Firaq Gorakhpuri as Connoisseur of Beauty

Raza Naeem offers an insight into the literary sensibilities, worldview and teaching style of the great poet

Firaq Gorakhpuri as Connoisseur of Beauty
The 28th of August last month marked the 123rd birthday of the prominent writer, critic, poet and polymath Raghupati Sahay Firaaq Gorakhpuri. As if being a peer of Muhammad Iqbal, Yagana Changezi, Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi, Munshi Premchand, Niaz Fatehpuri and Brij Narain Chakbast was not enough, Firaaq shares his birthday with Goethe, the great German national figure.

Firaaq was born almost 150 years after the birth of Goethe. Like the latter, he was a polymath. And incidentally he also passed away in the month of March, like Goethe.

However unlike Goethe, why is it that a luminary like Firaaq has not become a household name in the Indian Subcontinent? After all, many of Firaaq’s celebrated contemporaries like Iqbal and Premchand continue to be celebrated incessantly. The former is the national poet of Pakistan and the latter even had a Google Doodle dedicated to him three years ago on his 136th birthday. Even Premchand’s 138th birthday last year was the focus of renewed interest and attention. No such luck for Firaaq!

These days both teachers and students are often at daggers drawn much like factory owners and workers – but such was not the situation about eighty years ago. And Professor Raghupati Sahay was one of those unique teachers who win the hearts of others with their competence, intelligence, wit and cheerful conversation. One felt as though they just wanted him to keep speaking and others should keep listening. Such was the magic of his sweet speech that students of other classes also used to participate in his lessons with great keenness.

Firaaq was one of the most prolific poets of his time. A professor of English at Allahabad University, he achieved the status of an organic intellectual: infusing his work with sensuality, and writing spiritedly in support of alternative sexualities in an atmosphere of heteronormativity. His 1936 article in defense of such alternative sexualities and their depiction in the ghazal remains a classic. He defiantly describes the depiction of such themes in poetry across time and cultures – in the works of Sappho and Socrates, Saadi and Hafiz, Shakespeare and Whitman.

Listen,” Firaaq told “the respected Critic” in his article.

“Are you aware of Socrates’ autobiography, and his relationship with Alcibiades? Are you aware of Caesar’s love affairs? Do you know what Walter Pater has written about Winckelmann in his book ‘The Renaissance’ or what Edward Carpenter has written in his books ‘Friendship’s Garland’, ‘The Intermediate Sex’, and ‘Civilization. Its Cause and Cure’? What about the life of this esteemed author?

Sir, are you aware of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and their motives? Do you know of Walt Whitman

and his poem ‘To a Boy’? Have you heard Sappho’s name?”

Firaaq’s well-known ghazal on forbidden and furtive love begins thus:

“Look in the mirror after our union, friend

How your beauty has acquired a virgin innocence”

Firaaq grew up in a literary household. He had inherited the love of poetry from his father. The feeling of love for the nation and its people was a gift of the strict environment and intellectual training. He had also gone to jail in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1918 but practical politics was not his field, nor did he ever dream of becoming a minister or ambassador. It was a small mercy otherwise Urdu literature would have been deprived of a great poet and critic of the arts. After his release from jail he took to teaching and learning and went on scattering priceless pearls of thought and art with his tongue and pen.

A fierce polemicist and a character who did not need any assistance in blowing his own trumpet, Firaaq wrote:

“Future generations will envy you, my dear peers

When you say unto them, I had seen Firaaq”

Firaaq was also a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association. A spirited anti-colonialist, he enjoyed the confidence of Nehru and other early Congress functionaries.

In the days when Firaaq started teaching, English literature was a compulsory subject at the B.A. level, therefore there was an abundance of students in the Department of English and they had to be divided into many sections. Sibte Hasan, an important Marxist thinker and activist of the Indian Subcontinent, and a student of Firaaq in his college days, reminiscing about his teacher, says that it was their good fortune to be in the section where Professor Amarnath Jha taught English prose and Firaaq taught poetry. The latter had just arrived from Sanatan Dharma College Kanpur but his knowledge and personality soon captivated the students.
His 1936 article in defense of such alternative sexualities and their depiction in the ghazal remains a classic. He defiantly describes the depiction of such themes in poetry across time and cultures

Sibte Hasan writes about the first day when Firaaq entered the class. His age was about 37 to 38, of middle stature, wheatish complexion, knotted body, bookish face, round eyes, a head of thick black hair, wearing a toe-length shervani and tight-fitting trousers – this was Firaaq.

Sibte Hasan had seen him recite ghazals a couple of times in mushairas. But he was not the type of poet who would dominate a mushaira. He did not recite with rhythm like Jigar Moradabadi, Safi Lakhnavi and Sail Dehlavi but literally – and that too in a very awkward manner by rolling his eyes and moving his hands. His ghazals, too, were not of a traditional colour but were an invitation to reflect and think. A very elegant aesthetic taste was required to enjoy them.

