Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982) is perhaps the tallest Urdu poet of the 20th century. His prolific poetic career spans six decades. He never accepted retirement as Professor of English at Allahabad University. He received several awards and honours during his lifetime. In 1961 he was honoured by the Uttar Pradesh Government and was also the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award. In 1965 he received the Nehru award and in 1970 the Jnanpith award for his collection Gule-Naghma.
This volume of translation contains a tiny though representative fraction of his awesome and gigantic oeuvre.
Noorul Hasan retired as Professor of English from the North-Eastern Hill University (Nehu), Shillong in 2004. He held a Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of Manchester in the UK. His publication include Thomas Hardy: The Sociological Imagination (London: Macmillan, 1982) and articles as well as translations from Urdu in Prestigious journals and literary supplements of dailies.
Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982) was one of the greatest Urdu poets of all time. In common critical regard, he is ranked only behind Mir and Ghalib, on par with any other Urdu poet one could care to name, and indeed as superior to most. With the merest twinkle in his eye Firaq himself used to say that Mir, Ghalib and he were the three railway engines of Urdu poetry while all the other poets were just carriages and compartments. Such a statement is, of course, in the best tradition of rhetorical self-praise sanctioned by Urdu poetry to its practitioners and often delightfully expressed in the maqta (the concluding couplet) of ghazals, but in this particular case, the boast may be thought to be not far from the truth.
Firaq’s greatness rests on his doing better many things that a number of poets before him had done well enough, as well as on his attempting things yet unattempted in Urdu verse, of leading Urdu poetry through his own sheer imaginative energy and artistic example into directions yet uncharted. To speak of the more traditional part of his achievement first, Firaq reformulated some of the oldest and indeed well-worn themes, ages and tropes of Urdu poetry so as to make them new again and virtually to reinvent them. For example, all Urdu poets have sung of hnsn and ishq (beauty and love) and of visaal and firaq (the union of lovers and their separation). But in Firaq’s verse, while the lover can see that beauty and love are both deceptions (perhaps as being maya!), he goes on loving nevertheless (yeh husn-o-ishq to dhokha hai sab — magar phir bhi.
an additional nuance here being that while most Urdu
poets, being male, have called (female) beauty, or husn,
deceptive and fickle, Firaq says that male love or ishq is so no less.
As the lover in Firaq goes on loving and thus joyfully embracing the imperfect human condition of the transience of all things, he also attains a stage of heightened awareness where union with the beloved and separation from her seem to be much the same thing and, miraculously, the virginity of the beloved shines in new splendor after consummation (tere jamaal ki doshizgi nikhar aqyi). Even more original and distinctly modern (in the sense of being in tune with Freud, Bergson and Proust) is Firaq’s treatment of the states of remembering and forgetting, which are believed to be the direct opposites of each other but in Firaq coexist in an emotional equipoise which transcends this dichotomy. Ages have passed, says the lover in Firaq, without his having (consciously) remembered his beloved, but it’s not as if he’d forgotten her either (...aur hum bhool gayen hon tujhe aisa bhi nahin). Or, similarly, he says he has somehow passed the days of his life, and never mind if that was in remembering her or in trying to forget her (...vo teri yaad men hon ya tujhe bhulane men). Sometimes, nearly ‘orgotten old episodes and events seem to come to the surface and are nearly remembered (. . .yaad-si aaake rah gayin)! There is a new psychological subtlety, a new understated and delicate poignance, and a newly discovered emotional depth in each of these formulations by Firaq.
In his informal and lively history of Urdu poetry, Urdu Kavita (c. 1942; 3 rev. ed. 1961), which is thematically rather than chronologically arranged, Firaq discusses in successive chapters, with the help of well chosen illustrations, the figurative use in Urdu poetry of the recurrent images of the heart and pain (dil and dard), the candle and the moth (shama and parwana), the rose and the nightingale (gul and bulbul), spring (bahaar), and the qaafila (the caravan), and there is not a single rubric among these on which a few couplets by Firaq himself, with their freshness and innovation, do not mark an advance on what most other poets had said before him.
In matters of language and form too, Firaq forged his own path. He adopted as his model the first great Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1801), who had lived and written in a period before Urdu poetry became self-consciously and heavily Persianized and courtly and who had used many indigenous and even dialect words, especially verb forms. Firaq invoked Mir by name in his own poetry, as a poet whose verses alone might console a despondent lover, and imitated his manner in fond homage in some of his own poems. Another Urdu poet whom Firaq especially admired was Nazeer Akbarabadi (1735- :830), again from that early period of non-Persianaized Urdu, who had adopted local subjects and scenes of daily life as his poetic themes. Firaq edited a substantial selection of Nazeer’s poems under the title Nazeer ki Baani, with the word baani (from an) evoking the orally communicated unadorned poetry of the Hindi bhakti poets. In his introduction, Firaq pointed out that like Shakespeare, Nazeer held a mirror up to nature, he wrote vivid and celebratory poems on Hindu gods and festivals such as could hardly be found even in Hindi, and his colloquial, colorful and lyrical poetry was like “one long raas-leela’ (the traditional dance-drama centred on Lord Krishna). Firaq xzse1f wrote, as he said, some “ghazals in Hindi metres (bahr)” which went according to the “Hindi arz” (prosody), and therefore needed to be read differently (“Introduction” to Shabnamistaan (1947), collection of Firaq’s poems from 1936 to 1946).
