.
    Very good article.


  3. 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).


  4. 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.


  5. 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.


  6. @ Hades

    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.


  7. the article is really insightful.. what intersts me most in faiz is what brand of marxism, can we associate with him.. maxism has many ramifications now.. his marxism though inspired by lenin was not of leninist creed, nor can we truly simply associate him with mao’ sbrand of marxism.. he like many other progressive poets is talking about oppresson, subjugation but what approach of marxism is it. this question really baffles me.

    any comments??


  8. No marxism, he is a poet he felt for one all and wrote about one and all, let us not politicalise him by called him leftist, suffering and being a under- dog is not the territory or property of marxist alone, Faiz was a humanism he mirrored what he saw and it literally leads you to the depth, not stopping you at the surface.


    1. how hard we may try but we cannot dissociate marxism from poetry of faiz.. he himself admits impact of marx and communist manifesto on him.


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