The word ‘Dastangoi’ comes from combining the Persian words for epic (dastan) and telling (goi), and involve narrating medieval romantic tales full of magic and adventure. The ancient form of Urdu story telling, Dastangoi, has been revived and made popular by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain. They have taken the form to various national forums and international. These two storytellers are unique in the sense that they not only pursue their own professions, but also make the form contemporary by telling stories from our midst. Excerpts from an interview conducted by Samvartha ‘Sahil’ after their performance for SPICMACAY, in Surathkal, Karnataka.
Was the reviving of Dastangoi an artistic or aesthetic exercise for you or was it also a political act?
Mahmood Farooqui : I wanted to tell these stories, which were being told by the Dastangos (storytellers) and that is what led me back to Dastangoi. My theatre background made it an artistic exercise. Though it is not a conscious political act, the very act of reviving a forgotten art form and the very act of telling stories in Urdu, especially in post-independent India, becomes a political act.
Like Urdu, has Dastangoi also been associated with Islam in the popular mindset?
MF : I can’t say if it actually is. There are non-Muslim performers also in our team. But the visual image, especially the skull cap, makes the performance go well with the popular image of Islam. But the cap we use is called ‘Dopalli‘, and these caps are neither Hindu nor Muslim. They are traditional Indian caps, which later also took the form of Gandhi topi. And though traditionally Dastangois were stories about great Muslim warriors, its audience base was not Muslims alone. So it is difficult to say if it is associated with Islam or not.
How different is Dastangoi from Mushaira, apart from one being story and the other being poetry?
Danish Husain : Mushairas were a conglomeration of poets who would read out new works. There used to be some kind of showmanship and it was like a competition between poets. Though Mushaira has a performative angle, it is very different from Dastangoi because Dastangoi is not about competing but telling and listening. And Dastangois, like your Yakshagana or Pandvi, Lavni, have a community attached to it. The audience knows the stories being told beforehand, but they come to relive those stories. Mushaira, in that sense, need not have a community and it is mostly a recital of new works with which the audience is not familiar.
Was there any attempt by the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA) or the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to revive or use the Dastangoi tradition, as many of the people associated with the two groups had memories of Dastangoi?
Danish : Dastangoi faded out in the year 1928 with the death of Mir Baqar Ali. PWA came into existence in late 1930s and IPTA in early 1940s. I guess they had ideological differences. For them the definition of art was different. It must serve the people. It must have a political end. Their focus was to use art for politics and not to revive forgotten art forms. Though political issues can come into the daastaans of Dastangoi, the very idea of Dastanagoi is not to serve people or bring a revolution but just tell stories. The writers had their ways of reaching to people through street plays. But yes, it is interesting as to why they did not use Dastangoi, when it would have come so handy to mobilise people and reach out to them, probably because most of the people associated with these associations had a western model of revolution. So street play was closer to them than a traditional Dastangoi which could have also been used for political purposes. This could also be because by then, the colonial gaze had injected inferiority complex is us not just about ourselves but everything about us including our art forms.
You have also performed in Pakistan. So what do you think could be the contribution of Dastangoi – an oral tradition in Urdu – to bridge the cultural gap between India and Pakistan, where our common language is broken because of two different scripts?
MF : I think bringing the two nations together is a far-fetched idea. Dastangoi is new to both countries and even in Pakistan there is a major set of people who do not follow Urdu, as there are in India too. To bridge the gap there must be attempts not in the shared culture of Urdu, but in the shared culture of Punjabi. Moreover our idea and focus is not that. We are here just to tell stories.
On similar lines what is the contribution of revived Dastangoi to the language Urdu which, like Dastangoi, has been marginalized from early 20th century?
Danish: The contribution to the language Urdu was major by gazal singers like Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali who kept the river of Urdu flowing. The taste for Urdu survived majorly because of them. The cassette culture and revolution also helped them. Will Dastangoi play a role of that magnitude only time can tell us.
Has Dastangoi always been performed in closed atmosphere?
MF : No. Dastangoi was performed in the streets of Jama Masid and was very popular there. It was being performed in a closed atmosphere too. Ghalib is said to have organised Dastangois in his house.
Danish : We too have performed in open spaces, amphitheatres, gardens – all sorts of places. Our requirements are also minimal – a mike set and a few lights. At times, we have done without equipment too.
Has there been any instance, in the past, of women being Dastangos?
MF : Yes, there has been. Not in open-space Dastangois, but in closed-atmosphere Dastangois, such as inside the house.
The other forms of storytelling in India use music and songs. Why doesn’t Dastangoi use music and song?
MF: Its just not designed that way. The stress is on narration as it is an art of narration. But recently in one of our shows in Kabul one of our artists broke into a song and it not just went in tune with the performance but was also well received.
It has been seven years since you have revived and been performing Dastangoi. You have performed in various parts of the country. So, are there attempts of artists of other languages using this form- Dastangoi- to tell the stories in and of their language?
MF: No. But it can be done. If we can tell the story Ghare Baire in Urdu why can’t the Bengalis narrate it in Bengali? It might pick up sometime because it is low cost theater and an interesting one too.
This one is for you Mahmood Farooqui. How do you divide your time? The roles of a Dastango, a historian, a filmmaker all demand different kind of preoccupation and outlook.
MF : (laughs) I am being pulled by both my legs these days. The role of a filmmaker is different. But the role of historian and a Dastango flow into each other. A Dastango should know about everything. The last major Dastango Mir Baqar Ali used to attend anatomy classes though not a medical student. That is because if you are narrating a story where you need to describe the body you should know about it thoroughly. In that way the interest in history actually strengthens the performance of Dastangoi for me.
(An edited version of this interview was published in The Hindu, Friday Review on 22 June 2012)
Javed Akthar scarcely misses hitting the bull’s eye. He was at the heart of truth when on Mehdi Hassan’s death he said (speaking to Tehelka) that the era of popular gazals started and ended with the gazal king. That was bang on.
What is popular gazal? What was pre-popular gazal? What is popular?
