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14 January 2023

The Masters: Kaifi Azmi

14.01.1918 – 10.05.2002
Picture courtesy: Indian Express Archives
I have always had an affinity for words. As a teen, I would religiously jot down the lyrics of songs that I loved. However, I rarely paid attention to the lyricists who wrote the film songs I loved. I was in my late teens before the names I heard on the radio became fleshed out in my consciousness. And among those very poetic names - Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, etc., was another name, Kaifi Azmi. Today, 14 January, is ostensibly Kaifi Azmi's birth anniversary. I say 'ostensibly' because the poet only chose this date when he needed a birth date for his passport. 
Born Sayyed Athar Husain Rizvi on in Mijwan (Azamgarh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh) in a zamindar family, Kaifi Azmi demonstrated his poetic skills very early on. He was only 11 when he attended a mushaira in Bahraich, where he recited a ghazal:
Itni to zindagi mein kisi ke khalal pade
Hansne se ho sukuun na rone se kal pade
(There must be just so much trouble in life
That it cannot find solace in laughter nor be erased by tears)
Those listening to the young boy could hardly believe that he had written these lines. So much so, his father gave him a line of poetry and asked him to compose a ghazal to the same rhyme and metre, a challenge that the boy ably met. It was the beginning of Athar Husain’s poetic journey. He would go on to write under the takhallus (pen name) Kaifi ‘Azmi’ – a tribute to his birthplace.
Photo: Shabana Azmi on Twitter

Initially, like many of his compeers, Kaifi’s poetry too spoke of love and heartbreak. Then, in his late teens, his parents sent him to the Sultan-ul-Madaaris, a seminary in Lucknow, to become a maulvi. While there, he stumbled upon Angaare, a collection of nine short stories and a play by contemporary authors like Sajjad Zaheer, Mahmood-uz-Zafar, Rashid Jahan and Ahmed Ali.

Published in 1932, this seminal work is considered to mark the beginning of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Indian literature. The stories not only questioned prevailing religious, social and political institutions and economic inequality, but also spoke about women empowerment and criticized the imperial rule in India.

[Angaare was banned by both religious and civic leaders, and all but five copies were burnt. The banning of the book led directly to the formation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association.]

Reading this work transformed young Kaifi’s outlook. He had already begun sending his poems to Naya Adab, a progressive Urdu magazine that was co-edited by Ali Sardar Jafri. Soon, Jafri was introducing him to other writers and poets of the Progressive Writers’ Association. 
With Ali Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ismat Chugtai
Photo courtesy: Film History Pics
In the wake of the Quit India agitation of 1942, the young poet quit the seminary and became a card-carrying Marxist. In 1943, after a brief stint in Kanpur, Kaifi came to Bombay, where he began to work with the Communist Party’s Urdu journals, Quami Jung, edited by Sajjad Zaheer, and Mazdoor Mohalla. He also published Jhankar, his first collection of ‘protest poetry’. It was in Bombay that Kaifi first associated with the theatre, and in fact, was responsible for the formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in collaboration with Balraj Sahni, Manmohan Krishna, AK Hangal and others.

Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Azmi
Photo courtesy: www.azmikaifi.com
In 1947, Kaifi met Shaukat Khanam at a mushaira in Hyderabad. Three months later, they were married. But during this time, the Communist Party was banned, the Party Office shut down, and Kaifi himself had to go into hiding. Shaukat remained at her parents’ home. After their daughter Shabana was born in 1950, Kaifi’s and Shaukat’s earnings weren’t enough to meet their needs, Ismat Chugtai, a friend from the Progressive Writers’ Association, offered him a chance to write for films – her husband, Shaheed Latif, was making a film called Buzdil (1952); SD Burman was composing the music. Unfortunately for Kaifi, his initial foray into films was not a very successful one. Many of the films he wrote lyrics for were B- and C-grade films that did nothing to further his career.

