Words as swords

Words as swords

Even those who earlier had little interest in poetry are now reciting and penning revolutionary verse

The lyrics from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s soul-stirring Urdu poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ recently became a sort of battle-cry against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Hummed by the protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, after travelling to all major protest sites across the country, the poem also reverberated in the sunlit lawns of Diggi Palace — the venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival-2020.

As Chinmayi Tripathi and Joel struck the chords of the guitar and dotara, the audience in thousands joined in singing Iqbal Bano’s rendition of ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We shall see). The discussion on the aesthetics and politics of the poetry of Faiz and Firaq Gorakhpuri concluded as a celebration of the spirit of dissent. Evidently, even those who have little interest in poetry are now reciting and even creating revolutionary verse.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Forrest Gander says people who believe in writing poetry often take an ethical stand that it matters to express emotional truths even if there is nothing to derive from it. “I think in moments of crisis, people look for emotional authenticity and poetry often provides that. Whether it is America where people are protesting against Trump or in Beijing when Tiananmen Square happened or whether it was Chile when people were protesting against Pinochet and there was bloodshed and vanishing residents...”

Gander read Faiz’s translated poetry by Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali and underlined how in Asia, people still remember his words. “Poetry in itself is revolutionary because it doesn’t take in an economic system — there is no money in it and such little fame. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, when poetry was pushed underground, it gave the genre a push because poems speak the emotional truth. I am hoping in India too, new poetry will come up.”

Outburst of creativity 

Noted poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote said one cannot sit down to write ‘protest poetry’ — it has to be an organic articulation of the situation.

“What we are seeing today is the vital response of people against a kind of toxic politics that wants to narrow and constrain human possibility. And there’s a reason why there is so much poetry, song, graffiti and art as this is exactly what is being threatened; you are being told that you cannot have creative freedom,” says Hoskote who believes that protest poetry is organic as well as reactive, and indeed, great poets were born out of freedom struggles.

Expressing his views on the ‘Hum Dekhenge’ poem by Faiz, Hoskote says we have to treat the poem as a poem and not as a bunch of slogans and maintain the musicality of the chant and hymns. “At the beginning of this decade, there was an enormous sense of confidence, a feeling of assertion and achievement. We are now going back. This whole outburst of creativity is a response to this regression — human instincts refuse to be enslaved,” he added.

When the going gets tough

Academician Ruth Padel, an award-winning British poet, believes that poetry rises when things get tough. “A poet is often asked to recall a poem on a mother’s death, a funeral or a wedding. So poetry is very much connected to the feelings within the heart,” says Ruth who is Professor of Poetry at King’s College London.

She draws parallels between the oppression in Soviet Union and the present political environment in India. “It doesn’t surprise me that kids are taking to the street and reciting old poetry. They are not old poems; they are for eternity. Kabir and Rumi have been popular but never more than now — their poetry teaches us how to live in times of darkness. In the Soviet Union also, poets became important; that’s why dictators in Russia conducted a crackdown on poetry. Poets were put in prison and tortured, but they continued to write on the walls of the prison.”

Speaking about the relevance of time and place in the poet’s works, poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said in one of the sessions, “I have written all my poems in the city called Allahabad, but after they (BJP government) changed it to Prayagraj, I stopped writing poetry.”

Annie Zaidi, a noted writer, says, ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna’ is an all-time favourite for this very reason. So is the new Varun Grover poem, ‘Kagaz nahin dikhayenge’. “I personally also see certain film songs as great protest poetry. There was Sahir’s ‘jinhe naaz hai Hind pe vo kahaan hain?’ And ‘vo subah kabhi to aayegi.’ Recently, there’s Hussain Haidry’s ‘Bahut hua sammaan’, which captures the spirit of the time and I often listen to it on loop.”

She believes poetry is malleable. “It is to be ushered into the service of a cause when the time is right. There was a little booklet published by ‘Open Space’ a few years ago, called ‘All Poetry is Protest’. Many of those poems were not actually written in order to align with protests or movements, but they were words against unfairness or violence, and therefore, the writing of them itself was a sort of protest.”

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox