Rekha and Farooq Sheikh in Umrao Jaan(HT Photo)
Rekha and Farooq Sheikh in Umrao Jaan(HT Photo)

Review: Shahryar: A Life in Poetry by Rakhshanda Jalil

A new biography states that Shahryar’s work as a film lyricist harmed his image of being a serious poet
By Lamat R Hasan | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2019 05:53 PM IST
226pp, Rs 599; HarperCollins India
226pp, Rs 599; HarperCollins India

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
)

Urdu poet and film lyricist Dr Akhlaq Mohammed Khan Shahryar (HT Photo)
Urdu poet and film lyricist Dr Akhlaq Mohammed Khan Shahryar (HT Photo)

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.”

Author Rakhshanda Jalil (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Rakhshanda Jalil (Courtesy HarperCollins)

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!”

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
Author Durjoy Datta says the idea of love in his books has evolved over time. (Photo: Instagram/DurjoyDatta)
Author Durjoy Datta says the idea of love in his books has evolved over time. (Photo: Instagram/DurjoyDatta)

Durjoy Datta: Criticism used to bother me but now I don’t have energy for anger

By Mallika Bhagat, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 02:22 PM IST
The author popular for exploring romance genre talks about not taking criticism to heart, his ever evolving concept of love, and even shares some words of wisdom for the young writers.
Close
Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick(Instagram/reesewitherspoon)
Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick(Instagram/reesewitherspoon)

Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick

By Zarafshan Shiraz
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 01:03 PM IST
  • Ahead of Women’s Day 2021, Hollywood actor Reese Witherspoon shares an ‘exceptionally powerful and illuminating’ book as her March pick after launching a free app for her book club which celebrates ‘diverse voices that put women at the center of their stories’
Close
Priyanka Chopra shares her favourite books by women authors(Instagram/priyankachopra)
Priyanka Chopra shares her favourite books by women authors(Instagram/priyankachopra)

Women's History Month: Priyanka Chopra shares favourite books by female authors

By Nishtha Grover, Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 11:09 AM IST
  • Priyanka Chopra recently took to her Instagram stories and shared a few of her favourite books written by female authors in celebration of Women's History Month. Check out the list here:
Close
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri (Mohit Suneja)
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri (Mohit Suneja)

Essay: A tribute to Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri

By CP Surendran
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 04:30 PM IST
The work of the Malayalam poet, who died on February 25, invoked an inclusive democracy of kindness and of the coexistence of humans, animals and things
Close
Books on food nostalgia, the uses and excitement of lifelong learning, and colonialism feature on the list of recommended reads this week. (HT Team)
Books on food nostalgia, the uses and excitement of lifelong learning, and colonialism feature on the list of recommended reads this week. (HT Team)

HT Picks: New Reads

By HT Team
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 11:30 PM IST
Recipes, nostalgia, the art of picking up new skills, and an exploration of Britain’s strange collective amnesia about its colonial past feature on this week’s reading list
Close
Author Olivia Sudjic (Courtesy Bloomsbury)
Author Olivia Sudjic (Courtesy Bloomsbury)

Interview: Olivia Sudjic, author, Asylum Road

By Simar Bhasin
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 11:09 PM IST
The author talks about exploring self-destructive impulses and the myths of exceptionalism in her post-Brexit novel
Close
A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Review: Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction by Anirban Mahapatra

By Sukumar Ranganathan
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 10:36 PM IST
Anirban Mahapatra’s book places the coronavirus disease pandemic in the context of the science of viruses and viral pandemics
Close
The book, titled "Dynasty to Democracy: The Untold Story of Smriti Irani's Triumph", traces Union Minister Irani's journey from her defeat in 2014 to her victory in the Congress stronghold of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.(Amazon)
The book, titled "Dynasty to Democracy: The Untold Story of Smriti Irani's Triumph", traces Union Minister Irani's journey from her defeat in 2014 to her victory in the Congress stronghold of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.(Amazon)

Book on Smriti Irani's victory in Amethi to release in English

PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 04:57 PM IST
The English translation of journalist-author Anant Vijay's book "Amethi Sangram: Aitihasik Jeet Ankahi Dastan" will be released on March 15, announced publishing house Westland on Friday.
Close
Cecilia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series(Twitter/SairaHussain90/Cecelia_Ahern/delirium_nerd)
Cecilia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series(Twitter/SairaHussain90/Cecelia_Ahern/delirium_nerd)

Cecelia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series

By Zarafshan Shiraz
UPDATED ON MAR 05, 2021 01:02 PM IST
  • Irish author Cecelia Ahern's book 'Roar', which was a female-driven anthology of 30 short stories, to be screened on Apple TV+ as an 8-episode series starring Emmy and Golden Globe award winners Nicole Kidman, Alison Brie, Cynthia Erivo and Merritt Wever
Close
King, 77, will also write about her activism on behalf of women in tennis and beyond, and such private struggles as an eating disorder and acknowledging her sexual identity.(Amazon)
King, 77, will also write about her activism on behalf of women in tennis and beyond, and such private struggles as an eating disorder and acknowledging her sexual identity.(Amazon)

Billie Jean King memoir 'All In' to be published in August

AP, New York
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 10:52 AM IST
Billie Jean King has a memoir coming this summer, and she calls it a journey to her “authentic self.”
Close
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)

Worried about climate change? There's a book for that.

Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 07:24 PM IST
Books titled “Trees in Trouble” and “How We’re F—ing Up Our Planet” scream out from the shelves of Barnes and Noble’s nature and wildlife section between reassuring tomes on hummingbirds and wildflowers.
Close
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)

Ira Mukhoty: I want to talk about strong women of Nawabi era

By Deep Saxena
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 02:43 PM IST
Author Ira Mukhoty is researching her first book on Awadh. Having penned ‘Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History’, ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’ and ‘Akbar: The Great Mughal’, the Delhite spent about a week in Lucknow hunting down facts for her book.
Close
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)

Essay: The importance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

By Chintan Girish Modi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2021 05:38 PM IST
The courtroom drama around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), that focussed on the defence of free expression, provides a case study for contemporary writers, filmmakers, and stand-up comedians in other parts of the world facing censorship
Close
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)

New book uncovers Indian mystery probed by Sherlock Holmes author

PTI, London
PUBLISHED ON FEB 28, 2021 10:27 AM IST
Arthur Conan Doyle was drawn to investigate just one real-life crime during his lifetime and it involved a British Indian man wrongly accused of a series of mysterious crimes in an English village in the early 20th century.
Close
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)

HT Picks; New Reads

By HT Team
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:46 PM IST
This week’s list of interesting reads includes a satire on the Indian publishing scene, insights from the career trajectory of an atypical bureaucrat, and a critique of the illiberal forces that dominate our lives
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP