Har cheez bhula di jaayegi / Yadon ke haseen butkhane se/ Har cheez utha di jaayegi/ Phir koi nahin yah poochhega/ Sardar kahan hai mehfil mein
(Every memory will be erased from the beautiful temple of memories / every single thing will have gone / then, no one will ask: Where is Sardar in the soiree?)
Although it has been 17 long years since he bid adieu to this world, Ali Sardar Jafri continues to remain very much present in the mehfil of Urdu literature and nobody asks the question that he himself had posed in his celebrated poem “Mera Safar” (My Journey). Nothing has been forgotten about him and his memories are still fresh in the minds of those who loved and admired his poetry.
I heard him for the first time at a mushaira in Delhi in early 1970s when I was in my late teens. He had recited “Mera Safar” along with many other poems that evening. However, this one poem kept haunting me for many years because of its romantic universalism that was completely new to me.
New symbols of love
By declaring that every tale in the world was his tale and that Har aashiq hai Sardar yahaan, har mashooqa Sultana hai (Here every lover is Sardar and every beloved is Sultana), the poet and his beloved became the new symbols of love, replacing the age-old icons like Majnu and Laila or Shirin and Farhad with whom lovers used to identify themselves. In his unique way, Ali Sardar Jafri was trying to evolve a new aesthetics by coalescing literary excellence with ideological commitment. By the way, Sultana was the woman he loved, married and spent 52 years of togetherness till his last breath.
Ali Sardar Jafri was a life-long communist, but as Qurratulain Hyder confirmed in her article on him, “He never became an extremist and retained a liberal and balanced view of the political and social realities.” When he married Sultana, he was a whole-time worker of the Communist Party of India and a prominent leader of the progressive writers’ movement and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Sultana offered a vivid description of the circumstances of their marriage in an article she penned after her husband’s death. “On January 30, 1948,” she wrote, “Sardar and I royally rode in a local Bombay bus to the office of the Registrar of Marriages. Sardar, the bridegroom, had a princely sum of three rupees in his pocket! Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas were the witnesses to our court marriage. Later, Ismat celebrated the occasion and took us all out for an ice cream! After marriage, our first abode was a commune in Andheri East, a faraway suburb of Bombay then, with Shaukat and Kaifi Azmi as neighbours. It was a godforsaken bungalow where some Italian prisoners were kept till 1945. It was the centre for the IPTA.
“Pandit Ravi Shankar, Uday Shankar, Shanti Burdhan, Sachin Shankar, Prem Dhawan, amongst others, stayed on the first floor of the main bungalow. The ground floor was the work place where everyone gathered to write revolutionary songs….”
Sardar belonged to a generation that began with the participation in the freedom struggle and gradually moved from nationalism to Marxism. In the process, they got dislocated from their comfortable aristocratic or upper middle class existence and were compelled to live a hard life. Prem Chand, who presided over the first conference of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association held in 1936 in Lucknow, had issued the clarion call to “change the measure of beauty”. Ali Sardar Jafri never forgot this and used this as an epigram to begin his famous nazm “Samandar Ki Beti” (Daughter of the Ocean) with.
To earn a living, Jafri had to write lyrics for films. And, who can ever forget this gem that he penned for film “Footpath”? Sung so evocatively by Talat Mahmood, “Shaam-e-gham ki kasam, aaj ghamgeen hain ham” remains as haunting as ever.
Born in an aristocratic family of Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh on November 29, 1913, Sardar participated in the national movement, got arrested many times and was expelled for his political activities by the Aligarh Muslim University where he was studying English Literature and had become a very close friend of celebrated poet Majaz. He began his literary career with a collection of short stories “Manzil” (Destination) in 1938 but made his mark as a poet with “Parvaaz” (Strength to Fly) in 1943. Many of his poems like “Nai Duniya ko Salaam” (Salute to the New World) and “Asia Jaag Utha” (Asia has Awakened) were translated into many Indian and foreign languages.
He struck a close friendship with Turkish revolutionary poet Nazim Hikmat and Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda. So fond of Nazim Hikmat he was that he named one son Nazim and the other Hikmat. His poetry had a place for Krishna and his Gokul, Buddha and his disciples Anand and Chandalika, the glory of the Vedas and the Radha of Vidyapati. He received many awards including Padma Shri, Pakistan’s Iqbal Award and Jnanpith Award.
It was poetic justice that the same Aligarh Muslim University that had expelled him, honoured itself by conferring an honorary doctorate on him. He was a people’s poet, and truly the Sardar of Urdu poetry.