Indian film industry has had a very close and beautiful relationship with Urdu literature. But there are only a few litterateurs who stand apart when it comes to bringing Urdu verse to the industry in a way that it connects with one and all. One such name is of Syed Akhtar Hussein Rizvi or whom the world knows as Kaifi Azmi.

Today I remember the poet who was a great romantic at heart but was not high on the intoxication of love alone but was equally sensitive to the pain of the exploited and the excesses of the exploiter; who not only loved a woman with a sensitive heart but also wanted her to walk the path with him as an equal; who not only dreamed of a utopian world but also strove hard to establish one in this very world.

Kaifi Azmi belonged to a small village called Mijwaan in Azamgarh (hence his takhallus or nom de plume ‘Azmi’). He penned his first ghazal when he was barely an eleven year old kid and recited it in a mushaira. It left everyone including his father in sheer incredulity who earlier thought that the kid had probably plagiarised someone else’s kalaam. Azmi went on to pen some memorable songs, ghazals, dialogues, and nazms for Hindi films. Even today the songs of Haqeeqat fill the heart with an inexplicable longing laced with helplessness – aptly echoing the emotions of soldiers on the front when he wrote:

Hoke majboor mujhe usne bulaya hoga/Zeher chupke se dawa jaan ke khaya hoga

Though as a songwriter he’ll be remembered most for the pain that exudes from the silences of lovers parting their ways in Kaghaz ke Phool when he wrote:

Waqt ne kiya kya hasee’n sitam/ Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum

In the 80s when Indian Cinema was witnessing a New Wave with movies like Arth, Manthan, Garm Hawa etc, Kaifi Azmi penned some beautiful songs that added to the ‘new wave’ dimension of the films. Some of the ghazals like Jhuki Jhuki si nazar beqaraar hai ki nahin and Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho kya dard hai jisko chupa rahe ho still evoke the pain of love that each one of us carry in our heart.

Azmi also wrote some powerful dialogues for many films like Garm Hawa and Manthan owe much of their charm and finesse in the chiselled dialogues. However, his feat as a dialogue writer was for Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha. The dialogues of the entire film are in Urdu verse that ooze of romance and love and passion; befitting the love story of Heer-Ranjha.

Along with Pirzada Qasim and Jon Elia, Kaifi attended some of the most esteemed Mushairas of his time that raised the bar of Shayari. His association with the Progressive Writers’ Movement made him pen some of the most beautiful as well as socially and politically conscious poetry.

maiñ DhūñDtā huuñ jise vo jahāñ nahīñ miltā /na.ī zamīn nayā āsmāñ nahīñ miltā
nayi zami’n naya aasma’an bhi mil jaaye/Naye bashar ka kahin kuch nishaan nahin milta

The world that I keep searching for, I can’t find!
A new land, a new sky, I can’t find!
Even if I find a new land and a new sky,
The signs of a new human; I can’t find!

Azmi is a romantic lover but he doesn’t feel a woman is created only to be loved but she’s also a harbinger of great changes; he wants his beloved to stand with him shoulder to shoulder. And he writes the famous nazm Aurat:

Uth meri jaan mere saath hee chalna hai tujhe!
Arise, my love, for now you must march with me.

qadr ab tak terii tarriikh ne jaanii hii nahiin
tujh mein sholey bhii hain bas ashkfishaanii hii nahiin
tu haqiiqat bhii hai dilchasp kahaanii hii nahiin
terii hastii bhii hai ik chiiz javaanii hii nahiin
apnii tarrikh kaa unvaan badalnaa hai tujhe
uth merii jaan mere saath hii chalnaa hai tujhe

History has not known your worth thus far
You have burning embers too, not merely tears
You’re reality too, not a mere amusing anecdote
Your personality is something too, not just your youth
You’ve to change the title of your history
Arise, my love, for now you must march with me.

