An eternal optimist: Shabana Azmi on her father

Sudeep Sen | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Spirit of the times: Shabana Azmi at a memorial service for her father   -  PTI

As celebrations across the world mark the birth centenary of Kaifi Azmi (1919-2002), the poet’s daughter, Shabana Azmi, recalls his enduring legacy

Celebrated poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi’s birth centennial is being celebrated this year. Edited excerpts from an interview with the poet’s daughter, the actor Shabana Azmi.

Kaifi Sa’ab’s centenary year is being celebrated across the country. Do tell us what some of the plans are.

The scale of the celebrations has taken even me by surprise! It seems to have developed a momentum of its own — there are tributes being paid to Kaifi in India, Europe, UK and the US. They started with a musical evening, Raag Shayari, conceived by Javed Akhtar, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan.

Shankar Mahadevan composed 13 original compositions, which he sang live with Zakir Hussain interpreting Kaifi’s verse on the tabla in Mumbai. Javed recited the original poems in Urdu and I recited the English translations. The response was overwhelming.

There was also an International Pen Festival held in Mumbai where 100 specially crafted gold-nibbed pens were released in Kaifi’s name.

Kaifinama, a documentary on the life and works of Kaifi, directed by Sumantra Ghosal, has already been screened at the prestigious BAFTA in London and the Bradford Literature Festival. It has also been selected for film festivals in Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle and Montreal.

Kaifiyat, a selection of nazms on women and love, translated by Rakshanda Jalil in English, has been released. And most recently, Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury), edited and co-translated by Sudeep Sen, has received much appreciation.

Later in the year, a volume comprising a selection of Kaifi and Jannisar Akhtar’s poems translated in English will be published by Westland Amazon.

But to me, the most significant tribute is by my brother, Baba Azmi, who has made his first feature film, Mee Raqsam(I Will Dance), starring 15-year-old Aditi, who is the daughter of Kaifi’s care-giver Gopal. This would have made Kaifi really happy.

Can you recall, as a child, listening to your father recite his poetry?

As children, my brother Baba and I would be taken to mushairas when my mother Shaukat Kaifi was touring with Prithvi Theatres, because we couldn’t afford a maid. I remember going to sleep on stage behind the huge gao takiyas (bolsters) and waking up to thunderous applause — inevitably it was the reaction to Kaifi’s recitation. It was something we learned to take for granted.

What was life like in the Bombay commune?

Red Flag Hall in Khetwadi had eight families living together who shared one toilet and one bathroom! We had a room, which was 180 sq ft, with a strip of a balcony that my mother had converted into a kitchen. All the money Kaifi earned would go to the Communist Party of India and he would only get a stipend of ₹40 a month. Mummy became a radio announcer with Vividh Bharati and then started acting in IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and Prithvi Theatre.

We never had money but it was never a problem. The spirit of comradeship, the commitment to gender equality, social justice and a celebration of pluralism and India’s composite culture provided the glue that kept us joyous and closely bonded.

Can you tell us about the moments with your father that you cherish?

Me and mine: Shabana and Kaifi Azmi. - Gautam Patole


I once asked him, don’t you feel frustrated when change doesn’t occur at the pace you want it to? He answered with equanimity, “Bete, when you are working for change, you should build into that expectation the possibility that it may not happen within your lifetime. But if you keep on working with dedication and sincerity, then it is bound to occur, even if it does after you are gone!” This is my mantra in the work I do.

Which of his works is among your favourites?

Aurat is an iconic poem which is relevant 70 years later and informs me in the work I do with women. Makaan, which talks about the irony of the construction worker whose sweat and blood is used to construct a magnificent building only to be turned away by a chowkidar when the building is ready, was the starting point of my work with slum-dwellers, and Behroopni is a strong poem against communalism.

Kaifi Sa’ab was a political being. Did he ever despair of changing political trends?

He was an eternal optimist. Even in his poetry, the personal becomes the universal and he never succumbs to despair. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Shia-Sunni riots in Lucknow, and the Gujarat carnage of 2002 caused him deep anguish. His poem Doosra Banwas, written after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, is typical Kaifi. He says that the demolition caused Ram such pain that without washing his feet in the Sarayu, Ram went back to the jungle saying:

Rajdhani ki hawa aayi nahi raas mujhe

Chhe December ko mila doosra banwas mujhe

[Could not take any pleasure in my homecoming/ For I was banished again on December 6]

In Kaifi’s poetry and in his work as a social activist, every setback only strengthened his resolve to fight back with renewed vigour and strength.

Published on July 05, 2019
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