It was five minutes to seven Monday evening when a group of people were arguing with the bouncer in a bid to enter India Habitat Centre’s Stein Auditorium. Showing a printout of the invite, a man was agitated; he had come all the way from Gurgaon just to attend the discussion. But it was a packed house, the auditorium was full, so was the balcony, and people struggled to find a place to sit even in the basement, where the event was being live-streamed. All had gathered for the launch of Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms: New & Selected Translations (Rs 499; Bloomsbury), a bilingual anthology of 50 poems that have been “selected, introduced, edited and co-translated” by poet Sudeep Sen, with contributions from Husain Mir Ali, Baidar Bakht, Sumantra Ghosal and Pritish Nandy.
The selected poems in Urdu are translated in English and written in the Devanagari script. “It took me two years to complete this book. I completely immersed myself not only in Kaifi Azmi’s poetry, but also in the history of Progressive Writer’s Movement, and that changed me as a person,” said Sen. He added that even the millennials can experience his poetry through the English translations.
Soon, actor Shabana Azmi, the noted poet’s daughter, took to the stage to narrate a story. “We all know that on January 14 this year, we celebrated Kaifi sahab’s birth centenary; actually no one knows the exact date when he was born. Whenever we asked our grandmother when exactly abba was born, she used to say, ‘jaun saal ta’oon aaut raha oo saal akhtarwa paida hot rahe’ (the year the plague had come, that was when Akhtar was born; his real name was Sayyid Akhtar Hussein Rizvi). Now which year was jaun saal, we didn’t know,” she laughed.
“We’re certain it was 1919, but then one day, his friend and documentary filmmaker S Sukhdev also wondered how no one knew when his birthday was. He then decided to celebrate it on January 14,” she added.
“Through these series of events this year, we just don’t want to celebrate Kaifi. But there is an atmosphere today where I believe we should remember those who used art as an instrument for social change,” she said. Shabana shared that Kaifi wasn’t a man of the world; he did not care about the worldly possessions. “The only two things he cared about — his Communist Party card and his Mont Blanc pens,” she said.
The panel, moderated by Professor Anisur Rahman, which also included Sumantra Ghosal, director of Kaifinama, immersed themselves in the poetry and recited verses from iconic poems such as Aurat, Ek Lamha, Ek Bosa and Makaan. “My parents used to share a cup of tea every morning. My brother says Ek Lamha was our father’s request to our mother, who was very talkative, ki aaj tum kuch na kaho,” Shabana remarked, “What I liked about Kaifi’s poetry was that in these seemingly approachable lines, there was always that twist; he was always an optimist who always used to say that in whatsoever circumstances, an artist should never lose the hope.”
Rahman pointed that the book can serve as a comprehensive Kaifi reader. “Through this book, you can immerse yourself in his world. He was not only a poet of love, but also of larger human predicament. He viewed even love as a struggle. You’ll find Lenin, Charu Majumdar, Gandhi and Nehru in his poems; the common worker found a place in his nazms. You’ll travel to places such as Tashkent, Beirut, Karachi, Bangladesh, Telangana, Somnath and Ayodhya through his poems. He was inspired by all. He was born in colonial India, lived in a free India and wished to die in a socialist India,” he said. The evening ended with the screening of Kaifinama, a documentary that chronicles the life and journey of the poet and has intimate interviews with Kaifi from 20 years ago.