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Ali Sardar Jafri: the last romantic
By S N H Jafri

Ali Sardar Jafri, the legendary poet who revolutionized Indian poetry and changed the style of existing adab will always be remembered for his contribution to the language. He passed away last year in Bombay at the ripe age of 86,remained on the literary scene of Urdu in the subcontinent for about 65 years. As a poet he belonged to the poets of the 30’s, that is, the socially engaged and the politically committed poets, namely, Faiz, Makhdoom, Majaz and Jazbi who formed a circle of their own and shared an ideology. He was greatly influenced by Anees and Iqbal and to a small degree by Josh, an influence he later appears to have eschewed. His prose work Taraqqi Pasand Adab proved to be seminal as it generated serious debate on the value of literature and literariness of a work. Sardar Jafri edited selections from Kabir, Mir and Ghalib, appended with critical introductions. Later the introductions to the three collections were published in one volume as Paighambaran-i-Sukhan. The general introduction to Paighambaran-i-Sukhan sets a new paradigm to evaluate and understand Kabir, Mir and Ghalib as the three humanist poets who celebrate man and humanity profoundly and variously. Jafri published as many as eight collections of poems in a span of thirty years, that is, from 1948 to 1978. The collections of poems he published include Nai Duniya Ko Salaam, Khoon Ki Lakeer, Amn Ka Sitara, Asia Jaag Utha, Patthar Ki Deewar, Ek Khwab Aur, Pairahan-i-Sharar, and Lahu Pukarta Hai. Jafri also wrote his autobiography and the last anthology titled as Sarhad, which the Prime Minister of India had taken with him on his bus journey to Lahore. Jafri combines in him the lyrical strain of the romantic movement in Urdu, the classical tradition of Persian/Urdu poetry, the passion of a revolutionary and the commitment of an ideologue. He impresses us and often overwhelms us. We are not always won over by his argument and we often find his line of reasoning weak. There is poetry of statement and often highly romanticized notions about commonplace themes. But it is difficult to ignore him, to resist him.

One of the prime concerns of Jafri is colonial subjugation and the dangers of state terror. He wrote several poems on the theme of protest, some of which are expressed in powerful imagery: 
Zehr aalud woh beete hue lamhat ke dank
Khoon mein doobi hui woh subh ki talwar ki dhaar
Shaam ki aankh mein barood ke kajal ki lakeer 
Aur hafton ke sipahi wo mahinon ke sawar 
Jo mere josh-i-baghawat ko kuchalne ke liye 
Fauj dar fauj kiya karte hain yalghaar apni 
Rifal karti hai faulad ke hoton se kalam

(The poisonous stings of the moments past 
The bloodstained edge of the morning’s sword
The gunpowder kohl line in the eye of the evening 
The soldiers on march for weeks and riders of months 
Who to crush my passion of rebellion
Army after army continues to attack
Rifle communicating with the lips of steel)

Disarmament and the dangers of nuclear war also engaged the attention of Sardar Jafri throughout his poetic career. It is indeed paradoxical to see the concerns of progressive writers during the cold war period, now being fully adopted by the western powers. Sahir Ludhinavis’s Parchhaiyan and Jafri’s Khwaab-i-Pareeshan may be cited, among others, as poems of specific themes on the subject.

Sardar Jafri is also distinguished in finding his kindred souls outside Urdu and the Indian subcontinent. Some of his poems are titled Irani tulaba ke naam, (To Irani Students) Afreeki Ladki, (The African Maid), Habshi mera bhai, (The Abyssinian- My Brother), Louis Aragon, Pablo Neruda, Julio Curie, Paul Robb’s, Elia Ehrenberg, Ai banke Afghan (Cf: Ai Ghafil Afghan, Iqbal) and a poem addressed to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. In this respect Jafri’s contribution maybe be seen on an international plane cutting across barriers of language, race and the nation. 

