Javed Akhtar talks to Pratiti Ganatra about the attacks on intellectuals, and argues that a poet's role isn’t so much to incite revolution but to catalyse it.
Dr Kalburgi and MM Basheer are only the latest in a long line of intellectuals who have been targeted by “fringe elements” for expressing views that challenge orthodoxy. This month’s issue of Kindle Magazine seeks to understand what it means to be an intellectual in such an environment, especially a poet, where even the threat of future violence can drive the disseminators of ideas—publishers, universities, and academic journals—to self-censorship. But before we get into specifics, what is your take on this current attack on the intellectuals?
It’s very sad and very disturbing. I mean, one doesn’t expect this in our society. Such things happen in some parts of the world, but one thought that this would not happen in India. You can see that it is becoming like a serial—one after another, rationalists and people with scientific, or rational or logical arguments or against old beliefs and religions and superstitions are being eliminated. And I have no idea what the police is doing about it, what the law enforcement agencies are doing about it, because to the best of my knowledge, so far they have not reached any logical end. So what kind of enquiry, what kind of work are they doing to find those who are responsible?
This is very disturbing. I mean, look at the pattern—they are young boys, they come on a motorcycle, they come with revolvers or pistols. Obviously, they are trained, they are brainwashed. And it is the responsibility of the law-enforcement agencies to find out where they are trained, who are the people who are training them, who are the people who are brainwashing them? There is a pattern to it; it is not a random crime. It is being organised. Who are the people who are organising it? Where are these boys trained, where are the training camps?
In a controversial 1991 essay ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, Dana Gioia asserts that it is a “difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics,” given that poets lack a role in the broader culture and therefore do not have the confidence to create public speech. Why is it that poets in this day and age are not considered legitimate actors in the public sphere?
Well, as a matter of fact, in recent decades what has happened is that because of our education system, because of the priority of the parents, language and literature have not been on the list of priorities. And when language and literature are not emphasised or given due importance, obviously the influence of poetry will reduce in the society. So that has happened.
You can see that it is becoming like a serial—one after another, rationalists and people with scientific, or rational or logical arguments or against old beliefs and religions and superstitions are being eliminated.
But at the same time, if you take any movements, any struggle, you will see there are anthems, there are people who write songs for these kind of causes, whether it is women empowerment, or the problem of dislocation because of so-called development, or against communalism or casteism—there have been anthems and there have been songs which these groups sing. So, there are people who are writing these kinds of songs.
But, by and large, the popularity and the influence of poetry has definitely reduced in society because the younger generation have not been exposed to poetry in their formative years at home or in their school. But I suppose we will have to give some kind of credit to the younger generation that now they are trying to discover what they have lost on their own.
The past has seen poets like Neruda, Federico García Lorca and Unamuno speaking out against General Franco during the Spanish Civil Wars, or Rene Char and Robert Desnos who wrote dissenting poetry while fighting for the Résistance, or Quasimodo and César Pavese in Italy, or the Russian poets or even Faiz for that matter. However, such examples are few and far between today. Why do you think that is?
That is what I was trying to say that when language is marginalised, when literature is marginalised in the society—even when the person writes, does it reach everybody? That’s the thing. You see, there are poets, there are concerned people who can or who do sometimes write such poetry but you see, that poetry does not have that kind of access in society that it once had.
The popularity and the influence of poetry has definitely reduced in society because the younger generation have not been exposed to poetry in their formative years at home or in their school.
But fiction has much wider access . . . why do you think poetry is not getting that much of an audience?
What makes you think fiction has a wider access? You ask the publishers, except for the popular paperback, which you can call pulp fiction, serious literature is not being read the way it was read 40-50 years back.
But you hardly see daily newspapers review poetry, and the presence of poets or poetry in the general press is also very limited. Why is this the case?
It is only because in our schools, in our colleges, in our homes—it has not been given to the people. They don’t develop a palate for good poetry.
Edmund Wilson, in a debate in 1934 said that as verse—which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation—retreated into lyric, prose usurped much of its cultural territory. Truly ambitious writers eventually had no choice but to write in prose. Do you agree with this line of thinking?
