Literary traditions need to evolve to remain relevant, and the onus is on its paladins to ensure that they move in step with social norms and particularly, don’t miss out on technological advances.
In Urdu poetry, this ‘shair’ can be credited for not only using more simple — and natural — language to broaden his art’s appeal but also went on to initiate its enduring tryst with Hindi films.
‘Arzoo Lakhnavi’ was, if not the first, among the leading mainstream poets to begin writing lyrics for the fledgling film industry — beginning with Calcutta’s New Theatres in the 1930s before shifting to Bombay in 1942 — recognising how this association would preserve — and extend — the reach of Urdu poetry beyond its organic followership.
Much before Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, or Shakeel Badayuni became known, he was crafting lyrics for Indian cinema’s first superstars — K.L. Saigal (“Karun kya aas niras bhayi” from “Dushman”, 1939) and Kanan Devi (“Lachmi murat daras dikhaye” from “Street Singer”, 1938) as well as for emerging stars like Madhubala (“Aayi Bhor Suhani” from “Beqasoor”, 1950), and more.
An outstanding standard-bearer of ‘Dabistan-e-Lakhnau’ or the Lucknow School of Urdu poetry, Syed Anwar Hussain ‘Arzoo Lakhnavi’ (February 16, 1873 to April 16, 1951) seemed destined to be a poet.
Both his father Mir Zakir Hussain ‘Yas’ and elder brother Mir Yusuf Hussain ‘Qayas’ were poets, his mother Amna Begum also belonged to a scholarly and literary family, and he took to poetry from a young age with gusto. Like his father, he was a ‘shagird’ of Syed Zaman Ali ‘Jalal Lakhnavi’ (1831-1909), showing his prowess then only, going to guide the other disciples during his mentor’s lifetime and becoming their ‘ustad’ after his death.
But, he also struck out on his own path — while retaining the tradition’s motifs and focus, he chose a straighter style over its intricate flourishes, and to use only Urdu without recourse to Arabic or Persian — despite his considerable knowledge of both languages.
And while he exhibited his talent in all genres of poetry — geets, masnavis, rubai, as well as marsiyas, naats, salams, and qasidas, and also wrote stage plays and dialogues, and songs for over two dozen films, it is his ghazal-goi that he is most known for.
‘Arzoo’ acknowledged his work was reminiscent of his illustrious predecessors Mir and Ghalib but also contained his desire of being different from them or his contemporaries like Dagh Dehlvi and others.
As his work shows, he did succeed in striking his own distinctive course — take the opening lines of his collection “Sureeli Bansuri” which are one of his most famous: “Jis ne banayi bansuri, geet usi ke gaaye jaa/Saans jab tak aaye jaaye, ek hi dhun bajaaye jaa”.
As a prominent critic pointed out, ‘Arzoo’ “by bringing the language of ghazal closer to the language of conversation, made it clear that the language of poetry is not different from the language of the world, nor is it always captive in the captivity of ancient traditions”.
Even when dealing with beauty, love and courtship — a staple though not the sole focus of the Lucknow School or the whole tradition itself, ‘Arzoo’ could be different: “Dafattan tarq-e-taaluq mein bhi rusvaai hai / Uljhe daman ko churhate nahi jhatka de kar”, or, “Kis ne bheegi huye baalon se jhatka pani / Jhoom ke aayi ghata, toot ke barsa paani” or even “Allah Allah husn ke ye parda-daari dekhiye / Bhed jis ne kholna chaha voh deewana huya”.
‘Arzoo’ could also create some unique imagery in those familiar settings, be it the tavern: “Haath se kisi ne saghir patka mausam ki be-kaifi par / Toot ke itna barsa badal dhoob chala maikhana bhi” or the mehfil: “Awwal-e-shab voh bazm ki raunaq shama bhi parvana bhi / Raat ke akhi hote hote khatam tha yeh afsana bhi”, or even encounters: “Baat karne mein vo un aankhon se amrit tapka / ‘Arzoo’ dekhte hi munh mein bhar aaya paani”.
And then, he had the playfulness of the Lucknow school and was deft in changing the mood in succeeding couplets. Take: “Zamana yaad tera ai dil-e-naakaam aata hai / tapak padhte hai aansu jab wafa ka naam aata hai”, go on to “Wafa tum se karenge dukh sahenge naaz uthayenge / Jise aata hai dil dena use har kaam aata hai” and end “Haseenon mein basar kar di jawaani ‘Arzoo’ ham ne / Lagaana dil ka seekhe hain yahi ek kaam aata hai”.
But his verse didn’t have these pleasant diversions only and like Mir, he could strike a melancholic touch too: “Dil hai voh ujda huya ghar bujh chuka jis ka chiragh / Aankhen kuch dekhen to batlayen ke kya kya lut gaya” or “Jab koyal kook sunaati hai to pati pati lahrati hai / Ham kisi se kahen aur kaun sune, hamdard hamara koi nahi”.
This could also extend to a sort of hopelessness towards life and its purpose: “Hamari zindagi to ek guzar gah havadis hai / Ajab hai shamaa ka aandhi ke jhonkon main basar karna” or: “Har gul ko is chaman mein kya zarq barq paya / Dekha to ek jana sungha to farq paya” and “Koi hasrat mein dil ka sarmaya / Kuch kahi kuch kahi padha paya” or even maybe: “Hasti ki haqeeqat ko gar bad fanaa jaana / Ab soche to kya soche ab jaana to kya jaana”.
There is all this and much more in the 25,000 ghazals attributed to him and collected in seven ‘divans’ ,
In his film career, he was as versatile. If in Saigal’s “Street Singer”, he could pen “Jeevan been madhur na baaje jhoote padh gaye taar / Bigde kaath se kaam bane kya megh baje na malware”, he could also compose the ghazal “Sukoon dil ko mayassar gul-o-samar mein nahi / Jo aashiyaan mein hai apne vah bagh bhar men nahi”.
Conferred the title of ‘Allama’ — restricted to less than half-a-dozen literary giants of the modern age, Arzoo and his poetry epitomise how Urdu ghazal and other forms of poetry is intricately linked with the Indian ethos, whose essence is a vibrant diversity, not a stagnant uniformity. That is cause enough to remember him.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)