Kaifi Azmi: Poems|Nazms is a fitting tribute to the celebrated Urdu poet’s birth centenary celebrations. Edited by Sudeep Sen, the bilingual English-Hindi book comprises 50 of his exquisite poems translated by a formidable team including Husain Mir Ali, Baidar Bakht, Sumantra Ghosal, Pritish Nandy and Sudeep Sen himself. Apart from the evocative poetry, another engaging feature of the book is its collection of photographs, bringing out many significant moments of the poet’s life and works.
Sudeep Sen, editorial director of AARK ARTS and editor of Atlas, is a respected name in the arena of international literature. The English-language poet has won numerous accolades from home and abroad. His works have been translated into more than 25 languages. In this interview, Parul, a literary enthusiast, engages Sudeep Sen in a conversation about his experience of editing the book as well as translating many of Kaifi Azmi’s poems:
Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms: New & Selected Poems has just been published as a beautiful hardback centenary bilingual English-Hindi edition by Bloomsbury. How did it all start?
Sudeep Sen [SS}: I grew up in a typical Bengali household where poetry, music, dance, politics, sports and intellectual discourses were part of everyday upbringing and life. However, what I was most drawn to (despite being a science student) was poetry. My fascination with fractals, architecture, light, shape, visual arts, classical music and dance have contributed deeply to the craft of my own poetry and language as a whole.
The first time I felt the power and magic of Kaifi Azmi’s poetry was as a child, when I heard my mother reading out his poem, “Aurat” (“Woman”), at a family gathering during the Durga Puja festival in New Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, a predominantly Bengali neighborhood. The opening line and refrain — Uth, meri jaan! Mere saath hi chalnaa hai tujhe. | “Rise, my beloved! With me, you’ve got to walk with me” — still echoes in my ears. I was smitten by the depth and parabolic lyricism of Kaifi’s words instantly, drawn to its political core in a way that I might not have understood then, but that has certainly shaped my poetic ideology as an adult.
It was the start, as a child, of immersing myself in Urdu and Hindi poetry. The world of Bengali and English poetry was already familiar to me — the two languages that were constantly used in my familial space. However, as someone who grew up in Delhi, Hindi was an equally important part of the lexicon and became one of my three mother tongues.
The act of serious literary translation was, therefore, waiting to happen for me. It was just a matter of time, considering we were constantly inter-translating between three languages at home in our everyday conversations, sometimes even using all three in the same sentence.
The 100th birth anniversary of Kaifi Azmi fell on January 14, 2019. In the early part of the previous year, as winter was waning, I had a chance meeting with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar at a cultural event at the beautifully restored Bikaner House in Lutyen’s Delhi. Shabana shared that as part of the centenary birth anniversary of Kaifi Azmi, there were plans for year-long celebrations. It was then that the idea of this particular volume took root.
After the meeting at Bikaner House, I revisited the Kaifi Azmi section in my own library. I leafed through his collection of published poems. I re-read the available translations in English. I read anecdotal accounts on his life by his family and friends — and as I read more and more, the book took shape.
Describe your journey of rediscovering the poetry of Kaifi Azmi?
SS: In the early 2000s, I published my first Kaifi Azmi translation, in a literary magazine, Atlas. It was his poem, “Ek Bosa” (“One Kiss”). Subsequently this poem appeared in my book, Aria, containing 100 translations from various Indian and foreign languages.
Now, so many years later, I have had the privilege of co-translating and compiling an anthology of translations of Kaifi Azmi’s poems and, in doing so, immersing myself in his verse, both in the original and translated form. As always, the poetry has left me seared, stirred and serenaded.
Flowers bloom in unkempt wilted gardens
on the thirst-wrenched earth — clouds collect, hover.
Momentarily, the world relinquish cruelty —
momentarily, all stones start to smile.
The whole translation process has allowed me to grow as a person. I have truly enjoyed the richly fascinating world of Kaifi Azmi, enjoyed his poetry — its music, cadence and texture; its passion, concerns and gravitas.
How was the experience of meeting the great poet himself?
SS: Ironically, I never had a chance to meet the Kaifi Azmi in person. I first met his daughter, Shabana Azmi, about two decades ago, in Bangladesh, at a reception hosted at the residence of the Deputy Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka. I recall telling her that I greatly admired Kaifi Azmi’s poetry, and that I had an out-of-print copy of Pritish Nandy’s translations of The Poetry of Kaifi Azmi. This sharply piqued her interest — she said she did not herself have a copy of it anymore and asked if I could pass it on to her. Shuffling hesitantly, I replied that I would happily give her photocopies of the book, but the original copy was one of my prized possessions. The next day, I sent two sets of photocopies of that book to the hotel she was staying in, with a note requesting if she could mail one of them back with Kaifi Azmi’s autograph.
Some years passed and then, out of the blue, in 2001, I received a package containing the then newly published book of translation by Pavan Varma, Kaifi Azmi: Selected Poems. To my pleasant surprise, it also contained, autographed by Kaifi Azmi dated May 26, 2001, one of those photocopies of my The Poetry of Kaifi Azmi, as well as a handwritten letter by Shabana Azmi:
1st June 2001
You must have dismissed me by now as
the stereotypical ‘Hindi Film Star’ who
lacks the courtesy to acknowledge a kind
gesture or the grace to keep her word.