Popular gazal can be popularly understood as popularized by the detaching gazal from the courtesans and the coming of recording mechanisms. What happened with the coming of recording mechanisms at the beginning of the 20th century was that the style and method of gazal singing was undergoing change. Earlier the courtesans as artists would project their voice as loudly as possible and their live performance was intertwined with a lot of coloratura runs (tans) and nakhras which elevated the gazal to a higher level by deepening it. The tempo of the gazal in the pre-recording era too was different.
These changes to take shape completely did take time. In earlier days the recordings were no less to a concert with a huge orchestra and the recordings happening with one recording device in a huge hall, most of the times cinema halls after the last show of cinema for the day is over. But with technological advancements the singing of gazals got a bit mellowed down and the coloratura runs decreased to a large extent. The tempo too changed to an extent.
Thanks to the popularity of Urdu/ Hindustani in the north belt at the turn of the century, some of the earliest recordings done during the initial days of recording industry were gazals. The recording of the gazals and selling of the recordings further popularized gazal singing in the times when it was moving out of the courtesan hands. Later with the coming of talkies or sound in cinema the existing and easily available form for songs in cinema were the folk forms and the gazal. So the songs in films included a lot of gazals. This not just popularized gazals among the people but, with the recording mechanisms, changed the style of gazal singing too.
Gazal singers like Saighal, Farida Khannum, Begum Akthar carried the memory of pre-recording days of gazal singing in their style. But soon was to emerge a new generation of popular gazal singing shaped in the times of studio recording which redefined gazal singing and the singer who was the first and last among them was Mehdi Hassan. So what Javed Akthar said is at the heart of the truth that popular gazal begins and ends with Mehdi Hassan. This new style of singing was at its best in the hands of Mehdi Hassan and this new style of popular gazals popularized gazals further with the help of mass production and mass distribution. (The contribution of these popular gazals to the language of Urdu has been discussed by me in my obituary to Jagjit Singh which I do not wish to repeat here.)
Mehdi Hassan’s life cut paths with another shifting period- one country being partitioned into two nations. Born in Luna, India when the nation was partitioned he was forced to leave for Pakistan where he worked as a mechanic initially before coming to fame as a gazal singer and ruling the hearts of the once one nation.
His life, soon after partition, is also a story of partition revealing what partition did to individuals. It divorced individuals from themselves, reflected in Mehdi Hassan being distanced from his music by being forced to become a mechanic to make the ends meet.
The trauma of partition left an everlasting pain in the heart of Mehdi Hassan. He longed for his village and the soil of his village. But Mehdi Hassan had the ability to turn what seem negatives into positives. Once while performing his harmonium is said to have stopped working. Immediately Mehdi sahab repaired it and while repairing it said, “I had worked as a mechanic and then had repaired very complicated machines in comparison to which this harmonium is easy to be repaired.” The pains of partition added depth to his gazals. The gazals, “ranjish hee sahi,” “ab kay hum bichadey hai toh,” became an expression of his agony and his dreams too.
To take the help of Javed Akthar again, he in an elongated interview (Talking Songs) said, “Sad moments and experiences usually settle deep within a person… so sad songs connect to the inner world… People have different ways of expressing happiness but sadness is often hidden away. That sadness finds expression in songs and so such songs are very precious.” In the same interview he also says that being tired of excessive melodrama of one era the following generation wanted emotions to be expressed without melodrama or overt-sentimentality. Saying this he states that melodrama should be replaced with dignified under-stated drama, without compromising with the sensitivity.
Mehdi Hassan’s voice had a restrain. That along with his uncomplicated (or less complicated) way of singing struck a chord with the larger mass and Mehdi Hassan became the voice of many and a release of hidden emotions for many, emotions settled deep within. A less recognized contribution of film songs and ghazals to the mass has been that of catharsis. Apart from giving new dimension to gazal singing method Mehdi Hassan with his restrained voice also provided catharsis to the melancholic emotions which is kept deep inside and keeps looking for an outlet.
Lata Mangeshkar was true to say Mehdi Hassan’s voice was the “voice of God,” to speak of its quality. But it was as much a voice of people, giving release to their pent up emotions, as much the “voice of God.”
It is sad that the voice of people, as said by Raaza Rumi, minimal interest with regard to treatment by the officialdom. It required media to pick up the issue. The minimal interest by the system is a shame. At the same time its sad that though Rajasthan Chief Minister volunteered to take care of the artist’s treatment things did not work out.
When I heard the sad news of Mehdi Hassan passing away I imagined myself singing, “Ranjish hee sahi dil hee dukhaane kay liye aa…” and suddenly in my imagination I heard Mehdi sahib singing, “Shola tha jal bujha hoon hawaayein mujhey na do, main kab ka jaa chukka hoon sadaayein mujhey na do.” It could have been in no other way because if you once heard Mehdi Sahab sing, you would, at your subconscious level, be having continuous interaction with him, his voice and his songs. He, with his voice and song, would become an extended self on whose lap you would rest your head and he would pamper you, console you.
I told a senior friend (Ashok Shettar) about my interaction with Mehdi Hassan on hearing the sad news and he rightly quoted Faiz from a gazal which Mehdi sahib immortalized. The line goes like this:
Chaley Bhi Aao Kay Gulshan Ka Khaarobaar Chaley…
But again Mehdi Sahab had to converse. I heard him sing:
Muhobbat Karney Waaley Kam Na Hongay,
Teri Mehfil Mein Lekin Hum Na Hongay.
I laughed at the interaction and swallowed the line that came to my lips but did not take wings…
Agar Tu Ittefaakan Mil Bhi Jaaye,
Teri Furkat Kay Sadme Kam Na Honay.
Though there is ‘furkat’ there will be ‘milna’, through gazals and conversations. The ‘mehfil’ has not come to an end…
An evening chai with a friend took us back to school days. We spoke of many things from school life and somehow we reached the issue of ‘malpractice in the exam’ which we called, to avoid the loaded language, “copying”. After all we are lazy people, you know.