Another important aspect of Jafri’s personality is reflected in his concern for Urdu, a language without a home and state in India, consequent upon India’s partition. This was a cause that he championed throughout his poetic career with I.K.Gujral, Anand Narayan Mullah and others. Jafri contributed significantly in the preparation of Gujral Committee Report. He also spoke against the menace of communal violence in India and gave poetic utterance to the agony and suffering of hundreds and thousands of victims. In one of his popular couplets:
Ai watan khake watan woh bhi tujhe de denge 
Bach raha hai jo lahoo abke fasaddat ke baad 
(O my country, my beloved land we shall be most willing to sacrifice 
Whatever blood is left in us after the bloodbath of riots)

Jafri began his poetic career as a poet of nazm and experimented with blank verse, some of which are quite innovative and refreshing. Patthar ki deewar, Awadh ki khak-i-haseen, Subhe Farda and Mera Safar have earned recognition as popular anthology pieces. Awadh ki khak-i-Haseen is remarkable not only for its metre but also imagery: 

Kumhar ka chak chal raha hai
Surahiyan raqs kar rahi hain
Safed aata siyah chakki se raag bankar nikal raha hai
Sunahare choolhon mein aag ke phool khil rahe hain
Pateeliyan gunguna rahi hain...

(The potter’s wheel is moving 
Goblets are dancing
White flour pouring a tune out of the black mill 
Flowers of fire emerging from the golden hearths 
Pots are humming)

Ghareeb Sita ke ghar pe kab tak rahegi Ravan ki hukmrani
Draupadi ka libas uske badan se kab tak chhina karega
Shakuntala kab tak andhi taqdeer ke bhanwar mein phansi rahegi
Yeh Lakhnau ki shiguftagi maqbaron mein kab tak dabi rahegi

(How long will Ravan rule over the home of poor Sita
How long will Draupadi be deprived of her garment
How long will Shakuntala be enmeshed in the abyss of fate 
How long will the freshness of Lucknow remain buried under the imposing tombs?)

Jafri’s involvement with the classical ghazal tradition is manifest in his ghazals also, some of which have earned the distinction of being oft-cited quotations, like those of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz:
Kaam ab koi na aayega bas ek dil ke Siva
Raaste bund hain sub koocha-i –qatil ke Siva
Baaise rashk hai tanha raviye rahrave shauq
Humsafar koi nahin dooriye manzil ke Siva
Hum ne duniya ki har ek shae se uthaya dil Ko
Lekin ek shokh ke hungama-e-mehfil ke Siva
Tegh munsif ho jahan, daar-o-rasan hon. shahid
Begunah kaun hai us sheher mein qatil ke siva

(None is going to be of help except the comforting heart
All roads being closed except the assassin’s lane 

The passionate traveler’s lonely journey is indeed enviable
With no fellow traveler except the ever farthening destination

Having renounced all worldly desires, the heart 
Found itself caught in the charmed circle of that beauty.

Where the sword is the judge and the gallows witness 
None is guiltless in that city except the assassin. )

Kahin bijli gire woh apna gulshan ho ke auron ka
Mujhe apni hi shaakh-i–aashiyan maaloom hoti hai

(Wherever there is lightning, in our garden or of others 
I see it crashing upon my own nest’s branch. )

Pheink phir jazba-i –betaab ki aalam pe kamand
(Lets again cast the intense passions’ spell on the world)

Another aspect of Sardar Jafri’s personality that deserves mention is his intellect and stature as a charismatic personality. He had a presence, which commanded respect and admiration. He was perhaps one of the most learned men of our times. His intellect was not dry as dust but refreshingly rewarding. Jafri enriched himself from the oriental and the western literary traditions as well as thought systems. He had in him the liberal/secular thought of Persian poetry and the Vedantic strains of Indian philosophy. He was also influenced by Walt Whitman. Echoes of Whitman can easily be identified and seen in Awadh ki Khak-i-Haseen. Unlike many of his comrades in arm, Jafri had an open mind and great catholicity. When in the late sixties a literary movement began in Urdu, which was called Jadeediat, questioned several platitudes of progressive writers. Sardar Jafri was the first to call the new literary movement an extension of progressive writers movement. Sardar Jafri will be remembered, besides being a major poet, critic and ideologue as one of the most integrated personalities of our times. His learning, scholarship, journalistic career, stint in film industry, compilation and editorial achievements, espousal of popular causes and a robust optimism inspired several generations.

Jafri was last of the romantics on the Urdu literary scene. After Majaz, Makhdoom and Faiz, Jafri could have spoken in the words of W.B.Yeats. 

We were the last romantics-chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever’s written in what poet’s name?
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse rider less
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode,
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931

Prof. Naqi Hussain Jafri teaches English 
in the Jamia Millia Islamia

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