And even more than Mir, Nazeer or any other Urdu poet before him, Firaq used in his poetry, right from the start of his career, a remarkable number of Hindi and indeed Sanskritic words, deployed in felicitous harmony with his Urdu diction which can often be as Persianate as that of any other Urdu poet. This radical predilection on Firaq’s part came to a virtuoso climax in his collection of rubaiyat titled Roop (1946), a volume the like of which had never been seen before in Urdu poetry. The female figure here was depicted as not sitting beautifully, majestically and indeed disdainfully with an air at the same time of alluring elegance, as in much Urdu poetry, but rather as doing such ordinary, everyday, and real things as feeding a baby, sweeping the courtyard, or milking a cow, all with a natural grace and new attractiveness. And she was also seen bathing, and languorously stretching her limbs, and generally brimming over with a sensuous sprightliness and expectancy which Firaq repeatedly evoked with a wonderful word of his own coinage:
rasamamahat, i.e., a combination of ram and kasamasaahat. In painting these new miniature portraits of female loveliness, Firaq both domesticated Urdu poetry, in more senses than one, and imbued it with a fresh eroticism. In his ghazals too, he described women whose pert postures and deportment (ada) reminded one, he said, of the dalliance between Krishna and Radha, and whose glances told the story of “Nal-o-Daman,” i.e., Nala and Damayanti.
It is difficult for me to write about Firaq Sahib entirely objectively. I was his student at Allahabad University even after be had officially retired. My association with him was confined not merely to the classroom — where he often spoke on a variety of subjects - - but extended to his residence on Bank Road, the Coffee House in Civil Lines, seminars, social gatherings and mushairas. He once swayed us off our feet by his inspired utterances on ‘Why Poetry’; on another occasion he gave us a talk on Oscar Wilde, whose name was “wild, but whose poetry was tame” in Eldorado (a restaurant near the university campus in the early 1960s).
In the winter of 1965 I was invited by the English Association of Allahabad University to deliver a lecture on John Keats. My dear teacher, and one of Firaq Sahib’s favorite pupils, the late Mr. Rajamani, was in the chair. Hardly had I begun talking when Firaq entered, shrouded in smoke on that cold, misty winter evening, taking both the chairman and me by surprise. It was even more gratifying that he patiently sat through the lecture, smoking and listening. At the end of it all when I went to meet him, he put his hand on my shoulder and said extremely encouraging things. I happened, then, to be on the staff of St. John’s College, Agra.
Soon after the Allahabad event, Dr. Harihar Nath Tandon, the then Head of the Department of Hindi at St.John’s, came to my room one fine morning with the message that Firaq Sahib was in town and wanted to see me immediately. We met again. I invited him to the College. He came accompanied by the late Masoom Raza Rahi. Before the formal lecture, he sat in the faculty lounge and regaled us with funny anecdotes. One of the things he recalled was the conversion to Christianity of a peon by Dr.Rice — one of the first principals of the now completely Indianised Ewing Christian College at Allahabad. The man was converted and baptized all right, but when the next Hindu bathing festival fell he went to the Principal with an application for leave. “Leave?” asked the puzzled Principal, ‘Whatever for?” The poor peon replied that he had to go for a dip in the Ganges. “You are a Christian now: no more dips for you”, said Dr Rice, to which the bewildered peon replied, “I am a Christian all right but I have not forsaken my religion and my faith.” Then Firaq Sahib recalled interviewing a student for a Sizarship. Asked how large his family was, the student replied unabashedly, “Seven adults and seven adulteresses!” Not forgetting himself, he recalled how he was sweating in his kurta one summer afternoon at Rama’s in Allahabad and cooling off with an iced dry gin. When the bill came he pulled out a tenner. The waiter came back saying that the currency note was wet. “So what! I have given you wet money for dry gin, eh!”
He then went on to talk about the creative process referring often to Wordsworth’s Prelude and to the whole business of the growth of the poet’s mind. He lamented the fact that India had not produced a Matthew Arnold, let alone a Dickens Shakespeare. When Masoom asked if the West had produced a Firaq, the poet discreetly changed the subject. An amazing quality I noticed in Firaq Sahib was his uncanny ability to switch suddenly from the funny to the serious, from levity to gravity, from laughter
tears. The striking rapidity of his change of moods, his immeasurable capacity for love combined with his hauteur; his inimitably ready wit, his defiant humanism, his ability to make ‘you feel at home, his delightful exaggerations, his efficient bilingualism, his touching nostalgia, his tremulous eloquence, his lachrymosal susceptibilities - all these not only made him a man to look up to with awe and reverence but also an uncommonly companionable person very well worth shaking hands with. That I’ve had the privilege to do both, times out of count, fills me with pride and exultation.
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