When you have the toughest work to do, give it to the laziest person and he will find a short cut. One of the best examples of it can be found in “copying.” Exams were conducted to ‘examine’ the intelligence or rather the memory of the students. While it provided platform for all the so called intelligent people to show off their intelligence wrapped in memory, it provided a platform for the less intelligent ones to bring out their creativity and be in the race.
Ethics? It is for the privileged intelligent ones. And come on, everything is fare in love and war. That too in this competitive world where something as silly as exams are projected as a matter of life and death. When we build a society which is not ideal, with its unhealthy competitive mentality, we will have all unethical unhealthy but not at all uninteresting practices happening.
While peeping into other’s answer sheet was a common practice in our school there was some interesting ‘copying’ that needs to be recorded. Ours was a truly genius school Saar….
We would never be made to sit with our classmates and I believe that is the practice in every school. Once, when I was in class eight, my neighbor in the exam hall from class ten was constantly looking down at the floor whenever he was out of teacher’s eye sight. No, he couldn’t have kept anything on his lap. That would be too dangerous!! Why he was looking at the floor, I wondered only to see answers written on a fresh pair of white Paragon slippers!!! Har Kadam Per Aapke Saath…
Full hand shirts were preferred mostly by the less intelligent people. You know how paper sheets can be placed comfortably while folding the hand of the full hand shirt! Slowly the folded hand of the shirt would be unfolded. Exams are cold to the less intelligent ones you see. It would send a chill down the spine…
One of the most hilarious memories of “copying” is of this friend who was my batch mate but in another section. There used to be these ‘Guide’s for the less intelligent ones. These books (How can I forget those memorable names- Super Digest, Diamond) would give summaries of the lessons and also give model questions and answers for them too. So this friend would buy two sets of Guides for every subject in the same year. One to study and the other one to be neatly scissored and taken to the exam hall. Now while remembering it I feel it was the earliest method of what we call today, “Cut Copy Paste” while all other methods of “copying” were just “copy paste”.
Taking chit into the exam hall and coming out without being caught requires guts boss. Some would throw the chits out of the window. But those unfortunate ones who did not get a window seat had to somehow carefully bring the chits out of the hall too. Unfolding them is quite easy when compared to re-folding of it and hiding it again. One of our seniors had told us the story of one of his classmate who used to swallow the chit after using it. Reminded of that class one English story of the goat that ate arithmetic books? When the subject did not get into the brain it at least got into the stomach. What for is schooling if not to find means to fill ones stomach?
When we were in our pre-university classes a boy from Kerala joined our school who couldn’t scream for his life in Hindi even if a knife was held at his neck in a Hindi speaking area. He, out of no choice, has to opt for Hindi as the only other option in language was Kannada. Somehow he cleared first year of PU. When we came to second year the regime of the college changed and the new principal announced that if any student failed in the preparatory exams he or she would not be allowed to write the annual exam as it would affect the overall results of the college which was considered no less to a bharateeya naari’s izzat!! So passing in preparatory became too important for him though he did not know how.
The day before exam another friend who had opted for Kannada came up with a “plan.” Three students would be allotted one bench to sit and write the exam, second years on each end writing their preparatory exam and in the middle the first year students writing their annual exam. As per plan we all went to the college early and spotted the place in the exam hall allotted for our Malyalee friend. The other second year student allotted the same bench with our Malyalee friend was convinced to go occupy the place allotted to this friend who had come up with the plan. He agreed. This boy who came up with the idea went and occupied the bench with this Malyalee with a first year student in between. Writing his paper, this friend passed on his paper to the Malyalee and took his paper. This was the most risky of all “copying” because the friend who came up with the idea was writing Kannada paper and this Malyalee friend was writing Hindi paper. But this Kannada friend, as planned, wrote the essay, letters and those general stuff enough for the Malyalee to get his hall ticket for the annual exam.
Incidentally the girl sitting between them was a friend to me. That afternoon she gave me a call and asked me, taking the name of the two, if they were my friends. She went on to explain how she couldn’t write her paper being perplexed by the exchanging of answer sheets in the exam hall by two people answering two different question papers of different language. She wanted to know what exactly was happening. When I told her what was the plan she just said, “Only if so much brain was applied to study.”
You always have such nerds. Come on, not everyone is made for every language and for the same kind of exam oriented competition. But look at the ideas these people come up with. They are original in nature unlike those answers which are reproduced on the answer sheets.
The incident of preparatory exam reminds me of what is the best of my school ‘malpractice in exam’ memories. I cannot use the word “copying” here because it was not “copying” at all.
Mathematics answer sheets were being distributed in class after the exams. As expected and as usual I had flunked. Flunked royally. While the intelligent ones were checking and rechecking the marking to see if they could get quarter mark more and while the less intelligent ones celebrated our failures of which we knew beforehand, one of our classmates went to Sir and said he had not got his answer sheet. Sir got worried and said, “May be I have misplaced it with the answer sheets of the other section. I will check.” Later in the break time I told this friend very enviously, “How lucky, your answer sheet is misplaced and you are saved of the shame of having flunked, like me. But if he finds it and you are flunked you are with me.” His reply to this was shocking and the story hilarious. He said, “How will Sir find my answer sheet when I did not submit it?” The story is this: Halfway through the exam our man realized that there is absolutely no chance of him clearing the paper. So what he did was, he neatly folded his answer sheet and kept it in his pocket and just walked out of the hall with everyone. In the last minute when everyone places the answer sheets on the invigilators table and walks out our man had walked out with his answer sheet in his pocket. The invigilator was busy collecting others answer sheets.
Malpractice in exam is a common phenomenon in every school across the country I guess. I remember how ideas were exchanged by students of different schools when all came together in Scout or NCC camps. Miseries have this impossible strength to unite people who otherwise are separated by walls of institutions.
