In the run-up to the Shankar-Shad mushaira seasoned poet Waseem Barelvi shares his thoughts with Ziya Us Salam

He brings to the conversation an old world charm. No affectation, no attempt at false modesty, not even inverse snobbery. His generous words are interspersed with couplets. He exudes an air of camaraderie, a degree of familiarity not easily attained. He is going to be in New Delhi for the upcoming Shankar-Shad mushaira, coming straight from Karachi where he is reciting his kalaam at the Shahar-e-Qaid mushaira. A little earlier he had just stepped out of the heartland of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, Awadh. Welcome to the multi-layered world of Waseem Barelvi, the globe-trotting poet who prefers to be in the present. As he should, considering he is in a good place! His immense fan following sits easy on his shoulders.

Probe him a little over the decline in Urdu literature, how many soirees are now catering to the lowest common denominator and Barelvi equivocates a bit. He hedges, he demurs, before finally opening up. “Human psychology is such we are never happy with the present. We look to the past with a wistfulness, we look at the future for something better but are never grateful for the present. It is good too to look at the future or respect the past but it is not necessarily an accurate way of judging the present. But why just talk of soirees, the decline is perceptible everywhere. But yes, the level of discourse has come down in poetic mehfils too. Culture has experienced a low. Earlier we had knowledge, now we are living in information age. People have lots of information thanks to Internet but very limited knowledge.”

Barelvi feels that the tradition of mushaira has evolved over the decades. “Mushairas have had a tradition. They started from the royal court. Later with the decline of nobility, they went public. It was then they changed from being the preferred way of exchange for the discerning to catering to popular tastes.”

Nudge him a little over how mushairas these days have only limited segment for high-brow poets and plenty of space for those indulging in ‘tuk-bandi', and Barelvi says, “For 64 years people have been deprived of quality Urdu. For those people mushairas have been like a lifeline. Mushairas did not let Urdu proverbs die, kept in touch with the common man and expressed the anguish of the street too. Actually, mushairas, Hindustani films and songs have kept Urdu alive. Where State has been found lacking, they have stepped in to save the language. Today's generation knows Urdu not through schools or text books but through mushairas. By the way, does not everybody enjoy the flourishes of Urdu poetry even today? Even the railway budget presentation started with one of my couplets. From Parliament to the public stage to social discourse, Urdu is part of life and mushairas have kept it alive.”

That is perfectly laudable but haven't poets been guilty of dumbing down, of seeking cheap applause for mediocre works? “I cannot speak for others but I raise the audience to my level. I can gauge the audience pulse quickly and adapt accordingly. As a poet I have travelled a lot but never compromised on my principles. I never stooped to win popularity but as a creative writer I brought people to my level.”

At a time when people often do not know the difference between ‘qamar' and ‘kamar', how difficult it is to strike a rapport with the audience? “The quotability of the Urdu ghazal helps no doubt. Also, I am careful not to mix too much Persian or Arabic in my works. I use every day language, it is more of Hindustani. I believe it is the depth of the khayal that matters. For one sentence there can be so many interpretations.”

He, however, concedes that the decline in the spoken language affects him too. “It hurts me when ghazal is called ‘gazal' or ‘gajal' by some of the presenters too! But I take it in my stride because I know that even a person who cannot pronounce the word ‘ghazal' has to come to listen for the love of the language. By the end of the concert or mushaira, I am sure such a person goes back home with some improvement to his diction. However, when a common man fails to get the pronunciation right, I don't hold it against him because only a chosen few get it right anyway. Khhata logon ki nahin hai.”

Besides the change in expression has he noticed a change in the subject matter too in Urdu poetry? “Of course, there is a great change. Great poetry stems from pathos but today you cannot be tackling subjects like say a Mir or Zafar. Ghazal is more practical now, incorporating new hues. The new generation wants positive energy from the poet. You cannot hold their attention with mayusi ki shayari.”

So, what is the indomitable Waseem Barelvi going to present at the Shankar-Shad mushaira this weekend?

“One does not decide before hand,” he says, shying away from the subject. Then a bout of generosity overcomes him and he shares a couplet which he says he is going to recite at the soiree. This one has to with the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh. “Lagake dekhlo jo bhi hisaab aata ho, mujhe ghata ke wo ginti mein nahi reh sakhta.” Then the poet in him takes over as he reveals, “Phool to phool hain, ankhon se ghire rehte hain/ khaar bekar hifazat mein lage rehte hain.”

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