Remembering Rahat Indori, the Protest Poet India Loved… And Loved to Hate

Social Commentary

Remembering Rahat Indori, the Protest Poet India Loved… And Loved to Hate

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In an episode from Kapil Sharma’s comedy show where the late Urdu poet Rahat Indori was a guest, Sharma asks Indori, “Shayar ya toh dilphenk hote hain ya diljale, aap kaunse waale hain?” Indori responds with typical self-effacing wit: “Aap mujhe dekh kar andaza laga sakte hain ke main toh jala hi hun”.

Indori, who passed away earlier this week, was referring, of course, to his skin tone. A performer, Indori was gifted not only with wisdom but also the grace to make himself smaller than his work. At a time when politics has become intertwined with art, and artists graded on the basis of the politics they support or don’t, Indori leaves, as that rare specimen whose verses can be read without the shadow of his personality leaning overhead. Given Indori’s name and religion we know people will try, but Indori’s poetry, like the ocean, belongs to no one and everyone, onshore or at sea.

Rahat Indori was born Rahat Qureshi to a mill worker Rafatullah Qureshi, in Indore, in 1950. Before graduating in Urdu literature, Indori tried his hand at painting. Soon, though, he started writing poetry. Though Indori had read at sammelans for four decades and written lyrics for at least half a dozen Bollywood films, it was with last year’s anti-CAA-NRC protests that Indori resurfaced. He became a bit of a hero alongside a line that captured the mood of the protestors, largely because it was so audacious:

Kiraaydaar hain zaati makaan thodi hai
Sabhi ka khoon shaamil yahan ki mitti me
Kisi ke baap ka hindustan thodi hai

The last line, etched across multiple posters and banners, became the protest slogan. Its innate pluralism and rejection of ownership was a war-cry for those who believe in India’s sovereignty. Soon after, Indori’s name, his religious identity, the language he wrote in, became self-evident truths that had otherwise remained diminished over a career spanning four decades.

A performer, Rahat Indori was gifted not only with wisdom but also the grace to make himself smaller than his work.

The poet who wrote about love

Such is the wrench of division blocking India’s conscience, that it struggles to see past hate for a man who only wrote about love.

Aap hindu mai musalmaan ye issayi wo sikh,
Yaar chodo ye siyasat hai chalo ishq kare.

Indori believed in pluralism and therefore knew he was both loved and hated in his country. In a performance in Karachi Indori, while reciting his most famous poem, confesses, “Main shayad isiliye apne desh mein ya toh bohat mash’hoor hun ya bohat badnaam hun”.

Despite his new-found fame last year that stood up to the decisions of the BJP government, it must be remembered that Indori was equally vocal against Indira Gandhi’s government during the Emergency, openly speaking out against her government’s naivete. Dissent, therefore, was intrinsic to Indori’s verse and it eluded the painters of communal colours until, unfortunately, the last years of his life. But while he lived, Indori’s words became the voice of the helpless and the vulnerable.

Apni pehchaan mitaane ko kaha jata hai
Bastiyaan chod ke jaane ko kaha jata hai

Pattiyaan roz gira jaati hain zehreeli hawa
Aur humein ped lagaane ko kaha jata hai

Indori’s contribution to cinema, owing to the restrictions the format comes with, can best be summarised as moderate. He mostly collaborated with Anu Malik and some of the latter’s best work was in fact worded by Indori. Bobby Deol’s Kareeb (1998) for example, featured some of the best work by the duo. A couple of years later, Indori lent his pen to Mission Kashmir that was path-breaking for what it taught the mainstream about Urdu.

Roz taaron ki numaish mein
Khalal padta hai
Chaand pagal hai
Andhere mein nikal padta hai

Rahat Indori loved Indore, its history, and its people immensely.

Why do protestors love Rahat Indori?

Though his poetry had already shouldered last year’s protests, Indori made his presence felt and his disappointment known on several occasions and through different platforms. It is indicative of the selective and therefore corrupt practice of association that most people would rather remember Indori, the romanticist, the comic rather than the man who symbolised and spoke for communal harmony and unity, naturally at the expense of a popular ideology.

Besides, that is not the only genre the poet wrote in. With as much passion as he wrote about freedom and India’s inherent amity, Indori could weave the yarn of romantic love and longing, sonnets that though pithy, carried with them the vulnerable shudders of a glass breaking over rock.

Teri har baat mohabbat me gawara karke
Dil ke bajar me baithe hai khasara karke

Ek chingari nazar aayi thi basti me use
Wo alag hat gaya aandhi ko ishara karke

Mai wo dariya hu ki har boond bhawar hai jiski
Tumne accha hi kiya mujhse kinara karke

Muntazir hoon ki sitaron ki zara aankh lage
Chand ko chat pe bula lunga ishara karke

Rahat Indori loved Indore, its history, and its people immensely. He leaves the city, where he breathed his last, his life’s work, each ghazal longer than the road they might name after him, taller and sturdier than the statue they might erect in his name, should the powers that be allow. Poets travel further than most people because their journeys become our journeys, their words, ours.

Indori may be seen through a certain undignified lens today, but what the eye cannot see, the heart is already wrenched open by. And it’s hearts that Indori helped open, at times to submit to love and at times to demand it.