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What’s the face to a name?

We don’t have the foggiest idea what the great teachers of religions looked like. There were no cameras in those days; nor had any of them had a portrait made of himself, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: May 16, 2008, 22:09 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

We don’t have the foggiest idea what the great teachers of religions like Mahavir, Buddha, Zoraster, Sri Rama, Shri Krishna, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed or Guru Nanak looked like. There were no cameras in those days; nor had any of them had a portrait made of himself. Long after they died, some artist drew them out of his imagination after learning about what they had said. Later, painters and sculptors portrayed them like their predecessors had done. And still later, there were halos put around their heads. They became recognisable stereotypes.

I was a little mystified when Harjeet (Mrs Charanjeet Singh) came one morning, very excited about life-size portraits made of Guru Gobind Singh by one Saranjit Singh. She is a very devout Sikh (starts every morning with Gurdwara Bangla Sahib) before going to her office in Hotel Le Meridien. “He is different,” she suggested. “He has not painted Guru Gobind Singh as a warrior as everyone else has done, but as a scholar and a poet. You simply must see his work. I am arranging an exhibition in my hotel.”

It is true that Guru Gobind Singh is always shown on horseback, a hawk perched on one hand, a sword in the other. People tend to forget that he was also a scholar of Punjabi, Braj, Sanskrit and Persian. In a letter in Persian entitled Zafarnama, he had explained why he was compelled to take up arms:

Choo kar az hama, har heel tay darguzasht

Halaal ast burdan ba shamsheer dast

(When all other means have been tried, all means failed; It is righteous to draw the sword out of its sheath.)

Firaq Gorakhpuri summed it up in two lines:

Khawaab ko jazbai beydaar diye deyta hoon

Qaum key haath mein talwaar diye deyta hoon

(I will turn your dreams into a fervent reality; I will put a sword in the hands of my community)

Besides strong militant poetry, he also wrote some very moving verses in Punjabi which bring tears to one’s eyes. He was assassinated when only 42.

Harjeet had invited the cream of Delhi’s Sikh society. Rich sardars are better known for their marble bungalows and fleet of imported limousines than books or paintings. I wondered if Saranjit Singh would find any buyers. But miracles never cease to happen. His paintings did not come in thousands but in lakhs. He sold out all he had on show.


The late Professor Mujid, vice chancellor of Jamia Milia, was a frequent visitor to our home. He was great company because he was erudite and fluent in English, German and Urdu. He loved reciting Urdu poetry. His favourite poet was Majaz, who I had not read. I put down some couplets he recited in my note book. After Mujib died, I lost much of Majaz.

Recently I found another Majaz fan in A.R. Kidwai, Governor of Haryana. He is not given to recitation but reads a lot of books. He sent me a recently-published book on the poet in Urdu, compiled by Majaz’s niece Sehba Ali. Till then all I knew about Majaz’s life was that he used to hit the bottle hard. He spent some time in Ranchi hospital being treated for addiction to alcohol. It did not help. His life came to a premature end. He died in 1955. He was only 44.

Asar-ul-Haq Majaz started writing poetry while in college in Aligarh Muslim University. He won instant acclaim. His Nazar-e-Aligarh became the anthem of the Students Union. After passing out of the university, he joined All India Radio and edited its literary journal Aawaz. He threw his lot in with the Leftist Progressive Writers Movement along with Ali Sardar Jafri and published Naya Adab. Among his best known poems is Awaara — the vagabond. It starts in a mood of despair:

Shahr kee raat aur main naakara phiron

Jagmagati, jaagti sarak peh aawara phiron

Ghar kee bastee hai, kab take dar-ba-dar maara phiron?

Ai ghamey dil kya karoon? Ai vashat-e-dil kya karoon?

Professor Kuldip Salil translates it as follows:

This night falls in the city and I wander aimless and sad

On the awake and glittering roads, my aimless wandering,

O, how long in the aloof city, from door to door I go

What do I do? O sad heart, my mad heart.

The poem ends on a note of defiance and resolves to smash old, retrograde institutions and traditions.

Majaz condemned the segregation of women, exhorted them to shed their burqas and join their menfolk in creating a new modern world. It is surprising that he did not provoke the Ulema of Deoband to pronounce a fatwa on him. That is yet another reason why Majaz should be read.

Sheba Ali’s compilation gives a wealth of information about Majaz’s personal life and eccentricities. It deserves to be translated into English for a wider audience.

Spelling Leak

Rohit was in love with a girl from his college, but she did not return his sentiments. So one day Rohit wrote “Isle of view” on a piece of paper. He then waited till the girl was sitting, chatting with a group of her friends. Approaching her he asked the girl to kindly read what was written on the paper. The girl looked at what was written, thought it was something harmless and read it out loudly.

“Thank you,” said Rohit, “I love you too.”

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)

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