Aag Jalni Chahiye: Dushyant Kumar, the Poet of a Thousand Modest Mutinies


Aag Jalni Chahiye: Dushyant Kumar, the Poet of a Thousand Modest Mutinies

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Back in 2012, when navigating Facebook was still a bit of a mystery I came across a video of someone called Varun Grover reading a Dushyant Kumar poem. A self-proclaimed poet then, I used to wallow in the poems of T S Eliot and Seamus Heaney, given almost half a decade had passed since my divorce with Hindi. The ears though had remained monogamous – for I recognised the same couplet in the trailer for the show Satyamev Jayate. It went:

मेरे सीने में नहीं तो तेरे सीने में सही,
हो कहीं भी आग, लेकिन आग जलनी चाहिए।

While Grover’s recitation had left a mark, Aamir Khan’s made it deeper. For someone like me whose understanding of poetry had until then been burdened by the pedagogic need to chug a dictionary, rather than play to rhythm or sound, Kumar’s couplet was overwhelmingly direct yet soulful. But it was only later that I’d realise it wasn’t because of my interest in his process that endeared me to Kumar’s poetry, but the acutely horrid time I was going through in life, perpetually leaning against the ropes of time, from where Kumar’s ghazals and his accessibility as a poet left an indelible impression.

Kumar was born in 1933, in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. He began writing early with a particularly temperate heart for things that happened around him, writing poems in response to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, while he was still a teenager. His popularity in the English-reading world, though, surfaced only after the Jan Lokpal movement in 2011 – nearly 40 years after his death – turned his work into a quiver to draw words from, like arrows:

सिर्फ हंगामा खड़ा करना मेरा मक़्सद नहीं,
सारी कोशिश है कि ये सूरत बदलनी चाहिए।

मेरे सीने में नहीं तो तेरे सीने में सही,
हो कहीं भी आग, लेकिन आग जलनी चाहिए।

Merely raising a ruckus is not my intention
I do this, for things must change

If not in my bosom, then in yours
Wherever it does, the fire must burn

It makes sense that Kumar’s poetry soared when everyone in the country felt jailed, more than anything else by language itself. While English has felt imminent and unavoidable for decades now, to see intellectuals at the forefront of these protests, use poems that would otherwise be considered unfashionable on the shelf in your home, was heartening.

To limit the reading of his poems, especially his path-breaking ghazals in the context of mutinous circumstances alone is perhaps, a sin.

For me personally, Kumar’s poetry freed me from the cage of square cubicles and straight lives that the Gulzar School of poetry, dripping with flowery dew and the warmth of unreality, never could. My struggles were personal, and so it turned out was the language of my resistance, learned through his poetry, so irregular and unlike anything you’d have come across. The Jan Lokpal protests might not have achieved a great deal on paper, but at least, for me, they sent me back to Hindi, and in particular to the poetic simplicity of Kumar. I use the word simplicity, instead of genius, because it takes more courage to be the former than to pursue the latter. In “Raah Khojenge” Kumar writes:

वातावरण में वेहद घुटन है
सब अंधेरे में सिमट आओ
और सट जाओ
और जितने जा सको उतने निकट आओ
हम यहाँ से राह खोजेंगे ।

The air is claustrophobic
Everyone, gather in the darkness
Come close
As close as we possibly can
We’ll find a way from here

I related to Kumar’s poetry not because of his use of a language I had been driven away from, but because of the fire in it. As far as linear ideas go, Hindi poetry, and even the Urdu ghazal have been seen as synonymous with floral patterns, passing seasons and love that somehow threads the two in a meadow – a bouquet of niceties if you like. The kind of poetry you’d read on rainy evenings or would frame and hang in your living room.

Not Dushyant Kumar, though. Kumar’s poetry had an irksome gravity, it spoke of harsh realities and fears without applying the balm of a colourful image, or forgoing his inherent musicality. He spoke of the system as someone that “Apne hi gharon mein kaed karke kaha/ lo tumhe azaad karte hain.”

Kumar’s oeuvre asks a crucial question – must all art be about constructing beauty, or plush digressions from reality? They are ageless in their manifest energy, bleak yet profound, and crucially unsophisticated in their conceits. In “Zindagi Kahan?” he writes:

ज़िन्दगी दिखाई देती है
कब्रों में या दरगाहों में
मंदिर में या शमशानों में
मिट्टी से दबी हुई
मिट्टी में मिली हुई
पूजा के बेलों पर कांपती
या घुटनों के बल झुकी हुई

You can see life
In graveyards and mosques
In temples and cemeteries
Squashed under the earth
Mixed with it
Shivering on a prayer’s thread
Or resting on its knees

When I first read about him there was still little information available about Kumar, his life and what he had done to be recited so regularly, yet remain unknown. That has changed since, though his position as the doyen of the Hindi Ghazal through his magnum opus Saaye Mein Dhoop (which by the way is close to a 70th reprint) doesn’t do his body of work justice. But to limit the reading of his poems, especially his path-breaking ghazals in the context of mutinous circumstances alone is perhaps, a sin. Kumar wrote of society and its many conflicts but never to the extent of becoming anthems. He is best heard and read in your own voice, even in the kind of personal space that haunts us with voids every now and then.

एक चिंगारी कहीं से ढूँढ लाओ दोस्तों दोस्तो
इस दीये में तेल से भीगी हुई बाती तो है

एक खँडहर के हृदय-सी,एक जंगली फूल-सी
आदमी की पीर गूँगी ही सही, गाती तो है

All that we need, is to find a spark
This lamp already has an oiled wick

Like the heart of a ruin, or a wildflower
A man’s spirit might be mute… but it still sings

In 2015, when Masaan released, and with it the song, “Tu Kisi Rail Si Guzarti Hai” that begins with what is easily the oddest, yet most beautiful conjunction of two images, I fell headlong in love with Kumar’s work. Not because he is now, thanks to Grover, a known quantity, but because of his impassioned lyricism, and his unspent vitality. The weight of each of his couplets lends a kind of strength without the notion of having interacted with something as complicated as a ghazal or a kavita. Kumar did not channel angst, he merely wrote over it, for times when the margins aren’t geographical, cultural or religious, but purely mental and personal. His poems are not bhajans nor duplicitous orations of hope, they are simply songs that a jailbird might sing.

खुदा नहीं न सही आदमी का ख्वाब सही
कोई हसीन नज़ारा तो है नज़र के लिए

God or no god, a man’s dream is enough
There is at least a beautiful vision to look forward to