“ Itnā to zindagī meñ kisi ki ḳhalal paḌe ,
Hañsne se ho sukūn, naa rone se kal paḌe.”
(So much of hindrance should someone cause,
That neither laughter may bring ease, nor tears.)
Padma Shree awardee and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Kaifi Azmi, who would have turned 101 today wrote these lines when he was barely eleven years old. It has been said that such was the disbelief in his family that his elder brother had to come to his rescue and actually tell his family, who were otherwise pretty impressed with the piece, that it was indeed Kaifi’s work. Later, Begum Akhtar eternized it with a musical rendition.
Born in Mijwan, Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Athar Husain Rizvi, as Azmi had been named, belonged to a family of landowners who wanted to educate him to become a cleric. However, Azmi had set his heart set on fighting for the people. In a 1997 article, he wrote, “We cannot leave it to the hukmaraan (political establishment). The impulse has to come from us, the people.” He left the comfort of the riches and as a card-holding member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he came to Bombay.
In Azmi’s work, one can read the history of India, otherwise only superficially decorated in newspapers. In nazms that cut and bleed and in lyrics that embalm the wounds, one can find belief, anger, anguish, delicate love, desperation, and most of all, hope.
Azmi’s satire, brilliantly reflected in his work, ‘Pir-e-tasma-e-pa’(1970) is so pertinent that he would have probably sprouted no other words than these if he had to respond to the ludicrous accounts being pulled today.
“Raanā hindū thā akbar musalmān thā,
Sanjai vo pahlā insān thā
Hastināpur meñ jis ne qabl-e-masīh
aur ghar baiThe ik andhe raaja ko
yudh kā tamāsha dikhāyā”
(The Rana was Hindu and Akbar was a Muslim. Sanjai (from Mahabharata) was the first person who created the Television in Hastinapur before Christ and had shown the exhibit of a war to a blind king.)
A ‘revolutionary for all seasons’, Kaifi Azmi performed resistance and revolution through his words. His love songs became the detangler of the most convoluted knots of love as he started writing for Bombay Cinema in the 1950s and asked his lover,
“ Jhukī jhukī sī nazar be-qarār hai ki nahīñ
dabā dabā sā sahī dil meñ pyaar hai ki nahīñ”
(Your gaze is bowed, is it at unease? Hushed as it might be, is there love for me in your heart?)
It is believed that Azmi, along with stalwarts like Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri, introduced Urdu poetry to Bombay cinema.
Other songs like ‘Kar Chale Hum Fida Jan-o-Tan Saathiyon, Ab Tumhare Havale Watan Saathiyon’ (Haqeeqat (1964)), still continue to find their place in every Independence Day and Republic Day playlist.
Azmi was married to Shaukat Kaifi (also credited as Shaukat Azmi in places), who also took up theatre later. About their love, Shaukat Kaifi remembers a wintry night in the early 2000s when she was singing around a bonfire with their daughter, Shabana (Azmi), her husband, Javed (Akhtar), and a few other villagers in Mijwan:
“ Kaifi who was too ill to join us sent a message with his nurse Maria to Javed Please sing Ai Meri Zohra Jabeen” from the film ‘Waqt’ for my wife from me” ( This is a song that Balraj Sahni sings for his wife Achala Sachdev in the film which has become the hallmark for older people expressing sentiments of romantic love ).”
A doting father, Shabana Azmi recalls him feeding, bathing and looking after her and her brother when their mother was working.
Azmi, with his soul-scorching storytelling and touching dialogues in films like M.S.Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, continues to live in the hearts and minds of people. His poetry about social justice, gender justice and equality still live on as lines from ‘Aurat’ and ‘Avara Sajde’ are reiterated in protests across the country to herald hope and admonish anguish.
On returning home after 40 years, when Azmi found that his village, Mijwan was still frozen in time, he decided to come back and change the destiny of his village. From being non-existent on the map of India, Mijwan is a model village recognised all over the world today. A road, a highway, and a Kaifiyat Express running from Azamgarh to Old Delhi are dedicated to him. Azmi is one of the only three poets and writers who have trains dedicated to them, the other two being Rabindranath Tagore (Geetanjali Express) and Premchand (Godaan Express).
In love, revolution, anguish and hope, Azmi’s verses will keep living on and Kaifi Azmi, who would have turned 101 today, will keep living on.
“Bahār aa.e to merā salām kah denā
Mujhe to aaj talab kar liyā hai sahrā ne
Huā hai hukm ki ‘kaifī’ ko sañgsār karo
Masīh baiThe haiñ chhup ke kahāñ ḳhudā jaane”
(Pass on my salutations to the spring when it blooms for I have been lured by the wilderness. Orders have been passed to stone ‘Kaifi’ to death. Only God knows where the Messiah is hiding.)
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