One of my favorite story is that narrated by a cousin of mine. One of their lecturers had this habit of correcting the answer sheets with a pencil and writing the marks on them with a pencil. The students later had to see if the marking was proper and only after they had nodded their head saying the marking is proper he would write the marks on the same sheet with a pen. Democratic method I say. The student had the opportunity to say he/she deserves more mark and if proved right, he/she would get it. What this friend of my cousin would do after answering is that he would neatly take out a pencil and write on the top right of the first sheet- 30 and circle it. Like their teacher would, while correcting the answer sheet. As a result when the teacher would be correcting the answer sheets- around hundred per class- he would see the ‘marking’ and think that he has already corrected the paper and place it with the corrected answer sheets. When the sheets were distributed in class this genius of a boy would go through his answer sheet thoroughly moving his finger on every line he has scribbled and say, “it’s perfect,” to get good thirty marks out of fifty even when the teacher had not gone through his answer sheet!!
A friend told me the story of a faculty they had who was one of his kinds who could be bullied by the students. But his innocent smile made these people have some pity on him and hence they did not bully him but would take him on a ride always. Once a classmate of my friend was “copying” in the exam. This particular faculty saw this boy indulging in malpractice but did not say anything. He just smiled. But when the boy submitted his answer sheet and was walking out of the exam hall he was stopped by this faculty. Everyone in the hall thought that the faculty would now handover the boy to the examination supervisor. The class was terrified by this act of stopping of this guy. The faculty slowly walked to the boy and said, “Please don’t tell anyone that you copied in the exam.”
Some jokes are hard to laugh at. I know.
If you thought this was the heights, wait. Listen to what happens the next semester with the same faculty. A boy had brought chits to the exam hall and was copying from it. This faculty making his usual rounds went and stood just behind the boy who was copying. He was so involved in his act of cheating that he did not realize that the invigilator was just behind him. When he felt that there was someone standing just behind him he turned back out of fear and when he turned back this faculty got terrified and turned his face to the roof to see the ceiling fan!!!
Not every attempt is a asucceful one. Some great ideas fail at times. My Degree days. Ours was the first batch of the new course that was introduced in the Institute. Getting approval for the course and other formalities took time and our course was late to start. So our exams were conducted separately as we were not in pace with the rest of the courses. Our exams were conducted in our class room itself. Once we got to know that our English teacher was to come that day as the invigilator. We remembered her narrating incidents of she sending her class one daughter for Kannada tuition as she did not know Kannada and couldn’t teach or make her daughter revise the lessons. We came up with this idea to write some of the difficult answers on the board, not in English language but in Kannada script. And we did. We all patted our own backs singing praises of our creativity. Teacher arrived and distributed sheets for us to write the answers and when she was going back to her table after distributing the sheets, to collect the question paper kept on the table, her eyes fell on the black board. When her eyes were stuck at the board we all started giggling and that gave it away. She asked what was written on the black board. Me being the CR said, “Its a notice from the Kannada Association of the college.” That made my classmates laugh uncontrollably. The teacher understood what it was. She neatly wiped the black board clean with a smile on her face.
These “copying” in the battle of examination have had many martyrs. At times the not so experts give it out to the invigilators by the fear reflected on their face. The teachers later on see it as a feather in their cap of being strict and not allowing anybody to copy and catching the frauds, without realizing that many just managed to get their way right under the nose of the invigilator.
Once when a friend was caught while copying he took the names of all the other classmates in the class who were also copying. This landed quite a few in trouble.
When I joined as a faculty and during my first, very first in fact, invigilation duty while all students were entering the hall one student came to me and whispered in my right ear, “Sir xyz has brought chits and is going to copy.” You always have such ‘mark fetish’ people. This person went on to say, “Not that you have to send him out but telling you because it is an ethical matter.” I was in serious dilemma. All my students were and still are very close to my heart. It was easy to send him out of the hall based on the ‘complaint’. But that would be too harsh a thing to do with a student, I thought. Then I recollected the words that one of my teacher friends had once told me. He had said, “The job of the invigilator is to see to it that nobody copies and not to punish the one who copies.” So what this friend used to do is if he found a student with chits in the exam hall he would just take the chits from the student and let the student continue to write. So that day what I did was I told my co-invigilator to keep an eye on this student who allegedly had brought chits into the exam hall with the intentions of copying. That managed to stop the student from copying. But this student who later on went to be one of my dearest students said he continued to copy in most of the exams later on in various methods. He would explain in detail the different methods that he used to copy in the exams. Some were really interesting but did not fascinate me the way the methods adopted by some of my classmates did.
One of my friends was telling me that in their institute some students access Wikipedia through their mobile and write answers during class test. The idea of copying and the methods of it are in tune with the times, I told myself when I heard of it. When one student was caught accessing Wikipedia via mobile in the class test mobile phones were banned from the exam hall. But I doubt if that stopped malpractice in the exam. It is impossible to believe after having see genius methods of copying compared to which accessing Wikipedia via mobile is totally uncreative and unintelligent.
The true genius way of surviving an exam to me was by this friend who somehow discovered that his teacher- an alumni of the same institute- who was teaching for the first time, was repeating in class exactly what she was told by her teachers when she was a student. Probably my friend discovered this by seeing his teacher read out from a note book which seemed a bit old. This made my friend to come to the conclusion that if the teacher doesn’t have the brains to speak of the subject originally then she would not have the brains to set the question paper originally too. So he went to the library and unearthed the question papers, (of all the subjects related to the subject he was being taught), that his teacher had faced as a student. He thoroughly prepared for the questions that his teacher had answered being sure a mix match of those questions would be his question paper. And he was not wrong.
He said he had a smile on his face when he saw the question paper. I laughed aloud and bowed down to his genius.
When I recollect all my school classmates and see what they are doing today I see that almost everyone is doing fairly well in life, the ones who got gold medal and those creative geniuses who knew the short cut. So what was all that gaga over marks and the unnecessary comparison between those who scored well and those who didn’t? When I go to my school today, there is a huge board on which the name of every batch’s academic topper is painted. That makes a glorious show off of those who hoisted their individual flag on the top of their illusive Mount Everest but never makes an interesting story. The interesting stories are always by those who do not hoist their flag on the top or those who do not have their names painted to go down into history. The interesting stories are of those who are struggling to survive and be on the race of life in this competitive world. The unsung geniuses of every school make the best stories of survival. Survival is also a success story, dude…
(Disclaimer: This post does not encourage malpractice in exam nor does it celebrate it. But yes it condemns the unintelligent method of examination based evaluation and celebrates the true will of those so called “less intelligent” or “unintelligent” people and their original creative methods to survive these useless exams and make their way.)
