‘Faiz Ahmad Faiz as a World Poet’ by Javed Majeed

FAIZ BIRTH CENTENARY 1911-2011
Presentation at Poet in the City, King’s Place, London Jan 17 2011

First I would like to thank Anita Mir and Graham Henderson for organising this event and for inviting me to talk at it. Thank you also to all of you for coming. I am going to talk about the distinctive nature of Faiz’s poetry and why he is a world poet.

Faiz’s poetry needs to be interpreted against the background of the political upheavals of the twentieth century. His life spanned the two world wars, the rise of fascism in Europe, the growth of religious nationalism in the Indian subcontinent, decolonisation and the partition of India, and the uncertainties of postcolonial nationhood, most vividly brought home by the break up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

His poetry raises three important questions. First, how do you recover hope from political disillusionment? How do you create spaces of hope out of the degraded conditions we find ourselves in?

Secondly, how do you write politically committed poetry that is not mere propaganda or excessively moralising? What Faiz does is to express the difficulties of making political commitments, the range of emotions it involves, and the inner struggles of the individual who is politically committed. He does not simplify political commitment; instead he shows how complex it is.

Thirdly, how does a poet work with the tradition he or she has inherited in order to produce original and new poetry? Faiz is steeped in the classical traditions of the Urdu ghazal or love lyric, its symbols, images, and characters. These characters include the lover (ashiq), the beloved (mashuq), the rival (raqib), the friend who gives the lover useless advice (nasih), the cup-bearer at the wine party (saqi), and the strict religious moraliser (sheikh). Faiz draws on these symbolic figures and the history of their subtle descriptions in Urdu poetry to produce political verse. He also draws on the imagined places of the Urdu ghazal, such as the wine tavern or meh khana, the street of the beloved, the gathering (mehfil), the mosque, the temple, and the garden. In his poetry, without sacrificing the history of their meanings, these places become spaces of political oppression and hope.

Furthermore, Faiz generally writes in the classical metres of Urdu poetry. Using the couplet, he combines tightness of form with expansiveness of meaning. This aspect of Urdu poetry is hard to capture in English, not least because English is a stress-timed language while Urdu is a syllable-timed language. Urdu is scanned by quantity not stress and hence translations of Urdu poetry into English often look prosaic.

I am going to talk about three poems Faiz wrote while in prison on his experience of imprisonment. I have chosen the prison poems because in many ways prisons and camps of various kinds (such as the concentration camp, the POW camp, and the refugee camp) were the defining spaces of the twentieth century.

The poems are ‘Zindan ki aik shám’ (A Prison Evening), ‘Zindan ki Aik Subha’ (A Prison Morning), and ‘Qaid-e Tanhai’ (Solitary Confinement). In these poems Faiz explores issues of freedom and constraint, the creation of hope in the midst of despair, and the use of the language of the Urdu ghazal or love lyric and Sufi poetry to create a sense of political commitment.

The first thing to note about these poems is that his writing of poetry in prison is itself a defiance of his imprisonment; Faiz is able to use prison cell creatively. So if we look at ‘Zindan ki aik sham’ (A Prison Evening) we can note three things. The poet finds inner freedom in prison by observing and describing carefully the coming of evening and the changing nature of light in his prison cell, which he expresses in a series of images such as:

Shana-e bam par damakta hai
Mehrban chandni ka dast-e jamil

On the crest of the roof is glittering
The beautiful hand of the gracious moonlight

Defiantly, the poet describes the sweetness of the moment of nightfall in prison, sweet because of the calming effect of the moonlight, and because he has survived another day in prison. This leads him to consider how limited the power of tyranny might be, since these tyrants cannot extinguish the moon from which he draws comfort. At the same time, the moon is often a symbol of the beloved’s beauty in Urdu poetry, and mehtab or moonlight describes the glow of the beloved’s shining face. In Urdu poetry generally, the separation of the lover from the beloved is described in a variety of ways, and much attention is paid to evoking the pain of separation and the fluctuating moods of the lover. In this poem, Faiz uses the language of separation from the beloved to describe the changing colours of the sky. These wavering colours are like “the waves of pain for separation from the loved one” coming into his heart:

Nur mein ghul gai hai ‘arsh ka nil
Sabz goshon men nilgun sa’e
Lahlahate hain jis tarah dil men
Mauj-e dard-e firaq-e-yar a’e.

The blue of the sky has dissolved into the light
Dark blue shadows in green corners
Waver as if waves of the pain of separation
from the beloved had stolen into my heart

Thus while previous poets lament their separation from the beloved, for Faiz the observation of changing light in his prison cell and the pain of separation from the beloved creates the energy of hope while in prison. Paradoxically, the anguish of separation becomes a condition of hope and makes possible the energy of political commitment and the poem that expresses it.

