One of midnight’s children who saw the sullying of many dreams and yet retained a luminous idealism, a college-level teacher of English who wrote poetry in Urdu, a poet of some repute who enjoyed an extra-ordinary felicity and dexterity at performing the nizamat of a mushaira, a translator of texts as diverse as the Bhagwad Gita and the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Rabindranath Tagore into Urdu – Anwar Jalalpuri was all this and more. Born in the qasba of Jalalpur in Uttar Pradesh in 1947, Jalalpuri encapsulated within himself all that was best and brightest in Urdu zuban and tehzeeb. Perhaps it was this easy familiarity with the literary culture of Urdu that allowed him to hold sway over the often tempestuous world of mushairas for nearly four decades, making him a well-known name across much of the Urdu-speaking world.

The performer

The task of nizamat – deciding the sequence of readings according to status and seniority as a poet, maintaining the tempo and rhythm of a mushaira like a finely-strung instrument, alternating sombre moments with light-hearted ones, knowing exactly how to introduce each poet, chivvying a reluctant audience to give the right amount of daad (praise with loud cries of wah-wah) and chastening them when they become rowdy or boisterous – has been described in two ways. At its most graceful, nizamat can be like a maestro conducting an orchestra. On the other hand, given the rambunctious nature of many mushairas, the task of nizamat can be akin to weighing frogs on a scale (tarazu mein medhak tolna, as someone once put it so memorably). However, Jalalpuri brought a rare élan, as well as gravitas, to this task. His last appearance in this role in India was at the venerable Shankar Shad Mushaira at Modern School in New Delhi on December 16, 2017.

The poet

As a poet, Jalalpuri will be remembered for a rich and varied corpus comprising the ghazal, nazm, naatiya shairi (devotional poetry). Steeped in tradition yet acutely aware of the world around him, he could rightly say:

Mera har sher haqiqat ki hai zinda tasvir
Apne ashaar mein qissa nahin likhkha main ne

“Every verse of mine is the living portrait of reality
I haven’t written a tale or a fantasy in my poetry”

And elsewhere:

“Main apne saath rakhta hoon sada akhlaq ka paaras
Issi patthar se mitti chhoo ke main sona banata hoon”

“I always keep with me the alchemist’s stone of good conduct
With this stone when I touch dust I can turn it into gold”

The poet who wrote:

Khiraj mujh ko diya aane wali sadiyon ne 
uland neze pe jab hi hua hai sar mera

“The coming centuries have paid obeisance to me
Whenever my head has been raised aloft a spear”

Also wrote:

Koi puchhega jis din waqai ye zindagi kya hai 
Zameen se ek mutthi khaak le kar hum uda denge

“The day someone will ask what is really life
I will lift a fistful of earth and let it blow away”

The translator

A prolific and eclectic writer, Jalalpuri was also a script-writer, essayist and literary critic with over 20 books to his credit in both Urdu and Devnagri. Of these his manzum (verse) translation of the Gita deserves special mention. His Urdu Shairi Mein Gita: Naghma-e Ilm-o Amal (published in 2013) tries to tell the story of the human heart that transcends time and circumstance and addresses questions that have troubled mortals since time immemorial: Who is man? What is the spirit? What is life? What is death? Does god exist? For this, Jalalpuri was awarded the Yash Bharti Award in Lucknow.

I had the occasion to read Jalalpuri’s translation in some detail when I was looking at multiple translations of the Gita in Urdu over a century and a half. I liked the fact that he attempted to explain the meaning in simple language and thus expanded the 701 shlokas to 1761 couplets. Dedicated to the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of India, and to all the sharif people who wish for peace the world over, it has a Foreword by the Hindi poet Gopaldas Neeraj and a Preface by Uday Prakash Singh – so it covers a gamut of political shades and opinions.

And yet, for all its political correctness, I found it to be by far the most lyrical of the several versions I had studied (despite its short syntax, chhoti behar) because its translator was himself a fine poet. Every adhyay began with a saransh or summary that contained a key to understanding each chapter. Jalalpuri is successful in creating drama and urgency in the build-up to the point where Arjun’s dialogue with Krishna begins:

“Thhii tayyar Bhishm pitamah ki fauj
Garajdaar jaise samandar ki mauj”

“The army of Bhishm Pitamah was ready
Thundering like the waves of the ocean”

As Arjun sits dejected in his chariot, his bow and arrow slipping from his hand, Krishna says:

Ai Arjun! hawaon ka rukh morh de
Yeh na-mardi aur buzdili chorh de...
Uthho jang ke waste uthh parho
Le haath mein asla uthh parho...”

“Oh Arjun! change the direction of the winds
Leave this unmanliness and cowardice...
Get up, get up for the sake of war
Get up, bearing your arms in your hand...”

And then moving on through the mysteries of revelation...

Yeh ek gyan hai aur ek raaz bhi
Yeh mere batane ka andaz bhi”

“This is knowledge and a secret too
And so is the manner of my telling”

And in the end Arjun responds:

“Ai Aaqa! meri ab yeh ankhein khulin
Mujhe rehmatein barkatein ab miliin
Jo thhe mujh mein shak khatam sab ho gaye
Mere dil mein jalne lage ab diye”

“O master! my eyes have been opened
I have been received mercy and blessings
All my misgivings have been removed
And my heart is lit up with lamps”

Perhaps the best tribute to this crusader for communal harmony and shared living can be through paying heed to his words:

“Na tera hai na mera hai yeh Hindostan sabka hai
Nahin samjhi gayi yeh baat to nuqsan sabka hai”

“Neither yours nor mine this Hindustan is everyone’s
If this is not understood the loss will be everyone’s”