Shahryar Had Respect For Traditional Poetry But His Idiom Was Modern

The Urdu poet Shahryar

The Urdu poet Shahryar

Jab bhi milti hai mujhe ajnabi lagti kyun hai
Zindagi roz naye rang badalti kyun hai

Why does it seem like a stranger whenever it meets me
Why does Life change its colours every day

Poetry, Shahryar believed, must necessarily have an element of music. Without music there can be no poetry and like music, poetry too must follow some rules and principles. Above all, like music, poetry must have rigour. While it is easy to say that poetry, and music, come naturally to those who are gifted, Shahryar maintained that even the gifted must follow certain rules and regulations if they are to be true to their gift. Mere practice is not sufficient to become proficient as a poet.

For a seed to sprout, the soil it is planted in must also be fertile. Also, any seed will not sprout in any soil – no matter how much you may plough it or water it or add nutrients. It might appear as though anybody with any imagination can produce a creative work, but that is not so. Everyone cannot marshal the ideas produced by their imagination, organize them into a coherent and meaningful manner and present them in a manner that is pleasing or new. The primary function of any art form is to surprise; it is the most magical effect that art can produce. For, as he put it:

Poochho to paagal ka sapna, samjho to sansar

If you ask, it is the dream of a madman, if you understand it is the world

High regard for tradition

Shahryar held tradition in great regard–possibly because he had come through the rigour of a formal and exhaustive education, including a Ph D, that too at a place such as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) whose Urdu Department could boast of some of the finest academicians and greatest connoisseurs of urdu zubaan and tehzeeb. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the new wave of poetry which came in the wake of the progressive upsurge, Shahryar was never one to cock a snook at the centuries-old legacy that the modern Urdu poet had ready access to. He believed that tradition could teach the nuts and bolts of poetry and especially the ghazal, for the tools of Urdu poetry have remained largely unaltered, while the outer appearance has changed as has the vocabulary. The manner of crafting a ghazal – a bit like ‘pouring’ ideas into a mould — has remained largely the same since the genre of the ghazal was first perfected by masters such as Mir and Sauda.

Sample the following sher with its near-perfect proportion in the time-honoured metre yet its startlingly new lehja, or tone. Shahryar’s use of new words — new that is for an Urdu poet — is best exemplified in words such as latpat in the sher below:

Khoon mein latpat ho gaye saye bhee ashjar ke
Kitne gahre waar thhe khushboo ki talwar ke

Even the shadows of the trees were wet with blood
So deep were the slashes caused by the sword of fragrance

Like cooking, which Shahryar enjoyed enormously, poetry too was a matter of getting the ingredients right. The metaphors, symbols, abstractions had to be in the right proportion; excess or want can make all the difference between the magical and the mundane. And just as in cooking, there is that indefinable element called haath ka maza (its literal translation of ‘the taste of the cook’s hand’ does not come close to doing it justice), so also with poetry. The form of the ghazal does not allow much deviation and the vocabulary too is constrained by metre and rhyme; yet, within these time-honored constraints, the master ghazal-go can produce magic when the reader exclaims with wonder at something that touches his/her heart.

Ghalib expressed it best when he said: Hamne yeh jaana ke goya yeh bhi mere dil main hai (I found that this too lies within my heart). Good poetry can indeed make the reader feel that ‘I could have said this’ or ‘This is exactly how I feel’. And when that threshold is reached, Shahryar believed, the real aesthetic experience happens, which is essentially a mystical communication between the writer and the reader or the reciter and the listener. Personally speaking, the one that works best for me is:

Waqt teri yeh ada mai aaj tak samjha nahi
Meri duniya kyun badal dii, mujh ko kyun badla nahiin

 Time, I have never ever understood this trait of yours
Why have you changed my world, but not changed me

Differences with the progressives

Shahryar was also averse to extreme topicality in poetry. He felt for literature to pass the test of time it must contain something within it that would live beyond the here and now. In this he differed from the progressives, especially the more ideologically-driven progressives, who wrote on intensely topical subjects and whose works acquired the tag of waqti adab (topical literature). As Shahryar said in an interview once, it is not important how many poems are written on Korea; instead, what is important is how many good poems we remember being written on Korea. The undue importance being given to mauzu (topic) and maqsadiyat (purposiveness), he believed, was one of the reasons for the decline of the progressive movement:

‘Purposive literature must necessarily contain the known and familiar; it has no scope for new experiments. It must have common thoughts, common feelings, and so on. Naturally, therefore, it can only accommodate general things about people, not individuals.’

Since Shahryar’s death on February 13, 2012, obituaries and tributes – in print, on electronic media and also by way of seminars and academic discussions – have harped, in one way or the other, on details of his personal life that have virtually nothing to do with his poetry. A lot of people wish to link the angst and despair, the melancholy and dislocation that we see in some of his poetry with events and experiences and a sense of loneliness in the poet’s own persona and personal life. This seems especially unfortunate since Shahryar was not a particularly lonely man; in fact, he was surrounded with friends and well wishers and kept himself in constant touch with his many admirers through his cellphone which was constantly by his side.

Secondly, in seeking this artificial linkage we are being unfair to Shahryar the poet. A study of his oeuvre in its entirety shows how he evolved a set of symbols, images and metaphors that while seemingly personal were actually crafted precisely so they could transcend the personal and the individual. This evolution mirrors, to some extent, his ambiguous relationship with the two major literary movements that shaped his poetic sensibility — tarraqui pasand tehreek (the progressive writers’ movement) and jadeediyat (modernism). Also, an excessive dwelling on the circumstances of a creative writer’s personal life detracts from a critical understanding of his or her life.

Was Shahryar a tarraaqui pasand or a jadeed parast? His critics have maintained that he consistently refused to belong to any one group because he wished to displease neither. I feel this ambiguity is not a sign of weakness but a symbol of his free-spiritedness and refusal to conform. The individualism and romanticism of his early years, as evident in his first collection of poetry, Ism-e-Azam published in 1965, soon gave way to an acutely felt concern for the world around him in subsequent collections such as Satwan Dar (The Seventh Doorway, 1969) and Hijr ke Mausam (Seasons of Separation, 1978); even in the early days there are poems that defy easy categorization and the sharp distinction between the demands of the two major schools of thought that dominated Urdu poetry from the time that Shahryar began his literary career.

His poetry mirrors the evolution of personal symbols that transcend the immediate and personal and speak of universal concerns. It is this that lifts his poetry leagues above his contemporaries and it is this singular ability to speak for himself while also speaking for the world that defines his entire poetic ouvre. Unlike the modernists, Shahryar never bemoaned the futility of communication, nor did he resort to the use of dense, impenetrable images and idioms. In the age-old debate on Art for Art’s Sake vs Art for Life’s Sake, Shahryar aligned himself with the latter despite his avowed refusal to wear a label or a tag.

In Shahryar’s poetry the image is important. He cloaks it in a many-splendoured robe of words, words that have a mesmeric spell of their own. As a reader, and especially a critical reader, you have to pull yourself away from their insistent, inward pull to look again at the image; once out of that tilismic enchantment, you look at the beauty of the image conjured up by the play upon words. It shines through the many layers of meaning in all its crystal clarity, its freshness and poignancy. My experience, both as a reader and translator of Shahryar’s poetry, tells me that is when, maybe, you have reached the core of Shahryar’s poetry, felt its newness and its allure in a way that is almost tactile. That is also the point when, perhaps, you have felt yourself drawn across an invisible doorway through the portal of wakefulness.

Rakhshanda Jalil is a literary critic and translator