Remembering Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the poet: Former prime minister's verses explored matters of the nation and self

Back in 1996, after his infamous 13-day reign as the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was declared a ‘dove amongst hawks’ by the media. Not because he was weak, but because he was so stirringly articulate in his speeches in parliament, it seemed inevitable he would return to office, and he did. Vajpayee was also among one of the first leaders of the country to be telecast live from the parliament after Doordarshan began the broadcasting of sessions from both houses – Rajya and Lok Sabha – on national television. In a way, Vajpayee can be considered the first true orator of the television era, a man who despite the tension of the moment he occupied, could weigh each word for its worth and use it to extraordinary effect; a gift that only those who lived with and through poetry can use:

prithvi lakhon varsh purani
jevaan ek anant kahani
par tan ki apni semayen
yadhyapi sau shardon ki vani

File image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Reuters

File image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Reuters

Vajpayee’s poetry in his early days as an RSS pracharak was rooted in his identity. But gradually its ambit grew, as it became more political. Inspired by the likes of Ramdhari Dinkar, Vajpayee’s poetry stuck to formalism but became imbued with the kind of potency that challenged establishments. From a rally at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, in 1975, Vajpayee gave a poetic performance so moving, it is said, that it was taken as the cue by Indira Gandhi to wring in the years of Emergency. Vajpayee, of course, continued to write against the regime, during his time in jail as well –finding inspiration even in his disillusionment:

Vahi manzil
Vahi kamara

Vahi khidki
Vahi pahara

Raaj badla
Taaj badla
Par nai
Samaaj badla

A majority of Vajpayee’s poetry which saw full publication, oddly only as late as the 1990s, was patriotic in virtue. As a nationalist, and a thorough patriot, Vajpayee wrote as vigorously as he sweated on issues of national importance. A large fraction of his verse is layered with calls to national unity, social emblems, and harmony between the two. But as he avowedly once declared, his poetry ‘was a declaration of war’ and not of defeat. His diction, and most crucially his oration, were proof he had faith in its powers and the ability of verse to empower it. Even in speeches as scant with poetic reference as his resignation before the house in 1996, Vajpayee elevated by introducing pauses and guffaws that could only be instrumental to a poet at-home, with the knowledge of sound.

That understanding of sound cannot be better evidenced by the fact that singer and ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh recorded two albums the lyrics for which were picked up from Vajpayee’s poems. One of these, Kya Khoya Kya Paya, even had Amitabh Bachan reciting, and Shah Rukh Khan acting in the video. Another song from the poem 'Na Main Chup Hoon Na Gata Hun' goes like this:

Bikhre need
Vihansse cheed
Aansu hain na muskane
Himani jheel ke tat par akela gungunata hoon
Na main chup hoon na gata hoon

Not everything poetic associated with Vajpayee was restricted to the books he wrote or the poems he recited. He, of course, became Prime Minister for a mere 13 days, but then returned to office as the 13th Prime Minister. The nuclear tests at Pokhran showcased his harder side, a side that he admitted had developed through years of having seen governments crumble in the face of challenges. In 1999, before Pervez Musharraf’s military government took over, the Pakistani poet Aftab Hussain translated his collection Jang Na Hone Denge into Urdu, that earned him the ire of the new military government and forced him to flee the country. Not to mention Vajpayee’s life as an unmarried man living with Rajkumari Kaul and her family in Delhi, a relationship that, other than the rumours it provoked, was never really given a name.

A major theme that emerged in Vajpayee’s later poetry was the frivolity of consequence, existentialism and most of all, loneliness. It is clear, he always found something amiss, but whether he chased to find it, is anyone’s guess. He writes in 'Rote Rote Raat Ho Gayi':

Jhuki na alken
jhapi na palken
Sudhiyon ki barat kho gayi
Rote rote raat so gayi

Dard purana
Meet na jana
Bato hi mein praat ho gayi
Rote rote raat so gayi

Vajpayee’s characteristic tilt of the head, his slow, paused oration, his deep voice became models that many, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have tried to follow. Though his poetry didn’t push as many boundaries, or challenge as many paradigms as it could have, it had a class of its own and music that could be nurtured to become to something more. One can’t help but feel sorry for the poet, who at the expense of the politician was perhaps lonely and perpetually suspended in disbelief. There has always been the notion that Vajpayee, tragically, wasn’t as good a fit in political structures as he was in the forest of poetry, forever roaming, forever writing:

Do din mile udhaar mein,
Ghaate ke vyapaar mein,
Kshan-kshan ka hisaab joroon ya punji shesh lootaoon mai?
Rah Kaun Si Jaaoon Mai?


Updated Date: Aug 19, 2018 09:25 AM

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