How Faiz, Poet of Romance & Revolution, Spoke for the Oppressed

Faiz spoke of and for oppressed people everywhere, and propagated new socialist ideas about State and society.

6 min read
Image of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz used for representational purposes.
  • What makes some poets relevant long years after their death while others, popular and important in their own lifetime, get lost in the mists of obscurity?
  • What makes some poetry rise above its time and circumstance and continue to ‘speak’ to younger readers, located though it is in altogether different frames and contexts?
  • Is it something in the very nature of poetry, some strange alchemy that defies description but speaks compellingly of the human condition?
  • Or is it something that can be parsed as the sum of its parts: a combination of ideas, images, words that touches both the head and the heart?
The poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose 110th birth anniversary falls on Saturday, 13 February, gives us ample scope to ponder these questions.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Faiz: The Poet of Both Romance & Revolution

Popular in his lifetime, virtually from the publication of his very first collection Naqsh-e Faryadi (‘Imploring Imprints’) in 1941 while still a young man, Faiz was the poet of both romance and revolution.

He spoke of and for oppressed people everywhere. He harnessed all the beauty and strength that Urdu poetry had to offer, gathered and perfected over the centuries, to propagate new socialist ideas about State and society.

The tyranny of the oppressors coupled with his belief that the just and the good will one day rise to claim their inheritance, his unshakeable belief in humanism caused him to rest his belief in the famous saying of the Persian poet, Hafez Shirazi: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless...’

What are the Some of the Most Commonly Used Terms in Faiz’s Poetry?

Faiz’s use of classical imagery for political themes is a remarkable reinvention of the tropes that have traditionally been employed by the Urdu poet. Some of the most commonly used terms in Faiz’s poetry, as identified by the literary critic, Gopichand Narang, are: ‘aashiq’ which is, of course, used for any lover anywhere, but by constant usage becomes synonymous with patriot and revolutionary also.

By extension, the ‘mashuq’ (beloved in the conventional sense) is used for the country or the people.

Faiz in London in 1983.
Faiz in London in 1983.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘Raqib’ — meaning rival is used interchangeably for imperialism, capitalism, tyranny, exploitation; ‘ishq’ (love) becomes revolutionary zeal; ‘visaal’ or ‘deedar’ (union with the beloved) becomes revolution or social change; ‘hijr’ or ‘firaq’ (separation) becomes oppression by the State; ‘rind’ (libertine) becomes rebel; ‘sharab’, ‘maikhana, pyala, saqi’ (wine, tavern, cup, cup-bearer) become sources of social and political awareness; ‘mustasib’ (censor) becomes the colonial system or the capitalist state; ‘junoon’ (sublime madness) becomes zeal for social justice; ‘haq’ (truth) becomes socialism; ‘khirad’ (empirical knowledge) becomes capitalism or the establishment; ‘mujahid’ (fighter) becomes freedom fighter; ‘zanjir’ (chain) becomes the chain of slavery; ‘hakim’ (ruler) becomes unjust ruler or colonial master; ‘zindan’ or ‘dar-o-rasan’ (prison) becomes political imprisonment; ‘bulbul’ (nightingale) becomes not just the poet but the nationalist poet; ‘gul’ (rose) becomes the political ideal; and finally ‘baghban’ (gardener) becomes the usurper of the corrupt system.


The Poetry of Witness: How Faiz Expressed New, Urgent Concerns

Against this template, Faiz’s poetry rises aeons above the lament of a lover for his beloved; it becomes the agonised call of the conscience. The ghazal below, written in the spring of 1951 from a prison cell when the threat of a death sentence hung above him like the sword of Damocles, illustrates Faiz’s ability to use classical idiom to speak of new, urgent concerns, and in the process also write what Carolyn Forche has called the ‘poetry of witness’ — from behind the bars of a prison cell:

Yehi junun ka, yehi tauq-o-dar ka mausam
Yehi hai jabr, yehi ikhtiyar ka mausam
Qafas hai bas men tumhare, tumhare bas men nahin
Chaman men atish-e-gul ke nikhar ka mausam
Saba ki mast khirami tah-e-kamand nahii
Asr-e-dam nahin hai bahar ka mausam
Bala se, hum-ne na dekha to aur dekhehge
Furogh-e-gulshan-o saut-e-hazar ka mausim

