Gulzar: A seeker in the shrine of poetry - Hindustan Times
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Gulzar: A seeker in the shrine of poetry

Feb 26, 2024 11:13 AM IST

The reason is that Gulzar is, at his core, a poet, and by extension, a writer and film-maker. Writing has been his passion since he was a child

I was with Gulzar Saheb at the Jaipur Literature Festival (2008) when it was announced that he had won the Oscar for his song, Jai Ho, in Slumdog Millionaire. We were seated at a table in a secluded corner of the venue, but with the announcement, our solitude ended and he was swept away by the crowds.

Gulzar the poet came into his own in his writings outside of films, and this is where his eternal literary legacy will lie (PTI Photo) PREMIUM
Gulzar the poet came into his own in his writings outside of films, and this is where his eternal literary legacy will lie (PTI Photo)

When I called a few days ago to congratulate him for winning the Jnanpith award, he typically responded by saying: “Afsos ki is baar aap mere saath nahin thhe (A pity that you were not with me this time).” But his happiness at receiving this award — among the dozens of others he has won, including the Oscar, the Grammy, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, six National Awards, 22 Filmfare Awards, and the Sahitya Academy Award — was transparent.

The reason is that Gulzar is, at his core, a poet, and by extension, a writer and film-maker. Writing — and reading good writing — has been his passion since he was a child. When his family moved to Delhi after Partition, his father had a shop, where a young Sampooran Singh Kalra — his original name — was asked to sit after school. It was a tedious job, but the lad soon discovered a lending library, from which he would borrow literary classics, and read relentlessly, often till late at night. That was the time too that he discovered Tagore, which he often says was a life-changing moment.

Family circumstances led him to move to Mumbai, where he worked for some time in a motor garage as a painter, touching up dented vehicles. In his spare time, however, he was absorbed doing something similar with words — chiselling, polishing, and shaping them until they shone with poetic lustre. It was this absorption that led him to the Progressive Writers Association, where he ran into film-lyricist Shailendra, who in turn gave him the opportunity to write for Hindi films, with the song “Mora gora ang layle”, for director Bimal Roy’s 1963 film, Bandini. Roy wanted a Vaishnav touch to this composition — as the scene warranted — and Gulzar surprised him by writing one that remains unforgettable even today.

His poetic sensitivity — and literary sensibility — informs almost everything he has done in films. His directorial debut, Mere Apne (1971), was based on famous Bengali writer Inder Mitra’s story; Aandhi (1975) was based on Kamleshwar’s story, Kala Aandhi; Mausam (1975) was inspired by AJ Cronin’s novel, The Judas Tree; Khushboo (1975) was a cinematic version of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Pandit Mashay; and Angoor (1982) was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. And then, of course, there is his iconic tribute to Mirza Ghalib in the eponymous TV serial, where his direction, Naseeruddin Shah’s acting, and Jagjit Singh’s voice, combined to create pure magic.

Gulzar entered the world of film lyrics reluctantly. His desire was to become a serious poet, and not write lyrics dictated by the tune, metre and situation of a film script. But his great achievement was that even in films, he never compromised on his chastity as a poet.

In Mere Apne, the song, “Koi hota jisko apna”, touched a raw nerve. In Aandhi, his poem “Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa toh nahin” heralded a new literary freshness. In Khamoshi (1969), the lyric, “Humne dekhi hai un aankhon ki mehekti khushboo”, surprised audiences used to the same jaded analogies. Even the song, “Chhaiyan chhaiyan”, in the film Dil Se (1998), based on Bulleh Shah’s Sufi outpouring, “Thaiyan thaiyan”, had a strong poetic appeal.

As a film poet, Gulzar realised that his writing must catch the changing literary vocabulary, and the essence of the situation. It was his poetic dexterity, therefore, that made him compose the hugely popular song from Omkara (2006), “Beedi jalaee le jigar se piya, jigar ma badi aag hai”. And yet, whenever he could, he would write a song that gave full play to his magical — even startling — poetic imagery. Who else but Gulzar could write, in Aandhi, “patthar ki haveli ko, sheeshon ke gharaundo mein, tinke ke nasheman tak, is mod se jaate hain”.

Scores of other examples can be given of his stubbornly captivating creativity even in the confines of lyrics for films. But, Gulzar the poet came into his own in his writings outside of films, and this is where his eternal literary legacy will lie. He has six volumes of published poetry: Chaand Pukhraj Ka, Raat Pashminey Ki, Pandrah Paanch Pachhattar, Kuch Aur Nazmein, Pluto and Triveni, covering a span of over four decades.

I have translated into English four volumes of his works: Selected Poems, Neglected Poems, Green Poems, and Suspected Poems. These contain endless gems, such as Kitaben, Rooh Dekhi Hai, Kabhi Rooh Ko Mehsoos Kiya Hai, Mujhko Ko Bhi Tarkeeb Sikha Koi Yaar Julahe, to name just a few, which are even more loved by his fans than some of his film lyrics.

What astonishes me is that his non-cinematic poetic exuberance is near limitless. In fact, his dedication to poetry as a genre is akin to ibadat or worship.

The Jnanpith Award for literature is a most befitting tribute to a man whose life has been devoted to literature. It is time now that he receives the Nobel Prize.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat, and former member of Rajya Sabha. The views expressed are personal

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