Review: Hazaar Rang Shaairi, selected, edited and translated by Anisur Rahman
The anthology, which presents 140 nazms by 70 poets dating from the 16th century to the present, puts a premium on the creative transposition of the text and its emotional impact
A genre deeply rooted in our collective cultural consciousness, the ghazal is no longer confined to Urdu. It is now being composed in several Indian languages as people cherish the evocative portrayals of unrequited love that the ghazal presents in a familiar idiom. Within Urdu poetry itself, the ghazal’s overwhelming presence has pushed aside other equally compelling genres. Still, the ghazal, which focuses on rejoicing in pain and exploring hidden layers of desire, can hardly vie with the nazm when it comes to reflecting the vicissitudes of the human predicament.
The blotted-out world of the nazm, which portrays the horrors of affliction and the uncertainty of individual and collective life, is made visible in Hazaar Rang Shaairi; The Wonderful World of the Urdu Nazm. The anthology comprises eloquent renderings into English of 140 nazms by 70 poets dating from the 16th century to the present. Anisur Rahman’s engaging selection and translation presents beguiling portrayals of love, both existential and universal, without excessive rhetorical flourishes, and places Urdu’s creative heritage within the Indian cultural matrix. Rehman, whose earlier work includes a selection of ghazals, now seeks to provide a glimpse of a profound poetic expression that presents reality and non-reality with an innate musicality. More than being a collection of nazms proficiently translated into English, this volume, which adheres to the principles of literary historiography, acquaints readers with the polymorphic poetic voices of Urdu poetry. His invigorating introduction makes a distinction between the ghazal and the nazm, and divides the voluminous corpus of the latter into six broad categories. This new categorization which subverts insipid thematic divisions, includes poems on religious representations, secular narratives, and cultural configurations. The metrical constructions of various forms of poetry are also discussed with a sense of critical acuity.
For Rahman, Urdu poetic forms such as geet, qavvali, sehra, hajav, vaasokht, and rekhti are fully alive to the cultural aspirations of people. However, he acknowledges that sehra, hajav, and rekhti do not make much sense to non-Urdu speakers. The sehra is a ceremonial wedding song that heaps praise on the groom and his family, with occasional reference to the bridegroom and her family. Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), Zauq (1790-1854), and Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862) too wrote ceremonial compositions in this form. The hajav resembles satire that professes utter disdain for a person, institution, or condition and denotes the poet’s rage against a particular. The poetry of pretence makes an appearance in the vaasokht. It describes a lover’s passion for his beloved through his displeasure at her infidelity, which finally leads him to seek refuge in an imaginary love. The vaasokth is dialogic, dramatic and idiomatic in its essential make-up. The recent intense debate on female sexuality has generated a new interest in a worn-out form of Urdu poetry – rekhti, in which female sentiments and erotic fantasies are expressed through the male voice. Anisur Rahman asserts that rekhti uses language and gesture as subterfuge. And then there is the shahr aashoab, a long narrative poem that delineates the miseries of age, place or people.
The first section of the book covers neoclassical poets while the second carries poems from eight prominent poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. Included here are exquisite translations of Faiz, NM Rashid, Meeraji, Akhtarul Imaan, Sahir, Kaifi, Makhdoom, Majaz, Muneer Niyazi, Shaheryar, Balraj Komal, Nida Fazli, Saaqi Farooqui, and the like. The last section spells out the contours of feminist poetics through the work of 14 poets.
For many, poetry is untranslatable as different languages represent different cultural and linguistic sensibilities. However, Rahman is what Ezra Pound terms “an interpretive translator” and he steers clear of translating verbatim, instead putting a premium on the creative transposition of the text and its emotional impact. So Muneer Niyazi’s poem, “Ab main use yaad bana dena chaahta hoon”, which negates the beloved’s physical presence to refer to the hypnotic bliss that memory creates, is deftly rendered as:
I look intently into her eyes/ but understand nothing/ I listen carefully to her words/ But understand nothing.If she meets ever, anywhere,/ I will not speak to her, /not even look at her.I’ll try to engage my heart elsewhere/ I want to make her memory now.
In sum, this anthology offers the Anglophone reader a kaleidoscopic view of the Urdu nazm and establishes it as a pre-eminent genre of poetry.
Shafey Kidwai is a bilingual critic and translator and teaches mass communication at Aligarh Muslim university
The views expressed are personal