In the year 1979 at a seminar held in connection with the International Film Festival of India, in Delhi, one of the finest minds, not just one of the finest actors, of this country- Utpal Dutt- began his keynote address by saying, “I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses. It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves. It reminds me of the Russian countess who wept for Rigoletto and Gilda at the theatre while her coachman froze to death outside.”
I recollect these words of Utpal Dutt, again, now after watching Dibanker Banerjee’s film Shanghai because Utpal Dutt concluded his speech saying, “… This is the country which went through the days portrayed in Z (1969); this is also the country where politics has been scrupulously avoided in films. If a director does not believe in political commitment, he has every right not to make it. It is his freedom. But if it is fear or opportunism which keeps him from saying anything about hunger, riots, degradation of man- the daily reality of our country- then we say he is no artiste. It is inconvincible that they see all this and breathe the air of animal-like existence and yet do not explode in anger and hatred. I think the time for anger arrived many years ago, but most of our creative artists in the cinema have been unpardonably timid and have not reacted even when they turned this country into a vast prison.”
Z (1969) is a film by Costa Gavaras which was based on the novel Vassilis Vassilikos penned with the same title. It is based on the same novel that Dibanker Banerjee makes his political thriller Shanghai. The film which begins with images reminding one of Costa Gavaras film, as though providing a tribute to the film, as the film proceeds takes its own course. But even when paying its tribute to the film of Costa Gavaras and even while basing itself on a novel of the 1960s the film, from the very first frame, is speaking of here and now.
International Business Park or what is called as IBM in short throughout the film (also India Bane Pardes) is a development project which is opposed by a few while the rest of them, including many who are more affected by it, love the idea of IBM as it promises “development.” One of the strongest voices of opposition Dr. Ali Ahmedi is murdered in public while the police force becomes mute spectators to the murder. Shalini Sahai who is a student of Dr. Ahmedi, gets the information that the life of Dr. Ahmedi, is in danger. But her voice is eclipsed by the charged revolutionary spirit. Once the murder takes place it is passed as an accident. But the television byte by the wife of Dr. Ahmedi, Aruna, saying it was not an accident but a murder, makes the Chief Minister set up a commission headed by Krishnan, an IAS officer, investigate the matter. His investigation gets major proof from Joginder, a photographer who is also into porn film making, whose brother also gets murdered. The investigation of the Krishnan with the interest and cooperation of Shalini, Joginder and one of their other friend Tiger unfolds the political story of our times the political side of ‘development’. Even when the end doesnt shock the path that takes us till the end of the film does shock us.
In unfolding the political side of ‘development’ it reveals, whose interest this idea of development caters to. The question ‘whose development is it and to whom does the country belong’, which is incidentally the title of the book written by Dr. Ahmedi in the film, is the question which the film too poses. But the film does more than just posing the question. It weaves a dramatic story around the development story to speak of the horror of our times, the dystopic present, and not just restricting it to a “so sad” story of the displaced. The film speaks of how people opposing the interest of some, projected as national interest, is silenced and the hands that actually run riots, sow poverty and also script displacements. Thus the film becomes the history of the present in metaphors.
It is history of the present because what India is witnessing today is the horror and murder caused by the idea of development. Be it Tata, Posco, Vedanta the innumerable SEZs all have the similar stories with different characters. Everywhere people are being shown a utopian dream of Shanghai, everywhere people are being displaced, everywhere there is resistance, everywhere there is silencing of resistance, everywhere there is political interests intertwined with the corporate interests, which finally is projected as the national interest, everywhere there are innocent victims. Around every utopian dream of Shanghai lay a dystopic world. But he doesnt present the non-‘developing’ spaces as utopia either. The story of why Joginder had to migrate tells the dystopic story of the non-‘developing’ worlds.
Dibanker Banerjee has the gravitation of reality. He knows the times in which he is living. He knows the dystopic reality of our times. He knows how to voice them in today’s tongue too, which he proved in the best possible way in his previous film Love Sex aur Dhoka (Which I consider as his best film and rate it over Shanghai). He knows the other side of ‘developments’ that are taking place. He weaves all of these stories of real life to make Shanghai, which is the history of the present. He also knows that he is speaking to the real people of his times. So he doesn’t take an intellectual and philosophical stand to the extent that the intellect and philosophy gets divorced from the people. This is the major problem that many of our finest filmmakers have made, I feel. In the process of making an intellectually and philosophically elevated cinema, using personal signature symbols and metaphors, they are playing their film to the empty gallery when the issues they have been taking up needed and needs to be spoken to the people. Not to underestimate the intellect of the people but as Utpal Dutt said in the very same lecture, “at all times he must begin with the present level of the audience and advance with them to whatever philosophy he wishes to preach.” Dibanker Banerjee does exactly the very same thing. He knows who he is speaking to and also knows what he must be speaking. This balance makes him the chronicler of times who is speaking of his times and to the time in which he is living.
Lot can be said about the music, camera and editing which makes the history of the present be voiced in an amazingly effective manner. But there is a repetitive method that he has adopted in this film i.e. of interruption which is quite interseting. This interruption pulls us out of the flow in regular intervals. First it happens when we see the item number “imported kamariya” has begun but stops before the third line is sung. It stops because the minister arrives at the programme and to welcome him the dance has been stopped. Next we see that while we are all set to listen to the hearing we see the cleaner still sweeping the room. During the hearing when Shalini bursts out in anger a basket ball from the nearby play ground enters the hall. Later when Shalini is thrown out of the hearing session she almost slips and following her Krishnan also slips. In one of the later scenes we see a few workers painting the wall in the hall where a police constable is being questioned by Krishnan. The painters are immediately asked to leave, when the interrogation begins. This breaking of the seriousness makes us take the issues more seriously as we are not let to settle down like a spectator. The entire film itself is an interruption between all the soapy soapy films are arriving at nearby theaters to displace us from reality. Shanghai pulls us out of that flow and pulls us out form that comfortable position of a spectator. It raises questions, it raises issues. It triggers thoughts.
Utpal Dutt in that memorial lecture said that a film can be both intellectual and popular at the same time. He said, “I think, developing countries need the brilliance of a Ford and Chaplin, at once intellectual and popular.” Dibanker Banerjee in all his previous films has been both intellectual and popular. He continues to be the same in Shanghai too. Dibankar Banerjee as exploded in anger to the reality of our times, while chronicling our times. He is a great artiste.
The year 2011 was the birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and this year (2012) happens to be the birth centenary of Sadat Hassan Manto. While Manto is more known for his partition sketches one of the most celebrated poems of Faiz is Subah-E-Azaadi and it happens to be one of my favourite (of many) Faiz poetry. The coming of birth centenaries one after the other and my love for the partition sketches and Subh-E-Aazaadi made me wonder about partition literature in Urdu poetry. While I was revisiting my readings and trying to see partition poetry and while trying to learn more on partition poetry in Urdu I chanced upon a wonderful article by Rakshanda Jalil titled ‘Partition Poetry in Urdu’. It made me happy and envious at the same time. Happy because the author writes about the subject with great hold on the subject and provides interesting insights apart from introducing me to partition poems of which I was not aware. I was envious for reasons obvious. Here I reproduce the entire text of Rakshanda Jalil’s article and the comment I made on her blog. As I told some of my friends, I have no disagreements to voice in my comment/response nor do I have anything new to add to what Rakshanda Jalil has written. My response, I guess, is just an attempt to be a part of what she is saying, out of envy, as the topic/theme of the article she has written about has been in my mind from sometime. A.K. Ramanujan in an interview said that one translates because he/she is jealous and wants to become a part of that creative process. So he/she translates. May be responses are also like that, at times 🙂
While there is a great deal of Urdu fiction dealing with the Partition, there is comparatively little in Urdu poetry that directly addresses the taqseem or the partition. There is of course Faiz’s Subh-e-Azaadi and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s Phir Achanak Teergi Mein Aa Gae but given the corpus in prose these seem like slender pickings. Moreover, when I went looking for something specifically on the Partition by the Indian Urdu poets, I found a great deal on azadi, and in fact came across several poems titled ‘Pandrah August’, I found it difficult to find something that addressed the issue of partition in the same gory detail as, for instance, the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto. It set me thinking. Is the Urdu poet more squeamish than the Urdu short story writer? Or is it the very nature of poetry that clothes itself in the indirect, the oblique, the allusive?
Persistent and sustained readings within the narrow definition I had set for myself – Partition Poetry — eventually revealed certain poems by Josh Malihabadi, the firebrand revolutionary, the Shair e Inquilab as he was called, by Akhraul Iman, by Jagannath Azad, by Sahir Ludhianvi, and Sardar Jafri. These, I believe, need to be retrieved and read once again. More importantly, In a poem written long before the Partition, Inquilab (Revolution) Asrarul Haq Majaz had predicted a bloody end to imperial rule:
Khatm ho jaane ko hai sarmayadaron ka nizam
Rang lane ko hai mazdooron ka josh e inteqam
Khoon ki boo le ke jangal se haiwan aayeinge
Khoon hi khoon hoga nigahein jis taraf ko jayeingi
Jhopdiyon mein mahal mein khun, shabistaanon mein khoon
Dasht mein khoon wadiyon mein khoon
Kohsaraon ki taraf se surkh aandhi aayegi
Jaabaja aabadiyon mein aag si lag jayegi…
Aur iss rang e shafaq mein ba- hazaaraan aab o tab
Jagmagayega watan ki hurriyat ka aaftab
A red storm shall come from over the mountains
Setting the settlements on fire
And on the horizon, amidst a thousand tumults,
Shall rise the sun of our land’s freedom
Taken chronologically, these poems began to reveal a certain pattern. As we inched towards Partition, when the possibility of freedom became clearer, poets like Sahir Ludhianvi began to seize on the immense possibilities of social transformation:
In kali sadiyon ke sar se jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega
Jab dukh ke badal pighlenge, jab sukh ka saaghar chhalke ga
Jab ambar jhoom ke naachega, jab dharti naghme gayegi
Voh subha kabhi to aayegi
A similar sentiment is echoed by Faiz Ahmed Faiz when he too looks forward with hope:
Laazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge, hum dekhenge
Jo lau-e azal pe likha hai
That which is inscribed on the parchment of life
We shall see, we too shall see
All through the 1940s, several members of the Progressive Writers Movement wrote songs of freedom that linked the anti-colonial struggle with the freedom movement. The dawn that was awaited was going to be a red one. And, so, there is Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the poet from Hyderbad writing:
Lo surkh savera aata hai, azaadi ka, azaadi ka
Gulnaar tarana gaata hai, azaadi ka, azaadi ka
Dekho parcham lehrata hai, azaadi ka azaadi
But as we shall see in the poetry being written after the partition, the red storm that Majaz had predicted became the red tide of blood as the country plunged into a horrific bloodbath, and the dawn of freedom became a night-bitten dawn. The most famous comment on the partition is in Subah e azaadi by Faiz:
Ye daagh daagh ujala ye shab gazida sehr
Voh intezar tha jiska yeh who sehr to nahi
This patchy light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn we had been waiting for
Not content with this dawn of freedom, Ali Sardar Jafri in Subh e Farda (The Morning of Tomorrow) speaks of standing on the border waiting for a new morning, the morning of tomorrow:
Yeh sarhad khoon ki, ashqon ki, aahon ki, shararon ki
Isi sarhad pe kal dooba tha sooraj ho ke do tukde
Isi sarhad pe kal zakhmi hui thi subh e aazadi
Jahan boi thi nafrat aur talwarein ugayin thi
Yeh sarhad jo lahoo peeti hai aur sholay ugalti hai
Hamari khaak ke seene pe nagin ban ke chalti hai
Saja kar jung ke hathiyar maidan mein nikalti hai
Josh Malihabadi in a poem called Matam e Azadi written in 1948 strikes a somber note:
Ai ham nafas! Fasana e Hindustan naa pooch
Apna gala kharosh e tarranum se phat gaya
Talwar se bacha, to rag-e gul se kat gaya
O friend, don’t ask me for the tale of Hindustan
Our throats were torn by the scratching of our songs
When we escaped the sword, we were beheaded by the vein’s of the rose
Majaz too had lost some of his youthful ebullience by 1948 when he writes:
Hindu Muslim Sikh Eesai aman ke moti ro lenge
Khoon ki holi khel chuke hain rang ke dhabbe dho lenge
By the time India celebrates its first Republic Day, Sahir Ludhianwi’s disenchantment with the new republic is already palpable. In a poem titled Chhabees Janwary, Sahir writes:
Aao ke aaj ghaur karein iss sawal par
Dekhe thhe hamne jo, woh haseen khwab kya huye?
Bekas barehngi ko kafan tak nahi naseeb
Voh vaada haa e atlas o kamkhwab kya huye?
Jamhooriyat-nawaz, bashar-dost, amn-khwaah
Khud ko jo khud diye the, who alqaab kya huye?
Come and let us ponder on this question
Whatever happened to all those beautiful dreams?
The helpless cannot even afford a shroud to cover their nakedness
Whatever happened to those promises of silks and brocades?
Democrat, humanist, pacifist
Whatever happened to those titles we had conferred upon ourselves?
Then there is Pandrah Agust by Akhtarul Iman, which I think deserves to be reproduced in full here:
Yahi din hai jis ke liye maine kati theen ankhon mein raatein
Yahi seeli aab e baqa. Chasma noor hai, jalwa e toor hai?
Issi ke liye woh suhane, madhur, ras bhare geet gaye theymaine?
Yahi mah wash nisa, husn se choor, bhar poor, makhmoor hai woh?
Suna tha nigahon pein woh qaid e aadab e mehfil nahi ab
Woh paabandiyan deedah o dil pe jo theen uththi ja rahi hain
Who majboriyan uthth gayin, walwale raah pane lage muskurane lage ab
Muhabbat kathin raaston se guzar kar lahakti mahakti hui aa rahi hai
Wohi kas ma pursi, wohi behisi aaj bhi har taraf kyon hai taari?
Mujhe aisa mehsoos hota hai yeh meri muhabbat ka haasil nahi hai
Abhi toh wohi rang e mehfil, wohi jabr hai, har taraf zakhm khurda hai insaan
Jahan tum mujhe le ke aaye ho yeh wadi e rang bhi meri manzil nahi hai
Shahidon ka khoon iss hasina ke chehre ka ghaaza nahi hai
Jise tum uthai liye ja rahe ho yeh shab ka janaza nahi hai
The wounds of partition were revived after every war with Pakistan. Each time, the poet cautioned against war. Sahir, the most vocal pacifist says in a nazm called Ai Sharif Insanon:
Bartari ke saboot ki khatir
Khoon bahana hi kya zaroori hai?
Ghar ki tareekiyan mitane ko
Ghar jalana hi kya zaroori hai?
Jung to khud hi ek masla hai
Jang kyon masalon ka hal degi?
Aag aur khoon aaj bakhshegi
Bhook aur ehtiyaj kal degi
War itself is the problem
How can it then provide the solution?
Today it will give fire and blood
Tomorrow it’ll bring hunger and beggary
It is interesting how, nationalism increasingly began to be evident in Urdu poetry. From Partition came the wars, and the subsequent need for dialogue and bhaichara. I will rest my case with two poems by Ali Sardar Jafri – Guftagu and Dushman Kaun Hai?
Dialogue shouldn’t cease;
let the talk go on,
let the evening of [our] meet persist till the arrival of morn,
let this starry night pass on joyfully.
Let the stone of abuse be in the hands of words;
let the cups of poison spill ridicule;
let the sights be irate;
let the eyebrows be raised;
[yet, we must see] that our hearts, somehow, keep beating.
The helplessness shouldn’t be allowed to chain the words;
no killer but he should be permitted to murder the voice.
Some vow of loyalty, fully moulded, will arrive by the morn;
the love will arrive, albeit limping, yet it certainly will;
the sights will elude meeting sights [out of modesty],
the heart beats will increase,
the lips will tremble;
the silence will turn into a kiss and go astray;
only the sound of the blooming of buds will linger;
and the need of words and voice won’t remain
[for] the liaison of love will be carried on with [the help of] the signs of
eyes and eyebrows;
the hatred will vanish, the kindness will arrive.
Holding hands in hands;
in the company of the entire world,
we’ll go across the deserts of repugnance;
we’ll cross over the river of blood.
Dialogue shouldn’t cease.
Here is Sardar on the riots
Ai watan khake watan woh bhi tujhe de denge
Bach raha hai jo lahoo abke fasaddat ke baad
And lastly, Dushman Kaun hai?
You were slaves till yesterday, so were we.
And then came the season of freedom bathed in showers of blood…
Between you and us rage rivers of fire
Tall frowning barriers of hate
With a mere glance, however, we can tear them down;
We can forget, forgive the cruel part;
And again embrace you, yes we can.
But first you will have to break your swords,
And cleanse these bloodied garments;
After that we shall become no more strangers.
You bring us flowers from the gardens of Lahore,
We bring you light from the dawns of Benares,
Freshness of the Himalayan breeze;
And thereafter we ask each other:
Who is the enemy?
— Rakhshanda Jalil
Thanks for this wonderful article 🙂
Interestingly Makhdoom has one poem titled ‘Azaadi-E-Watan‘ where he has lines like ‘kaho Hindustan ki jai‘ which, to me, sounds more like a slogan than poetry. This poem, if i am not wrong, was written before ‘Jang-E-Azaadi‘ which you have quoted. But what interests and pains is his one of his later poem titled ‘Waadi-E-Fardaa‘ where he cries, ‘dil ki afsurdah kali, aise waadi mein bhi aakar na khili‘ after describing many trees and flowers that were seen on the way. This, to me, shows the transition and, more importantly, the disillusionment.
