Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obituary: Progressive Urdu poet Ahmed Faraz

The revolutionary Pakistani poet Ahmed Faraz, whose name is synonymous in South Asia with modern Urdu poetry, died Aug. 25 in Islamabad. He was 77.

The cause was kidney failure, said his son Shibli Faraz.

He was earlier reported to have died while being treated in a Chicago hospital after a fall in Baltimore, but he returned to his homeland, where he died.

Popular among both the cognoscenti and the general public, he was one of the few poets from the subcontinent whose verses were read as well as sung. He was in great demand at the mushaira, social gatherings — usually after dusk — at which Urdu poets recite their poems.

Often compared to legends of the past like Mohammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mr. Faraz was as popular in India as he was in his own country.

He enjoyed a near cult status in the pantheon of revolutionary poets. In India and other countries outside Pakistan, he was best known for his ghazals — poems expressing the writer’s feelings, especially about love — which were popularized by leading singers like Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Runa Laila and Jagjit Singh.

A passionate voice for change and progress, Mr. Faraz was usually at his best when writing the poetry of love and protest. His romantic poetry made him particularly beloved by the young; the establishment was not so fond of his verses mocking and at times exposing the authorities.

An advocate for the poor and downtrodden, Mr. Faraz raised his voice against capitalists, usurpers and dictators. In the 1980s he went into a six-year self-imposed exile in Canada and Europe during the era of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, whose military rule of Pakistan he had condemned at a mushaira and whose power seemed to drive him to heights of inspiration.

“That was the worst phase for our country’s writers,” he once said of the general’s rule. “Yet it also provided ample food for thought for the poet and made protest poetry so popular in Pakistan.”

Mr. Faraz, who was also closely associated with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party, wrote some of his best poetry in exile, including “Dekhtay Hain” (“Let Us Gaze”) and “Mohasara” (“The Siege”). In all, he had written 13 volumes of Urdu poetry.

Ahmed Faraz was the pseudonym of Syed Ahmad Shah, who was born in Nowshera village near Kohat in Pakistan on Jan. 14, 1931. His father, Agha Syed Muhammad Shah Bark Kohati, was a leading traditional poet.

He studied at Edwards College in Peshawar and was greatly influenced by progressive poets like Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri. They became his role models. He obtained his master’s degree in Urdu and Persian from Peshawar University. He subsequently taught the two languages there, though he began his career as a scriptwriter with Radio Pakistan.

Mr. Faraz’s first volume of poetry, “Tanha Tanha,” was published in the late 1950s, when he was an undergraduate student, and became a huge, instant hit. He had a tendency to create controversies about himself or about various issues. He spoke against marriage, saying it was “a sort of prostitution through a contract on paper.” He also said Urdu was “a dying language,” prompting outrage among Urdu speakers.

In 1976 Mr. Faraz became the founding director general of the Pakistan Academy of Letters. He was its chairman in 1989 and 1990. His last official job was as the chairman of National Book Foundation based in Islamabad.

Mr. Faraz advocated peace between India and Pakistan and emphasized personal bonds over geographic boundaries. He is survived by his wife and three sons.

Awarded one of Pakistan’s greatest civilian honors, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, in 2004 for his literary achievements, he returned it in 2006 after becoming disillusioned with President Pervez Musharraf’s government.

“My conscience will not forgive me if I remained a silent spectator of the sad happenings around us,” he said at the time. “The least I can do is to let the dictatorship know where it stands in the eyes of the concerned citizens, whose fundamental rights have been usurped.”

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