The way it was: Rendering verse

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Faiz was essentially a romantic. Can anyone make a revolution without being a romantic? At the same time, can any one make revolution without anger?

A far as reciting his own verse is concerned Taufiq Raffat was the worst poet in the world. Once on walking into the Lahore Television studios I was met with a visibly irritated Shahid Mahmood Nadeem. Apparently when Shahid was recording Taufiq recite his own poems Aslam Azhar, the managing director unexpectedly walked in on them. He was aghast to hear what Taufiq was doing to the English verse.

Aslam Azhar scowled at Shahid in disbelief demanding that Taufiq be instantly removed from the studio. Shahid was embarrassed beyond description. He had with immense effort succeeded in persuading Taufiq to appear in the literary programme he was producing. Taufiq was a friendly person, but preferred being left out of such hassles. He liked writing verse while commuting between Sialkot and Lahore or in the company of carpenters who worked in the woodwork factory established by his father at the turn of the last century.

Taufiq’s father was a resourceful man. When he was a young boy of eleven, he suffered from Tuberculosis. In those days TB was considered a terminal disease because there was no cure for it. Doctors gave him ten years at the most, but Taufiq’s father lived to be 91. I met Taufiq for the first time at the Punjab University, Fine Arts Department. He was a close friend of Professor Khalid Iqbal since they were in school at Dera Dun. I remember he bought a painting of mine for twenty-three rupees. I think he should have at least paid me twenty-five. The amount was not bad for the late fifties, and I was content to convert it into Winston Newton tubes of paint the same afternoon.

Poets are always eager to recite their verses. There are some, which are even prepared to pay for the tea if any one is willing to lend an ear. Taufiq spared you the ordeal and instead amused his friends with country humour, which he would pick off his carpenter friends. Every time he came to Lahore, he would visit Khalid Iqbal at the department and much to Khalid’s embarrassment and our pleasure enriched our repertoire of humour with new inventions. I have never ceased to wonder at the imagination and modesty of the anonymous wits that have never ever claimed their authorship to a joke.

Shahid Mahmood Nadeem demonstrated great courage and tact to manoeuvre Mr Aslam Azhar into the adjacent room and in low voice tried to inform him that the man was the poet himself. Aslam Azhar was not impressed and shouted as loud he could in his chaste English accent, “Even if that is so, I will still not have it. Find someone who can read him properly.” I cannot think of anyone who could read Taufiq better than Kaleem Omar.

Kaleem is a poet of substance himself, but greatly devoted to Taufiq. I remember he never lost an opportunity to recite Taufiq to an audience. What a vast difference it made to the poems when the poet sat silently in a corner drinking Coca-Cola. Taufiq is no more, but his vibrant images and descriptions of common sights and things live on. It warms my heart no end that a small painting of mine of the Commercial Building, which I rendered sitting across the Mall in the Coffee House, is in his family’s possession.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz had marginally a better voice for rendering verse. But he managed it much better, stressing words with his husky round voice and stopping without warning in the middle of a line, to have a puff or a sip. I never heard Faiz tell a joke, but without doubt he was infectiously adorable. His admirers and protégés never got tired of pandering to him and claiming his friendship. Even Murtaza Bashir the Bengali painter who could only manage broken sentences in Urdu would always insist on asking Faiz at parties, “Faij sahib aik ghajal ho jai.”

Faiz spawned an insufferable crowd of mediocrity, whose claim to fame depends on their skill to show off their familiarity with Faiz. I wish they were also able to put a few lines together, which could penetrate feelings as Faiz could so easily accomplish. Some of the most boring and tiresome people I have come across are ones who have puffed at his cigarette butts (Faiz was a chain smoker) or asked him over for an evening to show him off to their acquaintances.

Faiz never acted precious and usually obliged. I have never come across a person who would so agreeably accept an invitation and so graciously indulge others and also amiably allow him to be indulged. He would make himself at home, which would put the host and hostess at ease. It is a precious gift that Faiz had, which most celebrities offensively lack.

There are scores of young and old poets, who try to emulate Faiz, which is the cause of their undoing. Analogies can be often misleading, but this brings to mind some of the former students of Khalid Iqbal, who are enraptured by the painter’s work, with disastrous consequences. Khalid is a modern person with a modern sensibility. He is an objective, rational and enlightened person. He neither believes in ghosts or metaphysics. He is a man of reason who spurns ideologies. He is a Shavian cynic who believes in doubting all certainties. The man’s paintings are not a product of his conscious self, but a bi-product of his existential being.

There is an Urdu saying which can be translated thus, “A crow that ventured to walk like a peacock forgot the way he walked himself.” Similarly poets who adore Faiz forget that he was a product of his own particular circumstances and concerns. He was obviously a great romantic, which is evident from his earlier poems.

Even later when he had steadied his heart he remained a romantic. In addition Faiz was a scholar of Urdu, Arabic, Persian and English literature. In the creative endeavours he helped himself to any thing which served his purpose. The one error Faiz made was that he lent an extra life to the Ghazal, which should have been allowed to die its natural death. By employing the literary ambiguities and conceits of Elliot and Ezra Pound, he enriched the language of poetry. He spurned conventional platitudes and while creating new images he recharged some of the old ones. He replaced the mystique of the cruel beloved with the romance of the proletarian revolution. He not only changed the idiom of poetic language, but also broadened its intellectual substance, bringing it nearer to our time.

Faiz was fortunate to have great artists like Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano and many others of talent to sing his poems. Taufiq Rafat had only Kaleem Omar. Compared with the two, Habib Jalib was endowed with a great voice.

I still remember the first time I heard him recite one of his poems at the Cheney’s Lunch Home. He had a rising resonant voice, which held every one captive. I have often heard admirers of Faiz criticising Jalib for his explicit topicality, his overt concern for the events of the day. If poetry does not distance itself from everyday actual events, they argue, it can regress to propaganda.

Faiz’s poetry on the other hand by transcending transient concerns is able to focus on larger issues, which address all “wretched” humans. The supporters of the other camp assert that Jalib is outspoken and forthright in his poetic utterances and addresses an audience whose sufferings and concerns are closely linked with his own.

Jalib’s exasperation with the class system and repressive political culture and values built up great resentment in him. The substance of his poetic experience could not be confined within tidy formal patterns. Jalib expresses his anguish and anger and has little time to ponder over personal suffering or romantically dilate over events of the time. People have seen how he could overwhelm hearts and shake mountains. We all remember how his poetry shook the foundations of the Ayub government, which all the king’s men could never put together again.

Jalib should be judged for what he was and not what others expect he should have been. The same is true of Faiz. Faiz was seldom angry. Instead of inciting the reader to action he tried to alter his feelings. Faiz was essentially a romantic. Can anyone make a revolution without being a romantic? At the same time, can any one make revolution without anger? But I must add that while Jalib used his own musical voice to recite his poetry, Faiz was lucky to have Fareeda and Iqbal Bano sing for him. When Fareeda sings Faiz, she can with her evasive presence transport the audience out of themselves.

Even those who should regard themselves as the victims of Faiz’s verse are enthralled to ecstasy. They are obviously quite dumb. That the first choice of the rich and the privileged should be to have Faiz’s poetry sung to them is a form of masochism, which boggles the mind.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist