The poet who made migration a civilizational experience

Kazmi, who wrote ghazals steeped in classical beauty and recited them in gentle tones, died 50 years ago on March 2. A tribute.

Daaim aabaad rahegi duniya
Hum na honge koi hum sa ho ga

(The world will flourish forever
We won’t be there, someone like us will be there)

This is a story from 1942. A mushaira was organized by All India Radio at Islamia College Lahore. Abid Ali Abid presided and many well-known Indian poets were present. A 17-year-old boy recited a ghazal with a soft voice and an even softer note, which amazed everyone.

Hoti hai tere naam se vahshat kabhi kabhi
Barham hui hai yoon bhi tabiyat kabhi kabhi

Ae dost hum ne tark-e-muhabbat ke bavajood
Mehsoos ki hai teri zaroorat kabhi kabhi

(Sometimes I fear your name
Even so, the displeasure in my mood increases

O friend, though I have given up my love, I
Have sometimes felt that my lust is refreshed)

There was something about this poet and his poetry: he was young, but his ghazal was mournful in tone, full of classical beauty and expressing a novel thought. With this mushaira it was like proclaiming in the city that a new poet had arrived.

That was Nasir Kazmi, who died in Lahore 50 years ago. He gave the tune a new idiom and confidence in the 20th century, overturning critics’ opinions of ghazal. Nasir had learned three things from Khuda-e-Sukhan (god of poetry), Mir Taqi Mir. First, that a poet should pay attention to the earth rather than the sky, which means that the atmosphere in which one breathes should come alive in his poetry.

In his poetry, Nasir channeled the pain of ‘division’. Nasir had migrated too, and the devastation he saw as a result he expressed with such art that it became a collective experience.

One task of great art is to put the zeitgeist into words so skilfully that one cannot understand this time without ignoring it. In the west, TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is the best example. If anyone made migration a civilizational experience in Urdu poetry, it was none other than Kazmi. Surprisingly, while ignoring this aspect, a celebrated scholar like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi expressed his opinion simply calling Nasir a poet of the tragic tone of love and passion. Nasir’s nostalgia is not personal, but civilizational. Sample some verses of a Ghazal from his Diwan (Collection) and Barg-e-Nai (‘Melody of the Flute’). Does this attitude feel like it springs from the failure of personal love?

“Pattiyan roti hain sar peet-ti hain
Qatl-e-gulaam hua hai abke
Shafaqi ho gai deevar-e-khayal
Kis qadr khoon baha hai abke”

(The petals weep, lost in lamentation
By this time, killing flowers has become commonplace
So much blood has spilled in that time
Red has become the wall of fantasy)


“Zameen logon se khaali ho rahi hai
Yeh rang-e-aasman dekha na jaye
Purani sohbaten yaad aar ahi hain
Charaghon ka dhuan dekha na jaye”

(The earth will be depopulated
I cannot console myself with this color of the sky
Old friendships are remembered
I cannot console myself with the smoke of the lamps)

Second, like Mir, Kazmi expressed everyday feelings in simple language. Our experiences may differ, but basic human behavior remains the same and Nasir is the poet of human behavior.

The third important thing Nasir learned from Me is the art of using words. Words are the colors with which a poet paints a picture. Therefore the whole verse depends to a large extent on the nature of the words. In poetry, seemingly innocuous words like ke (that), hee (only/even), bhi (also), sa (very), magar (but), khair (good), yoonhi (just that way), etc. are not used used correctly, they can cause harm. In these verses, Nasir enchants with simple words:

“Tere aane ka dhoka sa raha hai
Diya sa raat bhar jalta raha hai
Suna hai raat bhar barsa hai badal
Magar voh shahr jo pyasa raha hai”

(A suspicion about your arrival remained
The candle burned all night
You hear it rained all night
But if the city is thirsty despite the drizzle)

“Apni be-chaini bhi ajab thi
Tera safar bhi naya naya tha
Teri palken bojhal see theen
Main bhi thakkar choor hua tha
Tere hont bhi khushk hue the
Mainly to akhair boha tpyasa tha
Dil ko yoonhi sa ranj hai varna
Tera mera sath hee kya tha”

(How strange was my fear
You too have recently embarked on a journey
Her eyelids were a little heavy
I was dog tired too
Your lips had also become dry
As for me, well, I was really thirsty
My heart is otherwise sad in this way
We weren’t meant for each other’s company)

“Deevangi-e-shauq ko yeh dhun hai in dinon
Ghar bhi ho aur be-dar-o-deevar sabhi ho”

(Today the frenzy of desire is in such a state of inclination
Without door and wall it should be like that, but then it should also be a dwelling)

When Nasir started the ghazal in the 1940s, the first collections of Miraji, Faiz and Rashid came to the fore, but the full return of the ghazal happened in the 1950s and 1960s: the new ghazals of Zafar Iqbal, Shahzad Ahmad and Saleem Ahmad became famous and Ahmad Mushtaq started writing ghazals with a gentle tone. Very few ghazals appear in the first two collections of Munir Niazi, but gradually the amount of ghazals began to increase. In the 1960s, the collections Aab-e-Ravan (‘Running Water’, Zafar Iqbal) and Dushmanon ke Darmiyan Shaam (‘An Evening Among Enemies’, MunirNiazi) embodied the expression of new poets’ self-confidence in the form of ghazal. In the same period, Shakeb Jalali surprised with his revival, but another important event that marked this period were the linguistic formations.

But this was also the time that was difficult for both the Ghazal and Nasir. In 1949, Muhammad Hasan Askari had announced the arrival of a poet in Nasir. But now “professional critics” began to indicate the end of the road for him. In the works of Zafar Iqbal and Shakeb, the couplets are strong and the expression more open. That’s why the splendor of Nasir seemed faded to some people. But Nasir’s poetry possesses the secret of the brown beauty, whose characters are faint, but the influence is very long-lasting. It was also a long time since his second collection of poetry appeared. But once Deevan was released after Nasir’s death, the “critics” were speechless. Faruqi’s honesty is to be commended when he not only changed his stance, but also acknowledged Nasir’s genius, stating that had he not written the ghazals, the ghazal would have had to wait for him.

The progressives’ attitude towards Nasir and his poetry was the same. A poet like Nasir would seem to them devoid of political and social consciousness, since in his works there was no slogan but poetry – no bland and definite lines, but classical beauty. The most representative poets of the progressives became salon poets, but Nasir is still the poet of the streets. Whatever form we try to include Nasir will fail because social behaviors are found in his poetry in such a dissolved form that it is not possible to separate their components. When Nasir wrote about East Pakistan and spoke about the fishermen and singers on the coasts, he even made it a civilizing behavior. That’s why it’s still fresh. These ghazals are the best evidence of Nasir’s deep immersion in nature and folk culture.

Pehli Barish (First Rain) was another of Nasir’s seminal works, whose imagery and creative richness are self-evident. Nasir provided a model that becomes the vessel for creative experimentation and symbolic language that extols the lover’s physical charms.

“Tere ghar ke darvaze par
Sooraj nange paon khada tha
Deevaron se aanch aati thi
Matkon my pani yalta tha
Dhoop ke lal hare honton ne
Tere balon ko choomatha
Math par boondon ke moti
Aankhon my kajal hansta tha
Chandi ka ik phool gale mein
Hath my badal ka tukda tha
Bheege kapdon ki lehron mein
Kundan sona damak rahatha
Ikrukhsarpezulfgirithi
Ik rukhsar bad luck and khula tha
Thodi ke jagmag sheeshe my
Honton ka saaya padtatha
Chandar kiran si ungli ungli
Nakhun Nakhun Heera Satha
Ik paon my phool si jooti
Ik paon sa rananga tha”

(At the door
The sun was barefoot
Heat came off the walls
Water burned in the jars
The red-green lips of the sunlight
had kissed your hair
The teardrop beads on the forehead
The cabbage laughed in his eyes
A silver flower around his neck
A piece of cloud in hand
In the waves of damp clothes
Pure gold glittered
A lock fell on one cheek
On another the moon spread out
In the shiny glass of the chin
The shadow of the lips fell
Every finger like a moonbeam
Every nail like a diamond
In a foot a flower of a slipper
the other was completely naked)

Fifty years have passed since Kazmi’s death. Nasir not only smoothed the bottom of the Ghasal, but also raised it to a height the height of which no other poet has hitherto touched. Whatever experiments took place in the Ghazal after Nasir, it would never have taken place if Nasir had not laid such a strong foundation. Even today, the Ghazal is our strongest style of expression, behind which the most important event is the presence of Nasir. The chessboard that Nasir laid, many pawns came up on it, but Nasir still stands in the form of the king.

“Fursat mein sun shaguftagi-e-ghuncha ki sada
Ye voh sukhan nahi jo kisi ne kaha bhi ho”

(Listen calmly to the cheerful face of the bud
These are not the words that were also spoken, maybe)

All translations from Urdu are by the author. Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and playwright from Lahore, where he is also President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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