Romance in times of revolution

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 31 January 2019

Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar talk about poet Kaifi Azmi and how he practised the ideals that he preached

We look at history through the prism of people who have shaped it and also lived through it. These people have given it their all, leaving behind memories. It, therefore, became exciting to watch the idea of revolutionary and romantic India unfold before our eyes. The hero of this particular slice of history is Kaifi Azmi.
Born to a family of zamindars in Mijwan, Uttar Pradesh, on January 14, 1919, Azmi was organically drawn to socialism. He began to write romantic and also very revolutionary poetry at a young age. At the age of 11, he wrote a ghazal, sung by no less than Begum Akhtar and it became a sensation in undivided India.

Soon after, he joined the Communist party and moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) with a substantial collection of poetry behind him. He had already established himself as a name to reckon with in the world of Urdu poetry. In Bombay, he lived in a commune, wrote lyrics for Hindi cinema, helped the layman learn the distinction between high poetry and lyrics for Hindi cinema. At the same time, he proved to be a remarkable father to a remarkable daughter (actor Shabana Azmi) and remarkable son (cinematographer Baba Azmi). He was also an exemplary husband in many ways.
To mark his centenary year, Penguin published a book, Kaifiyat — Verses on Love and Women. Translated by Rakshanda Jalil, the book was released by Kaifi saab’s son-in-law Javed Akhtar at a session in the recently concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. Akhtar then went on to introduce the poet through a verse — Ajeeb Aadmi — he wrote as a tribute to Kaifi saab, to an audience, mostly comprising youngsters. 

One who practised what he preached 
Before reciting the verse, Akhtar explained what was special about Kaifi saab. He said, “I admit that most writers and poets usually find it difficult to practise what they preach. Unke kathni aur karni mein farak hota hai. Lekin Kaifi saab aise poet the, ki unhone jo kuch likha unki zindagi bhi wohi thi.
If he wrote about mazdoors, he didn’t do that sitting in the comfortable environs of his home. He fought for their cause, took part in strikes and processions, he slept in their huts. If he wrote for secularism, well, he actually led his life like a secular. Secularism wasn’t a nara (call) or the correct political stance to adopt. In film industry, there are a few big Holi parties and celebrations. One of them was started by Kaifi and the tradition is continued by his daughter and son. Diwali bhi aise hi manate hai, Christmas bhi aur Eid bhi aise hi manate hain (Diwali, Christmas and Eid too are celebrated in similar fashion). When he wrote on women empowerment, again it wasn’t just a social stance. The women in his life — his wife, Shaukat, his daughter, Shabana and his bahu Tanvi — are all very courageous and independent.” 

A daughter remembers
Shabana, who conversed with Jalil about the book, recalled the special bond that her parents shared. “They were equal partners. But their idea of equality is different from what it is now. I see young couples holding on to equality as a piece of legislation, which I think is incorrect. I don’t understand this argument — ‘If I have ironed your kurta, you better iron my shalwar’ — amongst married couples today. That’s not what marriage is. You learn to give,” said Shabana. 
Narrating two incidents from her parents life, she said, “My mother was due for a surgery. Till the day of her surgery, Abba looked after her. But on the day of surgery, he left for Patna for some pre-scheduled work. There was no frown on Mummy’s face. Similarly, Abba was ailing for sometime and Mummy was taking care of him. But one day, she decided to accompany me to a film shoot. Abba didn’t object.”

The actor’s parents met at a mushaira, where Kaifi saab was going to recite a few verses. “In those days, poets were like rockstars. They had a major fan following, especially amongst females. My mother was very beautiful and she was aware of what effect it could have on males. So at the mushaira, she and my father had eyes for each other, but out of mischief my mother first approached Ali Sardar Jafri with her autograph book. My father had noticed this out of the corner of his eyes and when his turn came, he wrote a disparaging sher (couplet) for her. That angered her and well, that’s how their love story began,” said Shabana. 
Their marriage took place in Bombay, with just Shaukat’s father by her side, which in those days, was nothing short of revolutionary. “At that time, Mummy was engaged to be married to someone else. But Kaifi saab wrote her a letter, written in his blood, and she went rushing to her father. Her father had reservations about Kaifi, but he took her to Bombay to the commune where he was staying with other Communists. Then he asked Shaukat, if she was sure of getting married and staying with Kaifi in the commune. My mother agreed and she was married to Kaifi without any fanfare. Her mother and brother were informed after the wedding,” she adds.

Shabana grew up in the commune till the age of nine, where lack of money never dimmed their happiness and the higher ideals that the Communists and poets espoused. “The only thing Abba liked to splurge on was food, when guests came visiting. We often had poets, writers, film personalities visiting us. Baba and I would realise that we were going to have guests when the gold kada would disappear from my mother’s wrist. That was the only piece of gold she had and it was often pawned at the jewellery store because money was difficult to come by,” says the actor known for her roles in films like Ankur and Nishant. 

She also recited her father’s poetry, Aurat, which is considered to be relevant even today. Kaifi saab and his contemporaries are credited for keeping Urdu alive through their film lyrics. And, yet the poet-lyricist wasn’t comfortable penning lyrics for films. The actor remembers, “On days that Abba had to meet the deadline of writing for films, he would respond to his fans’ letters, clean his table, fill the ink in his Mont Blanc ink pen... do everything but sit and write the lyrics. And, when he did, the result was almost magical.” 

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