In memoriam

Ali Sardar Jafri 1913-2000

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IT would be violative of the ideals and convictions of Ali Sardar Jafri to write his obituary. In one of his more celebrated nazms, Mera Safar, he declared himself to be immortal, as he would eternally live in the sweet song of birds and the musical smile of dry leaves. Even after death, he felt, he would remain alive so long as crops dance in the fields. And much like Ghalib, he too believed that one day all the golden rivers and blue lakes in the sky would reverberate with the music of his being.

Sardar was a rebel, freedom fighter, pacifist, radical activist, story writer, critic and documentary filmmaker at once. But, above all, he was a poet endowed with exquisite imagination, one of the brightest stars on the firmament of 20th century Urdu poetry. Like all great poets he was a prophet engaged in unravelling the mysteries and ambiguity of human drama. The principal theme of his poetry was compassion, love, perseverance and sensitivity surviving amidst the callous inhumanity of our times. In his unique style, he depicted the exemplary survival of the human spirit in face of all-pervasive adversity and defeatism. In so doing he not only carried forward the traditions of Urdu poetry but enriched its treasure with new symbols and powerful imagery. Indeed, his poetry gradually evolved into a genre of its own kind whose influence is difficult to ignore among the present generation of Urdu poets.

It is less known that Sardar began his career not as a poet but a story writer. His first collection of short stories, Manzil, irked the then colonial regime. The result was his eight-month imprisonment in the district jail of Lucknow and Banaras. Soon, however, he abandoned prose and turned to poetry – the craft of which he later flowered into as one of its finest masters. With the publication of his very first collection of nazm and ghazal, Parwaz, in 1943, he established himself as a poet to reckon with. Five years later Nai Duniya Ko Salaam, an unconventional, longish nazm brimming with revolutionary optimism, took the Urdu world by pleasant surprise. Sardar had by then become a familiar and revered name.

Among his other poetic works Khoon Ki Lakeer (1949), Ashia Jaag Uttha (1951), Patthar Ki Deewar (1953), Pairahan-e-Sharar (1966), Lahoo Pukarta Hai (1978) and November, Mera Gahwara (1998) are remarkable, both for their theme and style. He also made four documentaries, Phir Bolo Ai Sant Kabir being the most outstanding one. Besides, he produced a hugely popular TV serial, Kahkashan, based on the lives and works of seven luminaries of Urdu poetry – Hasrat, Josh, Firaq, Jigar, Faiz, Makhdoom and Majaz.

Sardar’s early works reflected a restless yearning for India’s independence from the colonial yoke. Equally intense was his yearning for the freedom and dignity of the proletariat. This was because of the strong impact of the Progressive Writers’ Movement inspired by Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. As early as 1938, he joined the movement at its conference held in Calcutta and soon became one of its leading advocates. The influence of Marxism on his poetry was thus profound and everlasting.

As a result the poetic writings of his early phase were heavily ideological-political and hence somewhat propagandist in nature. Themes ruled over form, style and aesthetics. As a committed Marxist, he viewed society in perennial conflict: the conflict between exploiter and the exploited. Indeed his nazms of this period sounded a war cry against the capitalists and feudal lords. This binary approach, so dominant in his poetry of the forties and fifties, left little space for articulating other forms of conflict and complex nuances of human life. Works such as Khoon Ki Lakeer, Ashia Jaag Uttha and Patthar Ki Deewar are examples of such poetry. It would be, however, unfair to categorize all of Sardar’s works, even of the early phase, as mere sloganeering. Some of the nazms really enthralled the hearts and minds of all and sundry and transcended the dry logic of political economy.

This blood, the fragrance of lips;

this blood, the light of eyes;

this blood, the colour of the cheek;

this loo, the peace of the heart;

sun of Mount Faran and Light of Sina and Tur;

flame of the word of truth, pain of a restless soul;

the light of the word of God, the Expression of Light Divine;

This blood, my blood, thy blood, everybody’s blood.

(Ye Lahoo)

With the publication of Pairahan-e-Sharar in 1966, one could see a noticeable shift in Sardar’s poetry, both in terms of its grammar as well as form. In its preface the diehard, uncompromising radical of Patthar Ki Deeawar now declared that his nazms were no longer ‘political documents’. Rather they were a ‘cry of the heart and voice of the soul’. This shift found its finest expression in his book on criticism, Paighambran-e-Sukhan (1970). This work of extraordinary significance makes a comparative study of Kabir, Mir and Ghalib and underlines the richness and relevance of Bhakti-Sufi traditions for the proletarian revolution. Given the disdain of dogmatic Marxism to culture and civilizational heritage of India, this undeniably was a bold, even heretical, endeavour.

In his later works Sardar not only pursued this idea further but turned it into a focal theme of his inquiry – in prose and verse alike. Consider, for instance, his essay, Ghalib Ka Somnat Khayal (1997). It underscored the purely Indian fragrance of Ghalib’s poetry and, by extension, of Urdu poetry at large. It is rarely known that for Ghalib neither Shiraz nor Khansar were the source of poetic inspiration; it was instead the sacred world of Somnath whose famous temple was destroyed by Mahmud Ghazni in 1024 AD. Here mention ought to be made about his nazm, Ajodhya, written with a heavy heart following the demolition of Babri Masjid. He described 6 December as a day of penance, when insult was heaped on Ram, and Sita wept with blood in her eyes – a corrective to those who rejoiced over the demolition in the name of Ram and Sita.

Ali Sardar Jafri’s firm faith in the efficacy and viability of tradition and cultural resources to meet the vexing challenges of our times was most eloquent in his cry for a war-free subcontinent. Deeply anguished by the Indo-Pak war of 1965, he exhorted the ruling classes on both sides of the border to sink their petty political interests and march hand-in-hand towards a shared future, a future based on civilizational commonality and peaceful coexistence. In a moving poem, Kaun Dushman Hai, composed in the wake of the war, he wrote:

Tum aao gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bar dosh

Hum aaen subh-e-Banaras ke roshni lekar

Himalaya ki hawaaon ki taazgi lekar

Aur uske baad ye poochhen ke kaun dushman hai

Sardar’s sane voice, however, was drowned in the cacophony of jingoism. It took more than three decades before leaders on either side of the border realized the necessity of initiating a genuine peace process. In 1999, when Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee made the historic peace trip to Pakistan, he presented Sarhad, the first-ever album of anti-war nazms of Jnanpith award winner Sardar Jafri (sung by Seema Anil Sehgal) to his Pakistani counterpart. This was indeed the greatest tribute to the poetic vision of Sardar.

Where politics had failed, poetics triumphed.

‘Poetry begins in delight,’ opined Robert Frost, ‘and ends in wisdom.’ This was certainly true in the case of Sardar; his poetry began in radical delight and ended in civilizational wisdom.

Irfan Ahmad