The Music of Poetry

By Anjum Altaf

For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures they offer the listener.

I belong to a group that exchanges thoughts on Urdu literature, and one topic of discussion has been the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the difficulties of translating his work, and its place in the canon. A comment by one of the other members is worth quoting at length, not because I intend to write a direct response but because it brought some of these thoughts about music to mind:

I just wondered if we can’t use this thread to discuss in all seriousness the reasons why Faiz saheb has proved to be the most phenomenally popular Urdu poet of all times, especially in this age of mass-media and multi-media consumption of culture. Many of us would readily agree that there are at least three or four other Urdu poets who are ‘greater’ than Faiz, but who among us can deny that Faiz has attained the widest popularity of them all, especially with a politically sensitized radical fraction among us. But what are his politics if not ever sweetened and sugarcoated by that dreamy and sonorous vagueness that [some] seem to complain of?  ‘Yeh vo subah to nahin’ is fine and very radical — but what is ‘ki mil jayegi kahin na kahin’ if it is not evasive twaddle?  And what is ‘magar kya kije’ — is it volition, a conscious decision to reject and turn away, or just helplessness?

I have of course myself been lured and charmed by Faiz for long enough but more and more I have begun to feel that he is just a little too easy, and too slick. And worst of all, he is no innovator — just a compendium of all the traditional qualities of Urdu verse, most of them good and some not so.

Leaving aside that the verdict of “twaddle” is clearly subjective, the fact remains that Faiz is indeed one of the most popular Urdu poets of all times and we have not been able to explain that phenomenon, other than to say that we think he ought not to be, given that there are at least three or four other Urdu poets who are “greater” (again subjective) than him.

As a raga has different parts, each of which accomplishes a different goal through its particular qualities, perhaps different poets are about different missions. Faiz then might be the poet par excellence of the vilambit, pouring honey into the ears of his listeners to make them dream the sweetest dreams possible – thus we have made him the poet of revolution, the harbinger of our desires and passions. Faiz can bring to life a scene, an image, an environment that then becomes embedded in the memory of the reader or listener. The words create the dream and carry the reader along with them.

The other perennially popular Urdu poet is Ghalib, who could be considered the poet of the drut. In every couplet, Ghalib creates layers upon layers of meaning; miss one word and you have missed the message. Ghalib can make you rethink your entire worldview in the space of a few words. People quote Ghalib when they wish to make a point, Faiz when they want to evoke an image. Both Faiz and Ghalib do what they do very well, and their verses are engrained in the memories of millions.

Another of the very greats, considered “greater” than Ghalib by some, is Mir – in whose work one can find verses as profound and laden with meaning as Ghalib’s, and others that are as evocative as Faiz’s. Mir’s greatness perhaps stems from the fact that he is equally a poet of the vilambit and of the drut.

A musical performance works through the vilambit and the drut and frequently climaxes with the tarana, the final, exhilarating phase of the performance, which leaves the listener breathless, without the energy to remember anything. This might be the territory of Josh Malihabadi; the relentlessness and power of his words can be overwhelming, but they leave the listener in a state that could be best described in Urdu as ma’uuf, benumbed. They are not words that are remembered, but words that are, in the moment, rapturous.

The metaphor of the raga suggests to me that popularity, the fact that a particular poet’s verses linger in the memory, is a measure of greatness, but not the sole measure. The performance of a raga is incomplete without any of its sections, but for a successful performance, each section must be different and accomplish its own goals. The canon of our poetry would be incomplete without the “greatness” of either Faiz or Ghalib. As we accept the differences of vilambit and drut and tarana, listening to each for its particular gift, we have to take our poets for what they give us.

Written with the collaboration of Hasan Altaf whose own tribute to Faiz appeared in the Annual of Urdu Studies.


  • Aakar
    Posted at 02:57h, 26 January Reply

    Khaled Ahmed says Faiz is defined by his “almost feminine resistance”, as opposed to Iqbal’s more masculine position.
    Another difference in Faiz I have found is that he blames the outside for our problems, something which desis find great appeal in and hence his popularity.
    Faiz seeks a change in the system.
    It might explain why socialists like him, and why his translator was the Communist Kiernan.
    Ghalib is more philosophical, more honest and ultimately more true because he accepts our problems are internal.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:55h, 26 January

      Aakar: I am trying to make a distinction between what a poet says and how it is said. One can dislike or disagree with the former and yet concede that it has been said better than by any of the peers that are trying to say the same thing.

      Also, I am trying not to compare poets but to argue that different poets try and do different things: at a very broad level, Ghalib wants to make one think, Faiz wants to make one feel, Iqbal wants to make one react. I can wish Iqbal didn’t do that but still admit that he did it better than all the others who were trying to do the same thing. Hence his greater popularity amongst those who resonate with his objectives.

  • Taimur Khan
    Posted at 22:33h, 26 January Reply

    I’m not sure what vilambit may have to do with revolution, but this is a good article. I believe in the aesthetic buildup of associations where a sentence like ‘tum bohot yaad aaye’ blows me away. Perhaps that is how we associate and resolve poetry with music. I’m a firm believer of a Goethe sentence: “Beauty will never be clear about itself.”

  • Aakar
    Posted at 08:57h, 27 January Reply

    Ali Sethi singing (Vilambit) Shaam-e-firaaq at last week’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

    • Vijay
      Posted at 12:53h, 28 January

      I think this is from last year’s festival. Unless Sethi decided to wear the exact same outfit accompanied by the same musician.

  • kaleem durrani
    Posted at 05:57h, 03 February Reply

    Barsoon Beetay

    I like classical music more then other kind of music. I am not aware about technical terms used for the different styles of music. Hope with reading your articles i may learn some.

    Yad aawari ka shukria,

  • docreshma
    Posted at 05:34h, 06 October Reply

    What an absolute genius you are… And to think I had to stumble on to this site in the middle of the night… You have made the music basics crystal clear… a zillion thanks to you….

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