Rai Muhammad Khan Nasir is an outstanding example of genuine empathy finding moving expression
Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horrors of their reality — Edgar Allen Poe
obert Frost said: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.” Whenever I meet Rai Muhammad Khan Nasir, apart from the image of Lev Tolstoy, I invariably recall this quote. He has the sage-like aura of a mystic one associates with Tolstoy as well as his concern for common people, of whom most are deprived and dispossessed.
His poetry meets the criterion that Frost sets for it. Rai Nasir processes his emotions to a thought and then filters his thought through words with great facility and finesse. Fertility of imagination is another distinctive feature of his poetry. “Poetry” to my understanding, “is a form of literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.”
Our protagonist in this article epitomises this description of poetry. He has written short stories, published in his book titled Moortan, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. Therefore, I will restrict my scrutiny to his poetic works like Hook, Hidak and Hayit, three books that adorn my bookshelf. However, before riveting our analytical focus on his poetry, some context of the human experience is warranted.
Poetry itself probably dates back to cavemen and the earliest shamans who chronicled events in picture-stories, symbols, songs and tales to chronicle hunts and features of the land on which these people lived. Poetry also took nomads into altered or supernatural realms. That is what makes it the supreme form of human imagination that can be expressed.
There are three main kinds of poetry: narrative, dramatic and lyrical. It is not always possible to make a distinction between them. For example, an epic poem can contain lyrical passages and a lyrical poem can contain narrative parts. However, the orient poetry takes different forms. The genre of ghazal doesn’t have any parallel in the poetic tradition of the West.
A poet may simply be the creator (thinker, songwriter, writer or author) who creates (composes) poems (oral or written). They may also perform their art to an audience. Etymologically, a poet is a maker. The word poet, which has been in use in English for more than 600 years, comes from the Greek word poi t s, which is from poiein, meaning “to make”. The word also shares an ancestor with the Sanskrit word cinoti, meaning “he gathers, heaps up.”
Poets have existed since pre-history in nearly all languages and have produced works that vary greatly in different cultures and periods. Throughout each civilisation and language, poets have used various styles that have changed over time, resulting in countless poets as diverse as the literature that (since the advent of writing systems) they have produced.
In the South Asian literary context, Valmiki is considered the pioneer poet. He was the composer of the first Sanskrit poem known the world over as the epic Ramayana. Hence, he is reverentially called the Adikavi or First Poet. Medieval India had poets like Amir Khusrau who synthesised his imaginative articulations with Turkish, Persian and Indian cultural strands.
Khusrau opened the gates of creativity for literary greats like Vali, Nazir, Ghalib and Iqbal. In Punjabi, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, Sultan Bahu, Waris Shah, Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Khawaja Ghulam Farid of Mithan Kot fused the classical tradition couched in the humanism manifested in the Bhakti movement with social, historical, and geographical realities of the land of five rivers.
Rai Muhammad Khan Nasir is a legatee of these giants. I say this because the pre-eminence of the classical touch gives his poetic sensibility a uniqueness. Besides, he comes from Sandal Bar, which has had sages like Baba Guru Nanak and Waris Shah.
Mushtaq Soofi is spot on in his tribute to Nasir and I am tempted to reproduce a part of it: “Maturity of feelings coupled with poetic insight creates in his poetry an aura of immediacy and thoughtfulness. A fine blend of emotional and cerebral elements is a crucial component of his creative expression that makes his poetry highly enjoyable and, thus, popular. He loves poetry recital and is invariably invited to all the important mushairas (poetry recitals).”
He knows that to be a poet is a condition and not a profession. Therefore, he transforms his imagination into a lived experience and then gives it an expression. The sense of elitist imagination extracted from the classical thought has been vernacularised in adroit manner. The fusion of mystic humanism with contemporaneous customs and conventions presents both commonality and contrast that have a mesmerising impact on the reader. But the process of cultivating subtlety does not end there.
Nasir gleans thoughts and sensibilities from myriad sub-cultural streams co-habiting the region to create a multi-layered epistemic context that enables him to compose profound, pithy and multi-layered poetry. To corroborate my views on Nasir, I invoke the thoughts of Soofi yet again, “He (Nasir) is humane and modest to the extent that he is indistinguishable from the common folks. And that is not something unusual. All the great poets of our land have lived among ordinary mortals and created ethereality from mundanity.”
Also, despite belonging to central Punjab, Nasir speaks lehnda dialect of Punjabi fluently. He employs multiple shades of the language that become an efficacious tool to disseminate the message of plurality. That in itself is a worthy call to make in the surroundings plagued with polarisation and social alienation.
Musicality is yet another feature of Nasir’s poetry, lending it harmony and sonorousness that does not come by without hard work. To conclude this piece, I assert that Nasir is an asset worth cherishing.
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore