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'The writers and poets lived on a single floor of a big building, like in a chawl, and each person had a room'
'In films, what he wrote was accepted, though some directors came with certain demands'  
'Kaifi Saab did not believe in what the Naxalites did. His poetry was initially supportive of the Telangana movement'


Silence in close up

Kaifi Azmi

M S Sathyu, filmmaker, speaks of Kaifi Azmi's political steadfastness, poetic integrity, and eloquent silences

Kaifi Azmi wrote the script, dialogue and lyrics for M S Sathyu's Garm Hawa (1973), widely considered a landmark in Indian cinema. Sathyu first met the poet in the Bombay of the '50s, when the Indian People's Theatre Association was putting up Left-inspired theatre productions that moved away from that city's escapist fare. Sathyu later directed Kannada films like Kanneshwara Rama (1977; about a folk hero and freedom fighter), Chitegu Chinte (1980; a satirical take on the Emergency and Jayaprakash Narayan's movement against it) and Bara (1981; about the politics of drought). Kaifi Azmi also wrote the dialogues for the Hindi version of Kanneshwara Rama. Sathyu is now working on an unnamed Kannada film, and will start shooting in August.

I met Sathyu for this tribute at his studio in Malleswaram, and here's what he said. -- SSL

I migrated to Bombay in 1952 and one of the first of the writers and poets I met was Kaifi Azmi. They were all living on a single floor of a big building, like in a chawl, and each person had a room. They had to live in that, with common toilets and things like that. Dedicated people working for a cause... it was a tremendous inspiration for me. I came from a totally different background, from Mysore, and then I had studied in Bangalore. Culturally and socially it was a totally different experience. I had the disadvantage of not knowing Hindi or Urdu. I knew a little bit, just a few words to manage, but I could not sit with these people and talk. That was the time I had to listen and learn a lot.

'He changed the style of Urdu poetry'

My interaction with Kaifi Azmi began in 1952. He was basically involved in politics and trade union activities. My concern was with theatre. I worked for different groups in different languages. Indian People's Theatre Association was very active in the '40s and the '50s. In the '60s IPTA's activities started dwindling, it had become almost dead, and we wanted to revive it somehow. We were looking for some occasion to do that. And 1969 turned out to be the Ghalib centenary year. Kaifi Saab wrote a play called Aakhri Shama about the last mushaira held in the Moghul Empire under Bahadur Shah Zafar. It later became very famous. Ghalib was one of the main characters in it.

Actors who had left started returning. Balraj Sahni and his Juhu Art Theatre colleagues joined IPTA. Ghalib's role was played by Balraj Sahni. This was Kaifi Saab's contribution. Since then IPTA has not looked back. This is the 60th year and we are celebrating it with a month-long multi-lingual theatre festival, from May 1 to June 3, in Mumbai.

I wanted to become a cameraman when I went to Bombay. But I never got an opportunity. Chetan Anand saw me working backstage, and wanted me to be his assistant director. I thought he wanted me to be a set designer. He was doing a film for the 2,500th birth anniversary of the Buddha. I said I didn't know anything about directing, but he said I would learn it. I protested that I couldn't read Hindi... I was very slow at it. He said doesn't matter, I have heard enough about you. So I started learning and picked it up. I can speak Urdu and Hindi in Bangalore quite confidently.

I don't know how much English Kaifi Saab understood: he never conversed in English. He was not worried about it. Language was not a problem in that way. He set a pattern for other Urdu poets, writers and intellectuals, who tried to imitate his style. After Ghalib, he was the only one who brought about a sea change in the whole pattern. All other poets had followed Ghalib and Mir until then. Kaifi Saab was totally modern in his style. Urdu poetry had fallen into clichés of style and imagery. He threw all that out and gave it a totally different direction.

'He didn't hanker after recognition'

Was he inspired by international poets? He did get a lot of it read to him by his friends. Sardar Jaffry used to read out a lot of poetry to him. They would sit and talk. His poems have been translated into English and other languages, and a collection has come out. Qurattulain Hyder, earlier editor of Illustrated Weekly of India, has done some of his poems. He was not the sort interested in international recognition. In the '50s, '60s and '70s people went to Russia or China. Recently he even attended a mushaira in the USA.

In films, what he wrote was accepted, though some directors came with certain demands. He did not work with too many people. He worked with Guru Dutt, Chetan Anand and Kamal Amrohi. Everyone thought he was a political person, a revolutionary, and that he would not suit the romantic kind of film song. So lots of people went to Majrooh, Sahir or Anand Bakshi and others. People who recognized the strength of his poetry came to him. Some thought his poetry could not be set to music, but Jaidev, Amarnath, Khayyam and Madan Mohan could do that.

He never used clichéd phrases and imagery. Kaifi Saab is an inspiration to Javed, who has grown in the film industry. He understands the audience and what the younger people look for in terms of images. His non-film poetry is different.

