Lucknow of Poet Majaz’s Days Has Changed; His Words Are Evergreen

Even as Urdu journalist Shirin Dalvi returns an award in protest against CAB, let’s remember Urdu poet Majaz.

6 min read
Image of Lucknow, and poet Majaz, used for representational purposes.

On a cold December night, one of the best loved Urdu poets spent a night, in a drunken stupor, on the terrace of a ramshackle working-class sharab khana, that he had named the Lorry’s Top (Laari ki Chhat) in Lucknow’s Lal Bagh. He died, aged 44, as a result of the chill he caught from lying in the open. He left behind a slender corpus but one that has earned him a place among the immortals of Urdu poetry. Like good poetry the world over, some of Majaz’s poems transcend their time and place and can be read again and again by newer audiences. Awara (Vagabond) is one of them. Written towards the end of the active phase of his life, in 1937, just before the demons of drink and despair pulled him down, it has all the brilliance of a lamp that will shortly be snuffed out:

Shehr ki raat aur main nashaad aur nakara phiroon
Jagmgaati jaagti sadkon pe awara phiroon
Ghair ki basti hai kab tak dar-ba-dar mara phiroon
Ai gham-e-dil kya karoon, ai wahshat-e- dil kya karoon

Majaz’s Bohemian Streak & Aversion to Authority

Born in Rudauli, a qasbah in Bara Banki district in the erstwhile United Provinces, on 19 October 1909, Majaz was the people’s poet par excellence. He burst upon the Urdu literary firmament and caught the imagination of all those who had wearied of the Urdu poet’s angst over the shama-parwana and the gul-o-bulbul. He introduced a new sensibility and new literary concerns through startlingly fresh images and conceits, and above all, a different sort of prosody – the nazm which resembled the ghazal in its close approximation of rhyme and metre but was free of the two-line constraint of the ghazal.

Majaz gained his early education in Lucknow, then went on to St John’s College, Agra, and finally completed his BA at the Aligarh Muslim University in 1936. Those were the glory days of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM), and Majaz was swept along in the fervour of his times. After his graduation, he joined the All India Radio as sub-editor for a journal called Awaaz, but his deep-rooted bohemianism and his unquenchable desire to live life on his own terms made him leave, in order to chart his own destiny as a poet.

At the AIR he had differences with the legendary station director, Pitras Bukhari, with whom Saadat Hasan Manto too crossed swords, and chose to leave rather than submit to his demanding ways and authoritarianism.

Swept up by the nation-wide wave of revolutionary fervour, along with progressive stalwarts like Ali Sardar Jafri and Syed Sibte Hasan, Majaz founded Naya Adab, a magazine for the progressives in Lucknow. He was also associated with the journal Adeeb, brought out by the Harding Library in Delhi.

Majaz Gave Voice to a Younger Generation’s Angst

Ahang (meaning awaaz or ‘call’), his first collection of poetry, was published in 1938. It established his reputation as the poet who sang sweetly of love and sorrow and social change, earning him the sobriquet of ‘Keats of Urdu poetry’, and securing him a place of honour in the mushaira circuit, as well as making him an iconic figure among young men and women in campuses across northern India. He gave voice to the frustration and angst of a generation that was younger than him. His rejection of the world around him – whether it was in the angst-ridden Kyun? or the ballad-like Geet he wrote for the workers of the world – reflect his deep longing for a better, more humane, more just world.

Majaz wrote of both love and revolution, of the need for social change, and the delights of an idealized beloved. Spurning the newly emerging azaad nazm that was gaining currency under the progressives, he wrote lilting, lyrical poetry which was full-bodied and flavoured with the vigour and radicalism of his time and age.

It reflected, in ample measure, the currents of social change sweeping across an India on the eve of Independence. At the same time, his nazms were as disciplined and immaculately constructed as his ghazals. Not for him the looseness of metre or the laxity of craft adopted – in the name of a Larger Cause with such devil-may-care abandon by some of his fellow poets. Majaz also wrote eminently rousing ‘songs’ such as Bol ari o dharti bol and the near-cultish Nazr-e-Aligarh with its passionate, impetuous, foot-tapping beat that was adopted as the anthem by the Aligarh Muslim University, and for generations has brought Aligarians to their feet and close to tears. Its rousing, dramatic appeal to the young remains, to this day, unmatched, as does its call to rise for the nationalistic cause:

Jo abr yahan se uthega who saare jahan pe barsega….

