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One hundred years of stillness

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One hundred years of stillness

As a book on Kaifi Azmi's poetry hits the market, Shabana Azmi remembers the man who was a friend, guru and comrade.

Late into dusk, she would wake up to the applause. That meant abba must be on the mike. As a child, her father would take her to the mushaira that went on well into the night.

As a child, she would sometimes fall asleep. But it wasn't long before she woke up to the brilliance of a poet who also happened to be her father.

In the centenary year of Kaifi Azmi, one of the country's finest poets, who at the age of 11 wrote his first poem and was instrumental in bringing Urdu literature to the Indian film industry, his daughter Shabana Azmi is set to speak on the launch of the book Kaifi Azmi Poems|Nazms & Selected Translations.

We are in the green room of Stein Auditorium at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and her tea is getting cold. But she decides to recite some lines from one of his poems- to no one in particular.

The actor/activist remembers how Kaifi, recipient of the Padma Shri honour, would make it a point to recite his poems to her before anyone else. That is something that has stayed with her.

"And he would have no apprehension in changing a word if I asked him to. This is despite knowing that I wasn't acquainted with the intricacies of the Urdu language back then. But perhaps that was the precise reason why he did that, in order to ascertain absolute accessibility of his work."

Remembering that it was hard for her to conceive that a man, always dressed in his kurta pajama and sitting on his table, was 'working', Shabana smiles, "Everybody's father would get dressed and leave for work. Mine was always at home. I used to speak to my friends about that. It was only in school, when I started reading Keats and Tennyson, and Kaifi's name started appearing in the papers that I realised..."

All India President of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and member of the Progressive Writers Association, Kaifi, who penned some of the most delicate and heartbreaking romantic couplets and revolutionary verse, is remembered by both critics and readers as a 'complete poet'.

"Yes, he carried both sides effortlessly. I feel it would be unfair to classify him, just like it won't be apt to talk about Faiz like that."

But doesn't she talk mostly about his 'activist' side? "Maybe that's because I was always more aware of that aspect of him. But then mulk can be a mehbooba, no?" she smiles. For her, the strongest memory of Kaifi continues to be that of a person whom she could completely trust. Not just as a father, but a guru, friend, and comrade.

"Several years back, when I sat on a hunger strike for the rights of slum dwellers in Mumbai, my health started deteriorating on the fourth day. My mother was very concerned and wrote to him. He addressed a telegram back to me - 'Good luck, comrade.'

Talking about Kaifi's contribution to making Urdu popular in modern times, Shabana laments that it is tragic that language is being associated with religion and not region.

"It is sad that the division of the country had such a negative ramification on the language."

Kaifi understood the importance of art as a means of bringing about social change. His daughter, who has always stood for communal harmony and breaking down class barriers adds, "In times like these, when everything seems to have been swallowed up by market forces, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the importance of dreaming, do our bit to ensure a world that sees beyond materialism."

Poet Sudeep Sen, who has translated several poems in the book, smiles that his science background comes in handy while approaching the process of translation.

"I have a specific way wherein I read the poems aloud, mark lines with high and low notes. In the end, the sheet is more of a map. I don't believe in forcing rhythm and ensure that the translation does not read academic. I must first 'feel',and then translate," says the poet who has also translated several Turkish and Hebrew poems, despite not knowing those languages.

The interaction is cut short abruptly. A lot of questions remain unasked. Some things hang in the air. Like they should.