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Careless whispers

One was given to politics and poetry and the other was a beautiful young woman from Hyderabad. Chances of them getting married were slim but love, we all know, has no rhyme or reason. Soma Basu meets Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar to discuss the life and times of Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Kaifi

Meri awaaz suno, pyaar ka raaz suno
Maine ek phool jo seene pe sajaa rakhaa tha
Uske parde main tumhe dil se lagaa rakhha tha
Tha judaa sabse mere ishq ka andaaz suno…

~ Kaifi Azmi

If all the world is a stage, Kaifi Azmi was certainly a man who wore innumerable masks and played each of his roles with panache. Even years after his death, the poet’s contribution is not relegated to dust-covered books and his songs continue to touch everyone. Ram Ka Doosra Banwas (Second Exile), in Ayodhya, is a statement on the events of 6 December 1992, and Tumhari Zulf Ke Saaye Mein Shaam Kar Loonga highlights the power of his pen. Kaifi Azmi was truly the common man’s poet, a character who never failed to intrigue.
Shaukat Kaifi’s book Kaifi and I comes across as the piece that was long missing in the puzzle. The memoir (published by Zubaan), translated into English, by Oxford-based Nasreen Rehman, from Shaukat Kaifi’s Yaad Ki Rahguzar, was recently released in Kolkata by noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.
Versatile actress Shaukat Kaifi, mother of cinematographer Baba Azmi and actress Shabana Azmi, married Kaifi Azmi during the heady, political days of Indian Independence. Though desperately in love, the pair ~ many thought ~ couldn’t have been more incompatible. One was from a well-off family in Hyderabad and the other, a card-holding member of the Communist Party of India living in a commune. Yet, it was Shaukat Kaifi’s father, Yahya Khan, a liberal man, who helped the two to come together in the face all opposition. Thus began Shaukat’s life in a one-room home in Bombay.
This book lovingly describes her marriage of over half a century, a life steeped in poetry and progressive politics, continuing involvement with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Progressive Writers Association, Prithvi Theatre, and the continuing links to the village of Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh, to which Kaifi Azmi belonged. Shaukat Kaifi’s memoir is at once a tale of her times, a story of a woman who beautifully balanced life at home and successful career, and an intensely personal story of two people deeply in love. The book had previously been published in Urdu, and later translated into Hindi, Marathi and Japanese.
The book release was followed by a play, Kaifi Aur Main, written by Javed Akhtar, directed by Ramesh Talwar, music by Kuldip Singh and Kaifi Azmi’s poems and lyrics sung by Jaswinder Singh. Kaifi Aur Main is played out by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, reading selected texts from Shaukat Azmi’s memoir (read by Shabana) and Kaifi’s writings (read out by Javed Akhtar).
The major part of the narrative recounts the days of Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi, till the early 1950s, when they lived in the famous Bombay Commune of the Communist Party. Those who have lived the era agree that it was “the very heavens to be alive”. The party was young with most of the leading minds in their twenties or thirties, and there was a sense of hope. The dissensions that were to begin with the exposure of Stalin’s crimes were yet to emerge.
It was perhaps one of those rare moments when Javed Akhtar appeared on stage, barring, of course, the performances he gave during his schooldays. “We read scripts to directors when it comes to movies. So, reading something out was not exactly difficult. Besides, the podium is not new to me,” says Javed nonchalantly. Being absorbed in the character was also not a difficult task, especially when the character he played was that of Kaifi.
“We inherited the same values; we have grown on the same ideas of social justice, gender equality and secularism. We belong to the same tribe and same commune,” he adds.
Javed Akhtar has spent his formative years in Uttar Pradesh, much like Kaifi Azmi. Son of the well-known Urdu poet and film lyricist, Jan Nisar Akhtar, who was a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and Safia Akhtar, teacher and writer, Javed Akhtar belongs to a lineage that can be traced back to seven generations of writers. The highly respected Urdu poet, Majaz, was his mother’s brother and the work of Muzter Khairabadi, his grandfather, is looked upon as a milestone in Urdu poetry.
Shabana says, “There’s a lot of poetry in the play. Javed is able to recite those lines with unparalleled conviction. Wherever the play has been staged, audiences were very surprised by his voice projection and his sense of humour. Not too many people know my father was a very humorous man. Javed could get into the skin of my father’s lines. I’m blessed to have a husband who has written a play on my parents’ life. The play has got the best of Abba’s lyrics, poetry, politics and romance with my mother.”
During the play, Kaifi pokes fun at exceptional lyricists in the film industry. He describes the song-writing process in films: the tunes are set and then the poet is asked to fit a poem to the tune; he compares it to digging a grave and then finding a body to fit it, and goes on to say, how his bodies were known to fit in a similar way. He says, “That’s how commissioned art is different. Writing poems and writing lyrics for movies, both have different wavelengths. Commissioned art has some restraints but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s cold-blooded. They are like different games played in different courts.”
The play was punctuated with beautiful renditions of Kaifi’s poems and songs by Jaswinder Singh which linked the different segments of the play.
“The book is the personal journey of two individuals against the backdrop of the society and politics of that time. In several ways our view is very similar to theirs. Somehow, their story is also a reflection of my relationship with Javed,” says Shabana.
Javed expressed it well through his poem on Kaifi Azmi:
Ajeeb aadmi tha wo…
Wo zindagi ke sare gam tamam dukh,
Har ik sitam se kehta tha
Main tumse jeet jaunga
Ke tumko mita hi dega ekroz aadmi,
Bhula hi dega yeh jahan
Meri alag hain dastaa
Wo aankhein jinme hain sakat,
Wo hoth jinpe lafz hain
Rahunga inke darmiyan
Ke jab main beet jaunga
Ajeeb aadmi tha wo…

(Shaukat Kaifi’s Kaifi & I was released in Kolkata at a programme organised by Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts and Zubaan)

Soma Basu

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