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?
I remember once asking Shahryar the reason for being taaza dum. In reply, he told 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.’ Ever mindful of the consequences of both, he said: Mujhe thakan aur takraar ka khauf hai. That mindfulness was to become the stamp of his ouvre as he managed to retain the freshness and vigour of his maiden collection, Ism-e-Aazam (published in 1965). Despite early critical acclaim and commercial success, throughout his long innings, he consistently refused to become a performer playing to the gallery at mushairas. Also, rather admirably, he spurned the joys of a handsomely-paid wordsmith churning out ‘hits’ from a plush Bollywood studio; instead he was the peripatetic voice, heard at mushairas, public platforms, academic circles, private soirees.
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 weaves the old magic 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 with film lyrics. Shahryar can be credited with infusing a new potency and immediacy into the time-honoured confines of the Urdu ghazal and nazm. The joys and sorrows of ordinary, lived experiences, the complexities and ambivalence of city life, the oppressive sense of melancholy and dislocation of the urban milieu coupled with a sharply political consciousness – these form the rubric of his poetry.
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.
Whether it was his personal views or his politics (which, incidentally, was pronouncedly left-of-centre), he saw the good rather than the bad, and was 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). Ayodhya, Gujarat, Nandigram provoked him to pick his pen and write from the heart. Perhaps he was drawing inspiration from Ghalib who expressed the poet’s concern 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 lay within Shahryar’s heart; it came out and caught us unaware in a rush of images.
The liet motif of sleep and dreams ran through much of his poetry. The desire to fall asleep effortlessly, pass through the portal of consciousness into some magical land of dreams and sip from the fount of a deep, untapped subconscious was a recurring concern. Yet, dreams and sleep meant different things to him at different times. Dreams could be joyful or fearful. Sleep could beckon, and elude. Dreams offered escape from unpleasant reality, or they could be a punishment of sorts. To yearn for sleep and be denied, was for Shahryar, the worst nightmare. And when he slept soundly and dreamt, he would always say, he felt most blessed.
When he walked into the night on Monday, 13th February, all those who cherished him and his poetry can only hope that the closed doorway of dreams has opened and Shahryar is sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
Rakhshanda Jalil has translated Shahryar’s nazms in English, under the title Through the Closed Doorway (Rupa & Co., 2004).