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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

zehra nigah - aasim akhtar


"A great poet forms his own school of thought"

By Aasim Akhtar

Zehra Nigah divides her time between London, Abu Dhabi and Karachi. This distance and the rigour with which she rummages through her old memories is what gives her work both its strength and its weakness. She is nothing if not fierce in her protectiveness towards the dreams and desires of her characters.

The ghazals and nazms (poems) that appear in Sham Ka Pehla Tara and Nishaan are more like a festschrift, a celebration of a way of life that for Zehra at least is so threatened that she's looking back at it with nostalgia and sadness. She skillfully suggests a hiatus in the lives of her characters but underlying her carefully wrought poetry the main question is: Will the Muslim culture survive its unique entity and history in a city which the Muslims once called their own?

Below are excerpts from her interview:

Aasim Akhtar: You have been credited as the most melodious poet. How would you reflect on the tradition of tarranum within mushaira?

Zehra Nigah: Though I have been credited with this title, one of the objections invariably raised against me is no matter what the standard of my verse; my rendition in tarranum takes care of it. Honestly speaking, it's much more challenging to recite teht-ul-lafz. One should have a formal training in teht-ul-lafz recitation -- when to raise your voice, where to pause, how to control your pitch or just how to deliver your lines. Farigh Bokhari and Josh were the kings of this art.

Believe me, I've never been proud of my recitation in tarannum because even though music is sublime, raagdari is not permitted in poetry recitation. I have inherited this and it increased the impact of the spoken word. Makhdoom, Faiz, Rashid and Majrooh were the masters of tarannum. Tarannum should never overwhelm the meaning of the verse; instead, it should enhance the subtle nuances of poetry.

AA: What happened to the tradition of placing shamadaan (candelabrum) in mushairas held in UP and Agra?

ZN: Every epoch brings with it its own set of traditions. The tradition of shama came into vogue to highlight the poet's face so that the listeners could watch the facial expressions of the poet while he recited his or her verses. Shama was also an emblem of erudition and knowledge. The advancement in media has cast its own disadvantages: today the audience is seated on plastic chairs rather than the floor; there are spotlights that hurt the eyes; and on top of it all, cameras and videos roll ad infinitum.

AA: Why are mushairas looked down upon by some groups of people?

ZN: I can't understand the logic behind opposing mushairas. In my opinion, no other culture permits the opportunity of such direct and uninterrupted interaction with the audience as a mushaira does. People ridicule certain poets by terming them mushairay ke shu'ara. Didn't Ghalib, Yagana and Momin participate in mushairas? In my times, Firaq, Josh and Fani went to mushairas. The truth is a good poet will be recognised whether he stands outside the arena or inside it, whether he's read in a book or heard. Why do mushairas sell out in advance in Faraz's name?

AA: How did females in the society break out of the mould and gain a visibility in mushairas?

ZN: When I was in school, my teacher asked me to take my short nazm (poem) to a mushaira organised by All Pakistan Women Association (APWA). It was a mushaira meant for female audience and I read a ghazal there. However, there were some male poets too sitting behind a veil. News travelled and I got my first invitation from Lahore.

It wasn't easy for a woman to participate in mushairas in those days. "Wear a burqa," said some; "Wrap yourself up in a chaadar," said the others; "they are all alcoholics there, and they love to indulge." I went in a white shalwar kameez. It was back in 1952 and Intizar Hussain wrote beautifully about it in Chiraghon Ka Dhuaan.

Whenever I sent my work for publication to Sawera, Nai Zindagi, Shahrah, Mah-e-Nou and Naqoosh, it got in. When Naqoosh took out a special ghazal number, there were only four female entries in it, including mine and that of Ada Jafri. The other two were Nazo Jan and Mushtri Begum from the red light area as Persian and Urdu poetry had remained in the hands of prostitutes for quite long after 1857.

AA: Talking about your first majmua-e-kalaam (poetry collection) Shaam Ka Pehla Tara, Faiz wrote that the book is resplendent with 'romantic eventfulness'. Do you agree?

ZN: Even though at that age when my romantic ideals were at their peak, I had a strong political aptitude. When Faiz first heard my voice over radio he thought somebody else was writing for me. Sajjad Zaheer remarked: "Whoever writes for her, I must admit, writes fairly well!" One writes only about one's experiences and convictions with truth and sincerity -- 'wardat-e-zaat' is what true poetry begins with; 'gham-e-hasti' comes much later.

A great poet is one who can form his own school of thought and inspire younger people. Every new writer today wants to emulate Faiz; every young girl wishes to write in the same vein as Ismat Chughtai. Political acumen is essential to great literature. How can a sensitive writer be oblivious to his surroundings?

AA: How far is Samjhote Ki Chaadar modelled after your own life?

ZN: Qurat-ul-Ain Hyder wrote somewhere that whichever story she writes, people look for her personality in it. There is no doubt that whenever an author pens down a piece of prose or verse, his or her personality reflects in it. The poem samjhota barely consists of 5 to 6 lines that read:

Mulaaim garm samjhote
ki chaadar
Yeh chaadar maine barson
mein buni hai
Kaheen bhi sach ke gul bute
nahin hain
Kisi bhi jhoot ka tanka nahin
Isi se mein bhi tan dhak
loongi apna
Isi se tum bhi asooda raho ge
Isi ko taan kar ban jaye
ga ghar
Bichha lain ge to khil uthe
ga aangan
Utha lain ge to gir jaye
gi chilman.

Tanka or stitch is always hidden on the reverse side of the fabric whereas gul bute or the embroidered flowers always appear on the front. So there is neither a concealed lie nor an apparent truth in these verses.

AA: In your opinion, what kind of treatment was meted out to Urdu in post-partition Pakistan and India?

ZN: For the identity of any nation, there has to be a single national language. And the adoption of Urdu as Pakistan's national language has contribution to its promotion as a literary language. But what is amazing is the fact that the Punjab, which is the richest province in Pakistan culturally, has contributed the most in promoting Urdu, despite having its own strong language -- Punjabi. The number of books, magazines and journals published in Urdu there is astonishing. Urdu commands a grip on us. Even if the songs are composed in pop music, the lyrics are almost always in Urdu.

As regards India, the situation has always been unfavourable. In spite of India's unfair attitude towards the language, it couldn't banish it altogether. Ironically, the Indian film industry that promotes India's image internationally thrives in Urdu. They haven't been able to oust Urdu from cinema. Where they have the occasional Hindi jargon as nagariya, they mostly have Urdu words like ashnai, ta'aluq, etc. If they switch to Sanskrit, I wonder where the viewer ship will vanish!

AA: What are your recollections of your early days in India?

ZN: I was born in Hyderabad Deccan but my family belonged to UP. When the state ceased to exist around partition, my grandfather and father came to Pakistan.

Hyderabad used to be a significant centre of learning. When I returned there after 20 to 25 years, memories engraved in my mind flashed back. We used to have a literary atmosphere at home -- mushairas and baithaks. There used to be a library in every 8 to 10 houses. My house had changed much when I returned after 24 years. It now functioned as a municipal office for the Andhra Government.

Now when I look back at 56 years of Pakistan's making, I weigh out my gains against my losses in life; how I got married to a highly educated man who had a great penchant for Urdu, Farsi and Arabic; how for the initial 2 to 3 years we thought we'd come on an extended picnic because we had buried our toys or tucked them away there. Gradually we became conscious that travelling back and forth was not such an easy affair!


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