Majaaz (sorry i havent read the poem that you’ve quoted i.e. Inquilaab) was too sensitive to foresee what was to come. His poem on the assassination of Baapu, titled ‘Saaneha‘ is not just about Gandhi, it appears to me, but also the chronicle of time and every other murder that took place at the time of partition. His line, in that poem,: “Hindu Chala Gaya Na Musalmaan Chala Gaya, Insaan Ki Justajoo Mein Insaan Chala Gaya” is about every murder and not just the murder of Baapu. His poem captures the bloodshed and also the disillusionment equally. His other poem ‘Andheri Raat Ka Musaafir‘ though appears like a poem with hope, with the repetative line, “Magar Main Apni Manzil Ki Taraf Baadtaa Hee Jaata Hoon,” i have a feeling it is not a song of hope as such. To me it, partially because of the title making reference to ‘raat‘, is about the inevitability of stopping the flow of history and time. A similar inevitability of what was happening is reflected in the Kaifi Azmi poem ‘Farz‘ where comparing the partition time to Kurukshetra where Krishna pushes Arjuna to fight saying body is ephemeral and soul eternal etc etc, Azmi sahab, compares the natives to Arjuna who is being forced to battle his own brother reluctantly. These poems which speak of the helpless individuals, who got carried away by the flow of history, are rare documents, i assume, of socio-psychology, located in history.
But isnt it troubling that Gulzar, being a victim of partition, has not written much about partition? Correct me if i am wrong. But i think his ‘Subha Subha Ek Khwaab Kay Dastak Per‘ is his agony and longing for the lost. “Sarhad per khoon hua hai,” makes me assume so and also because ‘Subha‘ causing disillusion is a recurring element that we see in partition poetry. In Gulzar’s poem ‘Subha‘ actually kills the dream! But apart from this, i cant think of any other partition poems from Gulzar. If i am wrong please correct me.
It is said that many ghazals, later sung by many artists, like ‘Jaaney Kis Ki Thi Khata‘ (Sufi Tabassum), ‘Apni Dhun Mein Rehata Hoon‘ for its line ‘Aye Pichlee Rut Kay Saathi, Ab Kay Baras Main Tanha Hoon,’ (Fareed Kazmi), ‘Ranjish Hee Sahi‘ (Ahmed Faraaz) are related to partition. How true is this? But I would like to call the long poem by Faraaz, which i would like to quote in complete here, also as partition poem for the reason that the poem emerges because of a post-partition condition:
guzre kai mosam kai ruteiN badliN;
udas tum bhi ho yaaroN udas hum bhi haiN;
faqat tumhi ko nahiN ranj e chaak daamaani;
jo sach kahieN to dareedah libaas hum bhi naiN;
tumhare baam ki shameiN bhi taabnaak nahiN;
mere falak ke sitare bhi zard zard se haiN;
tumhare aainakhane bhi zang aaludah;
mere suraahi o saghar bhi sard sard se haiN;
na tumko apne khad o khaal hi nazar aaieN;
na maiN yeh dekh sakooN jaam maiN bhara kya hai;
basaaratoN pe woh jaale pade ke donoN ko;
samajh maiN kuchh nahiN aata ke maajra kya hai;
na sarv maiN woh kaseedah qaamati hai;
na qumriyoN ki udaasiyoN maiN kuchh kami aayee;
na khil sake kisi janab mohabbatoN ke gulab;
na shaakh e aman liye faakhta koi aayee;
tumhe bhi zid hai ke mashq e sitam rahe jaari;
hamieN bhi naaz ke jor o jafa ke aadi haiN;
tume bhi zoam ke Mahabharta ladi tumne:
hamieN bhi fakhr ke Karbala ke aadi haiN;
sitam to yeh hai ke dono ke marghzaaroN se ;
hawaa e fitna o boo e fasad aati hai ;
alam to yeh hai ke dono ko wehem hai ke bahaar;
udoo ke khooN maiN nahane ke baad aati hai;
to yeh ma’al hua is darandgi ka ke ab;
shikasta dast ho tum bhi shikasta paa maiN bhi;
so dhekhta hoon ke tum bhi lahoo luhaan hue;
so dhekhte ho salamat kahaN raha maiN bhi;
hamare shehroN ki majboor be nawa malkhlooq;
dabi huee hai dukhoN ke hazar dheroN maiN;
ab unki teerah naseebi charagh chahti hai;
jo log nisf sadi tak rahe andheroN maiN;
bhohot dinoN se haiN veeraaN rafaqatoN ke dayaar;
bohot udas haiN der o haram ki dunyaaieN;
chalo ke phir se kareiN pyaar ka safar aghaaz;
chlo ke phir se hum ek doosre ke ho jaaieN;
tumhare des maiN ayaa hooN dosto abke;
na saaz o naghma ki mehfil na shaairi ke liye;
agar tumhari ana hi ka hai sawal;
to phir maiN haath badhata hoonN dosti ke liye;
It would probably be interesting to look for the nationalistic angel that seeped into Urdu poetry too, if any. But even after the war of 60s and the coming of nationalistic elements in Urdu (My understanding is based in Aijaz Ahmed’s essay In The Mirror of Urdu) there was resistance within Urdu by Sahir, Habib Jalib etc. Because your article mentions of Sahir’s poem on 26 Jan and Akhtarul Iman’s poem on 15 Aug i feel like making a reference to the poem by Javed Akhtar, also titled ‘Pandrah August‘, which he read out on 15 August 2007 in Delhi, and ask you your opinion on the poem by Javed Akhtar, for it, locating itself within the tradition of the same Urdu poetry, is looking back at the journey of the same country which mourned fifty years ago for the partition which came along with the independence of the country. What is your observation from Majaz’s foreseeing and Javed Sahab’s looking back?
The comment went too long. Apologies for the length. Baat niklegi toh phir door talak jaayegi 🙂