The Faiz revolution

November 21, 2021

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s lyrics have been sung by leading vocalists of the subcontinent

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Due to the pandemic, the festivities round the name of Faiz Ahmed Faiz have remained subdued over the past year and a half. It was decided, soon after his death, in November 1984 that the main thrust of the celebrations will be round his birth anniversary than his death. Since then, the Faiz seminar, mela and the talk sessions have been held in February, the second month of the year.

But the fact remains that the death of Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a very important milestone in the artistic and political annals of the country for he represented far more than a poet and an intellectual. He seemed to be carrying all kinds of burdens as perceived by many who wanted a more equitable and balanced society in Pakistan, rather than one based on the superiority of religion, race, sect, class or language.

Faiz was lucky in that his lyrics were sung by the leading vocalists of the subcontinent. It was a continuation of a tradition since the 19th Century of the word being sung or the poetry being used as a song text of musical composition. This was a period of decline in the classical tradition of music with the dhrupad receding as kheyal sugred. In both the cases, the classical tradition had treated the words as secondary and emphasised the tonal variations and growth seen in the perspective of the tonal pattern best represented by the raga.

The ghazal was sung in the salons of the dancing girls especially in the Gangetic heartland. It was a lighter form of music that was later elevated to a semi classical genre. The lyrics could be Urdu or Persian because the leading poets wrote in Persian and not in the dialects that were seen to be too crude and basic for the expression of higher sentiments in poetry. Ironically, the bandishes, in the kheyal in particular, were in the very dialects. These could be in khari, brij, bhasha, purbi, dekhani or haryanvi, the various dialects that went in to the making of the Urdu language.

If one looks at Iqbal, the leading poet after the decline of the classical tradition in poetry that let us say ended with Ghalib and Momin, the various interventions regarding poetry imposed by the colonialists were related to the goings on in the world rather than a very stylised expression that seemed to be beyond time and space. This poetry was not sung to the same extent as let us say the poetry of Daagh, the most popular of the poets writing in the lingering classical tradition of the ghazal by the end of the 19th Century. Daagh gradually became the favourite poet of the singing and dancing girls. The way his text were composed, only a limited surface meaning was derived from the poetry.

Iqbal was not that sung that much and it was only with the emergence of Pakistan that some of his verses were put to music. It was said in derogatory terms that it was the qawwals who first set him to music and then popularised him by singing. However, Ravi Shanker had composed Saray Jahan Say Achha Hindustan Hamara as a kind of anthem for the Akhand Bharat before the creation of Pakistan.

It must be said in the same breath that the serious poets or many among the poets did create a clear distinction between the poets who were committed and those who were willing to make compromises by crossing over to lyricism. Thus, they advanced the cause of their words being sung. This amphibian crossing over was looked down upon by many in the high tradition of poetry and its populism decried and frowned upon. It was supposed to be peddled by those who placed poetry below the bandish and hence the sur. It was said with disdain that a good poet did not need the crutches of a singer or music to be appreciated, only a tukband was in need of a vocalist, music composition or bandish to facilitate his cause.

However, as the music worth of a composition is now judged by its content, the distinction between good poetry or an autonomous form of poetry and its lyrical version has got blurred. The same distinction has been carried over as the poets writing film songs are rarely seen or considered to be serious poets, only peddlers negotiating the two major streams of human expression.

So, it has been a struggle between two opposites which may seem similar. The word and the sur do not snuggle easily into each other’s arms but frequently militate against each other and to take it for granted that they do is to be duped by being lulled through surface similarity. Faiz was lucky to have been sung by some of the leading vocalists of the era and they were able to make musical sense out of the lyrics. These were otherwise great vocalists and had the credentials before they sung Faiz and the result was that they could use his lyrics as the material for their bandishes.

The three major numbers to have been sung have been Mujh say pehli si muhabbat meray mehboob na maang by Noor Jehan, probably composed by Rashed Attre; Gulaon main rung bharay, baad-i-nau bahar chalay by Mehdi Hasan, probably composed by Mehdi Hasan himself; and Dasht-i-tanhai main aey jan-i-jahan larzaan hain by Iqbal Bano, composed by Mehdi Zaheer.

This is not to say that the other numbers sung by many other leading vocalists have not been good or even brilliant – some more sung by the three vocalists mentioned above have too been truly outstanding but the three mentioned have been groundbreaking in composition and rendition. The timing of the release of these numbers may also have been crucial though it is usually not such an important factor.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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