Remembering Shakeel Badayuni, Who Was Resolutely Romantic in a World of Progressives

Shakeel Badayuni wrote some memorable romantic poetry but remained aloof from the big ideas of his time.

The historic city of Badaun, in the Rohilkhand region, is known for three things: pirs, poets and pedas, in no particular order. The 13th-century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya was born here and the dargahs, known as Chhoti Ziyarat and Badi Ziyarat, draw thousands from far and wide. The pedas made here, from sweetened milk that has been boiled till its golden brown residue can be compressed into discs and dusted with powdery sugar, draw its fair share of admirers in a ‘peda belt’ girding the breadth of western Uttar Pradesh. But it is the poets and men and women of letters, really, who have put this otherwise nondescript dusty little town on the map. It was once said, only half in jest, that were you to toss a pebble at a busy cross-section anywhere in this city, it would be sure to hit a poet – or two. There was something about this little town beside the river Sot, a tributary of the Ganga that flows nearby, that sprouted adab from its nooks and crannies.

Ismat Chughtai, Jeelani Bano, Dilawar Figar, Ale Ahmad Suroor, Bekhud Badayuni, Ada Jafri, Fani Badayuni, Shakeel Badayuni – the list of writers born here is long and illustrious. But of all these, Shakeel Badayuni (1916-1970) interests us as this year and month mark his 100th birth anniversary and, as with all centenaries, provides a good enough reason to look back on his poetic career.

Abruptly felled by complications arising from diabetes at the age of 53, his poetic output over a period of three decades was marked by one singular quality: consistency. At a time when the best and brightest of Urdu poets vacillated between shabab and inquilab – the two poles around which much of Urdu poetry has always gravitated –Badayuni spoke up steadfastly for shabab.

Sent up to Aligarh in 1936, the Oxford of the East, as most young men from sharif families were, he began writing poetry in an organic, almost instinctive way. From college-level mushairas, it was but a leap to inter-city ones as his fame spread as a ghazal-go, a writer of ghazals in the old-fashioned high register. Like scores of young Urdu writers from distant towns and qasbas who flocked to the film industry in Bombay, Badayuni too came looking for the pot of gold under the proverbial rainbow. But unlike many others, he found it, and that too almost instantaneously. Save for a short stint of working with the government’s supply department (1942-146) in Delhi, Badayuni had the rare distinction of earning his living almost solely through his poetry.

Striking the right note in his very first film with ‘Afsana likh rahi hoon dil-e beqarar ka, ankhon rang bhar ke tere intizar ka’, sung by Uma Devi (better known as Tun Tun), he formed a lasting partnership with Naushad. Together, they would give many hits over the next 25-odd years with Badayuni consistently churning out numbers each more romantic than the other in films such as Sunghursh, Ram Aur Shyam, Dil Diya Dard Liya, Ganga Jamuna, Kohinoor, Mughal-e-Azam. Three Filmfare awards and scores of hit numbers such as ‘Kahin deep jale kahin dil‘, ‘Chaudhvin ka chaand’, ‘Husnwale tera jawab nahin’ marked him as the best man for the job; the film lyricist’s job being most memorably described by Kaifi Azmi as being as difficult as first digging a grave and then finding a corpse to fit it given that it requires writing songs to fit a predetermined tune and scene.

That Badayuni held his own against the formidable presence of the progressives – Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri – and kept writing in the romantic strain at a time when socially-engaged purposive poetry was gaining the upper hand in a country busily engaged in Nehru’s nation-building project, speaks volumes. That the ‘high noon’ of the progressive movement of the 1940s and the charmed circle of the Bombay progressives held no especial appeal for him – given that many were like him either from Aligarh or other Urdu-speaking hubs and almost all had found themselves drawn to this city that had emerged as the beating heart of the progressive movement – marked him as a man perfectly content in being regressively romantic.

That he kept himself aloof from all the big movements and ideas of his time – nationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, communalism, feminism to name just a few – shows a remarkable tenacity of purpose. Badayuni himself puts it best when he says:

Main Shakeel dil ka hoon tarjuman

Keh mohabbaton ka hoon raazdaan

Mujhe fakhr hai meri shayari

Meri zindagi se juda nahin

(I, Shakeel, am the translator of the heart

For I am the keeper of love’s secrets

I am proud that my poetry

Is not removed from my life)

While there is some merit in the charge that his film lyrics was ‘flowery, perfumed’, for indeed the heady musk of love and longing camouflage all other senses, his non-film poetry published in collections entitled Rangeeniyan, Ranaaiyan, Hanam-o Haram and Shabistan and a selection of devotional poetry called Naghma-e-Firdous add other variations to the theme of love: pathos, dejection, even anger, muted and resolutely un-inflammable though it is. Picked up by singers such as Begum Akhtar and given a longer shelf life than his film lyrics, they show us a Badayuni still steadfastly absorbed in the same tropes but going back to his first love: the ghazal:

Ai mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya

Jaane kyun aaj tere naam pe rona aaya


Mere humnafas mere hum nawa mujhe dost ban ke dagha na de

Main hu dard-e ishq se jaan -ba lab mujhe zindagi ki duwa na de

In these non-film poetry collections, Badayuni offers his rejoinder to the juggernaut of rousing revolutionary poetry unleashed by the progressives when he asks:

Zindagi ka dard lekar inquilab aaya to kya

Ek doshiza pe ghurbat mein shabab aaya to kya

(So what if the revolution has come with all the pain of living

So what if youth comes to a virgin in poverty)

Or my personal favourite which I quote often to invoke a multitude of ills from the perils of illiberalism to the enemies within:

 Mera azm itna bulund hai ke paraye sholon ka dar nahin

Mujhe khauf aatish-e gul se hai ye kahin chaman ko jala na de

(My conviction is so great that I am not fearful of the sparks of others

My fear is of the fire in the flower that might set the garden on fire)

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian who has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her recent works include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014) and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Husain’s novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015).

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