Remembering Kaifi Azmi: The Urdu Poet Who Renounced Padma Shri Over 'Donkey' Remark, and Captured Ram's Anguish in 'Doosra Banwas'

On May 10th, we commemorate the death anniversary of Kaifi Azmi, the legendary Urdu poet, lyricist, and activist.
Kaifi Azmi's literary prowess was acknowledged through numerous accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri in 1974.
Kaifi Azmi's literary prowess was acknowledged through numerous accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri in 1974.

New Delhi- As India grapples with issues of religious intolerance and hate speech, the words of poet Kaifi Azmi resonate deeply.

Kaifi Azmi (1919-2002) was a revered figure among the progressive Urdu poets. His poetry resonates with themes of social justice, gender empowerment, and a celebration of India's rich diversity.

Kaifi wrote his first ghazal at the age of eleven! Itna To Zindagi mein Kisiki Khala pade’…. It was later immortalized by Begum Akhtar.

With collections like Jhankar (1943), Akhir-e-Shab (1947), and Awara Sajde (1973), Azmi's poetic oeuvre captures the essence of Urdu literature's beauty and rhythm, captivating generations of readers.

Azmi's contribution to Urdu poetry extends beyond mere aesthetics. He played a pivotal role in advocating for a more just and gender-sensitive society, while also exploring the intricacies of love in his verses. His poetry is an inspiration for people of all ages, igniting a passion for social change and personal growth.

In his poignant poem Doosra Banwas ( The Second Exile), Azmi captures the disillusionment and pain of Lord Ram as he returns home to find it marred by violence and bigotry.

Against the backdrop of ongoing Lok Sabha elections and the BJP's emphasis on the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Azmi's words serve as a powerful reminder of the dangers of religious extremism.

The poem "Dusra Banwas" by Kaifi Azmi portrays the disillusionment and despair of Lord Ram upon returning home after his exile.

राम बनवास से जब लौट के घर में आये,

याद जंगल बहुत आया जो नगर में आए

रक्स से दीवानगी आँगन में जो देखा होगा

6 दिसंबर को श्री राम ने सोचा होगा

इतने दीवाने कहाँ से मेरे घर में आये ?

He reminisces about the peaceful jungles he once roamed, contrasting it with the hatred and violence that now pervade his city. Lord Ram questions the identity of those who have brought destruction to his home, pondering whether they truly understand religion or caste. He laments the betrayal of his friends, who now wield daggers against him in support of Babar.

पाँव सरयू में अभी राम ने धोये भी न थे

के नज़र आये वहां खून के गहरे धब्बे,

पाँव धोये बिना सरयू के किनारे से उठे

राम यह कहते हुए आपने द्वारे से उठे

राजधानी की फिजा आई नहीं रास मुझे,

६ दिसंबर को मिला दूसरा बनवास मुझे

Despite the bloodshed and turmoil, Lord Ram finds solace in the serene waters of the Sarayu river, symbolizing a desire for purity amidst chaos. The poem concludes with Lord Ram embarking on a second exile, unable to reconcile with the darkness that has engulfed his once beloved capital city.

"Kaifi Aur Mein," a play inspired by his life, works, and the memoir of his wife, Shaukat Azmi – "Yadon Ki Rahguzar" (Down Memory Lane), was written and performed by Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi.

It was showcased in India and abroad in 2006. Additionally, another play titled "Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Hasin Sitam," directed by Rani Balbir and based on Kaifi Azmi's life and writings, was staged in 2005 and received praise from critics.

" In his poems, he presented with fervour a variety of opinions other than his own. The brutal religious hypocrisy of the Hindutva brigade was the most disgusting and deadly in Kaifi’s eyes," Shaukat Azmi writes in ' Kaifi and I" .

Kaifi Azmi's literary prowess was acknowledged through numerous accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri in 1974. His remarkable body of work earned him accolades such as the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy Award, Sahitya Akademi Award for Urdu, Special Award of Maharashtra Urdu Academy, and the Soviet Land Nehru Award, among others. Additionally, he received the Jyaneshwara Award from the Government of Maharashtra and was honored with the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement.

In the 1980s, Kaifi Azmi took a bold stand by returning his Padma Shri award. This decision came in response to the derogatory remarks made by the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Vir Bahadur Singh, who suggested that those who spoke Urdu as a second language should be humiliated by being made to sit on a donkey and paraded.

Azmi, who had dedicated his life to writing in Urdu, saw this as a direct attack on the language and its speakers.

His daughter, Shabana Azmi, recounted how her father, upon hearing these remarks, felt compelled to take action. He firmly believed that as a writer who had devoted his entire career to Urdu literature, he could not remain silent in the face of such prejudice.

Kaifi Azmi's literary journey was marked by a blend of romanticism and social consciousness. He played a pivotal role in bringing Urdu literature to Indian cinema, revolutionizing the portrayal of emotions and societal issues through his poignant verses.

Azmi's contributions to Indian cinema are immeasurable, with his poignant lyrics adorning timeless classics like Shama, Kaagaz Ke Phool, and Arth. Notably, he wrote the screenplay and dialogue for M.S. Sathyu's acclaimed film 'Garm Hawa,' earning both the National Award and Filmfare Award.

Kaifi Azmi's approach to writing was as unique as his poetic voice. While he effortlessly crafted film songs, he seldom engaged in writing until the looming deadlines urged him to do so.

His preferred tool was a lined writing pad, and his prized possessions were his collection of 18 Mont Blanc pens, meticulously maintained by the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York. He adhered strictly to blue-black ink, eschewing the use of ballpoint pens.

Despite his talent and contribution, Kaifi remained modest and hesitant to demand higher fees for his work. His reluctance to advocate for himself often left him with meager earnings, with many producers owing him money. Yet, he never mustered the courage to press for his dues.

Kaifi's commitment to using art as a catalyst for social transformation set him apart. He believed fervently in the power of art to effect change, a conviction that echoed in his life and work alike.

Kaifi Azmi's couplets continue to resonate with poetry enthusiasts, offering timeless reflections on society and human nature. Few of his widely admired couplets are:

"कोई तो सूद चुकाए, कोई तो जिम्मा ले

उस इंक़िलाब का जो आज तक उधार सा है"

Some have paid the interest, some have taken the responsibility,

For the revolution that still remains pending today.

"बस्ती में अपने हिन्दू मुसलमाँ जो बस गए

इंसाँ की शक्ल देखने को हम तरस गए"

"When in the neighborhood, Hindus and Muslims settled together,

We longed to see the face of humanity.

"पेड़ के काटने वालों को ये मालूम तो था

जिस्म जल जाएँगे जब सर पे न साया होगा"

Those who cut down trees knew well

That bodies will burn when there's no shade over the head."

" झुकी झुकी सी नज़र बे-क़रार है कि नहीं

दबा दबा सा सही दिल में प्यार है कि नहीं"

Is the lowered gaze restless or not? Is there a suppressed love in the heart or not?

When reflecting on Kaifi Azmi's remarkable body of work, one cannot overlook the timeless classic, "Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho..." This poignant melody, featured in the 1973 cinematic masterpiece "Hanste Zakhm," is elevated by the mesmerizing vocals of the legendary Mohammed Rafi. Through Kaifi Azmi's evocative verses, the song beautifully encapsulates the transformative power and sheer beauty of love.

Complemented by the melodic brilliance of Madan Mohan's composition, "Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho" stands as a timeless masterpiece that transcends generations. Its enchanting spell continues to resonate with listeners worldwide, leaving an indelible impression on hearts across the globe.

In recognition of his contribution to literature, the government inaugurated a train named "Kaifiyat Express," which operates from his hometown Azamgarh to Old Delhi.

On January 14, 2020, Google commemorated Kaifi Azmi with a Doodle on his 101st birth anniversary. Google commented: "With work ranging from passionate love poems and activist verses to Bollywood song lyrics and screenplays, Azmi has become one of the most renowned poets of the 20th century in India, and his humanitarian efforts continue to impact people's lives today."

Additionally, there is a street named after him, Kaifi Azmi Road, in Hyderabad. Moreover, there is a road in R. K. Puram, New Delhi, named Kaifi Azmi Marg after him.

Kaifi Azmi's literary prowess was acknowledged through numerous accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri in 1974.
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