The selection of English poetry in the textbook in those days included poems of eminent poets from Shakespeare up to Thomas Hardy. When Firaaq stood up to teach, first he narrated the circumstances of Palgrave, then said that such an excellent selection of English poems had not been done before. Although he had a complaint that Palgrave had ignored a poet like John Donne. He said that much orientalism is reflected in the poetic sensibility of John Donne. It seems that some Indian lover is expressing love. For example, his verse that:

“I wonder, by my troth, what thou

And I did till we loved”

Or his saying: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love”

Then he recited many similar Urdu verses. When the class ended, many students made their way straight to the library in search of the volume by John Donne. Firaaq knew well the skill of creating literary taste in students.

Firaaq did not explain poems in the traditional manner but instead he would first recite the poem in his particular manner, then ask the students that if they wanted to ask the meaning of any line, they could. And then he would give a collective review on the qualities of the poem. He used to say that a poem is a very delicate thing. It cannot bear amputation in the manner of a surgeon. It is a created as a whole whose collective impression is destroyed by dividing it into pieces. Actually Firaaq’s motive was to raise the abilities of appreciation of poetry amongst the students rather than explaining its meaning and sense. While revealing the secrets and mysteries of a poem, he tried for the students to learn to distinguish between a good and bad verse.

One day he was teaching Shelley’s famous poem Ode to the West Wind. The poet has at one point in the poem addressed the autumn as the figure of destruction and preservation. Firaaq remarked as to whether it was possible for a force to kill and save at the same time. Then he paused a bit and said that in an island near Bombay are the caves of Elephanta. There is present a gigantic three-faced sculpture, one body but three faces. These faces represent Brahma, Shiv and Vishnu. The sculptor has tried to explain the reality of the manifestations of nature: that creation, preservation and destruction are three sides of the same reality and to see them separately from each other would be inaccurate. He then mentioned how a mango plant grows from a mango seed. The seed vanishes but a new plant is created from the force of growth of the former – in which mangoes will thrive and seeds will emerge. This action of creation and chaos is the law of nature which is applicable on both nature and humans. How well has Ghalib said that

“A manner of destruction is concealed in my construction

What appears to be lightening on harvest is the warm blood of a peasant”

His review of Shelley was still incomplete when the class time ended. The next day when Firaaq came to class, he recited his poem which reads:

“O autumnal wind, autumnal wind, autumnal wind be off!”

The best of it is that this poem was not only a free-verse translation of Shelley’s poem but had been written in the same metre.

One day Firaaq was teaching the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning. The poet has described old age and death. While teaching, he suddenly stopped; with his particular blandishment of putting a finger to his cheek, he thought something. Then he said that Mir Taqi Mir has rendered the same subject with great beauty in merely a line:

“Death is but a respite from fatigue

Meaning we will go further after some rest”

Firaaq did not remain in a state of give-and-take like ordinary teachers, neither in class nor without. He never tried to impress students – neither with his knowledge, nor his dressing-up and gait, or his tone and conduct. He would meet with great informality and friendliness, as if he was meeting someone of equal age and rank. This is the reason students were drawn towards him.

Firaaq’s life was entirely devoid of the ties of caste, the distinctions of colour and race and the rituals and restraints of religion and nation. He was a very freedom-loving, enlightened and tolerant man. His personality was a lovely mixture of our classical traditions and modern sensibilities. He had a complete grip over Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Sanskrit and English. He had a very deep observation of ancient Indian, Greek and Iranian civilizations and he would own the high values, allusions, metaphors and symbols in a most eloquent style in his writings.

Moreover, Firaaq was a great lover of beauty and could not bear any sort of ugliness. So he used to say:

“Ugliness I cannot tolerate, even in Mahatma Gandhi.”

But by “beauty” he did not imply the attraction of only the eye and cheek – but the beauty of human personality; the beauty of those values and thoughts which adorn the self. He thought slavery, oppression and injustice, the exploitation of one human by another, obscurantism, narrow-mindedness, ignorance and poverty are the denial of self. He detested them because according to him these things make the individual and social personalities of humans abhorrent, inferior and unpleasant, and mutilate the human spirit. This is the reason that he always welcomed those movements which endeavour to change life and make it beautiful.


“The sorrow of life the same, the cycle of universe the same

That which does not change life, is that really life?

Has everyone really lifted the burden of humanity-

That this calamity too came at the head of your lovers?”

Firaaq sang all his life, embracing the sorrows of humans deprived of the beauty of life, and carrying the cross of empathy on his shoulders. This consciousness of sorrow was indeed his art. So he says that

“My ghazals, are the mirror of my character, friends

Seldom does one find in the world ones civilized by sorrow like myself”

Moreover, he says:

“Just like this Firaaq spent his life

Some spent in sorrow of the beloved, some in sorrow of the present

The earth trembled, the sky shook

When the sorrow of the world was adopted by the sorrow of love”

Sibte Hasan writes of the occasions when Firaaq would visit Lucknow every second or third month to broadcast his speech from the radio. News of his arrival would result in a commotion resembling a sudden assault amongst the young Progressive writers of the city. Firaaq would keep sitting on a bed, leaning against the pillow and the words would burst forth.

Mirza Ghalib required a measure of red wine for sprinkling the flowers of his conversation, but Firaaq would be chirping away without partaking, as long as the audience were people of taste and the circle of conversation so vast as to take in the earth and sky. “Matters of life and death”, “matters of the truth and purity of love”, “matters of perception and awareness”, “matters of the glance of love”, “matters of the desire of flight”, “matters of a lover’s secrets” - in fact, there was no topic of knowledge, wisdom, art and skill in which his mind ever failed to create novel points. The constellation of conversation expanded from horizon to horizon. To converse was his favourite pastime and he knew well how to create one matter from another. But like Goethe he never found an Eckermann, nor some Boswell like Dr. Johnson who would write down his conversations. Alas that these intelligent conversations were lost to the the wind!

Once Firaaq arrived in Lucknow; the evening assembly was at the home of lawyer Mirza Jaffer Hussain. By coincidence, Josh was also present and being the star of the evening, was reciting his newly-composed rubaiyat (quatrains). Josh and Firaaq were great friends. Both used to address each other using the informal “tum”. In fact, in the ecstasy of intoxication, Josh used to lovingly call Firaaq “Abbe Farquva”.

When Josh had recited 10 to 12 quatrains, Firaaq could not contain himself. He said “Yaar, now stop this nonsense of four lines.”

Josh replied “Lala, if you say even four such lines, you will spit blood.”

Everyone began to laugh. The matter subsided. Nevertheless, on his way back, Firaaq was unusually very quiet. He would just move his fingers in the air a bit, as if thinking something.

The next day, the party assembled in the evening. When the round of wine began, Firaaq took out a piece of paper from his pocket and addressing Josh said, “Abbe O, ignorant Pathan of Malihabad, do listen carefully!”

And then he recited 10 to 12 quatrains which he had composed at some time during the day. Josh became stupefied upon hearing the quatrains and rose and began kissing Firaaq’s face.

Firaaq’s works appear in a number of anthologies, most published in the 1940s, the best known of which are Shola-e-Saaz (The Fire of Rhythm), published in 1945 and Shabnamistan (Land of Dew), published in 1947. His essays were compiled in a book titled Andaaze (Hunches).

Firaaq won the Jnanpith Award (India’s highest literary honour) in 1969, and remained the only Urdu poet who was a Jnanpith awardee until Ali Sardar Jafri won it in 1997. Newcomers may have first encountered Firaaq’s poetry through Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s rendition of “Bahut pehle se un qadmon ki aahat jaan lete hain” (“We recognize those footsteps from a long way off”), which they sang in the 1976 album Unforgettables.

The following is one of Firaaq’s ghazals, Sham-e-Gham (Sad Evening) that conjures a vivid sense of this remarkable poet’s style:

“On this sad evening let us talk of the beloved’s gaze

Let us talk of secret things for my passion is ablaze

The beauty of those tossed curls and the tale of this sad night

Till morning dawns, let us talk in such melancholic ways

In the silence of yearning, as hearts shatter, let us speak

How does it break, the instrument that such melodies plays?

From the bars of my prison, I feel a faint hint of light

Of my desire to spread my wings, let’s talk about that phase

The one who has transformed the nature of my love, Firaaq

Let’s talk of that Jesus-like lover who lights up my days”

According to Firaaq, real poetry is the boundless sincerity of “practice of feeling” and ecstasy which for him is the “first and final question of art”. He survived the fatal anguish of love thanks to this practice and sincerity. He acquainted Urdu poetry with a new musicality, new facets and new language. He presented a healthy and “healing” image of the sorrow of love and the sorrow of life. He granted a new ecstasy of empathy and good nature and a new manner of purification and refinement to sexual feelings; and provided a new consciousness of universal realities and the spirit to change them.

Firaaq Gorakhpuri is one of the founders of the modern Urdu ghazal. The mood and environment of his ghazals, their diction, their sensory experiments and the manner of expression of these experiments are all separate from others but totally in harmony with the present age of Indian society and the demands of the spirit of the contemporary times. His prose writings also present a similar situation.

Although the lamp of his prose writings could not burn before his poetic renown, it is impossible to deny the reality that he is also the inventor of modern Urdu criticism. The relish with which he used to talk so sweetly was also to be found in his prose. His criticisms themselves were literary works of art and masterpieces of creative criticism. It would be relevant to end this piece with another revolutionary verse from the connoisseur of beauty:

“Witness the pace of revolution, Firaaq

...How slow, and how swift” 

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979