In his other poem ‘Zindan ki aik subh’, ‘A Morning in Prison’, again the poet draws a vivid picture of the changing light in his prison cell as dawn breaks, and mixes it with the language of lost lovers. He imagines his companions being united in their “grief of country, their sorrow at their separation from the face of the beloved” (des ka dard, firaq-e rukh-e mehbub ka gham).

But more importantly, the poet also imagines that the guards themselves might be oppressed by prison, as they too are poor and hungry. Remarkably, then, the imprisoned poet sympathises with the oppressed condition not only of his comrades, but the guards themselves, whom he describes as “yellow, tyrannized by hunger” (zard, faqon ke sata’e hu’e).

In his poem ‘Qaid-e tanhai’ (‘Solitary Confinement’) Faiz mixes a picture of the changing light in his prison cell with what he calls the “anguish of hope”, but here he very skilfully combines a key concept from mystical poetry with the language of the Urdu love lyric. Thus he imagines the beloved walking past the prison and he writes:

Ko’i naghma, ko’i khushbu, ko’i kafir surat
‘Adam abad-e juda’i mein musafir surat
Be khabar guzri, pareshani-e umid liye

Some melody, a scent, a transgressively enchanting face
In separation’s abode of non-existence a travelling face
Passed heedlessly by bringing the anxiety of hope

For Muslim Sufi poets, the abode of non-existence refers to our unreal existence separated from God, who for them is the only real existent being in the Universe. For Faiz, this abode is likened to his solitary confinement in his prison cell, where one quickly loses any sense of concrete reality. In this way he secularises this image from Sufi poetry. But what revives him is his imagined glimpse of the beloved, for Sufis this would be God, for Urdu poets the woman or man one is in love with. Faiz works with the history of these meanings, to create a figure of the beloved as the scent, the melody, and the countenance of freedom. All these create what he calls the “anxiety of hope”.

In this poem Faiz also uses the imagery of wine and the saqi or wine pourer, to describe his sense of solidarity with his comrades:

Des pardes ke yaran-e qadahkhwar ke nam
Husn-e afaq, jamal-e lab-o-rukhsar ke nam

In the name of my cup-drinking friends here and abroad
In the name of the beauty of the horizons, the loveliness of cheek and lip.

Urdu poets often celebrated the wine drinking assembly, where the poet and his rivals were imagined to sit around the beloved, their glasses filled by the wine pourer as they recited their poetry in praise of her or him. In Sufi poetry, the saqi becomes the spiritual leader, the wine the truths the disciple imbibes, and different levels and kinds of drunkenness represented different stages of closeness to God. Faiz inherits these two senses of the assembly and drunkenness. The wine drinking and poetry-reciting assembly becomes an image of solidarity in a world wide political movement whose bonds are created by drinking, as it were, from the same glass of politics.

There is a lot more that one could say about Faiz’s poetry, such as the measured pace of his couplets that strike a note of sorrowful reflection, and his use of the grammatical properties of Urdu and Persian to create compounds of meaning and shades of subtlety that evoke the complex energies of political commitment.

Let me end, though, by thinking about Faiz’s pen name or takhallus. The pen name Faiz means ‘bounty’, ‘liberality’, ‘generosity’ – but it also has the connotations of grace and graciousness. Faiz’s poetry is indeed graceful and elegant, but it is also generous in three ways.

First, it is generous in its empathy for the suffering of others, including the guards in his prison, and in other poems, for the politically subjugated, the economically exploited and the sexually oppressed, and this empathy becomes the basis for solidarity across cultures and nationalities in a kind of radical humanism grounded in an acute awareness of human suffering. Secondly, in many of his poems Faiz expresses his inner turmoil and confusion, and his doubts and anxieties openly. He doesn’t try to hide or disguise these, and he gives of himself generously in his poetry. Thirdly, his poetry is generous in that he takes a risk with it by working within the traditions of classical Urdu poetry and its polished culture to create new meanings for an Indian and Pakistani socialist poetry. In this sense, I think you will agree that the pen name Faiz suits his poetry admirably. •


Professor Javed Majeed read English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, University of Oxford from 1981 to 1984. He was awarded First Class Honours. After completing his doctorate at Magdalen, he held Research Fellowships at Churchill College, University of Cambridge and the Centre of South Asian Studies, also at Cambridge. His publications include Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalism (Clarendon Press, 1992), Hali’s Musaddas. The Ebb and Flow of Islam (OUP, 1997, with Christopher Shackle), Autobiography, Travel, and Postnational Identity: Gandhi, Nehru and Iqbal (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, Aesthetics, and Postcolonialism (2008). Professor Majeed currently teaches at the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London.

One comment on “‘Faiz Ahmad Faiz as a World Poet’ by Javed Majeed

  1. […] politically committed poetry that is not mere propaganda or excessive moralising?” mused Javed Majeed at Poet in the City’s celebration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s birth centenary. Faiz, he said, […]

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