This hour of chain and gibbet and of rejoicing
Hour of necessity and of choice
At your command the cage, but not the garden’s
Red rose-fire, when its freshest hour begins:
No noose can catch the dawn wind’s whirling feet,
The spring’s bright hour falls prisoner to no net.
Others will see, if I do not, that hour
Of singing nightingale and splendid flower

(Translated by VG Kiernan)

How Faiz Evolved to Avoid Censorship

Faiz called his second and third volumes a ‘tribute’ to captivity: “Confinement, like love, is a fundamental experience. It opens many new windows on the soul.

Deprived of pen and paper in the early days of solitary confinement, he wrote qatas (four-lined rhymed verse) that he could memorise; later he evolved a complex system of images, drawn from the classical Persian tradition that seemed on the face of it ‘harmless’ enough’. Shortly before his death, while addressing the Asian Study Group, he revealed the subtle ways in which he was forced to evolve to evade censorship. For instance, when speaking of ehd-e-junoon (period of obsession) or chaman ki udasi (sorrow of the garden), he was actually referring to oppression and injustice.

Faiz, along with NM Rashid, is responsible for bringing modernism — the sort influenced by contemporary English poets such as Spender and Auden — into Urdu poetry.

Even in an outright political poem, such as the ghazal above, Faiz can be philosophical, even mystical; he can appeal to the senses and also stir one’s thoughts; he can use imagery that is at once oblique, even radically new. The tangled skeins of modernism (jadidyat) and progressivism (taraqqui-pasandi) run through not just Faiz’s poetry but in many of his contemporaries, at least in the early years.


Influence of the ‘Halqa’ & Its Members on Faiz’s Poetry

People often forget that Faiz, while being a part of the influential literary movement known as the Progressive Writers Association, was also a part of another literary grouping in the early part of his poetic career – the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq (the Circle of the Men of Good Taste) which flourished in Lahore in the early 1940s.

The Halqa was a loose coalition of like-minded young men which demanded nothing of its members save a vaguely defined aestheticism that did not shy away from individualism and subjectivity (both, incidentally, anathema to the ‘hard-core’ progressives).

Several Punjab progressives such as Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Faiz attended the Halqa meetings, reading their works and listening to close, careful critiques from some of the more ardent members such as Miraji. While it never acquired the shape or momentum of a movement, its influence was tremendous over some of the important Urdu writers of modern times, such as Yusuf Zafar, NM Rashid, Miraji.

The influence of the Halqa and its members on Faiz’s poetry remained long after the group had dissolved; we can see it in the obliqueness of some of the imagery, in the erotic, mystic, even spiritual connotations that run as a parallel track and, above all, in the use of symbols that transcend their accepted meaning and speak of new concerns.

Faiz’s Soviet Sojourn & Friendships

An early poem, Sarud-e-Shahanah (Nocturne) is a densely symbolist poem redolent with the sort of imagery one associates with Miraji, yet a closer reading can make it yield new meanings. For instance, mahfil-e-hast-o-bood (the assembly of old and new) can refer to old and new political ideologies, just as ‘desire’ can be understood as personal choice.

Though never a member of the Communist party, Faiz remained organically linked to the motherland. He travelled to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1958 to attend the first Afro-Asian Conference in Tashkent; he went again in 1962 to receive the Lenin peace Prize. By then Dast-e-Saba had already appeared in Russian and Faiz was treated as a literary superstar.

Here, Faiz forged bonds of friendship with Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda as well as Russian intellectuals such as Rasul Hamza and Oljas Suleymenov.

Faiz wrote Maah-o-Saal-e-Aashnai (Months and Years of Friendship), as a gesture of solidarity from a fellow-traveller. While this may be viewed as ‘propaganda’ literature, the powerful nazm Leningrad ka Goristan (The War Cemetery in Leningrad) in the omnibus entitled Nuskha-e-Wafa (Inventories of Fidelity, 1984) is not a command performance. In later years, during the repressive regime of Breznev, Faiz’s views on the Soviet Union were to undergo a change. In the last years of his life, Faiz’s concern was only with his laila-o-watan, the beloved that was his country.

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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