(The clouds that arise from here shall rain upon the entire world…)

Majaz Saw Revolution as a Thing of Beauty

Some of his most famous nazms are: Inquilab, Aahang-e-Nau, Andheri Raat ka Musafir, and of course the by-now iconic Awaara. Faiz Ahmad Faiz wrote the foreword to Ahang, praising Majaz’s poetry for its wonderful mix of diverse qualities and appended one of Majaz’s own verses as an epigraph:

Dekh shamsheer hai yeh, saaz hai yeh, jaam hai yeh
Tu jo shamsheer utha le to bada kaam hai yeh

(Look, it is a sword, it is a musical instrument, a goblet of wine
If you raise the sword it shall become a mighty achievement)

Other revolutionary poets beat their chests and make loud proclamations, Faiz said, but they cannot sing because they see only the horror of revolution, not its beauty. Majaz, on the other hand, could do precisely that: he could sing about the coming revolution because he saw it as a thing of beauty, a joy to behold and to rejoice in.

Then there is Majaz’s address, Naujawan Khatoon Sey which has since been adopted as the slogan for the women’s movement across South Asia:

Tere maathe pe yeh aanchal bahut hii khub hai lekin
Tu iss aanchal se ek parcham bana leti to achcha tha

(The veil that covers your forehead looks lovely indeed
But it’d be better still if you turned your veil into a pennant)

Majaz’s Lifelong Battle With Chronic Depression

Majaz wrote compulsively, but much of what he wrote never got published, for it was written on wayward scraps of paper and indiscriminately handed over to admirers and friends. Therefore, his oeuvre is today established by little other than the slender collection entitled Ahang, which was re-published as Shab-tab in 1945. Among his contemporaries were great poets like Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianawi, and one of his closest friends from his days at Agra, the poet Moin Ahsan Jazbi and the critic, Ale Ahmad Suroor who formed an inseparable trio during their days at St John’s College, Agra, and later again at Aligarh.

Majaz fought a lifelong battle with chronic depression; he had three long spells of terrible mental health in 1940, 1945 and 1952.

The first time, he pulled himself from the maw of melancholia and self-destruction and moved to Delhi to stay with friends Shaukat Ansari and KM Ashraf. Majaz suffered his second nervous breakdown in 1945. Evidently, he could no more bear the terrible duality of his life: on the one hand, there were the Olympian heights of the mushaira where the skies would be rent by loud cries of ‘wah wah’ when he stood up to recite his mesmeric poetry and, on the other hand, the ignominy of his clerical duties at the Library. The third saw him, briefly, admitted in the Ranchi mental asylum.

Majaz Was the Epitome of ‘Tehzeeb’ & ‘Sharafat’

Little did he know that for all his straightened circumstances, in the eyes of those who knew him such as his friend from Agra and later Aligarh, Ale Ahmad Suroor, Majaz was rich beyond measure. His heart broken, his spirit bruised, his body frail, his pockets empty, Majaz remained for his friends the epitome of tehzeeb and sharafat. Good opinions such as these, generally held by all those who knew Majaz remotely or well, could not save him. Like Manto, the demon of drink drove him to self-destruction.

Majaz died tragically young, at the age of 44, on 5 December 1955. He was buried in Lucknow, and the epitaph on his grave has a verse from one of his ghazals written in 1945:

Ab iske baad subh hai aur subh-e-nau Majaz
Ham par hai khatm sham-e-ghariban-e-Lukhnaw

(And after this there is morn and the new morning Majaz
With me ends the eve of sorrows of Lucknow)

And indeed, with Majaz gone, an entire way of life changed, the Lucknow of his days changed beyond all recognition, and the Progressive Writers’ Movement lost a strong ally.

(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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