August 14, 2016

The poet I admire and revere


Four years ago during the elaborate ceremonies on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth I was given the singular honour of reciting Iqbal’s poem on Shakespeare in Urdu (and its translation in English). It pleased me to see that, during my recent visit to Stratford, the poem, mounted on a plaque, is prominently displayed at the Shakespeare Centre:

Shakespeare to Iqbal is not just an arbitrary leap. Iqbal too, explores the human condition, and he, too, has broadened and defined the horizons of human possibilities. Comparisons are odious, and I have no intention of comparing the two.

The Iqbal that I admire -- and revere is -- not the Iqbal of our Radio and our vernacular press which has turned him into a Baden-Powell of the Momins. Thanks to their zeal we now look upon him as a sage, a hakim-ul-ummat, and not as a poet.

When I put aside his hortatory and didactic verse, which is a mere rhetoric, I find that Iqbal is a formidable poet. His Persianised diction is awesome, his imagery is fertile and full of vigour, and he has a keen sense of ghinaneeyat (musicality). Pray feel the majestic cadence of this couplet:


Iqbal’s life was, outwardly, pretty uneventful. He spent most of his time at home. This may have been one of the reasons why he did not acquire an international reputation. Unlike Tagore, he had no Yeats to promote him. Another reason is that Europeans, particularly English lovers of the Orient, could not have found his emphasis on "action" and "deed" to be palatable. An Eastern poet was expected to unfold a sense of mysticism; he must moan of futilities and the transience of existence. Iqbal’s verse fitted into none of the categories assigned to Indian patterns of poetry. So his poems, when translated, brought no sense of comfort or exotica. They were piercing and vigorous.

* * * * *

What moves me most about Iqbal is his stance that the heart is the supreme guide of human destiny. The heart for him is the fountainhead of understanding and creativity.


"Enquirest thou what is this heart of thine?
The heart was born when fire consumed the brain…"
(The joy of agitation framed the heart
And when this ceased it turned to clay)

The great Persian poet, Rumi, whom Iqbal accepts as a guide said, ‘Logic is from Satan; love is from God’. Iqbal affirms it again and again in his poetry. Love to him is the ultimate revelation of the truth. His entire search, his most inspired poetry revolves around the human heart and its pilgrimage through the valley of love.

Read also: Iqbal 

The word Iqbal uses in both Persian and Urdu to convey his concept of love is Ishq. For Iqbal Ishq has a very wide sense. It is creative passion, divine spark, high enthusiasm for an ideal and the force that draws the individual to realise himself. In one of his best (if not the best) long Urdu poems The mosque of Cordova which begins with:

he says:

"Love the wellspring of life, love on which death has no claim
Swiftly its tyrannous flood times’ long current may roll:
Love itself is a tide stemming all opposite waves
Love is Gabriel’s breath, love is Mohammad’s heart
Love is the envoy of God, love is the utterance of God…
Loves’ is the plectrum that draws music form life’s taut strings-
Love is the warmth of life - and love is the radiance.

If love for Iqbal performs the triple function of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, desire which he describes as a ‘builder of the book of deeds’ is something else. For Iqbal, desire is always an action that pursues and seeks life in an active rather than passive way. His affirmation for desire makes Iqbal stand as a unique Eastern poet. He was, after all, the product of a land which, for centuries, had preached renunciation. Iqbal had the poetic courage to assert the supremacy of desire as he saw it.


He took existing poetic forms and conventions and lifted them to a new imaginative purpose. He took Urdu poetry out of its verbal virtuosity and revitalised it to the task of moulding a social outlook. He made poetry an effective vehicle by linking it with social and historical processes. Not for him the dogma of Art for Art’s sake. In one of his essays, he writes: "There should be no opium-eating in Art. The dogma of Art for the sake of Art is a clever invention of decadence to cheat us out of life and power."

But it was not always so. His earlier verse was largely preoccupied with lyrical themes somewhat influenced by the English Romantic poets. He wrote poems with such titles as The Withered Rose and The Moon:

"How shall I call you now a flower
Tell me O withered rose!
How call ye that beloved for whom
The nightingale’s heart glows…"

Broadly speaking, Iqbal’s poetry falls into two distinct phases. In the earlier phase his thought is tinged with vague longings and lyrical romanticism. He is fascinated by the ecstasy of pensiveness. The second phase is a long struggle in which he not only denounced and rejected Hafiz and Plato, he affirms the perfection of self-hood as the most supreme value and emphasises that it can be realised through ‘Desire’ and ‘Action’. In a letter to his friend and translator, Dr Nicholson, he writes:

"Physically, as well as spiritually, man is a self-contained centre but he is not yet a complete individual. The greater his distance from God, the less his individuality. He who comes nearest to God is the complete person. Not that he is fully absorbed in God. On the contrary he absorbs God into himself.

Life is a forward assimilative movement. Its essence is the continual creation of desires and ideas. For the purpose of its preservation and expansion it had invented and developed, out of itself, certain instruments e.g. sense, intellect etc, which help to assimilate obstructions. The greatest obstacle in the way of life is matter, nature; yet nature is not evil since it enables the inner powers of life to unfold themselves. The Ego attains a freedom by the removal of all obstructions in its way. It is partly free, partly determined, and reaches fuller freedom by approaching the individual who is most free - God. In one word, life is an endeavour for freedom."

                                                                                                                 (to be continued)