The celebrated Urdu poet and film lyricist Kaifi Azmi was known to be a recluse. He mostly kept away from public appearances despite his immense popularity over his poems and memorable film songs, such as Waqt Ne Kiya (Kaagaz Ke Phool, 1959), Ab Tumhare Hawale (Haqeeqat, 1964) and Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil (Heer Ranjha, 1970). The exception to the rule: mushairas, or poetry gatherings.
Born in Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh on January 14, 1918, Azmi died on May 10, 2002. Along with Sardar Jafri and Sahir Ludhianvi, Azmi formed a troika of post-independent Urdu poets whose poems and lyrics strove for secular ideas.
Azmi had an unusual approach to his work and his responsibilities as a public figure and a father. His daughter, the acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi, recalled how he would attend poetry events but skip her school meetings. “My school required that both parents speak English,” she said. “Since neither Abba nor mummy did, I faked my entry into school. Sultana Jafri, Sardar Jafri’s wife, pretended to be my mother and Munish Narayan Saxena, a friend of Abba’s, pretended to be my father. Once in the 10th standard, my vice principal called me and said that she’d heard my father at a recent mushaira and he looked quite different from the gentleman who had come in the morning for Parents’ Day. Understandably, I went completely blue in the face and said, ‘Oh he’s been suffering from typhoid and has lost a lot of weight.’”
It was during a poetry event in Hyderabad that Azmi had met his future wife Shaukat Ali, a film and stage actor. Azmi attended the social events not to gather praise, but to give voice to his radical thoughts and recite his poems to a receptive audience.
Azmi grew up in a house in which his siblings wrote ghazals. He was 11 when he wrote his first ghazal and recited it at a gathering at home. Poet Shauq Bahraichi could not believe that such a young boy could write a ghazal, and decided to test Azmi’s skill with the rhyme and metre. Azmi immediately wrote, “Itna toh zindagi mein kisi ke khalal pade, hasne se ho sukoon na rone se kal pade” (There should be a hindrance in one’s life when laughter will not bring peace; crying will not solve ills).
Azmi moved away from the themes of romance and passion in his poems when he joined the Communist Party in 1943. He also became a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which changed the tonality of his poems. They now addressed the masses and covered a range of issues, including female empowerment, religious fundamentalism and the futility of sectarian violence. His poems were published as books, including Jhankar, Aakhir-E-Shab, Sarmaya, Awaara Sajde, Kaifiyat and Nai Gulistan.
Kaifi Azmi’s clear and resonant voice was the hallmark of his recitals. Doosra Banwaas, a stirring poem he wrote after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, describes the plight of Rama returning to Ayodhya.
In this video clip, Azmi reads a few couplets and expands the meaning of the famous line, “Do gaz zameen bhi chahiye do gaz kafan ke baad” (A man needs two yards of land after two yards of a shroud to cover his corpse).
Azmi reads Aurat, one of his most renowned poems about the emancipation of women.
Here is Rehne ko sadaa dahar mein aata nahin koi (No one comes to live forever), a tribute Azmi recited in the documentary In Search of Guru Dutt (1989), in memory of his friend and filmmaker Guru Dutt, who committed suicide in 1964.
In this Doordarshan programme, Begum Akhtar sings some of Azmi’s verse. The self-effacing poet recites a few lines in his distinctive voice, calling it inferior to hers.