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PEOPLE: Shaharyar - The Thinking Man's Urdu Poet; The Intellectual; The Paragon of Sharafat

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By Kaleem Kawaja


"Nahin haiy mujh se taalluq koi to aisa kiyon
Ke tu ne murh ke faqat ek mujh to dekha kiyon


Main ajnabi to na tha shahar-e-arzoo ke liye
Tamaam umar raha phir yahan akaila kiyon


Meri in aankho ko kub roshni se nisbat thi
Azal se mere taaqub mein haiy andhera kiyon..............Shaharyar


As I heard of the passing away of Shahryar I tried to scratch my head hard to bring up the old memory files of about twelve to fifteen years ago of my meetings and conversations with him and the pleasent time I spent with him on several occassions over the years. In the year 2000 he sent me his then latest collection of ghazals, "Mere Hissay Ki Zameen" through one of our common friends who visited him in Aligarh. As I realize that he passed away after long illness my memories become very poignant and personal, and I feel guilty that I did not spend more time to visit him in recent years on my visits to India.


Unlike many popular Urdu shaairs one may find in mushairas, Shaharyar was very different. He was shy and hated being in the glare of spotlight on the stage in mushairas or to ever seek publicity or to speak about himself or his creations - that were many and illustrious. In the cut throat world of today's mushairas where many a popular shaairs present their ghazals in "tarannum" or use other provocative suggestions to attract attention and "daad", typically when it was Shaharyar's turn to recite his poems, the hall will become quiet. His quiet and dead-pan style of delivery immidiately divided the audience into two segments; those who came to listen to poetry and those who came to see a show. It made the second category of people stop their "bazaari" behaviour and either pay attention or leave. I still remember his comment that he is often apalled when someone says about a certain shaaer that, "Unhoon ne mushaira loot liya"??


When I first met Shaharyar I had known about his hit lyrics in hit movies like Umrao Jaan and Gaman, that were then the rage in India. Thus I expected him to be a Bollywood showman. What I found was a contrast; a gifted intellectual who treated Urdu poetry as a sophisticated institution that deserved respect and deserved to be admired for its literary richness; not the sensation of bazar. He strongly believed that if we think Urdu poetry is sensuous and emotional, we should flavour it with due respect. In the face of increasing bazaari showmanship that has become a feature of mushairas he wanted to change mushairas into literary events. He often said that it is for the Urduwalas to respect Urdu shaairee and educate the audience to respect it.


In the decade of 1990s when both Shaharyar and Faraz visited North America often for mushairas, one could see that Faraz - another great and literary shaair - was an ebulient showman, whereas Shaharyar was a quiet, retiring professor. This was an essentially different and unique style of Shaharyar that came through not only in mushairas but also in private social gatherings. He seemed to say: If you have interest in Urdu poetry take the time to understand it. 


And yet he was the writer of immortal lilting mujra-ghazals from Umrao Jaan:


"Dil cheez kiya haiy, aap meri jaan lijye
bus ek baar mera kaha maan lijye"


In the highly competitive world of Urdu mushairas where many a poets resort to "mazloomiat" and "majboori" at the hands of "zamaana" to become popular, Shahryar refrained from that. His overriding message was that we have to look into the mirror, recognize our faults and contradictory behaviour, and do not blame others for our problems. He abhored the exploitation of religion to cover up our own lack of effort as the reason for our failures in life. In talking about the ever present Muslim-Hindu tension in India he felt that the common Muslims and common Hindus suffer through the same deprivations and injustices. And that between the two there is a bond of commonality that we should emphasize in practice on a daily level in oder to improve our society. He felt that Muslims have an important role in keeping India secular.


Shaharyar defined man's majboori (helplessness) as being an inherent part of life (azal se abad tuk); something that started with Adam and Eve and is for eternity. It is for man to use his God-given intellect and abilities to find solutions to dispell majboori. Thus he valued how the Indian and Muslim civilizations were once king but today the Western civilization has gone far ahead in converting majboori into opportunity, while we are still lamenting our majboori. Thus in Shaharyar's poetry you rarely find enunciations of majboori. Instead you find him thinking of how to surmount majboori.


"Jo Chahti haiy Duniya wuh mujh se nahin ho ga
Samjhauta koi khwab ke budley nahin ho ga


Ab raat ki deewar ko dhaana haiy zaroori
Yeh kaam magar mujuh se akailay naheen ho ga


Khush fahmi abhi tuk thi yehi kaar- e- junoon main
Jo main nahin kur paaya kisi se nahin ho gaa".................Shaharyar


Indeed Shahryar was a different Urdu poet in the sense that his verse could make an impact on the thinking and educated people of South Asia. Shaharyar often challenged the well educated thinking men from the Indian subcontinent to think and act differently. He exhorted them to not look at poetry and poets as mere entertainment, but look at the poems as inspiration to hear "your own inner voice" and use all your resources to improve our southasian society. I remember that in my conversations with him in those days he often asked why educated Southasian Muslims of our generation lack the courage to take bold action, to bring reforms and change the cycle of dogmatism that still pervades our society. He warned that if our generation is not going to listen to our inner voice, the consequences for our society may be more retrograde.


"Hur taraf apney ko bikhra paao gay
Aainon ko tor ke pachtaao gay


Jub badi key phool mahkain gay
Nekiyon pur apni tum sharmaao gay


Rooh ki deewar ke girnay ke baad
Be badan ho jaao gay, mur jaao gay"..............Shaharyar


Shahryar was every inch an intellectual professor that he was in real life. His style of communication, his attitudes, his very respectful and sauve mannerism were so heart warming. It was hard to believe that he was an Urdu teacher from small town Aligarh. He appeared to be a professor of any deep humanities or scientific subject. Indeed in him I found the definition of what I think of true Aligarians - representatives of a sophisticated intellectual center of Southasian Muslims. Despite living at AMU for his whole life he carefully kept himself out of all the political currents that unfortunately engulf that century old illustrious university. Yet despite his high stature in the Urdu circles, his very prestigious Sahitya Academy Giyan Peeth award and his tremendous success in Bollywood (a-la Umrao Jaan, Gaman, Anjuman) he never behaved snobbish. At AMU he was always found mingling with junior university teachers and students.
In meeting Shaharyar even for a few hours one was struck by his deep rooted sharafat and his shareef pedigree. Like others he encountered crises in his life but he always dealt with them witrh his deep rooted sharafat. On some occassions in mushairas and other gatherings I witnessed how eloegantly and in what a shareef manner he dealt with barbs tossed at him.


Shaharyar's poems were not driven by or a reaction to any specific events; thus there is an element of timelessnes about them that basically deals with our lives, our attempt to deal with uncertainity and majboori. Books of Shahryar's Urdu poems have been translated into English, French, German, Russian, and in Bangla, Telagu and Hindi. Professor Shahryar retired as chairman of the Urdu department in 1996. Shahryar the literary intellectual and the deep thinking poet who added so many nuggets to Urdu poetry will be remebered for a long time and his poems will be read for a long time by the thinking people, especially those who are familiar with Urdu and Hindi languages.


"Pahley kub shham- o- sahar zikar tha youn duniya kaa
Chal gaya mujh pe aakhir ko fason duniya kaa


Ibtada jo bhi ho anjaam haiy hur ek ka yeh
Zinda rahney ki hawas aur junoon duniya kaa


Paae junoon pe kaisi uftaad aa paree haiy
Agli musfaton se inkaar kur diya"................Shaharyar


[Kaleem Kawaja is a community activist based at Washington DC. He can be reached on: kaleemkawaja@gmail.com]
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