The Urdu poet Kunwar Akhlaq Muhammad Khan “Shahryar” (1936–2012) wrote the following maqta‘ (final sher or couplet of a ghazal) in his fifth collection (Neend ki kirchen/ “Splinters of Sleep”; 1995):

Hai aj ye gila ki akela hai Shahryar //

Tarsoge kal hujum men tanhayi ke liye

Today the complaint is that Shahryar is alone.

Tomorrow you’ll crave solitude among the multitude.

In a prefatory essay to the same collection, the noted Urdu critic and author Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, appreciative of the poetry, wrote that the speaker of Shahryar’s ghazals and nazms (free verse) is “lonely in the desert of stasis”. This condition of the poetic speaker is the identification mark of jadidshaairi or “new poetry” in Urdu for detractors and followers alike. An immediate aspect of the newness of this poetry, said to have started in the mid-1930s, was its move away from the assumptions of ghazal poetry. New poetry did not speak in the cliched voice of the ashiq (lover) who, despite his travails in love, lorded over the garden of poetry. It was his voice that described the larger-than-life mahbub (beloved), controlled the play of metaphors and images, and narrated the world we have come to identify immediately as the world of the ghazal. It is the unyielding expressiveness of this voice which made Urdu poetry synonymous with the ghazal.


New poetry had to confront the dominance of this voice in order to say something new. Shahryar was born in 1936, right when the debate about the ghazal was taking an epoch-making turn, and he was to be one of the chief architects of this turn. The two literary camps of taraqqi-pasandi (progressivism) and jadidiyat (modernism) have been described by critics as two divergent resolutions to the crisis of the ghazal in a rapidly decolonising British India. This commonsense  view of Urdu literary criticism has long held sway in discussions of new poetry: poets such as Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Kaifi, Jazbi et al wrote poetry as a socially conscious, political act while their rival modernists, such as Miraji and Rashed, wrote poetry primarily conscious of its own aesthetic autonomy. In crude terms, this period saw a division between art for the sake of politics and art for its own sake.

Despite these formal resolutions, the ghazal genre thrived in both camps and its amorous scenarios were regularly used in free verse poetry which had otherwise rejected the strictures of meter, rhyme, refrain and the etiquette of ghazal-style love. In Shahryar’s oeuvre, from his very first collection Ism-e aazam (“The Greatest Name”; 1965), ghazals and nazms form two complementary halves of his poetry. This unity of two rival genres symbolised a deeper philosophy underlying this poetry, which we glimpsed in the sher above and in Faruqi’s comment.

While progressive poets are exclusively associated with particular features of a left-wing political programme, Urdu modernist poets have worked hard to describe their vision of poetry in conceptual terms. Following the logic of modernist thought, this vision can come only from within poetry.

Anything referring to the world outside or political ideology is considered external to poetry and its interpretation. It is the achievement of Shahryar’s poetry that it uses both the ghazal (the traditional genre) and the nazm (the new experimental genre) to formulate this vision. In this sense, his work seeks to connect the tradition of love poetry with an emerging view of experiential poetry. But what constitutes the vision behind this union?

The speaker in his poems is indeed a lonely man (not a woman) reflecting persistently on his experience of the world. His voice is clearest in the ghazal because of the literary-historical reasons I have signaled above:

ay ahl-e dard tum ne samajhne men der ki //

kaar-e hayaat maani‘-e kaar-e junun na tha

O people who suffered, you understood too late!

Life’s business didn’t hinder the business of madness!

Included in his 1985 collection Khwab ka dar band hai (“The dream-door is shut”), this sher echoes the self-assuredness of the ashiq in its pithy declaration. People who have suffered, now apparently dead, are lightly mocked by the speaker: “You thought the business of life could not withstand the ecstasy (of love?). But had you realised the truth in time (when you were still alive) you would have survived.” So what is this truth?

We can infer from the sher that madness emerges only within and is perhaps activated by the experiences of everyday life. But we can also surmise, contradictorily, that everyday reality is such a different realm of experience that it has no connection with the experience of ecstatic madness.

In both cases, the conclusion is the same: the ability to withstand suffering has nothing to do with the resolve to live or the decision to die. The experience of ecstatic madness (junun: the word should remind us of the mad lover Majnun) has a truth all its own and it is known only to the speaker, the last man standing among a multitude of suffering people.

The emergence of contradictory meanings in this sher should be familiar to any reader of ghazals. Its stylised references to “life”, “madness” and “suffering” all come from the plaints of the classical lover of ghazal poetry. But what is new here is the address to a world from which the speaker is detached. This detachment, however, becomes the reason of his survival when the rest are dying. This image of alienation and disenchantment surfaces again and again in Shahryar’s poetry (most famously in his ghazal about the individual’s alienation in the city from Muzaffar Ali’s 1978 film Gaman“seene men jalan, ankhon men tufan sa kyun hai”). The image does not allow for any relationship with another human being or a collectivity: the dislocation of the individual self from his surroundings is drastically complete.

