1 October 2008
It would be accurate to say that Faraz was the most famous and beloved twentieth-century Urdu poet from the subcontinent, after Iqbal (1877-1938) and Faiz (1911-1984). He may even be the most sung or popular among his contemporaries in any South Asian language. This is no small feat, since many of Faraz’s contemporaries have penned verse that is considered equally serious and innovative.
Destiny often plays a role for he who meets fame in his lifetime, or whose genius is unearthed after he has become dust and earth. Let me elaborate: It is difficult to understand the world of Urdu poetry from outside. Urdu poetry, especially in the ghazal format, cannot be separated from its counterpoint: the musical tradition of singing ghazals. In India and Pakistan, there is a breed of singers who primarily sing ghazals. The best of them are referred to as ghazal maestros. These singers work diligently to perfect their craft and dedicate it to ghazal singing, resisting the temptation to become film playback singers or pure classical singers of raags. Great singers treat evocative and subtle ghazals avec grand soin. Conversely, some ghazals have achieved iconic status, and, singers feel honored to have sung a ghazal by Ghalib or Mir and are judged against the major singers who have performed the ghazals before them.
Poets can be deeply indebted to a singer for a particular tune. Often a famous ghazal is sung by many singers and of course many times by the same singer, each time with a different embellishment, a new aspect in a line, a word, or a note. Ahmed Faraz was, perhaps, luckiest in this respect. The great Indian playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar, the nightingale of South Asia, once praised the Pakistani ghazal maestro Mehdi Hasan for his voice, saying Lord Rama’s chariot had passed through his throat. It should be noted that the ghazal Lata alluded to, Mehdi Hasan’s most famous, both in India and Pakistan and beyond, sung in the semi-classical mode, “Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa” (If you’re still angry, then, come even if it is to hurt my heart) was penned by none other than Ahmed Faraz.
But many years before the ghazal in Mehdi Hasan’s voice took India by storm, it had already been a mega hit as a film song in a Pakistani film, Mohabbat, sung by Hasan. Hasan provided the singing voice to Mohammad Ali, the movie’s star. The fact that a ghazal could be taken by a film music director and put into the service of a commercial enterprise speaks volume about the kind of fame, respect and love Ahmed Faraz had come to enjoy.
Faraz is predominantly a poet of ghazals, although he wrote poems as well, many of which became very popular both in India and Pakistan as well as wherever people can speak or understand Urdu or Hindi. As a Pakistani, I grew up hearing his name all around me. Music directors picked his ghazals for their movies, in which he lent his voice to my favorite actors, like Nadeem and Mohammad Ali. Pakistan Television often invited singers, both male and female, to record their renditions of Ahmed Faraz’s famous ghazals. Those recordings were then beamed all over the country. Often the movie and the non-movie versions competed against each other. One of Faraz’s best-loved ghazals “Yeh alam shauq ka dekha na jaaye” (Intolerable is this state of desiring) is one such gem. It has been sung for the screen by Naheed Akhtar, a great playback singer of her time, ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali, and Tahira Syed, who performed it for Pakistan Television. The last of these is the most haunting, in my humble view.
No South Asian writer’s work can be fully appreciated without the lens of colonialism and post-colonialism. With the interference and meddling of the British (acting under the influence of a Victorian and post-Renaissance mentality), into India’s indigenous literatures, the prime mode of expression of Urdu poetry, the ghazal, came under tremendous pressure, as it came to be seen as backward and degenerate. The ghazal was seen as artificial, pretentious, soaked in the vapors of alcohol. Men who wrote and recited ghazals, and the culture that promoted them were deemed incapable of rational, scientific thinking, and any serious, concrete thought. MacCauley’s poisonous words about Indian literature in his infamous minutes (1835) were having a disastrous effect on the perception of the ghazal. It is due to the genius of the Urdu language and her poets and the resilience of her native idiom that the ghazal fought back colonial prejudice and reclaimed its rightful position.
It wasn’t an easy journey.
