Romantic and revolutionary fervour may seem polar opposites but this Urdu poet achieved a unique balance between them, describing his own course on: “Maqaam ‘Faiz’ raah mein koi jacha hi nahi/Jo kuu-e-yaar se nikle, to suu-e-daar (scaffold) chale” .
And while, he could say “Bhoole se muskura to diye the woh aaj ‘Faiz’/Mat puch walwale dil-e-naa-kardakaar ke” or “Bazm-e-khayaal mein tere husn ki shamaa jal gayi/Dard ka chaand bujh gaya, hijr ki raat dhal gayi”, he could address his paramour as: “Mujh se pahli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang” and cite some gory and unsettling images of suffering to maintain “Aur bhi dukh hai zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva…”
Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’, who was born on this day (February 11) in 1911, was not the first revolutionary-romantic poet but the latest in an illustrious line that included the likes of Allama Iqbal, Shabbir Hasan Khan ‘Josh Malihabadi’, Maulana Syed Fazl-ul-Hasan ‘Hasrat Mohani’ who originally gave the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” but also penned “Chupke Chupke Raat Din…” – that heart-tugging ode to the memory of one’s first love and many other paladins.
However, he was a bundle of contractions. Born in an affluent family, with his father Sultan Muhammad Khan being a prominent barrister and a former aide to Afghanistan’s “Iron Emir” Abdur Rahman Khan (reigned 1880-1901), he became a lifelong Communist — even becoming a recipient of Lenin Peace Prize.
After a stint as a teacher, he joined the British India Army in 1942 and rose to the rank of Lt Col (before resigning his commission in 1947 to protest against the Kashmir war) and then was involved in Pakistan’s first attempted military coup — the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy, propelled by a curious combination of leftist politicians and a maverick general.
After this episode (which meant four years in jail — where he ended up writing some of his best poetry), Faiz became a fervent opponent of military dictators, spending long years in exile during such periods of his country’s history.
While he wrote impassioned poetry, Faiz, in person, was soft-spoken, reticent, reluctant to express his views outside his verse, and reconciled his Marxist beliefs without forsaking his Islamic faith, as per his eldest grandson and biographer, Ali Madeeh Hashmi.
When his first collection of poetry “Naqsh-e-Faryadi” – a title taken from the first line of the first ghazal in Ghalib’s diwan was published in 1941, a critic opined that “the ghazal is not bad. It is balanced, eloquent, and, unlike Faiz himself, the verses actually say something”.
And then, Faiz’s colourful life saw Sheikh Abdullah performed his Nikah — to a British woman communist, his preferred reading in jail being Sarvepalli Radhakrishna’s magisterial “Indian Philosophy”, and one of his celebrated ghazals — “Ham ke thehre ajnabi”, based on the theme of Pakistan-Bangladesh reconciliation — being written during a Dhaka visit on a request by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
Faiz was much championed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who favoured him and even freed legendary Punjabi poet Ustad Daman, jailed for a poem mocking Bhutto, on his urging. However, Bhutto’s overthrow — and subsequent execution — led Faiz to another period of exile, which only ended in mid-1982 when he came back to his homeland in declining health and passed away in November 1984.
But while Faiz had abandoned any political adventurism, he never shied away from devoting his poetry to keep attacking tyranny, imperialism, iniquity, hypocrisy, and inhumanity.
However, what makes his poetry stand out is how it permeated language. Several of his couplets frequently figured in conversation, including “Aur bhi dukh hai zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva…”, “Dil na-umeed to nahi, nakaam hi to hai…”, Ik fursat-e-gunah mili, wo bhi chaar din..” while “Teri aankhon ke sivaa duniya mein rakha kiya hai…” even went to be used as a title of a Hindi film song.
Then, Faiz had the good fortune of having some of the subcontinent’s greatest singers implant his creations in public consciousness with their masterful renditions – Noor Jehan with “Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang” (picturised on the ethereal Shamim Ara in film “Qaidi”), Nayyaara Noor’s performance of “Ham ke thehre ajanaabi…”, Mehdi Hasan with “Gulon mein rang bhare..”, Begum Akhtar performing “Shaam-e-Firaaq..” Farida Khanum singing “Donon jahan teri mohabbat mein har ke…” or Iqbal Bano’s spirited “Hum dekhenge..”.
And one of the lesser-known but equally powerful is “Yeh kaun sakhi hai”, a rendition of his poem “Irani tulba ke naam” – an ode to Iranian students protesting against the Shah, by the legendary Malika Pukhraj.
Even without musical renditions, the inherent rhythmic cadence of his poetry was evident — take verses like “Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar kya kijiye/Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn magar kya kijiye…” or “Kab nazar mein aayegi bedaag sabz ki bahar/Khun ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaaton ke baad”.
But, among these, “Subh-e-Azaadi” – his heartfelt lament on the day of freedom for the two newly-independent countries amid internecine bloodshed between their peoples, stands out.
“Ye daag-daag ujaala, ye shab-gazidaa sahar/Woh intezaar tha jis kaa, ye wo sahr to nahi/Ye wo sahar to nahi jis ki arzu lekar/Chale the yaar ki mil jayegi kahi na kahi…” and ending with “Abhi gaaani-e-shab mein kami nahi aayi/Nijaat-e-dida-o-dil ki ghadi nahi aayi/Chale chalo ki wo manzil abhi nahi aayi”.
But his best work – even more than the oft-cited “Bol” and “Tanhai” – was the anthem “Hum dekhenge” attacking the Zia ul-Haq regime’s tyranny.
In its first public performance in Lahore in 1985 — on his first death anniversary — it led to a near riot. Wearing a sari (banned by the regime), Iqbal Bano ignited passions when she reached “Sab taaj uchale jayenge/Sab takht giraye jayenge…”
At this, the impassioned, jampacked audience joined in, chanting “Inquilab Zindabad” repeatedly, proving their spirit had not been crushed by the dictatorship. Power was switched off, but she continued singing — and so did the chants.
The performance has become iconic and the words came back to inspire the young who took to the street across India to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
It is a befitting tribute to Faiz.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)