Article Hindi

Asrar-ul-Haq 'Majaz', the missing poet in Pyaasa

Hailed as India's Keats, Majaz shared the passion, youth and fervour of the Englishman. Living a mercurial life that scaled the heights of poetic lyricality and the depths of despair, he left behind a short, fleeting imprint on Indian cinema. On his death anniversary, we look at the influence of this poet on one of India's most poetic films, Pyaasa.

Shriram Iyengar

Asrar-ul-Haq 'Majaz' belongs to the list of famous poets who could not find space in the flourishing Hindi film industry.

Disappointed with life in Lucknow, Majaz had turned to Bombay, the City of Dreams, in the late 1930s, hoping for a change of fortune. It never quite happened.

An idealist, reformist poet and leading light of the Progressive Writers' Association, Majaz was never accepted by the mostly frivolous film industry and returned to his hometown Lucknow a dejected man, but Bombay left a deep impression on him.

Majaz created one of his most memorable nazms 'Awara' during his time in the city. The poem is a tribute to Bombay, viewed by a desperate, lonely man who cannot enjoy the riches and joys it offers. His 'Awara' opens with:

Shehar ki raat aur main nashaad-o-nakaara phiroon
Jagmagaati jaagti sadkon par aawara phiroon
Gair ki basti hai, kab tak dar-ba-dar maara phiroon,
Ai gham-e-dil kya karun, ai vehshat-e-dil kya karoon.

It is night in the city and I am desperate and ignored
I walk alone on brightly lit empty streets
I am a stranger in this place, how long will I go on?
O my sad heart, what shall I do? O my frustrated heart, what shall I do?

A peer of 'Firaq' Gorakhpuri, 'Jigar' Moradabadi and 'Josh' Malihabadi, Majaz was considered on a par with, if not better than, them in skill. His quick wit, handsome face, and sonorous voice made him popular among the women in Lucknow. Legend has it that young women would queue up outside the halls where he was scheduled to speak.

But Majaz loved truly and deeply only one woman in his life, unsuccessfully at that. Having his heart broken left Majaz despondent. It drove him into depression and alcoholism.

It was during this time that friends advised him to try his luck in films. His association with films can be traced back to his friendship with some other members of the PWA like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Ismat Chughtai and Jan Nisar Akhtar. A lifelong bachelor, he relied on his friends for everything. His joie de vivre would attract people from all walks of life into his circle.

When Jan Nisar Akhtar, son Javed wrote for Mr India

According to sources, producer-director PN Arora brought Majaz to Bombay in the hope that this rousing poet would find success in the new medium that was shaping so many literary stars. But that was not to be.

Majaz's inability to conform to the somewhat illogical film business left him at odds with it. He worked for a while in the newborn Film Division but never felt at home in the business. Many nights, he would walk the shores of Chowpatty and Marine Drive composing poems and wishing himself back home.

Films would discover Majaz a little late in life. In 1953, Thokar, starring Shammi Kapoor, picked a song based on 'Awara'. Talat Mahmood's lilting, sombre tone added depth and pathos to the lonely words of Majaz. The film did not make much of a mark, but the song went on to become one of Talat Mahmood's biggest hits. By then Majaz was struggling with depression, loneliness and alcoholism. This led to his second tryst with immortality through films.

Guru Dutt's 1957 classic Pyaasa was the perfect canvas to explore the vast range of Urdu poetry. And Guru Dutt was fortunate to have one of the most respected poets of the generation, Sahir Ludhianvi, by his side. It was Ludhianvi and scriptwriter Abrar Alvi who guided the actor-director about the styles, practices, and mehfils of Urdu poetry. In the scene where Vijay (Guru Dutt) is serving drinks to a gathering of poets, a lanky man with flowing, dark hair recites a couplet.

Roodad-e-gam-e-ulfat unse kya kehte aur kyunkar kehte
Ikharf na nikla honthon se aur aankh me aansu aa bhi gaye

What depressing love stories shall I tell her and how?
Before I could utter a word, I saw tears in her eyes.

The couplet was part of Majaz's ghazal 'Taskeen-e-dil mahsoon na hui voh saaye karam farma bhi gaye...'. The short kurta, wavy hair, and languorous style was typical of Majaz's fashion. The couplet sets the tone for the melancholic ballad 'Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila'. Majaz would have agreed with Sahir on the difficulty of finding someone to love you.

It was not just the couplet, though. In the film, Vijay, like Majaz, is a progressive poet who is dismissed by friends, colleagues and family as a good-for-nothing. His poems are thrown for scrap. In the end, he finds fame only after his death.

The similarities between Majaz's life and the film are far too numerous to ignore. Majaz died two years before Guru Dutt began work on Pyaasa, and the lyrics for the film were composed by Sahir Ludhianvi, one of Majaz's closest friends. With this context, it would be an oversight to ignore the influence of this Keatsian poet on one of the greatest Indian films on a poet's life.

A man who lived and loved to the brim, Majaz's only vice was alcoholism. An anecdote goes that during a drinking session, the senior 'Josh' Malihabadi advised Majaz to avoid being drunk all the time, saying, 'Majaz saheb, ghadi rakh kar piya keejiye [Majaz sir, drink only at certain times].' In typical repartee, Majaz replied, 'Josh saheb, hum ghadi nahi, ghada rakh kar peete hain [Josh sir, I don't drink according to time, but according to the wine in the barrel].'

On a wintry December night in 1955, Majaz spent the dark hours drinking on the roof of a tavern with a group of friends. Long after his friends had left, Majaz kept imbibing in the severe cold. He was found dead on 5 December 1955.

For someone who was called the Keats of Urdu, death came too soon. Like Keats, Majaz had struggled with self-doubt and the shadow of failure. Like Keats, his immortality in the field was posthumous. More than a century after his birth, Talat Mahmood's voice continues to remind people of the magical verses of the missing name in the galaxy of Indian cinema's famous poets.

Correction, 11 July 2019: The year of release of Pyaasa was wrongly mentioned as 1961. New video clips have also been added.