Review: Shahryar: A Life in Poetry by Rakhshanda Jalil
Established writer and translator Rakhshanda Jalil’s newest book is a biography of legendary poet Shahryar whose fabulous body of work spans several decades. Born Kunwar Akhlaq Muhammad Khan, in public memory, unfortunately, Shahryar is largely remembered for writing a few memorable Hindi film songs.
In the first few paras of the book, Jalil lets it known that this book is a study of Shahryar’s “oeuvre”, an attempt to write the literary history of contemporary Urdu poetry, and that she will not dwell on his personal life, unless it “shapes and affects his work”.
Readers will miss acutely Jalil’s not dwelling on Najma Mahmood, Shahryar’s ex-wife. The genius professor who taught English in Aligarh Muslim University, was equally well-versed in Urdu, and wrote in both the languages. It was disheartening to not learn anything at all about how Shahryar and Najma met or parted and how she influenced his work, if at all. There is mention of Shahryar dedicating the third collection of his poetry, Hijr ke Mausam, to his wife whom he married in 1968. The same volume also included Najma ke Liye Ek Nazm. Far from a conventional love ballad, yet, as Jalil points out, the nazm hints at the intensity of their relationship.
The book is divided into two sections. The first part deals with Shahryar’s literary journey, and the second with his poetry, translated by Jalil into the English language. The translations of his nazms and ghazals are a huge favour to those who want to read Shahryar’s original works (English transliteration), even as readers may be left with the feeling that the translations are too literal.
Born in 1936 in a family of Rajput Muslims in Bareilly, Shahryar sidestepped a career in the police force, and started writing. Jalil believes that Shahryar was neither tarraqui pasand (progressive) nor jadeed parast (modernist) – as most acclaimed writers at that time were. His relationship with the two major literary movements of the time – Progressive Writers’ Movement and modernism – was ambiguous.
Jalil writes that Jnanpith-winning Shahryar’s poetry was understated, unlike that of contemporary Urdu greats such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Ahmed Faraz, but has the same impact. “While refusing to fully adopt the vocabulary of the inquilabi shair (revolutionary poet) favoured by the progressives, he refused to write merely to satisfy his own creative self or ease the burden of his soul, thus differing sharply from the jadeed parast (modernists) as well.”
There were no high notes in Shahryar’s poetry or personal life. His peers and fellow writers used their pen to vent their ire, Shahryar’s writing was muted, but equally impactful.
“Tumhare shahr mein kuchh bhi huwa nahin hai kya
Ke tumne cheekhon ko sachmuch suna nahin hai kya
Main ek zamaane se hairaan hoon ke hakim-e-shahr
Jo ho raha hai usey dekhta nahin hai kya”
(Has nothing happened in this city of yours
Have you really not heard the screams
For long I have wondered why the ruler of this city
Cannot see what is happening here)
Shahryar did not like the undue importance given to mauzu or topics and maqsadiyat or subjects that were purposive and served a useful function. “It is not important how many poems are written on Korea; instead, what is important is how many good poems we remember being written on Korea,” Jalil quotes Shahryar as saying in an interview.
Shahryar’s greatest contribution to modern Urdu literature is the ease with which he brought together the traditional and the contemporary idiom. Brevity and the use of modern metaphors were the hallmark of his poetry. The continuity of thought in his ghazals is said to be unique, a craft not many have been able to master. However, Shahryar considered himself to be his most scathing critic, choosing not to publish writings which he did not feel happy about.
Jalil believes the melancholy in Shahryar’s poetry was not a reflection of his own life. On the contrary, he was a jovial man – the soul of every gathering. The seemingly personal set of symbols, images and metaphors he evolved in his body of work, which many thought articulated his loneliness, were, therefore, misleading, much like how, despite being a self-confessed Marxist, he was not an atheist.
Shahryar loved people and food, including cooking, and engaged and entertained friends with shairs, rarely his own. He let his poetry speak in public, never mind that he did not care to recite his couplets at mushairas: “…he would appear at mushairas as though he had come under duress, recite his poetry with evident disinterest… and rush off the stage as if he had come to perform a painful task and was relieved when it was over.”
Shahryar joined the department of Urdu in Aligarh as a lecturer in 1966, a year after his debut collection of poems Ism-e Azam was published. Jalil also poses the classic question - was Shahryar a good teacher; can creative people make good teachers; and would Ghalib have been a great teacher if he had got the job at Delhi College? Thanks to the times we live in, Jalil emphasises that Shahryar wrote in Urdu, and lived and worked in Aligarh, but he was not a Muslim poet.
Though a household name because of his film lyrics, Jalil believes that this harmed his image of a serious poet. Shahryar wrote songs for filmmaker Muzaffar Ali starting with Gaman (1978), Umrao Jaan (1981), Anjuman (1986), and a few unreleased films. He also wrote songs for a Yash Chopra movie Faasle (1985). He later refused a three-film deal that Chopra offered him as he did not want to become a “song shop”. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in the film world, and never tried to fit it.
Read more: Nida Fazli : You are alive in me
Shahryar was upset when Umrao Jaan was remade with Aishwarya Rai in the lead role. He told me at the time of its release, “Donon filmon ka koi muqabla nahin hai.” (There cannot be any comparison between the two films) and “Yeh to moonh chidane wali baat hui.” (This amounts to making fun of the classic.)
Jalil’s book needs tighter edits; the arguments are often repetitive. The second section of the book, that features translations of his poetry, does not work. The couplets lose their rhythm. But then, translating poetry is never easy. I can almost hear Shahryar chuckle: “Yeh to moonh chidane wali baat hui!”
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