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Firaq Gorakhpuri, the Epicure of Beauty

The great poet and critic of the arts was among the founders of the modern Urdu ghazal.

August 28, 2019 marks the 123rd birth anniversary of the prominent writer, critic, poet and polymath Raghupati Sahay Firaq Gorakhpuri.

As if being a peer of Muhammad Iqbal, Yagana Changezi, Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi, Munshi Premchand, Niaz Fatehpuri and Brij Narain Chakbast was not enough, Firaq shares his birthday with Goethe, the great German national figure. However, unlike Goethe, he has not become a household name in the subcontinent despite the fact that many of his contemporaries like Iqbal and Premchand continue to be celebrated incessantly. The former is the national poet of Pakistan and the latter even had a Google Doodle dedicated to him three years ago on his 136th birthday. No such luck for Firaq.

Firaq was one of the most prolific poets of his time. A professor of English at Allahabad University, he was an organic intellectual, infusing his work with sensuality. His 1936 article in defence of homosexual love and its depiction in the ghazal remains a classic, where he defiantly describes the depiction of homosexuality in poetry across time and cultures in the works of Sappho and Socrates, Saadi and Hafiz, Shakespeare and Whitman.

‘Listen,’ Firaq told “the respected Critic” in the article, ‘are you aware of Socrates’ autobiography, and his relationship with Alkibiades? Are you aware of Caesar’s love affairs? Do you know what Walter Pater has written about Winckelmann in his book The Renaissance or what Edward Carpenter has written in his books Friendship’s Garland, The Intermediate Sex and Civilization. Its Cause and Cure? What about the life of this esteemed author?

Sir, are you aware of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and their motives? Do you know of Walt Whitman and his poem ‘To a Boy’? Have you heard Sappho’s name? Do you know the meaning of lesbianism? Do you know of the refined and pure book called The Well of Loneliness? Do you know of D.H. Lawrence and his works? And of Middleton Murry’s Son of Woman? Do you condemn all these to fourteen years in jail? What punishment would you give Tennyson for writing ‘In Memoriam’ because recently some researchers have brought to light his homosexual feelings and statements?’

Firaq’s well-known ghazal on forbidden and furtive love begins thus:

‘Look in the mirror after our union, friend
How your beauty has acquired a virgin innocence’

He grew up in a literary household and inherited the love of poetry from his father. The feeling of love for the nation and its people was a gift of the strict environment and intellectual training. He had also gone to jail in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1918 but practical politics was not his field, neither did he ever dream of becoming a minister or ambassador. It was a small mercy, otherwise, Urdu literature would have been deprived of a great poet and critic of the arts.

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Firaq was also a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, a spirited anti-colonialist, and enjoyed the confidence of Nehru and other early Congress functionaries.

In the days when he started teaching, English literature was a compulsory subject at the BA level, therefore there was an abundance of students in the Department of English and they had to be divided into many sections. Sibte Hasan, an important Marxist thinker and activist of the subcontinent, and a student of Firaq in his college days, reminiscing about his teacher says that it was their good fortune to be in the section where professor Amarnath Jha taught English prose and Firaq taught poetry. The latter had just arrived from Sanatan Dharma College in Kanpur but his knowledge and personality soon captivated the students.

Sibte Hasan writes about the first day Firaq entered the class. He was about 37-38, of middle stature, knotted body, bookish face, round eyes, a head of thick black hair, wearing a toe-length shervani and tight-fitting trousers, this was Firaq. Hasan had seen him recite ghazals a couple of times but he was not the type of poet who would dominate a mushaira. He did not recite with rhythm like Jigar Moradabadi, Safi Lakhnavi and Sail Dehlavi but literally, and that too in a very awkward manner by rolling his eyes and moving his hands. His ghazals too were not of a traditional colour but were an invitation to reflect and think. A very elegant aesthetic taste was required to enjoy them.

The selection of English poetry in the textbook in those days included poems of eminent poets from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy. When Firaq stood up to teach, he first narrated the circumstances of Palgrave, then said that such an excellent selection of English poems had not been done before. Though he had a complaint that Palgrave had ignored a poet like John Donne. He said that much Orientalism is reflected in the poetic sensibility of John Donne. It seems that some Indian lover is expressing love. For example, his verse:

‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou
And I did till we loved’

Or his saying that: ‘For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love’

Then he recited similar Urdu verses. When the class ended, many students made their way to the library in search of the volume by Donne. Firaq knew well the skill of how to create literary taste in students.

Firaq’s life was entirely devoid of the ties of caste, the distinctions of colour and race and the rituals and restraints of religion and nation. He was a freedom-loving, enlightened and tolerant man. His personality was a mixture of our classical traditions and modern manner of thought and feeling. He had a complete grip over Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Sanskrit and English. He had a very deep observation of ancient Indian, Greek and Iranian civilisations and he would own the high values, allusions metaphors and symbols with a very good style in his writings.

Firaq was a great lover of beauty and could not bear any sort of ugliness. So he used to say that: ‘Ugliness I cannot tolerate, even in Mahatma Gandhi.’ But by beauty, he did not imply the attraction of only the eye and cheek but the beauty of human personality; the beauty of those values and thoughts which adorn the self.

Also read: A Book On Firaq that Leaves One Thirsting for More

He thought slavery, oppression and injustice, the exploitation of man by man, obscurantism and narrow-mindedness and ignorance and poverty as the denial of self and detested them because according to him, these things make the individual and social personalities of man abhorrent, inferior and unpleasant, and mutilate his spirit. This is the reason that he always welcomed those movements which endeavour to change life and make it beautiful.