Kaifi and Sahir
Photo courtesy: Film History Pics
It was chance that brought Guru Dutt to him; Sahir’s ego tussle with SD Burman had led to the lyricist being dropped after Pyaasa. Kaifi wrote lyrics that complemented SD’s score. Unfortunately for him, Kaagaz ke Phool was also a flop. A slew of films followed the same trajectory, and Kaifi was soon deemed ‘unlucky’ by a superstitious industry. When Chetan Anand met him to discuss the songs of Haqeeqat, Kaifi tried to dissuade him, remarking upon his ‘unlucky’ status, whereupon Anand is said to have quipped that he was considered ‘unlucky’ as well, so perhaps two negatives could make a positive. Collaborating with Madan Mohan's soulful music, Kaifi’s evocative lyrics touched the nation’s consciousness. Critical acclaim was accompanied by commercial success at last.

Like the revolutionary poet that he was, his verses challenged patriarchal norms and socio-religious dogma but Kaifi was equally adept at prose – he wrote the screenplay for MS Sathyu's Garm Hawa; and for years, he also penned a column in the Urdu Blitz, called Nai Gulistan, where his poetic prose often veiled the satirical pieces that he wrote on contemporary politics. 
He continued to be outspoken until the end: when the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, he wrote a poem called Doosra Banvas, where he voiced Ram’s plaint:

Tum ne Babar ki taraf phenke the saare patthar
Haay mere sar ki khataa zakhm jo mere sar mein aaye
Paaon Sarayu mein Ram abhi dhoye bhi na the
Ki nazar aaye wahaan khoon ke gehre dhabbe
Paaon dhoye bina Sarayu ke kinaare se uthe
Ram ye kehte hue apne dwaare se uthe
Rajdhani ki fazaa aayi nahin raaz mujhe
Chhe December ko mila doosra banvaas mujhe


You threw all those stones at Babar
Perhaps it was my fault that they wounded my head
Ram had not yet washed his feet in the Sarayu
When he noticed the waters red with blood
And Ram left his threshold, saying
The air of my capital does not suit me any more
On 6 December, I have been exiled once more.

 © Anuradha Warrier

Kaifi Azmi was first and foremost a humanist, whose sense of social justice and equality for all were not merely poetic flourishes but a way of life that he practiced until his last breath. In her memoir, Kaifi and I, Shaukat writes emotionally, lovingly and passionately about her husband of 55 years. She speaks of him as the man who was the wind beneath her wings. 
Photo courtesy: azmikaifi.com
And it was not just his family. He was invested in the good of society – for years, his poems had given the poor and the downtrodden a voice. His poetry anothologies, Jhankar, Akhir-e-shab, Awara Sajde, etc., were a stinging condemnation of social injustice. But he didn’t stop there – he worked for the upliftment of Mijwan, the village he loved, and established a school and college for girls, a vocational training centre that teaches sewing and embroidery, and a computer centre. Even paralyzed by cerebral thrombosis, the visionary poet continued to work round the clock to put Mijwan on the map. 
This, then, was Kaifi – a revolutionary, a poet, a romanticist – who, with contemporaries like Sahir, Majrooh, Shakeel, etc., infused popular Hindi film music with the intricate beauty and imagery of the Urdu language. Kaifi’s lyrical output is comparatively lesser than his compeers but he laced his poetry with rich imagery and his lyrics traversed the gamut from sensitive romanticism to pathos and cynicism with equal ease. Today, on his 'birth' anniversary, I present some of my favourite songs from his body of work, in chronological order.

1.  Rote rote guzar gayi raat re
Buzdil (1952)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: SD Burman

Poetry is synonymous with heartbreak. As Shelley wrote, ‘Our sweetest songs are those that sing of saddest thought.” And our lyricists have, time and time again, risen to the task of describing the immeasurable pain of a broken heart. But Kaifi’s lyrics go one step further, the imagery so brilliant, that one sees, hears and feels the ache he’s describing.
Khwaab ki duniya ujadkar rah gayi / Chheen lee suraj ne ghar ki roshni
Chand se hoti hai door ab chaandni / Rote rote guzar gayi raat re
Aayi yaad teri har baat re /rote rote guzar gayi
The world of dreams has been destroyed; the sun has usurped the light of a homely lamp; the moonlight has been separated from the moon, and she weeps silently every night, remembering every spoken word and tiny action of his. Sublime!

