Shabana Azmi on father Kaifi Azmi's 103rd birth anniversary: 'I remember him with celebration, not sorrow'
“When Abba passed away, I realised nothing prepares you for the loss of a Nothing! I was completely devastated. But now, years later, I feel his spirit envelopes me like the air I breathe,' says Shabana Azmi.
Shabana Azmi, her husband Javed Akhtar, her brother Baba Azmi and his wife Tanvi Azmi had big plans for poet-thinker-activist Kaifi Azmi’s 103rd birth anniversary. But COVID-19 played villain.
Sharing her disappointment, Shabana says, “There was to be a two-day celebration in Kolkata, and in Lucknow. Sadly, both had to be cancelled. In fact, the annual celebration Baba hosts in Janki Kutir also can't be held due to COVID. So sad. But I still feel deeply satisfied that in his centenary year, there were a 100 celebrations held in his name all over the world, the highest ever for any South Asian poet. When I see the long strides Mijwan has taken, I feel I am, in a small way, paying the debt.”
She then recites her father’s beloved line: “Koi to sood chukaye/Koi to zimma ley/Us inquilab ka/Jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai.”
Recalling his final days, Shabana grows misty-eyed. “I want to share an incident with you about Abba. The last time he ever got out of bed was 14 January, 2002, which was his birthday. I had gone down to Mijima (our village in Azamgarh) to meet him. From early morning, I had been sitting, waiting for him to finish meeting all the villagers. Finally, my father hauled himself out of bed and asked my mother for some money. No one had the guts to ask this very old and frail man where he was going off to with his man-Friday. Forty-five minutes later, he came back, all drained out. He looks at me and says, ‘Mere gaon wale tumhara subah se bheja chaat rahen hain na? Main apne chidiya ke liya khaas taur se woh samose lekar aaya hoon jo ussey bahut pasand hai.’ That was the last time he moved out of bed.”
Shabana still grieves for her loss. “When Abba passed away, I realised nothing prepares you for the loss of a Nothing! I was completely devastated. But now, years later, I feel his spirit envelopes me like the air I breathe. I remember him with celebration. I do not remember him with sorrow. My brother Baba, Javed, his poem ‘Ajeeb Aadmi’ on my father… these have helped me heal.”
Shabana recalls her mother, the great-in-her-own-right Shaukat Azmi, was a sturdy companion to her father and her brother’s shared silences with her father. “My mother was a remarkable companion to my father. It was an amazing relationship. I was attracted to Javed because he was exactly like my father. In getting to know Javed, I got to know my father. Like Abba, Javed is a feminist. My father had this complete dependence on domestic matters on my mother. Even I’ve to buy all the clothes and shoes for Javed. Likewise, the tailor who stitched my father’s kurta-pyjamas, never saw his face. Neither Abba nor Javed have seen the kitchen in the house. Nor can they fix anything around the house. But both can do anything if they set their heart on it. Javed fights to win. I fight to play the game. My brother Baba is an extreme introvert. He shared an extremely deep relationship with my father. Baba’s wife Tanvi, who’s the most talkative person in the world, would run out of the room when Abba and Baba were together. They just shared silences.”
As for her own feelings for her father, Shabana gets highly emotional. “Abba was everything to me. I continue with his good work in our village. He was my comrade. I remember when I went on my padyatra from Delhi to Meerut. There was so much tension. But when I went to my father, he caught my face in his hands and said, ‘Meri bahadur beti jaa rahi hai? Jao tumhein kuch nahin hoga. Sirf kaamyab hoke lautogi.’ It was like a gust of oxygen pumped into me. Ours was an open house during Abba. It continues to be so. My reference point and the choices in life will always come from him, his poetry, work, life, and courage.”
Shabana shares the earliest memory of her father. “My earliest memory of Abba… Of him sitting on a writing table in his kurta-pyjama, smoking incessantly, and writing till the wee hours of the morning. As a child, I was convinced a poet was a euphemism for someone who didn’t have any work. Daddys were supposed to put on trousers, shirts and ties, and go out to work. In fact, when people would ask me what my father did, I said he was a businessman and quickly changed the topic. Oh, the follies of innocence. My father was a really gorgeous-looking man with this beautiful voice. People don’t know this, but he had a tremendous sense of humour. I remember once I was putting eye drops in his tiny eyes. The drops kept falling all over his face. He told me about this inept prince who was taught archery, and who broke everything in the house during practice. Then he said, ‘Put the drops in my ears, they’ll go in my eyes.’ He said such lines with a poker face.”
Kaifi Saab’s views on the process of lyric-writing in Hindi cinema were priceless.
“He always made digs at the strange procedure in our films, where tunes came first, and lyrics were written into them later. ‘It’s like first digging a grave and then trying to fit a corpse into it.
