Wings of poetry

Wings of poetry

The other side Meena Kumari was a renowned actress but a relatively lesser known poetess.

Eliot’s J Alfred Prufock measuring out his life in coffee spoons had as good a measure of life as any. To measure life simply in terms of the years lived by a person seems like a travesty of the human life experience. Some lives pack in much more into the years than others do. Then there are worldly achievements. Sometimes they can provide a rough measure of how a life added up — wealth, fame, position, awards and honours, tell a better story perhaps the simple statistic of birth and death years held within parenthesis.
But still they provide only a partial measure. A truly perfect measure of life would tell us how completely a person lived each moment. The intensity with which a life is lead is in so many ways its only true measure. To paraphrase Kipling crudely, how many unforgiving minutes each one is able to pack with sixty seconds of distance run, is what separates the men from the boys. Or, the girls from the legends.

Themes of loss
These thoughts come to me as I think of Meena Kumari. Not so much the legendary actress Meena Kumari as the relatively lesser known poetess, who wrote under the nom de plume Naaz. Born as Mehjabeen Bano, known to family and close friends as Manju, and to the world at large first as Baby Meena and later as Meena Kumari, in worldly terms Naaz was a very small part of who she was. And yet, if we measure her life not in years or achievements, Naaz is who she really was in her most private and intensely lived moments.
But first, let’s get the numbers and the achievements out of the way, for those too tell a beguiling tale. She was born in 1932 (and died in 1972), the third daughter of a family struggling for survival on the edges of filmdom, her father a small time actor and music director, her mother an ex- dancer. Unable to pay the hospital bills when she was born, the parents abandoned her to an orphanage but reversed the decision after a few hours. A change of heart which they must have been glad for many times in the years to follow, for baby Meena began her acting career at the age of 4 and was the family’s principal breadwinner by the time she was seven. In an acting career that spanned a little over three decades, she acted in 93 films, was nominated for the Filmfare Award eight times and won it four times. In the year 1962, quite tellingly, she was pitted only against herself, holding all three nominations for the Filmfare Best Actress Award category.
In real life too, her greatest battles seem to have been with herself. Her poetry reveals a desperate search for understanding herself and for a partner who would understand her. Her poetic oeuvre is entirely and intensely personal, for she was writing not to share herself with the world but to save herself from it.
Denied formal schooling, she wrested learning for herself and wrote in an Urdu which was polished and extremely nuanced. The form she was most fluid in was the nazm, which is very akin to the more popular ghazal, in that it follows the same rules of rhyme and rhythm but differs because the verses of a nazm are interlinked and explore a single theme or feeling.
Most of Naaz’s poetry explores the themes of separation, loss and anguish. Its imagery is stark and haunting, finding in nature — in lonely moons hung on dark skies, in deserts and wildernesses, in derelict ruins and abandoned mosques, in lashing winds and yawning chasms, a resonance for the poet’s melancholy.
Her only outing into the world as a poetess while she lived is contained in a eight track album titled “I write, I recite” released by EMI/HMV in 1965. In the best traditions of Urdu poetry most pieces are rendered in her own voice, in tarannum or melody, against a musical score composed by the composer Khayyam.
Her voice, with its flawless Urdu diction and its mesmerising depths and sheer range, does great justice to the poetry in these renditions. The two pieces which are in blank verse have also been recited so powerfully that this listener was left stunned by their impact.
 In a special article written to commemorate her 25th death anniversary in 1997, Dinesh Raheja wrote of her voice, ‘Meena’s voice was one of the prominent aspects of her persona. She could make the railway timetable sound like Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Shah Rukh pointed out to me, ‘Depending upon the way Meena Kumari used her voice, she could be different things to different people a mother, a sister, a daughter, a beloved’.’
Most of her poetry was culled out of personal diaries and published posthumously by Gulzar, to whom she bequeathed them in her will. The collection is called Tanha Chand, after what is perhaps her best loved poem. It uses the single word tanha to conjure up such myriad images of loneliness that a translator working in English would need a whole lexicon to capture them. She ends the poem with lines which were prescient, ‘I shall leave this lonesome world/And bereft the centuries will gaze on’.
In his preface to the volume, Gulzar recalls an incident in which he had proffered to her a tribute poem of his own writing in which he describes Meena as someone trapped in skeins of her own weaving, a shayara choking to death entangled in the strands of her own poetry. In response, she had only laughed and told him that those skeins were of love — that she was in love with love itself and couldn’t think of a better fate than dying of an excess of love, wrapped up completely in the experience of love.
Time and alcohol ravaged her beauty, the tumult of too much love too indiscriminately lavished on feckless lovers destroyed her inner peace, the relentless gossip of neighbours and magazines tarnished her public image and finally cirrhosis of the liver laid its claim on her life.
What remains of her as pure as ever is her poetic voice which plunges into pain, rises out of it and soars — uplifted and uplifting — taking us outside the realms of ordinary experience, into moments of pure being. In her poetry, as much as in the film that she took great pains to complete before she died knowing that it was to be her swan song, she emerges as Pakeezah, the one with the pure heart.

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