Faiz Ahmed Faiz is an icon of Urdu poetry and belongs to that galaxy of poets which counts among others Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal as its shining stars.
Faiz was born in Sialkot, also the birth place of Iqbal. Both belong to Punjab, ‘that green patch between mountain and desert’. Faiz wrote romantic poetry infused with a revolutionary zeal. Victor Kiernan, who translated the works of Iqbal and Faiz and introduced them to the English speaking world, said: ‘Iqbal was a prophet of a newly incandescent Islam, Faiz a freethinker feeling his way towards Marxism’.
Biographies of Faiz mention that he was born into an academic and literary family. In fact, Faiz was from a poor family. His father was a self-made scholar.
Faiz had his early schooling in a traditional madrassa. He became academically proficient both in Arabic and English, and secured post-graduate degrees in both disciplines. Interestingly he secured his honours degree in Arabic under the tutelage of Syed Mir Hassan who had also tutored Iqbal.
At some point in his life, Faiz got drawn into Marxism and became a committed communist and joined the Progressive Writers movement which boasted as its members the likes of Sajjad Zaheer.
Faiz was controversially implicated in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case and was charged with Sajjad Zaheer and some others with conspiracy to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan and was consigned to prison for several years. To pass away his time while languishing in a Hyderabadi jail, he taught the Quran to his fellow prisoners. He composed some of his best poems during this period.
Faiz did not adhere to the poetic credo ‘Art for Art’s sake’. ‘Ars gratia artis’ might make a good banner for Metro Goldwyn Myer’s Hollywood commercials, but Faiz did not believe in literature for its own sake. To him, an artist must be committed to a cause. In his poetry, art and realism were mixed together. As he wrote:
The poet’s work is not only perception and observation, but also struggle and effort.
While he used his poetry to serve a cause he did so without letting it degenerate into preaching or propaganda. He gave voice to the aspirations of the down trodden through his poetry. His deep sense of humanism impelled him to focus the torch of criticism on the society of which he was part, driven by a desire to make it better. He wrote: ‘The understanding of the struggle of human life; and a participation in it is not only a pre-requisite of life; it is also a pre-requisite of art’.
Faiz’s poetry bears the influence of Ghalib and Iqbal, both masters of the ghazal form. The ghazal is a quintessentially Urdu form of poetry and as a literary form traditionally dealt with the subject of unrequited love with the poet as the ardent lover in distress. It has developed a structure and idiom all of its own. The imagery of the morning to signify the purity of the day break, the morning breeze as the metaphor of hope, and that of the unrequited lover pining for his beloved were part of the standard idiom of the ghazal.
His initial compositions show Faiz following the conventional lines of the ghazal. In Before You Came, the poet can be seen venting his heart aches inflicted upon him by a non-existent lover. In this poem he brings out the feeling of despondency that he felt before he chanced upon his love.
Before you came, all things were what they are-
The sky sight’s boundary, the road the road,
The glass of wine a glass of wine; since then,
Road, wineglass, colour of heaven, all have taken
The hues of this heart ready to melt in blow-
Alfred Tennyson in his poem In Memorium pleads with his love thus.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me
Faiz recreates this forlorn feeling of isolation and loneliness in the following lines of his poem Be Near me.
My torment, my darling, be near me
That hour when the night comes,
Black night that has drunk heaven’s blood comes
With salve of musk-perfume, with diamond-tipped lancet,
With wailing, with jesting, with music,
With grief like a clash of blue anklets-
That hour when the night comes,
That hour when black night, drear, forlorn, comes
Be near me,
My torment, my darling, be near me!
Employing the imagery and metaphor of the love poem, a more mature Faiz re-invented the ghazal as a medium to convey his message. He turned the love poem on its head, transforming ‘the lament of the lazy lover into one that lamented the condition of the lowly humanity’. He moulded its metaphors to deal with socially relevant themes.
It is evident, for example, in his poem My Beloved, do not ask from me a love like before.
Love, do not ask me for that love again
Once I thought life, because you lived, a prize
The time’s pain nothing, you alone were pain;
Your beauty kept the earth’s spring times from decay.
Dark curse of countless ages, savagery
In-woven with silk and satin and gold lace,
Flesh issuing from the cauldron of disease
With festered sores of dripping corruption
These sights haunt me too, and will not be shut
This world knows of other torments than of love,
And other happiness than of fond embrace
Love, do not ask me for my old love again.
Faiz was disillusioned by the events which followed the decolonization of the subcontinent, which was accompanied by partition marked by violence. He became disenchanted by what he saw and gave expression to the pain that he felt at the time and the desolation that followed in Freedom’s Dawn (Subh-e Azadi) which he wrote in 1947.
This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitter dawn
This is not the dawn of which there was expectation;
This is not that dawn with longing for which
The friends set out, …
The hour of the deliverance of eye and heart has not arrived.
Come, come on, for that goal has still not arrived.
Faiz became a symbol of resistance. Faiz condemned despotism and oppression and gave hope to the hungry, humiliated and the humble and assured that the promised day would come when the heads of despotic rulers will roll, when the crowns would be toppled and palaces demolished.
We shall see
We shall see, it is certain that we shall see
The day for which there is a promise,
The day recorded in the eternal tablet,
When the weighty mountains of cruelty and oppression,
Shall be blown about like cotton wool;
When under the feet of the oppressed ones
The earth shall shake noisily,
And over the heads of despotic rulers
Thunder claps will burst …
When the crowns will be toppled,
When the palaces will be demolished.
Faiz may have written on issues that were of immediate relevance to his own society and time but in reality he touched upon universal themes. Oppression, freedom and authoritarianism are themes that cannot be circumscribed by time or territory.
In Acre of Grass William Butler Yeats wished in his old age that if he were to be given another chance he would remake himself as, among others, William Blake ‘who beat upon the wall/till truth obeyed his call’. Faiz was a courageous man who dared to speak the truth in his lifetime rather than wait to be reborn, even if doing so brought him into conflict with those in authority. He wrote:
let others live for calm indifferent peace,
I knock and knock at gates, and will not cease.
The ghazals of many Urdu poets were made into memorable songs. Urdu poetry provided a ready made repository for Hindi film makers to be transformed into memorable songs and many of those poems have become part of popular Hindi and Urdu culture. Faiz is part of this culture. Like the poems of William Blake his poems are meant to be recited and sung.
His poetry has captured the popular imagination. Many of his songs have been sung by such singers as Talat Mahmood, Noor Jahan, Begum Akthar and Iqbal Bano. Noor Jahan was once invited to appear at a charity event when Faiz was in prison and she chose a song by Faiz for her repertoire. The event’s organisers objected to her singing Faiz’s poem but had to relent as Noor Jahan refused to appear if she was not allowed to sing her selection. Later, Faiz refused to sing this particular song at poetry meetings saying that the song belonged to Noor Jahan.
To songstress Iqbal Bano, Faiz was a hero. She was infected by Faiz’s rebellious spirit when she appeared before a crowd in Lahore and defiantly sang Faiz’s verses at a time he was banned by the country’s regime. Inevitably, Iqbal Bano herself was banned from appearing on television and her songs were banned from the airwaves.
This post has been contributed by Dr Reeza Hameed.