Farewell Rahat Indori (1950 - 2020)

He was the poet of the people’s agony, writes Raza Naeem

Farewell Rahat Indori (1950 - 2020)
“Yaqeen kese karoon main mar chuka hoon
Magar surkhi yahi akhbar ki hai”

(How should I believe that I am no more living?
But this is the headline from the newspaper)

I had just handed in a translation of the Pakistani people’s poet Habib Jalib’s poem on Lebanon to The Wire on the evening of the 11th of August earlier this month when social media was rocked by the news that Rahat Indori had passed away in his beloved Indore at the relatively young age of 70, just a day after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and suffering two heart attacks subsequently. How apt, I thought to myself, since the agony and pain of ordinary people which Jalib sought to portray in his nazms was the same which Indori did in his ghazals over more than fifty years of service to Urdu poetry.

Indori’s passing away will be especially hard for Indians given the loss of his eminent contemporaries Nida Fazli back in 2016 and Anwar Jalalpuri in 2018 amidst the ongoing communalization of national politics. After the passing away of the nonagenarian Gulzar Dehlavi back in June this year, Indori was one of the last of a generation of Urdu poets boasting of the likes of Gulzar Deenvi (who turned 86 on August 18), Bashir Badr, Waseem Barelvi, Javed Akhtar and Munawwar Rana. However, unlike the critical and mainstream acclaim and recognition which has crowned Gulzar, Badr, Barelvi and Akhtar, Indori and Rana were largely unrecognized and under-appreciated despite their long service to Urdu and literature.

Rahat Indori was born on the 1st of January, 1950 in Indore. He studied initially at home, then proceeded to a higher education. He obtained an MA in Urdu, and then got a PhD from Barkatullah University in Bhopal, making teaching his profession and devoting himself to teaching in college. He was also a painter of no mean accomplishment. He had started reciting verses in 1965, going on to publish five collections of poetry: Dhoop (Sunlight, 1979), Rut (Season, 1983), Mere Baad (After Me, 1990), Panchavan Darvesh (The Fifth Darvesh, 1992) and Kun fa Yakun (Be, And It Is, 2002). Later in life, in a reverse from the general trend, he became a film lyricist after conquering the world of the Urdu mushaira.

Rahat Indori's verses became iconic in recent protests against the communal policies of the BJP

Now, if one looks at the verses of Firaq, Faiz, Sardar, Makhdoom, Jan Nisar and Sahir, the common element in their poetry was the echo of revolution, but the manner of expression is very agreeable and the tone is very delicate. The audience at the mushairas used to hear them with great respect and enjoy the literariness of their verses. Sahir Ludhianvi would recite his long poem Parchhaiyan (Silhouettes) for hours at mushairas without jerking hands or feet, or a preamble or verbosity; and the audience would quietly be entertained by the poem. Then there was the rhythm of Jigar, Majrooh and the ‘tone and rhythm’ of the so-called modulators of today. The fact is that at that time (around 60 years ago), the Urdu society was alive. People used to read language and literature, and the audience had a deep consciousness of it. Today Urdu society has ended. The mushairas are attended in great numbers by entertainment-loving individuals who would be content with superficial verses. The audience today prefers poetry which is straightforward in tone, expressive of emotional subjects, and is rhetorical and simple. The number of those who would give their lives for literature and literary ideas is diminishing daily. In this situation, the performance of the poet on the stage, rather than the poetry, has assumed importance. The better a poet performs, the more successful they will be. In the last 70 years, it is said that there was no better poet than Kaifi Azmi who recited in taht-ul-lafz (rhythmic speech). But Kaifi’s rhythmic recital did not come under the rubric of performance. He had his own special style which was also important for the transmission of his revolutionary poems to the audience. In our age, the reading of Rahat Indori in rhythmic speech was quite apart from everyone else, and unique.

Indori was an extremely successful and popular poet of contemporary mushairas. Before his rhythm, the lamps of the best and brightest became dim. And why would they not? Who could understand the psychology of mushairas better than him? For he had done a PhD on the subject of mushaira.

Later in life, in a reverse from the general trend, he became a film lyricist after conquering the world of the Urdu mushaira

I have not studied Indori’s poetry with reference to mushairas. His poetry spoke for the big and small problems of life; the political and social conditions of the present age; and the agony and pain of a common person. There was no untying of knots of some deep philosophy or any complex mystery in his poetry, but it was no trivial matter that we listened to the heartbeats of life within it. This poetry showed the true pictures of the night and day of the wider world spread around us. The use of simple and familiar words at the creative level and a clear manner of expression had granted such a taste to his poetry, which allowed neither the people nor the elite to exit its circle of influence. His tone was sharp. There was transparency, intrepidness and outspokenness in his poetic temperament, which, in my opinion, is the quality of a true artist. One aspect that I feel compelled to point towards is that one found an abundance of protest with him and the rhythm of protest was so crude, clear and narrative that sometimes he felt like entering the bounds of journalism at the level of ideas.