‘The sorrow of life the same, the cycle of universe the same
That which does not change life, is that really life

Has everyone really lifted the burden of humanity
That this calamity too came at the head of your lovers’

Firaq sang all his life embracing the sorrows of humans deprived of the beauty of life, and carrying the cross of empathy on his shoulders. This consciousness of sorrow was indeed his art. So he says that

‘My ghazals, are the mirror of my character friends
Seldom does one find in the world ones civilised by sorrow like myself’

This sorrow of life indeed has been touching the delicate chords of his thought and feeling.

‘Just like this Firaq spent his life
Some spent in sorrow of the beloved, some in sorrow of the present

The earth trembled, the sky shook
When the sorrow of the world was adopted by the sorrow of love’

Hasan writes of the occasions when Firaq would visit Lucknow every second or third month to broadcast a speech from the radio. News of his arrival would inevitably result in the city’s young progressive writers flocking to meet him. He would hold court while sitting on a bed, leaning against the pillow as the conversation flowed all around him.

The topics expanded from horizon to horizon. ‘Matters of life and death’, ‘matters of the truth and purity of love’, ‘matters of perception and awareness’, ‘matters of the glance of love’, ‘matters of the desire of flight’, ‘matters of a lover’s secrets’, in fact there was no such topic of knowledge and wisdom and art and skill in which his mind ever failed to create novel points. To converse was his favourite pastime and he knew well how to create one matter from another. But like Goethe, he never found an Eckermann, nor some Boswell like Dr Johnson who would write down his conversations.

When Firaq arrived in Lucknow, the evening assembly was at the home of lawyer Mirza Jafar Husain. Once, Josh was also present and being the lamp of the evening was reciting his newly-composed rubaiyat (quatrains). Josh and Firaq were great friends. Both used to address each other as ‘tum.’ In fact, in the ecstasy of intoxication, Josh used to lovingly call Firaq ‘Abbe Farquva’. When Josh had recited 10-12 quatrains, Firaq could not contain himself. He said ‘Yaar, now stop this nonsense of four lines’. Josh replied, ‘Lala if you even say four such lines you will spit blood’. Everyone began to laugh and the matter subsided. On his way back, however, Firaq was unusually quiet.

The next day, the party assembled in the evening. When the round of wine began, Firaq took out a piece of paper from his pocket and addressing Josh said, ‘Abbe O ignorant Pathan of Malihabad, do listen carefully,’ and then he recited 10-12 quatrains which he had composed at some time during the day. Josh became stupefied hearing the quatrains. He rose and began kissing Firaq’s face. These are the circumstances of revelation of the quatrains of roop singhaar (appearance and adornment). These are quatrains where the singing body of a woman is speaking.

Also read: ‘Kishwar Naheed Must Live’: In Defence of the Urdu Poet

Firaq’s works appear in a number of anthologies, most published in the 1940s, the best known of which are Shola-e-Saaz (The Fire of Rhythm), published in 1945 and Shabnamistan (Land of Dew), published in 1947. His essays were compiled in a book titled Andaaze (Hunches). Firaq won the Jnanpith Award (India’s highest literary honour) in 1969 and remained the only Urdu poet Jnanpith awardee until Ali Sardar Jafri won it in 1997. Newcomers may have first encountered Firaq’s poetry through Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s rendition of ‘Bahut pehle se un qadmon ki aahat jaan lete hain’ (We recognise those footsteps from a long way off), which they sang in the 1976 album Unforgettables.

The following is one of Firaq’s ghazals, Sham-e-Gham (Sad Evening) that conjures a vivid sense of this remarkable poet:

‘On this sad evening let us talk of the beloved’s gaze
Let us talk of secret things for my passion is ablaze

The beauty of those tossed curls and the tale of this sad night
Till morning dawns, let us talk in such melancholic ways

In the silence of yearning, as hearts shatter, let us speak
How does it break, the instrument that such melodies plays?

From the bars of my prison, I feel a faint hint of light
Of my desire to spread my wings, let’s talk about that phase

The one who has transformed the nature of my love, Firaq
Let’s talk of that Jesus-like lover who lights up my days’

According to Firaq, real poetry is the boundless sincerity of ‘practice of feeling’ and ecstasy which for him is the ‘first and final question of art’. He survived the fatal anguish of love thanks to this practice and sincerity. He acquainted Urdu poetry with a new musicality, new facet, and new language; presented a healthy and ‘healing’ image of the sorrow of love and the sorrow of life; granted a new ecstasy of empathy and good nature and a new manner of the purification and refinement of sexual feelings and gave a new consciousness of universal realities and the spirit to change them.

Firaq Gorakhpuri is one of the founders of the modern Urdu ghazal. The mood and environment of his ghazals, their diction, their sensory experiments and the manner of expression of these experiments are all separate from others but totally in harmony with the present age of Indian society and the demands of the spirit of the contemporary times.

His prose writings also have a similar situation. Although the lamp of his prose writings could not burn before his poetic renown, it is impossible to deny the reality that he is also the inventor of modern Urdu criticism. The relish with which he used to talk so sweetly, the same relish and sweetness were also to be found in his prose. His criticisms themselves were literary works of art and masterpieces of creative criticism. It would be relevant to end this piece with another revolutionary verse from the epicure of beauty:

‘Witness the pace of revolution, Firaq
How slow, and how swift’

All the translations from Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: [email protected].