How the magic of Dushyant Kumar’s poetry inspired this Bollywood lyricist

In his lifetime, the poet Dushyant Kumar brought the Hindi ghazal to the fore. Years after his death, his verse inspires a Bollywood lyricist to compose a song about the magic of first love.

Written by Varun Grover | New Delhi | Published: July 19, 2015 1:00 am
A still from Masaan A still from Masaan

I was in Class 10th in Lucknow then — the year you are treated as the underdog inside the boxing ring — when I first quoted Dushyant Kumar in a Hindi essay in the exam paper. The topic was “Mere Sapno ka Bharat” and I ended it with a hopeful

Kaun kehta hai ki aasmaan mein suraakh ho nahin sakta,
ek pathhar toh tabiyat se uchhaalo yaaron.

Who says the sky is impenetrable,
Try throwing a stone at it with conviction.

Like almost anyone who went to school in UP/Bihar/Rajasthan in the 1980s and ’90s, I must have also discovered Kumar in debate competitions. Born in Bijnore, UP, in 1933, Kumar studied in Allahabad University. But most of his literary life was spent in Bhopal, where he was employed by All India Radio as a scriptwrite.

While he wrote novels, poetry and short stories to great acclaim in the early years, Kumar is most remembered for bringing the Hindi ghazal to the fore with his celebrated collection Saaye Mein Dhoop.

A stamp that was released in 2009 to commemorate Dushyant Kumar A stamp that was released in 2009 to commemorate Dushyant Kumar

In school, it was a tradition to start or end the debates with a taali-maar line of Hindi or Urdu poetry, and Kumar seemed to have a monopoly there. A defeatist argument would end with:

Kahaan toh tayy tha chiragaan har ek ghar ke liye,
kahaan charaag mayassar nahin shahar ke liye.

They had promised a lamp each for every household,
While we can’t find even one for the entire city.

And an aggressive, revolutionary topic would conclude by proclaiming:

Ho gayi hai peer parvat si, pighalni chaahiye,
iss Himalaya se koi Ganga niklani chaahiye.

The pain has mounted beyond bearing, must melt now,
The Himalayas should part, and Ganga must flow now.

I discovered Kumar again, in college at Banaras Hindu University, when I stumbled upon his subtle jab at Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial ways:

Mat kaho aakaash mein kohra ghana hai, yeh kisi ki vyaktigat aalochana hai.”

At the time, no one else was writing political ghazals, that too, in the language of the masses. It was then that I first picked up his most famous collection of poems Saaye Mein Dhoop from the railway station bookstall.

It’s this quality, that brought him unparalleled reach, and leads Nida Fazli to compare Kumar to Kabir and Sant Tukaram. In the mid-1970s, as the disillusionment with the establishment set in, Kumar’s ghazals, much like Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man, document an artiste’s protest.

In the following years of unlimited discoveries and explorations, I lost touch with the poet but found him again at a friend’s wedding in Lucknow, where, during the family gathering, everybody began reading their favourite poetry. My friend’s father read out Kumar’s ghazal “Main jise oadhta-bichhata hoon” which has the sher “Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai”.

Since then, this ghazal, and especially this particular couplet, has stayed with me. The simile, of a girl crossing like a train and her lover shivering like a bridge is so unique that it took my breath away. On the face of it, it’s a very unromantic metaphor — the mechanical train and an iron bridge. But on second thought, it’s way lovelier than the usual flower-and-bee or chanda-chakor (chakor is a hen-like bird that keeps looking at the moon all night) metaphors used frequently in Hindi poetry. The routine-bound but momentary pact, and the physical (as well as following the laws of physics) relationship between a train and the bridge are sensual, delicate, and rooted in the imagery of the India we grew up in.

When director Neeraj Ghaywan and I began brainstorming about what kind of music we would want for Masaan, we headed straight for Hindi literary poetry. The character of Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) in the film is a lover of poetry and well-versed with the works of all the greats — Mirza Ghalib, Bashir Badr, Nida Fazli, and Akbar Allahabadi, among others. We first started with a poem by the great contemporary Hindi writer Uday Prakash but it was in mukt chhand (free verse) and hence, nearly impossible to be composed as a song. After reading the works of Bashir Badr, Faiz, and Fazli saab, these lines from Kumar suddenly came back to me and in that instant, I knew we had our song. Or at least the mukhda of it.

The decision (risk!) to take these lines as the foundation of the song and write new lines for the rest was mine. The challenge was to retain the simplicity, earthiness, and the quality of similes as high as the original. Hence, kaath ke taaley, chaabiyaan, paani ka bulbula etc made their way into the song.

I can only hope that I have not defaced or undermined a great work by a legendary poet in the process. And if, by this attempt, a few more people discover the Prince of Hindi Ghazal, team Masaan will consider that a bonus.

Kumar died much before his time, at age 42 in 1975. I end this piece with one more Kumar couplet that seems to fit a lot of mainstream film music today:

Kaise manzar saamne aane lagey hain,
Gaate gaate log chillaane lage hain.

Strange scenes we are witnessing,
People drift into screaming while singing.
The author is a screenwriter and lyricist

The story appeared in print with the headline You Love Me, Take the Train

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