One finds many verses of Indori from which it is impossible to cross casually. They have ideas, consciousness, art and that design and skillfulness which make a verse into a masterpiece.

I have no fear in saying that these verses are those which are also a reference for his literary identity; besides the commercial action of ‘mushaira games’. The future, too, will search Indori with the same reference.

Rahat Indori was a cruel poet of the present time. He had a distinctive position as an emerging ghazal poet after the partition of India in 1947. Indeed, as one of “midnight’s children,” this verse of his spoke for the circumstances and feelings of those who migrated to Pakistan, and created quite a stir when he recited it decades later in Karachi:

“Ab ke jo faisla hoga voh yaheen par hoga

Hum se ab doosri hijrat nahi hone vali”

(This very place will now be the one for the final decision

 We will be unable to make another migration)

Indori was not a poet of the Progressive Writers Movement, but he was progressive. He was not a modern poet, too, but he was modern as far as themes and ideas were concerned. He was that important poet of our age whose poetry did not need to be associated with any movement. Instead, many movements decorated their flags by using his verse as slogans. Most recently, when nationwide protests against the communal Citizenship Amendment Act galvanized the whole of India late last year, these verses from his ghazal Agar khilaaf hen hone do (If They Are Against, Let Them Be) became viral:

“Jo aaj sahib-e-masnad hain, kal naheen honge

Kirayedaar hain, zaati makan thodi hai

Sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil yahaan ki mitti men

Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai”

(They will not remain, those who today sit on the throne

They are renters, they do not own this home

The blood of everyone mixes with the soil here

Hindustan is not anyone’s personal property, how can they dare!)

Indori’s poetry had two foundations: one was his feeling and the other was the individualistic colour of ideas. He was the poet of collective pain, exploitation, oppression, deceit, political looting and meanness, in short, the entire nakedness of the present time became a topic with him. His ghazal changed its mood and freed itself of love and romance.

“Bethe hue hen qeemti sofon pe bhediye

Jangal ke log shahr men abad ho gaye”

(Wolves sit on costly sofas

The people of the jungle come to populate the cities)

With the magic of merely four words, namely sofas, wolf, jungle and city, Indori successfully indicated the class struggle, human exploitation and the defects of capitalism. Had this verse reached us from the pen of Sardar Jafri or Kaifi Azmi, we would have made ourselves deaf beating the drums of Progressivism and would have announced the rebirth of the 80-year old Progressive Writers Movement.

In the same manner,

“Riwayaton ka tahaffuz bhi inke zimme hai

Jo masjidon main safari pehen ke aate hain”

(The protection of traditions too is their responsibility

Who come to the mosques dressed in a safari)

And again:

“Voh paanch vaqt ka namazi nazar aata hai namazon main

Magar suna hai ke shab ko jua chalata hai”

(He appears to be very devout in his prayer

But I hear that in the evening he becomes a gambler)

But then Indori also wrote:

“Yahi purane khandar hain hamari tehzeeben

Yaheen pe boorhe kabootar hain aur yaheen shahbaz”

(Our cultures are these same old ruins

Here too are the aged pigeons and the falcons)

Had just this single couplet of Indori become famous, even then his place in the history of our poetry would have been preserved. It could only have been written by a poet who was aware of the historical psychology of the rise and fall of nations; who knew full well that decline never comes from without but is created from within individuals and nations. He did not lament over the past but had the foresight to understand the past.

Yet it is also a sad truth of our times that while Indori practically reigned over the mushaira, critics and editors of literary magazines studiously ignored him because he was neither beholden to an ideological camp nor any dominant literary lobby. Some literary mandarins demeaned his popular appeal by labelling him as a “poet of moments and mushairas” rather than a highbrow poet of high literary culture. And poets much lesser than Indori were honoured and appreciated with awards and recognition at the state level; indeed it is ironic that among the first to condole Indori’s passing away were his contemporaries Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, two of the most decorated and honoured Urdu poets in India today. Rahat Indori’s response to his critics’ charge would have been that he had already received his reward by being present in the public imagination.

A friend wondered aloud on Facebook whether Rahat Indori was the last of the great dissenting poets, and seemed to think that the line which had begun with Josh through Faiz to Jalib had now stopped. Indori had answered this question about two decades ago in an interview with Haseeb Soz in his luminously idealistic manner: “Such fresh voices too arrive sometimes from mushairas which sharpen the light of hope and one guesses that this series which has been carrying on for the last 150-200 years will not end; in fact new people will keep mingling in this caravan with new fragrance and new light.”

As I conclude these lines on the day of the Krishna Janmashtami, perhaps the best tribute to this crusader for communal harmony, shared living and people’s poetry might be to pay heed to his words:

“Jin charaghon se taasub ka dhuaan uthta hai

In charaghon ko bujha do toa ujale honge”

(The lamps from which rises the smoke of prejudice

Extinguish them to create light and justice) 

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com All translations from the Urdu are by the writer

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: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979