Under my byline

Poems for the people

Posted in Art, Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 2 January 2010

OVERLEAF 62

I brought Duniya Sabki to the office to write this column, and the moment I took it out of the bag it went travelling.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked the first colleague, eyes wide, “Safdar Hashmi’s poems?” Naturally she wanted to hold the book, last encountered when she was a schoolgirl, and rattled off a line or two from memory. (I had to refuse to lend it to her.)

Then the next colleague, this one with a little girl of her own, claimed it and greedily turned its pages. (I agreed to buy her a copy.)

Then a cabin-dwelling colleague sauntered by, and he did not relinquish the book for a heart-stopping quarter hour. (I shadowed him like a presidential aide.)

After that I hid the book under some papers; but when I pulled it out again, yet another colleague grabbed it and sat chuckling over some alleged double entendres in the poem on “Trees”. (Oh foe!)

And so on. Now that I have it back again (for the moment), I find I can scarcely get past the first five pages. Those are the pages before the first poem, the eponymous “Duniya Sabki” in which Birbal disguises himself as a fakir to bring Akbar down a notch or two (the “fakir” makes Akbar realise that, ultimately, the king doesn’t own even the palace he lives in). Around the poem, and in the rest of the book, the illustrations are by Bindia Thapar — amusing and witty, but not as good as those on the first few pages, which are by Safdar Hashmi.

On the first page is a big, vivacious figure of a dancer in a patterned skirt, pigtails, bangles and anklets, and bare feet. Across the next two pages stretches the title, Duniya Sabki: Safdar Hashmi Ki Kavitayen. Below are drawn a line of cars (with commuters’ hands waving angrily out of the windows), and a camel, all apparently stuck behind a giant tortoise. In front of the tortoise walks a little figure carrying a Communist hammer-and-sickle flag.

How delightful! Funny, serious and self-deprecating all at once. It’s refreshing, in 2010, to see a forward-thinker identify with a slow-moving animal. Hashmi was a devoted left-winger, and worked for the CPI-M, though he never joined it. Now he is well-known chiefly for the ugly manner of his death — on January 2, 1989, aged just 34, after a beating delivered by Congress-affiliated goons — but in his lifetime he was recognised as one of the most creative people in Indian theatre. His Jana Natya Manch performed street plays, often on “class” topics like the travails of labour, and it was in the course of one such play, in support of the Communist candidate in a Ghaziabad council election, that he received the beating that killed him.

Pages four and five have nothing but Hashmi’s drawings. They are vivid, and show ordinary people, children too, doing ordinary things. They are not beautiful drawings, Hashmi being no great draughtsman, but they are extraordinarily alive. What’s more, these characters, and the kind-looking couple on the cover, speak more eloquently of the equality of all humans than just about any other secular-talk we Indians are subjected to. This is no representative assembly of stereotypes (fat boy, tomboy girl, Muslim, Sikh, south Indian…). There are no types, just actions.

The poems, all of them in Hindi, are likewise — nothing spectacular as art, a little rough-and-ready, but altogether down-to-earth, funny, friendly and satisfying, not least in the way every line begs to be read aloud, even acted out. Most are set in seasons and places familiar to north Indian children. There’s rarely a false note.

No wonder Hashmi was such an electric writer for street theatre. No wonder grown-up kids, and their parents, remember this little book with such pleasure.

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3 Responses

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  1. jini said, on 4 January 2010 at 10:45 am

    You are no less an electric writer. I keep looking forward to your write-ups. Exceedingly well-written. To borrow a line from your own copy ‘each line begs to be read aloud’.

  2. Rrishi said, on 5 January 2010 at 1:14 am

    That’s high praise. Thank you. Do send me a link to your own blog or site, if you have one.

  3. sourav894 said, on 22 February 2010 at 2:01 am

    It’s pleasing to know that there are thinkers in my country keeping the great culture alive. Even I’m a published Hindi poet. To catch a glimpse of my work, visit- http://souravroy.com/poems/

    Keep Walking…


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