The reason I have is so lame that
you’ll be convinced into believing it’s not
an excuse! The fact is that I had kept your
book and your card in such ‘safe custody’
that I couldn’t find it! It suddenly appeared
as if by magic … and so here it is––duly
signed by Abba.
Pavan Varma’s [book of translations
is enclosed] …. Do let me know what
And thank you and sorry!
And on the fly-leaf of the book, was Kaifi Azmi’s autograph and a personal note in blue-black ink in his inimitable cursive calligraphic style — I was told by Shabana Azmi later that he was partial to his huge collection of 18 Mont Blanc fountain pens, which he would send all the way to the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York to be serviced — along with an inscription:
Sudeep Sen ke liye, jo khud ek honhar shayar hain
As a young poet then, and an admirer, you can imagine how thrilled I was (and remain so until this day). My only regret is that I never got to meet him in person as he passed away not too long after that.
Interestingly, the two-line extract from “Inteshar” (“Anarchy”) that Kaifi Azmi chose to hand write in my autographed photocopy, appears as a signature in all of his daughter’s emails.
koi to sood chukaye, koi to zimma le
us inquilab ka jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai
if only one paid the interest, if only one took responsibility
for that revolution — which even now, seems as a debt.
Tell us something about Kaifi Azmi’s life.
SS: Kaifi Azmi, whose real name was Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi was born on January 14, 1919, in a zamindar family in the village of Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh. He wrote his first ghazal — “Itna To Zindagi Mein Kisi Ki Khalal Pade” — at the age of 11. What marks this debut piece of writing is that it was later sung by the well-known singer, the young Begum Akhtar.
Azmi abandoned his Persian and Urdu studies during the Quit India agitations in 1942 — and shortly thereafter, became a member of the Communist Party of India. Later, he went to Bombay and joined Ali Sardar Jafri in writing for the party’s paper, Qaumi Jung. At the time of marrying Shaukat Kaifi, he was a “full-time” card-carrying member of the party, living in a commune-like arrangement in Mumbai. A member of the Progressive Writers Movement and also the president of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Kaifi worked closely with the labor union movement and his concern for the less privileged has found ample voice in his poetry.
Kaifi Azmi’s first collection of poems, Jhankar, was published in 1943. Some of his other significant works, including poetry anthologies, are: Aakhir-e-Shab (1947), Awaara Sajde (1974), Sarmaya (1994), Kaifiyaat (2011) and Nai Gulistan: Volumes 1 & 2 (2001). As a lyricist and songwriter, he wrote for numerous films — Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Haqeeqat (1964), Heer Raanjha (1970), among others.
In February 1973, when Kaifi Azmi was in his mid-50s, he suffered a paralytic stroke which left his left hand and leg incapacitated for life. Even as he struggled with the disability that was imposed on him, he continued to write. He also chose, at this stage, to direct his energies to the upliftment of Mijwan, the village that was his birthplace. This stayed his focus till the time he passed away, aged 84, on 10 May 2002.
In recognition of his contribution to the area, the Government of India named the train that ran on the Delhi-Azamgarh-Delhi route as “Kaifiyat Express”. He has also been awarded the Padma Shri, one of Government of India’s highest civilian awards; and has been honored with a doctorate from the Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan.
His legacy, even a hundred years after his birth, is aptly illustrated in the following extract from his poem “Doosra Toofan” (“Second Storm”):
However, his pen —
which bears a hundred names
and has a hundred tasks —
continues fighting, as before;
continues moving, as before —
sometimes in one hand,
sometimes in another.
What were the challenges you faced as a translator — and did your own style and work as a poet enter the creative space?
SS: Since Bengali and Hindi are my two other mother tongues, it has been easy for me to render accurately from the Urdu/Hindustani original of Kaifi Azmi’s poetry, keeping its cadence and lyricism as close to the original as possible. At the core of my translation process, an important aspect I have kept in mind is that the English versions should read as good contemporary poems — one that allows the translations to satisfy the litmus test in the wider national and international English-speaking literary world. I hope I have been able to achieve that.
At the surface, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry appears political and familial. His subject matter spans the ideas of nation, state, border, history, as well as themes of love, longing, despair, hope and more. His poetry, his work as a lyricist in mainstream Hindi cinema, his journalism for the communist party newspaper, his role as a husband and father, his incredible social work for the welfare of his ancestral village — Mijwan and its surrounding area — and more, make him not just a remarkable artist but a truly outstanding human being.
All these are reflected in his large oeuvre of creative work —and in his poetry’s canvas. Th accretive quality of an ongoing life’s wisdom is distilled in a form that is not only honest, but also highly oratorical. He read his poetry aloud beautifully, and one cannot but be mesmerized by his voice and the trance-like quality of his delivery.
