As India acknowledges Shahryar’s contribution to the world of letters by conferring the prestigious Jnanpith award, the country’s highest literary honour for a creative writer, the poet looks back on a life well spent and counts his many blessings. Surrounded by friends, who are the mainstay of his life, Shahryar wonders:
Iss umr ke safar ka
Kitna taweel rasta tai maine kar liya hai
Aur ab bhi taaza dum hoon, bilkul nahi thaka hoon
Hairat ki baat kya hai?
On this journey of life
I have travelled a great distance
Yet I feel refreshed, and not one bit tired
Why is it so strange?
What is the reason, I ask, for being taaza dum? In reply, he tells me a story. When his first book was published, Ale Ahmad Suroor, the noted Urdu critic, wrote on its blurb: ‘If he remains safe from the danger of takraar (repetition) and thakaan (exhaustion), he will go far.’ Shahryar says he has been ever mindful of the consequences of both: Mujhe thakan aur takrar ka khauf hai. That mindfulness of an early caution perhaps also explains why his output has been considerably less than some of his contemporaries. Shahryar has also managed to retain the freshness and vigour that marked his earliest offerings and made his maiden collection, Ism-e-Aadam (published in 1964), such a runaway success. Despite early critical acclaim and commercial success, he has consistently refused to become a performer playing to the gallery at mushairas. He has also, rather admirably, spurned the joys of a handsomely-paid wordsmith churning out ‘hits’ from a plush Bollywood studio.
While Shahryar’s songs for popular Hindi films such as Umrao Jaan, Gaman, Anjuman and Fasle still enjoy enduring mass appeal and taxi drivers in Mumbai still play Seene mein jalan ankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai?Iss sheher mein har shaqs pareshan sa kyun hai? decades after the film's release and Asha Bhonsle still opens many a concert with these haunting lines from Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan: Yeh kya jagah hai doston, yeh kaun sa dayar hai/Hadd-e-nigah tak jahan ghubar hi ghubar hai – his popularity does not rest on film lyrics alone. Shahryar believes more people appreciate Urdu poetry in India than ever before. Jaise jaise shehri tehzeeb badh rahi hai, Urdu zuban bhi badh rahi hai, he says. Scoffing those who decry the state of Urdu in India, he says he is optimistic about India and about Urdu. He feels the government has done what it can; it is up to the ‘Urduwallahs to do the rest! Till we as a people are not proud of our language, no government can ever do enough. Admitting that he is an optimist he says: Aaj ka din bahut achcha nahin taslim hai/Aane wale din bahut behtar hain meri rai hai (I agree that today has not been a good day/But I am convinced tomorrow will be a better day).
What sets apart Shahryar’s poetry from his contemporaries is the sheer lyricism, the sweet melodiousness that is all the more striking because it is garbed in an everyday, conversational idiom. The relentless probing of his own heart and the human predicament is viewed through the prism of his intensely personal experiences. At the same time, there is none of the stridency and militant ideological onslaught that mars much of modern poetry. Instead, there is a collage of images that tell a story of their own. Sensual, multi-coloured, delicately filigreed, these word pictures – tumbling out of a kaleidoscope of the known and familiar – capture the pathos and alienation of the urban individual with just a few deftly-drawn strokes:
When the rhythm of sleeping eyelashes
Jostles into wakefulness
And crowded lodgings seem
Like deserted wastelands
When panic unfurls its wings
And all around things flicker and fade
The sound of approaching moments
Seems like the hissing of snakes
At such times the heart
Can think of only one way out –
If only some dreamless window
Were to open quietly.
While Shahryar’s fame rests on the ghazal, he has also written a great deal of nazms. When asked, of the two which genre he favours, he offers an unusual qualification. Contrary to popular perception, he finds writing the nazm far more difficult to write than the ghazal. The ghazal has been around for a very long time; as poets we are familiar with its constraints and we have learnt to speak within its confines, he says. The nazm, with its newness and its boundless freedom, is more challenging. A poet must be more exact, more precise, more sure of himself while writing the nazm. It does not have the safety net of the ghazal’s rhyme pattern to fall back upon. At the same time, it is more difficult to say something new in the ghazal. Therein lies its challenge. Unabashedly personal, in comparison to his ghazals, Shahryar’s nazms reach out to form an immediate bond, claiming a sense of kinship, touching a chord somewhere, evoking the tremulous wonder of dreams. Sample this:
Tonight the night presented me
With a new dilemma
It emptied the basin of my eye
Of all sleep
And filled it with tears
Then, it whispered in my ear:
‘I have absolved you of all sin
And set you free, forever.
‘Go, wherever you wish
Sleep, or stay awake
The doorway of dreams is closed for you.’
Whether it is his personal views or his politics (which, incidentally, is pronouncedly left-of-centre), he admits that he sees the good rather than the bad, and is constantly hopeful of a better tomorrow. When the right-wing government was in power at the centre, he wrote: Siyah raat nahi leti naam dhalne ka/Yehi to waqt hai suraj tere nikalne ka (The dark night is showing no signs of ending/ Now is the time, Sun, for you to rise). And when communal tensions rent the country apart and his belief in goodness and humanity was tested, he wrote: Ek hi dhun hai ke main raat ko dhalta dekhoon/Apni in ankhon se suraj ko nikalta dekhoon (My one great desire is to see this night come to an end/And that I may see the sun rise with my own eyes).
Sleep and dreams are a liet motif that runs through much of his poetry. The ability to fall asleep effortlessly and to pass through the portal of consciousness into some magical land of dreams and sip from the fount of a deep, untapped subconscious are recurring concerns. So much so, that two of his collections revolve around these two motifs: Khwab ka Dar Band Hai and Neend ki Kirchein. Yet, dreams and sleep have meant different things to him at different times. Dreams can be joyful or fearful. Sleep can beckon; and it can elude. Dreams can be an escape from unpleasant reality, or they can be a punishment of sorts. When one yearns for sleep and is denied it, it is, for Shahryar, the worst nightmare. And when he has slept soundly and dreamt, he says, he has felt most blessed.
Some of the images he employs, particularly in the nazms, have a dreamy, trance-like quality evoking a mindscape that is personal, yet reaches out far beyond the immediate and the individual. Shahryrar believes that the poet walks a fine line between the personal and the too-personal. While there can be no poetry without the self, he says, no one can be expected to be interested in the purely personal details of other people’s lives, in the joys and sorrows of others. Some poets have tried to do that, for instance Akhtar Shirani who wrote poetry that was intensely romantic yet extremely personal. But that has never appealed to him. Shahryar’s world view is essentially Marxist and in the debate on Art for Art’s Sake vs. Art for Life’s Sake he is firmly behind he latter due to his belief in the social and political commitment of literature. All good poets, be it Iqbal or Faiz, speak of the world, to the world, he believes.
Yet, one may not always find direct references to his worldview in his poetry. Shahryar has picked up his pen whenever intensely political events have rocked the nation. He wrote Fasadat ki Zubaan Se when communal frenzy gripped the nation; he has written on Ayodhya, Gujarat, Nandigram. But the reader will not always find direct references to these events; instead, Shahryar has chosen to speak in the oblique and the symbolic. Ghalib expressed it best when he said: Hamne yeh jaana ke goya yeh bhi mere dil main hai (I found that this too lies within my heart). A wealth of compassion for human suffering lies within Shahryar’s heart; it comes out and catches us unaware in a rush of images.
Rakhshanda Jalil has translated Shahryar’s nazms in English, under the title Through the Closed Doorway (Rupa & Co., 2004).