Babri Masjid demolition not only left a deep scar on chapters of Indian history but also on Azmi’s Kaifiyat or state of mind. The sensitive poet inked a nazm, Doosra Banwaas that never fails to moisten the eyes every time one reads it. Azmi imagines Lord Ram entering Ayodhya after his exile in the forest. However, Ram sees blood and gore all around on the land of peace. Dejected and despairing, Ram eventually gets up from the banks of River Saryu without washing its feet in its holy waters for now they’re contaminated with blood of innocents, saying

“Tumne Babar kee taraf pheke thhe saare patthar
Hae mere sar ki khata zakhm jo sar mein aaye,
Paun Sarjoo mein aabhi Ram ne dhoye bhee na thhe
Ke nazar aaye wahan khoon ke gehre dhabbe,
Paun dhoye bina Sarjoo ke kinare se uthe,
Ram yeh kehte hue aapne dwaare se uthe,
Rajdhani kee fiza aayee nahin raas mujhe,
6 December ko mila doosra banwaas mujhe.”

You threw towards Babar all the stones
It is my head’s fault that, instead, it bleeds

Lord Ram had not even washed his feet in the Saryu waters
When he saw deep blots of blood.

Without washing his feet in the Saryu he got up from the banks,

Ram got up while leaving his home, bemoaning

The ambience of my capital didn’t suit me,

I’ve got a second exile on December 6.

Shaukat Kaifi was engaged and about to tie the knot in three months when she heard Kaifi Azmi in a Mushaira. She was enamoured by the passionately romantic young poet and it was love at first sight for both of them. What followed was a trail of letters that they exchanged and which have been compiled into Shaukat Kaifi’s autobiography, ‘Kaifi Aur Main’, and aesthetically adapted for the stage with Shabana Azmi playing Shaukat and Javed Akhtar playing Kaifi. The artists reading the letters on either side of the stage denote the physical distance between the lovers in the days of their courtship yet being connected to each other emotionally; an intimacy reflected in the letters.

Whoever knew Azmi personally couldn’t help but get impressed by the intimacy reflected in the letters.

Whoever knew Kaifi Azmi personally couldn’t help but get impressed by his personality. My own father, recalls his rendezvous with Azmi whenever the latter used to visit Lucknow and mostly stayed in Hotel Gulmarg. My father, Shadab, then used to be in the management of the hotel and he used his access well by spending long evenings listening to Kaifi Azmi’s poetry.

“Kaifi Saab enjoyed reciting his poetry with a jaam and even though I was a teetotaller, I used to get intoxicated just by listening to him,” he reminisces.

Kaifi Azmi was indeed a strange man. Strange, as very few today carry the beautiful blend of hope and love as well as pain and anguish for this world.

Javed Akhtar gave a befitting tribute to the Kaifiyat of Kaifi in his nazm, Ajeeb aadmi tha woh!

ajeeb aadmi tha woh,
mohabbaton ka geet thaa,
baghavaton ka raag thaa,
kabhi woh sirf phool thaa,
kabhi woh sirf aag thaa

Indeed a strange man was he!

He was a love song, a raga of rebellion,

Sometimes like a flower,

Sometimes like fire.

woh muflison se kahta thaa ke din badal bhi sakte hain,
woh jaabiron se kahta thaa tumhaare sar pe sone ke jo taaj hain, kabhi pighal bhi sakte hain,
woh bandishon se kahta thaa main tumko tod sakta hun,
sahulaton se kahta thaa main tumko chhodh sakta hun,
hawaon se woh kahta thaa main tumko mod sakta hun,

ajeeb aadmi tha woh!

He used to tell the poor ,

Your days can change too,

He used to tell the tyrants,

The gold crowns adorning your heads,

Can melt away too.

He used to tell restrictions,

I can break you,

He used to tell conveniences,

I can leave you,

To the winds he used to tell,

I can turn you.

Javed later writes which probably sums up the message that Kaifi Azmi gave through his life and pen both.

Woh aadmi se kehta tha,
Ki aadmi se pyaar kar,
Ujad rahi hai yeh zami’n,
Kuch iska ab singhaar kar!

He used to tell Man,

That love another man,

This world is getting ruined,

Adorn it now!

Indeed a strange man, was he!

In times where patriotism has been confined to rhetoric and sloganeering of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, Kaifi’s words that sound like a will of one generation to another, indeed sends goosebumps to the sensitive soul.

“Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon,
Ab tumhare havaale watan saathiyon.”

We sacrificed our body and soul for it, O Friends!

The nation is now in your custody, O Friends!