But if the individual’s alienation is so complete, whom is this poetry addressing? How does it find readers in society? In a similar vein, is the alienated speaker the same person as the poet, or is it a persona? Critics such as Ale Ahmad Suroor and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi insist that this is a poetry of extremely individualised experience because it is written in a voice that is like no other in the world, or in the tradition of Urdu poetry. Yet we find older themes of love and romance, i.e. of relating to a person other than oneself, re-appearing in Shahryar’s poetry. In a nazm titled “Jism ki kashti men aa…” (“Come in the boat of your body…” 1995) we encounter his vision of physical desire in a disenchanted world. Here’s the poem in Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation:

Wind’s winged feet had come till this stairway, it seems

The kiss on the lamp’s flame is the winds

As is the bouquet of talon marks

Gouged from my neck to my chest

Waiting for the magical lock to open

I have spent countless seasons of separation

After years

The wind has lowered its feet in the water

Be born from my ribs

Carrying the same scent of wheat

The vastness of earth and sky

Have gathered unto me

Bathe me in divine, ineffable pleasure

I am a thirsty ocean

Come in the boat of your body

And row across me

The poem is typical of Shahryar’s use of personified natural forces (the sea and the wind are recurrent favourites), metaphor within metaphor (the wind as a bird kissing the flame) and dramatic apostrophes (“Bathe me…”). Despite the jagged lines and disconnected sentences the poem revolves around a passive speaker who is a witness to scenes from his sexual career. This is a new form of solipsism (that was also the accusation against the traditional ghazal) where despite the fragmentation of the world, the speaker’s self is quite coherent and sure of its desires. In the last few lines the paradox of a thirsty sea manages to convey both the cosmic vastness of the speaker and his incompleteness due to the absence of the beloved’s physical touch. In this sense, the speaker seems to have inflated his sense of self to become the universe itself and justified by this vastness he demands physical consummation from the beloved’s (female) body.

Physical sexuality, in this poem, offers redemption for the alienated individual. But in order to receive it he must take on oceanic proportions.

This is a key example of how the individual in jadid or new poetry builds linkages with the world. The debilitating passivity and indecisiveness that we encountered in his ghazals become the enabling conditions of physical sexuality: passivity in sex becomes a kind of noble surrender to a female body which rejuvenates the male speaker’s power to speak and to survive. Thus it is not so much that new poetry is radically disjointed from the world of politics and everyday life, but that it insists on recording the experiences of a single, atomised individual as the only authentic description of the world. This is its politics, and its expression through images of physical sexuality (more precisely heterosexual physical union) is its concrete manifestation.

No account of Shahryar’s poetry can be accomplished without mentioning his famous lyrics for Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981). This poetic output is generally devalued in Urdu criticism because of its links with commercial cinema. Purists tend to regard the film’s songs as diluting classical aesthetics. But they ignore the historical linkage between Urdu literature and the birth and growth of the Hindi film industry: Josh, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir, Kaifi, Shakil, Majruh, Javed Akhtar form the most obvious roster of connections.

Hindi cinema’s song sequence is still one of the most popular manifestations of the ghazal aesthetic and sensibility in Indian cultural life. Cultural literacy in ghazal tropes for many of us comes from songs in films such as Umrao Jaan. The songs (mostly sung ghazals) in the film are presented as compositions of the protagonist, the courtesan-poet Umrao Jaan “Ada”, but Shahryar’s lyrics, if we read them closely, don’t opt for an authentic late nineteenth-century idiom or style.

One of the most famous lines from a song: “Dil chiz kya hai ap meri jaan lijiye” is actually a partial reworking of a matla‘ (opening sher of a ghazal) by the classical poet Mushafi from the late eighteenth century: “dil chiz kya hai chahiye to jan lijiye // par bat ko bhi meri zara man lijiye” (what’s in a heart, you should take my life // but please heed a little my plea too!” Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi, Divan I, c. 1785). A few verses in other songs are taken directly from his first published collection and retain the existentialist solipsism that was to become the style of his later ghazals and nazms. In the mouth of the famous courtesan-poet of Lucknow, the following sher from the film attains a poignantly gendered experience of alienation:

na jis ka naam hai koi na jis ki shakl hai koi //

ik aisi shai ka kyun hamen azal se intizar hai

That which has neither name nor form:

Why do I wait for it since time began?

The insistence of promoters of new poetry that its contents be judged solely on internal, aesthetic grounds has created an intellectually dead picture of such poetic innovators as Shahryar. Born in a village near Bareilly, Akhlaq Muhammad Khan was advised to change his name because it sounded too provincial. The name “Shahryar” was recommended by a very close friend and fellow poet, Khalilur Rahman Azmi, when the poet moved to Aligarh.

Aligarh’s intellectual climate during the 1950s and 60s was an important influence on Shahryar’s poetry. The dominant zeitgeist of Sartrean existentialist philosophy, apparent in the work of such contemporaries at the Aligarh Muslim University as Waheed Akhtar, is clearly echoed in his poetry. Due to the acrimonious debates between apparently watertight divisions of progressivist and modernist poetry, such intellectual frames in the formation of modern Urdu poets are completely ignored. The post-independence cultural history of the university at Aligarh is another unexplored terrain in the life of a poet like Shahryar who taught and lived there most of his life despite becoming a famous Hindi film lyricist and a nationally feted poet.

The lament that “Shahryar is alone” therefore is not simply a personal cry of anguish or a dereliction of artistic duty but the history of a particular poetic life that has been left behind for us to excavate.

(All translations, except where specified, are those of the author.)