2. Dekhi zamaane ki yaari
Kagaz Ke Phool (1959)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: SD Burman

Distilling the essence of the movie into a song is a difficult thing to do. In Dekhi zamaane ki yaari, however, Kaifi manages to do just that. The song, which appears at the very beginning of the film, shows an old and down-on-his-luck Suresh Sinha entering the studio in which he had earlier worked, and reminiscing about his life – a time when he had been surrounded by adoring crowds. He had been a very successful director, feted and idolised by millions of fans. The song appears again towards the climax, but now, he’s running away from the studio, followed by his protégé, only, she’s at the pinnacle of success and now, the adoring crowds keep her from coming to him.

Kaifi’s imagery is both stark and painful – where Spring is but a momentary guest; where joy ends when the night passes; where bees hover around paper flowers in vain, and where hope stumbles amid the sands. The world gives with one hand, he says, and takes away with a hundred.
Ud jaa ud jaa pyaase bhanwre /Ras na milega khaaron mein
Kaagaz ke phool jahaan khilte hain /Baith na un gulzaaron mein
Nadaan tamanna reti mein/Ummeed ki kashti kheti hai
Ik haath se deti hai duniya/Sau haathon se leti hain
Ye khel hai kab se jaari /Bichde sabhi baari baari…

3. Jaane kya doondhti rehti hai
Shola aur Shabnam (1961)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Khayyam

This was, probably, the first song that Mohammed Rafi ever sang for Dharmendra. One of his earliest films as a leading man, Shola aur Shabnam was relatively forgettable, except for the young, handsome, Dharmendra and a lovely score from Khayyam (including the multi-version Jeet hi lenge baazi hum tum). In this song, Kaifi paints heartbreak in a different shade from Rote rote guzar gayi raat re. The imagery includes a funeral pyre of dreams and emotions, as he pleads with his beloved not to stoke the cold embers of a must-be-forgotten love. Having mentally sacrificed his love under the weight of kindness and obligation, this song is a lament of a love that can never be; the bitterness spills over (and Kaifi’s leftist leanings colour his words):

Aarzoo jurm, wafa jurm, tamanna hai gunaah
Ye woh duniya hain jahaan pyaar nahin ho sakta
Kaise bazaar ka dastoor tumhe samjhaaoon
Bik gaya jo woh khariddaar nahin ho sakta
Simply put, the poor cannot afford to love. Khayyam’s music allows Rafi’s voice and Kaifi’s lyrics to shine.

4. Dhadakte dil ki tamannaon
Shama (1961)
Singer: Suraiya
Music: Ghulam Mohammed
A rare song which had Suraiya playback not only for herself but for Nimmi as well. A melodramatic and maudlin saga of love, sacrifice and heartbreak, the film was only saved by the two female leads and the songs. Ghulam Mohammed was ably assisted by Kaifi who wrote sensitively about the different shades of love, as represented by the two women, who are obviously singing of the same man (Vijay Dutt).
Zah-e-naseeb ataa ki jo dard ki saughaat
Woh gham haseen hai jis gham ke zimmedaar ho tum
Chadhaaoon phool ya aansoo tumhaare kadmon mein
Meri wafaaon ki ulfat ki yaadgaar ho tum

5. Kar chale hum fida
Haqeeqat (1964)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Madan Mohan

If one song was enough to earn Kaifi Azmi a place in the constellation of the greats, this is it! In possibly the finest war (and anti-war) film that has been made in India, music director Madan Mohan was equal to the task of creating some sublimely beautiful compositions, to which Kaifi lent the weight of his imagination and the eloquence of his pen. This song, a rousing, supremely patriotic one is sung with such poignancy by Rafi, and it's one that underlines the sacrifices that the men and women in our armed forces make to keep our country safe.

Their breath stops, their pulse stills but they continue to forge ahead; they do not grieve their own deaths because the Himalayas still stand tall and proud, but now, the dying soldiers are exhorting those who would follow to protect the land they have given their lives for.