Faraz became a sensation with the publication of his first collection of ghazals and poems. Each new collection added to his fame and stature as a major poet. Most critics agree that his verse—at least the earlier half—is light and romantic, but still touched a certain nerve. It spoke to an important part of the human heart. I believe there were several reasons for audiences’ positive response. Most other major poets steered the Urdu ghazal in the direction of social consciousness, issues of isolation, man’s confrontation with the material world, dictatorship and the tyranny of modern times. What Faraz offered in contrast was the ghazal’s essence: love, ache, longing, beauty, separation, union, life, death. But with a fresh and highly creative vocabulary!
Unlike two other great male contemporaries of his, Nasir Kazmi and Munir Niazi, Faraz didn’t suffer the scars or trauma of partition directly, and that’s why his early verse is not mainly concerned with those issues. Although his verse is light, it retains a highly skillful control of Urdu diction and meter. It is often read against that of the other three towering poets of his time, Munir, Nasir, and Kishwar Naheed’s highly feminist poetry.
Although Faraz never lost his original charm in verse, a new poet was beginning to emerge from inside him as social conditions and the political realities of Pakistan, and most of the world, began to change in the 60s. The student movement, labor agitation, the formation of the Pakistan People’s Party, the first free elections of 1970 and the political opposition to American-backed military dictatorships, all had a profound influence on his consciousness. Despite this crucial transformation, Faraz remained a poet of love and the heart. He was not a political poet in the sense of Hikmat, Faiz or Neruda. Nor was he a philosophical poet in the tradition of Tagore. What earned Faraz political respect was his resilience against state oppression. If he felt like saying something, he said it. If that went against the status quo, so be it.
As has been quoted in several homages and obituary write-ups, his first confrontation with tyranny came from the democratically elected leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In a public soiree, Faraz recited a poem, not a ghazal, passing a guilty verdict on the Pakistani Army for their crime in killing their own in the then East Pakistan. He called the soldiers “professional killers.” He was arrested and put in jail without a warrant or trial. Other intellectuals, such as Kishwar Naheed and the cream of society, like the melody queen of South Asia, the singer Noor Jehan had to pull all the strings available to them to get him out. A lesser poet would have learned his lesson, his spirits broken, but Faraz proved he was stronger than his enemies. He chose to walk in the footsteps of the sufi poets of the Punjab, and modern rebel poets such as Jalib and Faiz. You could jail him, exile him, throw him out of his job, but you couldn’t bend or silence his verse. When he wanted to say something direct, no fear or metaphor could hide it. His second showdown was with the intellectually zero dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Again Faraz did not bow down. This time, he chose exile in the tradition of Darwish of Palestine and Faiz, who went to Beirut, and Fahmida Riaz of Pakistan who went to India.
It is testament to his greatness that when his poetry changed and absorbed social and political contours, he followed its call, even at the risk of his life. Other articles have pointed out that he was fired from his honorary position and his belongings thrown out, solely due to his critique of the American-backed General Musharaf. It is remarkable that in this day and age, any civilized country’s leadership can stoop so low as to treat one of its most respected poets this way. At least that should have earned Pakistan a gold at the Olympics, in the poet-thrashing category.
You can take a poet out of a language, but you cannot take language out of the poet. I’d argue that Faraz’s greatness lies in the era he wrote in, not because he broke any major ground, or for any experimentation he did with form and registers of language. Unlike Faiz or Firaq who are pre-partition poets, Faraz belongs to the post-partition era. For his poetry to reach all corners of India at a time when it’s eradication was part of state policy hints at the subtle but tremendous appeal of his verse to singers, the young and the uninitiated.
Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over twenty years, I had countless opportunities to see Faraz read. Of those opportunities, I missed all but one. Before I went I was ambivalent about the seriousness of the crowd. But I was glad I went. I also went because a California-based singer was supposed to sing ghazals in the second half of the program. The LA-based Moni Deepa Sharma, of Bengali origin, had fallen in love with Urdu and had gone to Aligarh University to study the language, so she could sing Urdu poetry one day. She has become California’s premier ghazal singer. It was a sight to watch a Bengali being connected to a Pathan’s ghazals through a bridge written in Urdu. There cannot be a greater homage to a language, and admirers of Urdu are indebted to people like Faraz who inspire non-Urdu speakers to fall under its spell.