But I constantly keep fitting the corpse into the grave so everyone thinks I’m a good lyricist,’ he said.”
Shabana feels she took her father for granted. “You know I took my father for granted, as all children tend to. But as a poet, he continues to overwhelm me each day even years after his death. Whether it was his poem 'Makaan' or Aurat,' they’ve been a great source of inspiration. My concern for slum-dwellers started with my father’s poem 'Makaan,' which talks of the irony of the construction worker who builds a building with his sweat and blood but isn’t allowed to enter it.”
Shabana pauses, and then resumes, “In Hindi cinema, along with Sahir (Ludhianvi), Majrooh (Sultanpuri), Jaan Nissar Akhtar, and Shailendra, my father raised the standards of film lyrics. They were often deceptively conversational, "Kuchh dil ne kaha, kuchh bhi nahin." As a film lyricist, he was a mixture of simplicity and poeticality. Take these lines, "Kissi ka na ho jiss pe saaya, mujhe aisi din aisi raat do/ Main manzil toh khud dhoond loongi, mere haath main zara apna haath do/ Qadam-do-qadam tum mera saath do." And when Lataji (Mangeshkar) sang these lines by my father... what can be said? You know what was exceptional about my father? He never spoke at home about his work."
“My most favourite Kaifi Azmi lyrics? Hmm… Koi kaise yeh bataye ke woh tanha kyon hai/woh jo apna tha who aur kisi ka kyon hai/yehi duniya hai toh phir aisi yeh duniya kyon hai/yehi hota hai toh aakhir yehi hota kyon hai?" The simplicity of these lines kills me. Imagine, a spouse-deserted woman (in the film Arth) being faced with these lines! That sense of commitment, which artistes of my father’s generation had, has been missing. But slowly, it’s coming back in my film fraternity. I like it when film people come out to involve themselves with social issues. I come from a background where my parents believe art is an instrument of social change. At a time when my father could’ve revelled in the luxury of his success in the film industry, he chose to go back to his village in Azamgarh to work on its development. Imagine a man paralysed for 30 years making his village into a place of progress single-handedly."
"One day, I asked him if he feels frustrated when change don’t happen as speedily as he’d have liked. He told me we must all be prepared for that change to not happen in our lifetime. This, to me, is the one mantra that I’ve taken from my father. I don’t look for instant results at all. That’s why I couldn’t be a politician. Delhi mein bhi hai Kaifi Azmi road DPS school ke saamne. There is a Kaifi Azmi road in Mijwan. The Sultanpur Expressway in UP (Uttar Pradesh) is also called Kaifi Azmi Expressway. Government of India has named train from Azamgarh-Delhi Kaifiyaat Express (the name of his complete works of poetry) in recognition of his stellar work. There are only two other writers who have trains named after their work, Gitanjali Express after Rabindranath Tagore's work, Godaan Express after Premchand's work. On 18 February 2012, Hyderabad ke mayor ne ailan kiya hai Rd no 3 Banjara Hills Kaifi Azmi road, Ramkote Eden Garden Ustad Bismillah Khan Road, Ramkote Circle Pandit Bhimsen Joshi road. Inauguration will be in third week of March.”
Who among contemporary lyricists has inherited my father’s legacy? Says Shabana, “I’d say my husband Javed Akhtar. Abba himself used to say this. They both have this amazing vocabulary, which if they wanted, they could flaunt generously. Still they both keep their poetry simple. There was never a word in Urdu that my father couldn’t give me the meaning of. I told Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) this. And he said, ‘My father [Harivanshrai Bachchan] could do this in both English and Hindi.’ Can you imagine? To this day, it’s a big void in my life that I can’t write Urdu, though I can read it. It’s something I have to do. Javed keeps telling me I’ve my father’s restless spirit. But if I’m cleaning a cupboard, that’s relaxation for me, though Javed doesn’t agree.”
Shabana, who grew up listening to her father's nationalistic poetry, including film classics such as 'Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tann sathiyon' (Haqeeqat) and 'Meri awaaz suno' (Naunihal), recalls her illustrious father’s love for his country. “Kaifi Saab was a proud Indian. When his parents and brothers moved to Pakistan, he refused to join them because he felt rooted in India.”
Kaifi Saab, says his proud daughter, loved the idea of communal harmony. “His idea of India was based on India’s constitution, which he believed was the best in the world. For a country as diverse as India, an inclusive India that accommodates the diversity and celebrates it, can be the only way forward. He was a proud proponent of our Ganga Jamuna tehzeeb.”
For his liberal outlook, Kaifi Saab was attacked by his own community. Says Shabana, “He earned the wrath of Muslim fundamentalists on some occasions because he was an atheist but he used to differentiate between religion and culture. He was the one who started the tradition of celebrating Holi, Diwali, Eid, and Christmas in our family, which my brother Baba and I continue to do. He taught us to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism.”
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.
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