It is not a matter of choice. I mean, some people are by temperament poets, and they can only express themselves in poetry. And then there are people who express themselves in prose. Sometimes there are people who have that facility in both prose and poetry. It only happens sometimes. Rarely.
I don’t like this idea of a poet having social responsibility. It means that he is writing something because he is socially responsible, and not because he wants to write.
There was a time in history, during the American Transcendentalist and British Romantic periods of writing, that it was thought that poets should be expected to contribute to society on an elevated plane. It was felt that poets understood the importance of imagination and they could interpret issues with a sense of clarity that others didn’t. What do you feel the role of a poet is today? Do you think that the poet has a social responsibility?
You see, I don’t like this idea of a poet having social responsibility. It means that he is writing something because he is socially responsible, and not because he wants to write. So anybody who is sensitive, anybody who has the right value system will obviously be concerned about whatever is happening around him or her. And will write about it. But to say that he or she is responsible to write this will always create bad poetry, because then, you are writing because you are supposed to write and not because you want to write.
In a recent seminar on Kaifi Azmi at the AMU, you said that poetry is something that can inspire a country. So in this present world, do you think there is this urgent need for such poetry which can inspire the country? Where are the poets who can do this?
I did not specifically say that poetry can inspire a country. What I meant was that when there is a movement, when there is a cause or an agitation, the poet gives words to it. The poet gives expression to it. It turns into an iconic anthem on its own. But I don’t remember any instance in history where some poetry has brought a revolution. Yes, when the revolution is coming, poetry is very effective—poetry contributes but poetry can’t cause.
Tell us a little bit about Khirman, which is the result of your family’s decade-long in compiling Muzter poetry.
My grandfather Muzter Khairabadi—Khairabad was the place from where he was—was an extremely prolific and popular poet of his own time. A lot of his poetry was published in magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century and so on. He passed away in 1927 at the age of 58, but he had started writing poetry at a very young age. Unfortunately, before he could bring out a compilation, he passed away. And his collection was thus never published, and that created a lot of problems.
I don’t remember any instance in history where some poetry has brought a revolution. Yes, when the revolution is coming, poetry is very effective—poetry contributes but poetry can’t cause.
First of all, those magazines are out of print, out of circulation. Now it is very difficult to find them in some libraries, some private collection and so on and so forth. Then there was a tradition at that time that if a poet has written something, he would send a copy to all his friends and mentors and peers and so on. So, that was also a source for collecting his poetry, because it was in different families. Some 20 years back, I found a collection of his hand-written poetry by somebody of around 150–200 ghazals, and my father had collected that and he had written a small preface also. And he had planned on publishing it as a book, but unfortunately he also passed away, and it was in his papers and it was not discovered.
I discovered it and so I decided to collect my grandfather’s poetry, because I could see that this is not all. And it took me ten years and a team collect his poetry and now ultimately I managed to collect his poetry and it has come to five volumes and every volume is around 500 to 550 to 600 pages. The Vice President of India released it on 5 September in Delhi. So far we have published limited editions, these are library editions . . . they will be given to some connoisseurs, different libraries in the world and so on. But after that within a few months, we intend to bring a selection of his poetry in Devnagri and Urdu [nastaliq] in different volumes.
In this process what was interesting was that there was a very famous ghazal—‘Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon, Na kisi ke dil ka karaar hoon’—which some 70-80 years back was wrongly attributed to Zafar. So, in this process I collected so many things, including this ghazal in his own diary, in his own handwriting, with his makhta, which is the last sher of the ghazal where the poet uses his own pseudonym also. So that is also there. And I found a book in a Lucknow library—Nadwatul Ulama’s library—the book’s title is Ameer Minai written by one of his disciples, and in that book which was written in 1928, only one year after Muzter’s death, this ghazal was attributed to Muzter and criticised. The man said that it is not a good ghazal of Muzter. And so as a matter of fact, there was no question at that time as to whose ghazal it was. This controversy came much later. Because it is attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar and after his death, for the next 55–56 years, this ghazal was never mentioned as Zafar’s. And it happened much later.
It must have been a very enriching experience for you.
Yes, of course. Soon the selection of poetry will be out as well. How many people will buy five volumes? That is only for the libraries and some people who are deeply interested in poetry. But we will bring a selection of Muzter’s poetry.