As the 123rd birth anniversary of Firaq Gorakhpuri goes by, it’s worth revisiting his progressive, pluralist and inclusive legacy through a look at his verses, politics, idiom and aesthetics.
Firaq Gorakhpuri was born Raghupati Sahai (1896-1982). His pen name signifies plurality by merging his Hindu identity with a Muslim-sounding poetic persona (conveyed by ‘Firaq’). His identity comes partly from his native place, Gorakhpur. Firaq Gorakhpuri, thus, became an embodiment of his land and its diverse people.
Evoking the deep sense of beauty in the tiniest traces of his surroundings, he found a therapeutic potential and harmonising influence in the natural world, much like the Romantic poets who inspired him. Firaq’s hybrid and organic poetry draws upon a wide range of sources (from Mir Taqi Mir and Nazeer Akbarabadi to Virgil, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy) and synthesises languages – Hindi/Sanskrit words blend with (Persianised) Urdu – while retaining his distinctive voice. At a time of self-censorship and complicit or even craven silence, Firaq’s painstaking cultivation of his voice is inspiring and instructive:
“Main ne is a’waz ko mar mar ke pala hai Firaq
Aaj jis ki bazme lau hai shamma mahrabe hayat.
(I have nurtured this voice at the cost of my life, Firaq
It resides today in the flame of the arched lamp of life.)”
(Noorul Hasan’s translation)
A progressive in his own right, Firaq composed verses, including ghazals and rubais (quatrains), which were both experimental and rooted in a tradition. In Rup, a collection of quatrains, Firaq doesn’t portray the woman as a courtesan or an ethereal, exotic being. She dwells in the domestic realm and performs regular chores. In a break with tradition, Firaq turns his attention to conjugal union, to the “culture-clad, shy bedmate”, as C.J.S Jossan puts it.
The woman, who embodies the sensuous beauty of nature, is more than a wine-pourer or a fickle temptress; she is a dewy virgin, a graceful mate and a soothing mother, all at once. This complex, multi-faceted vision of a woman feels radical even today. Considering our cultural fetish for “raw maidens” – and the ambivalence of Indian men towards sexually experienced women, unconsciously equated with the ‘bad’ or ‘devouring’ mother – the conflation of virginal glow with the after-effects of consummation is refreshing. Through his nimble craftsmanship, he insinuates a modern conception of physical intimacy into his poetry, without straying too far from the conventional idiom:
“Zaraa visaal ke baad aainaa to dekh ai dost
Tere jamaal ki doshizgi nikhar aai.
(Just look into the mirror after this union
Your beauty is touched with the glow of virginity.)”
Nothing was forbidden as long as your heart was truly in it. By freeing sexual intimacy from the notion of sin, Firaq embraced romantic love as a source of spiritual nourishment:
“Pursuit of beauty grows into pursuit of love sublime,
If in the sensuous thrill we can find the spiritual bliss.”
(K.C. Kanda’s translation)
The broad sweep of Firaq’s poetry makes the entire universe its subject. This all-encompassing poetic vision foregrounds the interconnection between humans and all aspects of nature; the pantheistic worldview deflects attention from man-made idols and differences of faith. Firaq’s resolute and passionate endorsement of the religion of humanity, and of “poetic patriotism” – as against political or pietistic patriotism, in Noorul Hasan’s formulation – makes him a fitting beacon for our times. He makes a bold proclamation of his human-centred faith:
“Khudae dojahan ko dey ke
Hum insaan lete hain.
(Forsaking the God of both worlds
I celebrate my image of man.)”
Though he distanced himself from the trappings of religion, Firaq was firmly rooted in his culture. To him, culture was multi-layered: each epoch in history left its deposit in the soil of the country. He tried to embed Urdu within the fabric of India – the land of Himalayas, Ganga and Yamuna, Mira and Kabir, Ram and Sita – instead of rambling amidst the imaginary domes of Central Asia in a bygone era.
He embraced his heritage without religious dogmatism or cultural assertion. Extolling Urdu as the language of ‘New India’, he tried to give his poetry an indigenous flavour. Firaq’s perceptive grasp of the “essential language of common experience” (as Hasan put it) contributes to the inclusive spirit of his poetry, even if his use of dialects was derided by critics as unrefined.
In Firaq’s poetry, sensual beauty can assume religious dimensions and even contain revolutionary potential. In one of his poems, the loving eye of a woman opens up unexplored vistas, bringing into focus the chains that need to be broken for the reign of the working class. His aesthetic pursuit blends with his socialist leanings.
Like other progressive poets – associated with and influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) – he, at times, played down romantic love, viewing it as an indulgence that must give way to worthier causes. The revolutionary zeal characteristic of that period transfigured his verse:
“Abhi kuchh aur ho insaan ka lahoo paani,
Abhi hayaat ke chehre par aab-o-taab nahin.
(Let more of human blood water-like flow,
Life hasn’t acquired yet the right tint and glow.)”
He addressed (wo)mankind, eulogised childhood, celebrated nature and bemoaned the human predicament, much like Thomas Hardy. Despite his investment in the dream of a just, egalitarian society, he exhibited his share of cynicism. In ‘Hindola (Cradle)’, a long, sprawling poem, he enumerates the great figures, historical, literary, mythological and religious, that are a part of this ancient civilisation. Ram, Sita, Krishna, Radha, Siddhartha, Shakuntala, Ashoka, Tagore, Mir, Kabir, Mira, et al were nurtured by this land; here is where they played and grew. After dwelling upon his own childhood, he lapses into an angry lament – this cradle has been turned into a “burial ground” by those in power. The following extract seems especially poignant today:
“Zameen-e-Hind hai gahwara aaj bhi hamdam
Agar hisaab karen das karor bachchon ka.
Yeh bachche Hind ki sab se bari amaanat hain,
Har ik bachche mein hain sad jahan-e-imkanaat;
Magar watan ka hal-o-uqd jin ke haath mein hai,
Nizaam-e-zindagi-e-Hind jin ke bas mein hai,
Rawayya dekh ke un ka yeh kahna parta hai,
Kise pari hai ke woh samjhe is amaanat ko.
(India is a cradle, even on this day,
To a hundred million children, if we estimate.
These children are our richest wealth and hope,
Each child contains in him potentialities untold.
But men wielding power, who rule the nation’s fate,
Managers and masters of this vast estate,
If we try to judge them by their words and ways,
Are not at all mindful of their heritage.”
As his lament mingles with ours, he becomes a living, livid presence. His all-embracing, organic verses make him the inheritor of the ‘best traditions of Indian civilisation’, something the PWA stood for.
Veeksha Vagmita is a PhD (English) scholar at Ambedkar University Delhi. She has previously worked with the Times of India.