Javed Akhtar was given an honorary degree by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, on September 7. Reproduced below is the full text of his speech.
Lord Hastings Chair of the Board of Trustees of SOAS,
President Zeinab Badawi,
Director, Professor Adam Habib and Graduents,
I stand humbled for the honour bestowed on me and thank you for making me a Fellow of SOAS.
When such an award is bestowed, we must not forget that it is the art that is being honoured and not the artist.
There are many people who wonder why poetry should be honoured in the time of science and technology. I think before taking the final call, we should give a thought to what is poetry.
Only rhyme and metre do not make poetry. I am talking of good poetry here.
I believe good poetry is born in a paradox, of complete awareness and complete submergence, complete passion and complete craft.
Good poetry is born in a no man’s land between the conscious and the subconscious. It comes from the depth of the poet’s psyche, consciousness, sense of values, and that is why it holds magic, charm, and connects to the reader’s subconscious, conscience and values.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in the era of post-truth where we arrive at conclusions before searching for logic and reason.
Where favourable laws for the powerful corporates are called effort for development.
Where any effort to save the environment is called blocking the development.
Where greed to take over oil resources of some places is called war on terrorism.
Subjugating and stripping a woman of all her rights is called protecting her dignity and chastity.
Where hating the minorities is the ultimate proof of one’s patriotism and nationalism.
We are living in a world where all the means of information and communication are, one after another, falling in the hands of the powerful. We are living in a world where many people are discontent, unhappy and frustrated and that is why they are looking towards religion or its second line of defence – spiritualism and sufism. One must accept these pursuits provide some solace to some people by making them look away from day to day realities. They give you painkillers to relieve your pain, not to heal the injury, they never challenge the status quo.
On the other hand, poetry provides you with the music of language, pleasure and solace. But at the same time sensitises you to the pain and deprivation of the world. Take a look at the poets of the 20th century, from one end of the world to another, you will see poets have turned their pens into swords, to battle the evil forces of the world.
Be it Pablo Neruda of Chile, Mehmoud Darvesh of Palestine, Breyten of South Africa, Nazrul from Bengal, Faiz from Punjab and Majaz from Avadh in the Indian subcontinent.
Is it just a coincidence that fascist ideologies have not been able to produce one major poet?
That is because poetry is the language of love/peace/justice and equality.
Are such poets required today? The answer is a big yes.
Actually with great pride I would like to share that in India, in the late 30s, a pan-Indian Progressive Writers Movement was started in which authors and poets passed a resolution to undertake the responsibility to write against colonialism, economic exploitation and support women’s empowerment.
This movement created great literature but I have reservations about the word responsibility. Responsibility is most often an imposition. I believe it is not the duty but the right of every writer and poet to raise their voice.
I hope that such patronage and felicitation of poets and writers will encourage them to fully claim their right to speak and write and challenge the status quo to usher in a new social order in the world.