Active Stocks
Mon Sep 25 2023 15:59:39
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 127.35 0.51%
  1. Tata Motors share price
  2. 618.6 -0.4%
  1. NTPC share price
  2. 239.6 0.69%
  1. Wipro share price
  2. 414.05 -1.1%
  1. Infosys share price
  2. 1,474.75 -1.42%
Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz. The list isn’t complete

I had finished writing a book review and was going through it once when I stopped at a line I had written. I had written that the great poets of Urdu were four: Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz. This is the accepted wisdom and I had accepted it. The quartet of Mir-Ghalib- Iqbal-Faiz is seen indisputably as the high watermark of Urdu poetry.

But why? This was the question that struck me when I was re-reading my line.

Here I stopped, because it was immediately clear that two men exist who are the most underrated writers of Urdu. More about them later.

First, let’s look at Iqbal. His greatness rests on the fact that he gave India’s Muslims direction. His poetry urged them to modernize by recreating the past. His most famous work is Shikwa (Complaint) which has this line: Kalma padhtay they ham chaaon mein talwaaron ki(We recited “La ilaha il Allah Muhammad-ur-Rasul Allah" in the shade of our swords).

Revolutionary road: Even his fan Dilip Kumar once said that Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry can be difficult to understand. Photo: AFP

This is the thought that produced Pakistan. Would Iqbal today himself want authorship of Pakistan? I’m not sure he would want his byline on that.

Like Iqbal, Faiz was an ideological poet. In his writing the problem lay with the nature of the state or the tyranny of the ruler.

He may have lived long enough (he died in 1984) to see that the problem on the subcontinent lay in the people and not the system, but his work rarely reflected that.

Both Iqbal and Faiz are seen by their fans as being great because of their content as much as for their style. After I commented about how difficult a Faiz recitation by Zia Mohyeddin was, he wrote to me. Here’s what Mohyeddin said about Faiz’s content and language: Faiz Sahib is a romantic poet—period. His idealistic and his ‘committed’ poetry is soaked in romanticism. The remark I made was “Some people are under the impression that Faiz Sahib’s poetry is entirely political or ‘reformistic’ (samaj sudhar), but he was a poet as well!"

Faiz Sahib (I keep saying Sahib because my upbringing forbids me to say Faiz. Had I not known him and known him well, I would have referred to him as Faiz) is not a difficult poet—not at all. Of all the major Urdu poets of the 20th century, he is the one most easily understood. A few cognoscente hold it against him. The Persian vocabulary that he employs has been the common currency of Urdu poets from Sauda to Ghalib to Dagh. Of course, people not used to listening to Urdu would find it difficult. Three fourths of the poems I chose did not have a single word of Persian. Ah well!

But it is true that Indians will find Faiz difficult because Urdu poets indulge in far too much Persian.

Ghalib is accused by Bahadur Shah Zafar’s courtiers in Gulzar’s serial of writing lines nobody could follow. Like this one: Naqsh-e-faryadi hai kis ki shokhi-e tehreer ka. Sarfaraz Niazi (Love Sonnets of Ghalib) battles with it and comes up with: “Against whose playful writing are the words complainants?"

I found this translation, which claimed to be simple, online. “Of whose mischievous liberty is the mirror a plaintiff?"

Naqsh-e-Faryadi, incidentally, is the title of Faiz’s first published compilation.

Let us see what Dilip Kumar, who cannot be accused of being unfamiliar with Urdu, has to say in a television interview after struggling to read a Faiz couplet: “Khas taur pe, Faiz sahab ke chahnaywalon mein kitne log aise hain jo kahein ke kuch koshish se samjha aur kuch samajh mein nahin aaya. Un mein ek main bhi hoon" (Faiz’s admirers include many who say: “I made an effort and understood some lines but other lines not at all." I’m among them).

That programme, a special on Faiz, also featured Shabana Azmi. She admits what Gulzar told me once: that she cannot read Urdu—the daughter of Kaifi Azmi and wife of Javed Akhtar!

Shabana says (speaking in English) Faiz is “my most favourite poet in the world. And this includes Keats, Shakespeare and Ghalib."

This comes from her upbringing in a severely socialist atmosphere. Her father and mother lived in the famous Andheri commune of the Communist Party. Shabana loves the idea of what Faiz stands for more than the words he has actually written. She proves this by saying in an embarrassed fashion that she tried to recount two of his poems to Faiz, but he told her what she had recited was Mir and Zafar.

Faiz was a poet of revolution. He wrote to inspire people to it. The people who loved him most were socialists, like his British translator Victor Kiernan. The number of socialist revolutions Faiz’s poetry inspired is zero.

Shabana should consider instead a writer of more effective poetry, whose lines have been deployed by grateful, inarticulate men in their successful seduction of tens of millions of Indian and Pakistani women.

She should turn to look at the man sleeping next to her instead.

I think Akhtar and Gulzar are two great poets who are underrated. This is not because of the quality of their work, but where it is used and that is unfair to them.

Indian poetry is different from Western poetry in one key respect. European poetry is read. Indian poetry is recited. The most popular lines of Ghalib are not those people have read themselves, but those they’ve heard.

How much of Iqbal and Faiz has been heard? Indeed, how much of it has ever been recited or sung? A little here by Noor Jahan, a little there by Abida Parveen. Gulzar and Akhtar have been enjoyed a thousand-fold, even a million-fold more. More need not be said about the quality of their work because we are all familiar with it.

Each one of us has experienced the sensation of lying on cool, white bedsheets, observing the stars from the terrace on a summer night. These descriptions of India make Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi, fursat kay raat din by Gulzar as good a poem as anything in the classical canon of Urdu.

Akhtar’s Yeh kahan aa gaye hum is to my mind the finest love song ever written by an Indian.

And so I thought I’d correct that mistake I made in the review. With your permission I’m revising the quartet to a sextet: Mir-Ghalib-Iqbal-Faiz-Gulzar-Akhtar.

Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.

Send your feedback to


Also Read |Aakar Patel’s earlier columns

"Exciting news! Mint is now on WhatsApp Channels 🚀 Subscribe today by clicking the link and stay updated with the latest financial insights!" Click here!

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Updated: 09 Jun 2012, 12:17 PM IST
Next Story
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App