Raah qurbaaniyon ki na veeraan ho
Tum sajaate hi rehna naye qaafile
Fateh ke jashn is jashn ke baad hai
Zindagi maut se mil rahi hai gale
Baandh lo apne sar se qafan saathiyon
Ab tumhaare hawaale vatan saathiyon

Let the path of sacrifice not be abandoned
New caravans must follow in our trail
Celebrations of victory will follow this sacrifice
Where life and death embrace
Wrap the funeral shroud on your heads, comrades
For we entrust the country to you, comrades

© Anuradha Warrier

6. Aur kuch der thahar
Aakhri Khat (1966)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Khayyam

It is unusual to hear of ‘hawas’ (passion or lust) in what would typically be a romantic song, but Kaifi’s lyrics are both romantic and erotic as he talks of a passion that consumes the couple on screen. But it is not enough, it’s never enough and the man is slightly embarrassed as he admits it and pleads with his beloved to tarry a while.

Raat baaqi hai abhi raat mein ras baaqi hai
Paake tujh ko, tujhe paane ki hawas baaqi hai
Aur kuchh der thahar/Aur kuchh der na jaa…
Khayyam’s music – just there, just enough; Rafi’s pitch-perfect rendition; and Rajesh Khanna’s great ‘song-acting’ – this is a perfect example of the song taking centrestage, upheld by three great talents.

7. Kuchh dil ne kaha
Anupama (1966)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Hemant Kumar

If poetry gives voice to the voiceless, then Kaifi’s words gave voice to Uma (Sharmila Tagore) in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s moving tale of a motherless girl whose father deems her guilty of her mother’s death. When emotionally-stunted Uma finally meets Ashok, the latter is loath to impose his views on the young woman whose silences speak more than her words. Slowly, his compassion and understanding break the ice surrounding her heart and she begins to bloom, yet she’s uncertain of her own feelings, Not knowing what it is to be loved, she cannot trust that someone, anyone can love her. Kaifi’s lyrics bring out the complex, even complicated feelings of such a character.

Dil ki tasalli ke liye jhoothi chamak jhootha nikhaar
Jeevan toh soona hi raha sab samjhe aayi hai bahaar
Kaliyon se koi poochta hansti hain woh ya roti hain
Aisi bhi baatein hoti hain

8.  Aaj ki kaali ghata
Uski Kahani (1966)
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Music: Kanu Roy
Kaifi with Geeta Dutt and music director Mohammed Shafi
Courtesy: Film History Pics
Another woman, yet another shade of love – here, it’s the emotions of someone who is afraid to believe in the love she feels, and that someone feels for her.
Kuchh mazaa aane laga jeene mein
Jaag uthaa dard koyi seene mein
Mere ehsaas ke aaine mein
Ik saaya nazar aata hai koyi
Kiska saaya hai, mujhe kya maaluum
Mere ehsaas ke aaine me…’  - A shadow flits across the mirror of my emotions… that translation does not do justice to the imagery that Kaifi’s pen conjures. The poetry is splendid, Geeta’s rendition is sublime, and Kanu Roy provides just enough instrumentation to complement both.

9. Meri duniya mein tu aayi
Heer Ranjha (1970)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Madan Mohan

Closest in essence to Waris Shah’s epic poem, Heer, Chetan Anand created a poem on celluloid. To do justice to his vision, he had Kaifi Azmi write both dialogues (in verse) and lyrics.
While Ye duniya ye mehfil is the most well-known song from this film, this introspective ballad is one of my all-time favourites. Kaifi’s penmanship raises this song from a mere romantic duet to a beautiful, almost divine expression of love between the two legendary lovers.
Meri duniya mein tum aayin/kya kya apne saath liye
Tan ki chaandi, man ka sona, sapnonwaali raat liye
Tanha tanha khoya khoya dil mein dil ki baat liye
Kab se yun hi phhirta thha main armaan ki baaraat liye
The conversational structure of the song makes it even more interesting. Director Anand’s visual imagery explores both romance and passion, complemented by the demure simplicity of Madan Mohan’s music that stays unobtrusively in the background, allowing the singers' voices to seduce our senses.
10. Chalte chalte yunhi koi
Pakeezah (1972)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ghulam Mohammed

My first recollection of this song is the whistle of the train at the end. It was only later that I realized that the train – and its whistle – were the leitmotif of the film.

Young Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) has fallen in love with a young man she’s never met, but who had left her a note praising the beauty of her feet. But the note is unsigned, and she has no idea who her unknown admirer is. And it is of him, she sings…
Chalte chalte yunhi koi mil gaya tha /Yunhi koi mil gaya tha sar-e-raah chalte chalte
(On my journey, just by chance, I met someone / I met someone on the road)
It’s a very introspective beginning, as she confesses that her night halted right there… and now, her desperation is evident as she wonders whether she will ever meet him? Because, when the lamps die out, so will she. 

Shab-e-intezaar aakhir kabhi hogi muqtasar bhi
Ye chiraagh bujh rahe hain mere saath jalte jalte

This night of waiting shall finally be curtailed
These lamps shall flicker and dim, and die with me

© Anuradha Warrier

Her yearning is evident in Kaifi’s eloquence, the plaintive tones of the melody, the emotion in Meena’s face, and the increasingly desperate repetition of Ye chiraag bujh rahe hain as Lata’s voice rises to a crescendo… uff!

11. Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai
Hanste Zakhm (1973)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Madan Mohan

Hanste Zakhm,
like all other Chetan Anand- Madan Mohan- Kaifi Azmi collaborations had a wonderful score. My favourite song from this film is Tum jo mil gaye ho. It’s a musical masterpiece as far as I am concerned. But this one, so achingly poignant, is as much a lyricist’s song as the composer’s and singer’s. Kaifi articulates the feeling of a young woman who had never hoped to find love. 

Soone soone khwaabon mein jab tak tum na aaye the
Khushiyaan thi sab auron ki gham bhi saare paraaye the
Apne se bhi chupaayi thi dhadkan apne seene ki
Hum ko jeena padta tha khwaahish kab thi jeene ki

Until you came by to fill my lonely dreams
My joys were that of others, and so were my sorrows
I had hidden my hopes and desires from myself
I was forced to live but who desired this life?  

© Anuradha Warrier

11. Hai tere saath meri wafaa
Hindustan ki Kasam (1973)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Madan Mohan

This song is the last song sung by an Indian spy (Priya Rajvansh) in Pakistan before the Indian Air Force strikes. Only, her cover is blown, and she may soon be apprehended by the Pakistani authorities. This is her last chance to let her lover, the Squadron Leader (Raj Kumar) in command of the operation, of her undying love for him.

Kaifi’s lyrics capture her strength and her exhortations to her beloved. Cry no tears for me, she begs him; even if she’s no more, her love for him will endure.
Kuch dhadkanon ka zikr ho/kuch dil ki baat ho
Mumkin hain is ke baad na din ho na raat ho
Mere liye na ashq bahaa main nahin to kya
Hai tere saath meri wafaa…
According to the Madan Mohan website, this song was originally recorded with three verses. Only two verses were used in the film and available on the records. The full version, spliced from the composer's tapes, is here.  Based on ‘Operation Cactus Lily’, Hindustan ki Kasam dealt with the role of the Indian Air Force in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The highlight of the film, apart from its spectacular music, was the appearance of Indian war veterans flying real Indian Air Force planes including MiG21s, Su-7s, Gnats and Hunters. 
12. Jhuki jhuki si nazar
Arth (1982)
Singer: Jagjit Singh
Music: Jagjit Singh

And now, a song from almost a decade later. This song expresses the love of a young man for a woman who’s struggling with her own emotions. Cheated upon, her life and self-respect in shreds, the young man’s compassion and understanding is balm to her tortured soul. But it is his gentle questioning that compels her to find the inner strength to pick up the pieces and start life anew, on her own terms. And he warns her against picking old scabs. 
Jin zakhmon ko waqt bhar chala hai
Tum kyun inhe chede jaa rahe ho?

Kaif Azmi breathed his last on 10 May 2002. But his songs and poems live on, filled with his expressions of hope, love, and biting social commentary. 

What songs of Kaifi Azmi’s do you like? 
p.s. A related article on Kaifi Azmi featuring several other songs was published in Silhouette.

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