But with Kaifi Saab, there was no difference; all his poetry had the same amount of power, be it for films or for ideology. For example, a song from Haqeeqat, in which the Chinese aggression was shown for the first time in a film, there are soldiers guarding the nation on the borders waiting for letters from home. That film and that situation formed an inspiration to Border, and the Chitti aayi hai song.

'The fundamentalists couldn't touch him'

When Kaifi was 19, he joined the Quit India Movement. He was very active and also got into the trade union movement. He reacted very strongly to the Emergency, and to liberalisation and privatisation. He was active till the very end, but only two or three people from the Communist party came to the funeral.

The break-up of the textile labour movement and the ideological break-up within the Communist party caused a lot of confusion all around. He too was affected by the confusion, but he stayed totally rooted to his belief in communism. Whether it succeeded elsewhere in the world or not did not change what it meant to him.

The fundamentalist elements that later got into the trade union movement and now rule Bombay could not touch him. Nor can they touch Shabana. If your bearings are good, and if you believe in something ideologically, then you can look and see if you are going right. Whatever happens, good or bad, correct or wrong, it has to be anlaysed. Self-analysis is very important to the communists.

Kaifi Saab did not believe in what the Naxalites did. His poetry was initially supportive of the Telangana movement. The poets in Hyderabad were inspired by him. But the PWG turn did not find any support in him.

'He knew a lot of music'

If there is one song I can recall immediately it would be Chalte chalte from Pakeezah. If you listen to any political sort of nazm and then listen to this song, it shows that he could write poetry of both sorts. He knew what sort of song he needed for Pakeezah.

He was a very quiet man who never spoke much... came up with only one line here and there. He knew a lot of music. He wrote a musical play for me, Zehr-e-ishq. Shabana has lost the play... I need to look for it in my godown. It would make a very good film and I should bring it out sometime. I would like to do it, if things go right. A play in verse like Aakhri Shama shows his knowledge of music. His Heer Ranjha for Chetan Anand was also in verse. He never spoke terms to anyone. He took what he was paid. He never wrote songs to tunes.

Javed needs to find out who makes the music and then goes and sits with them. The situation alone does not help him. If it is A R Rahman, then he sits with him. Then Rahman gives him a tune and then Javed gives you the words. If it were someone else, he would write the song first then the composers would tune it.

People like Madan Mohan or Khayyam did not work like that. They took a situation, got the words and then put it all to tune. Kaifi Saab had a lot of music friends like Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit Ram Narayan. After the funeral, Ram Narayan came to his house and played out his grief on the sarangi for 45 minutes.

'We got Ustad Amir Khan to sing a ghazal'

I did a 22-minute documentary on Ghalib's life. The documentary was researched and scripted by Shama Zaidi. Pandit Amarnath, a disciple of Ustad Amir Khan, was the music director. Kaifi Saab did the narration: he was Ghalib's voice. It was narrated in first person, with the narration taken out of Ghalib's writing. We were wondering who should sing the ghazal that begins and ends the film. Kaifi Saab said, "Amir Khan se poochen." But we were worried. How could we ask the ustad to sing a ghazal?

"Let us go ask, zyada se zyada daant padegi." At worst we would get a scolding. Madanmohan and the great singer were living in the same building. The ustad said, "You want me to sing a ghazal?" We started shivering. We explained that the documentary had Kaifi Azmi in it and Amarnath was making the music.

He agreed. We were surprised. "Ghalib ke liye ghazal gayenge," he said.

We immediately arranged a recording. The recordist, Raj Trehan, was telling us "Kisko pakad ke laye ho... is se recording nahin ho sakta. Shor macha raha hai." (Who is this you have brought here? This recording won't work. He roars!)

His boss had not come. We were there at 7.30 a.m. rehearsing and setting up the mics. Then his boss B N Sharma came in and saw Amir Khan sitting there. He apologized for not knowing about it earlier, and fell at the ustad's feet. He went to his cabin and Raj Trehan said, "Recording nahin ho sakta".

Sharma said, "Chup, tum kuch nahin janta".

Then he got out another mic and in 10 minutes the recording was over.

The recording is still with me on spool. The only ghazal that Amir Khan Saab has ever sung. Kaifi Saab's idea. Air India has taken the documentary on a CD. I think the ghazal began with Kahin aisi jagah jahan koi na ho.

We start the film with it and end it at Ghalib's grave in Nizamuddin. A small shama is hovering over it. There is just a tanpura and that is it.

Kaifi Azmi was a great fighter. He had suffered a paralytic stroke from which the doctors did not give him much chance of recovering. But with gritty determination he recovered to the point of walking with a cane. Quiet, determined and silent.

I thought language made poetry. And silence? I realized it made songs.

M S Sathyu

(As told to S Suchitra Lata)

Quick links:

Kaifi Azmi obit

Posted on 27 May 2002

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