Deepa Karmalkar

Direction : Salima Raza
Cast : Salima Raza


Considering that 60 years ago shayar Josh Malihabadi was concerned about the future of Urdu language in India, wouldn't the reading of his Urdu biography, Yaadon ki Baraat, at the Prithvi Festival come as a pleasant surprise to him? Never mind if Urdu is no longer the refined language of literary expression, nevertheless it continues to captivate a niche audience for its romantic appeal.

When veteran actor-director Salima Raza began the solo reading of excerpts from Josh Malihabadi's biography - she brought alive the leisurely pastoral beauty of Malihabad, near Lucknow. She commenced by relating how young Shabbir Hasan Khan took the nom de plume - Josh. He held his uncle's raised hand at a poor farmer unable to pay the taxes. When his father demanded an explanation about this disrespectful behavior, he burst out that he couldn't just watch injustice being done, "Josh (fervour) from your veins also runs through mine," he justified and since then he made it his pen name.

Accompanied by a troupe of musicians, Salima Raza's narrative is interspersed with singing of Josh's poetry. The story of his life, work and intellectual tenets are revealed through the musical narrative. Known as the pioneering revolutionary Urdu poet who composed verses against British rule in India, Josh was one of the poets of the Progressive Movement.

It is fascinating to learn about the four pillars of Josh's existence - shergoi (composing poetry) which he started from the tender age of nine, ishq baazi (romancing) - he mentions as many as 18 love affairs, ilm talabi (thirst for knowledge) - he read holy texts of all religions and continued his philosophical journey and finally insaan dosti (humanism) - he respected every being. Josh was honoured with Padma Bhushan for his poetic excellence and popularity in 1954. Two years later, he migrated to Pakistan for better prospects. His later compositions were about missing India, his beloved watan.

How the patriotic shayar abandons his country and then pines for it till the very end in Pakistan - makes for a bizarre anticlimax of this tale. The literary context notwithstanding, what inspires Salima Raza to present his biography? The life of a poet who seems inconsistent with his intellectual beliefs, his moral disparity and the tragic irony of it all - perhaps.

Salima Raza's storytelling is immaculate with clear pronunciation, she brings characters to life through voice modulation and adds humour intermittently. She involves the audience as well as the music troupe as she converses with them. The singers Subhradeep Sahoo, Shashi Bhushan Samad (reading lyrics from his Braille book), Snigdha Prakash and Samriddhi Agrawal pep up the show with Josh's rousing shayari. Percussionists Ashok Shinde and Rajat Tiwari keep the tempo high. Josh's gazals gained popularity later with Jagjit Singh's renditions.

While old timers relished Josh's gazals and nazms, the Gen Z learnt about an iconic poet. A laudable presentation by the graceful Salima Raza! This storytelling session could have been followed by a Q & A from the audience.

Deepa Karmalkar is senior journalist, features writer and reviewer.)

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