In my translations, I have tried to bring out all that as best as one can in another language. Every language has its limitations and its advantages—and English is no exception. The rhyming structure and tonal sub-variations in Urdu/Hindi is very fine tuned, and often difficult to match in English. However, one of the advantages of English is its enormously wide vocabulary, a language that grows every year taking into its fold words and phrases from other languages.
My translations are done very much from the point of view of a practicing English-language poet—and the most important barometric impulse was that they should read like good poems in English. I am grateful that some leading Urdu poets, writers and academics from India and Pakistan I respect have gone through my translations in detail. And I am sure that their astute suggestions and critical comments have made my versions of the poems better and more accurate.
And to achieve overall accuracy, one has to also pay close heed to aspects of prosody — rhyme, meter, weight of each phrase, tonal quality of words, its inherent music, syntax, and more. I will share a few examples of what I mean. Take the short poem, ‘Advice | Mashvarey’, where I maintain the original Urdu rhyme scheme of ‘aabaa ccbcc’ in my English translation.
‘This storm, this cyclone, this fast current —
the crackling show, thunderous ferment,
dark vastness, heaving ocean —
no guiding light, no stars in the firmament —
the traveller stood still, motionless, despondent.’
‘For him, the companion; for him, the shore’s rim —
who caught in a storm-flood, attempts to swim —
dark vastness, heaving ocean —
these currents will keep beating their heads in —
how far will you go, sticking to the shore’s rim?’
Kaifi Azmi often used Urdu words and phrases that are full of onomatopoeia or are alliterative, like — in ‘One Kiss | Ek Bosa’, ‘jhilmilate’ (for which I use ‘glow, glitter’):
The moment I kiss these beautiful eyes —
a hundred lamps in the darkness — glow, glitter.
Or in ‘Two Nights | Do Raatein’, he uses ‘uljhe-uljhe’ (and I use ‘jumbled-confused’), or ‘sahmi-sahmi’ (I use ‘scared-frightened’). To mirror that, I have consciously created compound hyphenated phrases to meaningfully convey the original Urdu cadence and syllabic beats in the English.
In the poem, ‘Celebration of Love | Pyar ka Jashn’, an exclamatory everyday-phrase ‘kya kehena’ is repeated as a refrain. And to keep the same flavor, I use the celebratory colloquial Spanish usage: ‘bravo, I say!’ — both phrases also being four syllables to match each other.
Celebration of love — we must rejoice in a new way.
Sadness in any heart — this sadness mustn't stay.
On trembling lips, a promise of fidelity — bravo, I say?
Your unsure feet, see where they’ve carried you — bravo, I say?
In my home, your face all lit — bravo, I say?
In every home — I must light a lamp, today.
Kaifi Azmi’s repertoire of work is so wide and various — how did you choose the poems? How was it working with different translators who are part of this book?
SS: It is important to emphasize that different translators have their own set of modalities and preferences when they translate from one language to another — each of them use and implement different sets of translation rules and logic. It is a question of how true to the original one wants to be, or how much liberty one can take with the original poem — ultimately that is each translator’s personal call.
For these reasons, you will see in some of the translators’ English versions the word/phrase order has been altered, or there are varying line-lengths, and at times the number of lines/stanzas differ compared to the Urdu/Hindi versions. As an editor (when I deemed it appropriate), if I found that the translators’ English lines were too long and therefore spilled over to extra lines, I put indentations to indicate that—this also allows the reader to get a more accurate visual match of the number of lines per stanza in the original Urdu/Hindi poems.
Additionally, some translators have taken the route of translating the story of the original poems — this, in some cases, has required them to veer from the precise translation and adopt a more interpretative version. Taking an editor’s call, I have made allowances and given this space to those translators for their expansive personal versions.
As mentioned earlier, there will be tonal variations in register as very diverse minds have independently contemplated them, but I think this aspect of variability adds to the democratic richness, one that brings out the inner strength and possibilities of Kaifi Azmi’s wonderful poetry.
This book also contains insightful and important headnotes by four of the five translators that precede their own set of translations. In addition, Kaifi Azmi’s biography, bibliography, archival photo album, and of course his poetry that follows in Hindi and English translations — reveal, in a nuanced manner, a lot about the poet himself.
There is an enormous amount of easily accessible information available on Kaifi Azmi’s excellent website — www.azmikaifi.com. Keeping all these in mind, I have kept the tone of the book personal, pointed, anecdotal, poetry and translation focused.
Kaifi Azmi, of course, also has a towering reputation as a film lyricist and songwriter in the world of Hindi mainstream cinema of yesteryears. This aspect alone can be the subject of a full-fledged book. For the purpose of this volume—apart from a few select song lyrics (ghazals) — I have chosen to concentrate predominantly on his poetry (nazms).
How important are translations to reach out to wider audiences?
SS: It goes without saying that translations are crucial to reach a wider audience, and that is certainly one of the primary advantages of translation. After the translation is done, suddenly that particular text lives in new language, there is a readership in that new language which is lovely. Then depending on the book, publisher, language, country and the team behind it, a lot of positive things can happen. Ultimately, a whole new audience opens up in the target language – which is such a boon in literature. Let us face it; most of the foreign literatures we read are in translation. And one has to be grateful for that.