“Each day brings a new dawn, birds chirrup..there are days when the rain clouds burst forth, and rain showers fall finding their way into the verandah. Each day our help, Vinod places the tea tray on the table. But the chair across me is empty. My Kaifi is not on the chair. My Kaifi, whose fragility did not deter his desire to begin his day with a cup of tea made by me. He would make his way to the chair, and with trembling hands and grateful eyes receive that cup, sipping it like it was nectar.”
That nectar of never ending love and a remarkable life was tasted on the night of 2nd December, by hundreds in a theatrical presentation at Roxy Theater in Atlanta. It was showcased by Vachikam and Dhristhi from Chicago.
The theatrical production relived some special moments of the lives of the great poet Kaifi Azmi and his wife Shaukat. The characters of Shaukat and Kaifi were played by legendary actress Shabana Azmi who is their daughter and her husband the equally talented and prominent screenplay writer and poet Javed Akhtar. Sprinkled through the narrative were mesmerizing film songs written by Kaifi and sung equally beautifully by singer par excellence Jaswinder Singh.
The story runs a parallel path of Shaukat and Kaifi’s lives and yet the paths intersect on so many turns that their individual lives and dreams merge and separate, and still form a consummate whole.
The beautiful Shaukat first met Kaifi as a teenager, and saw the tall handsome poet surrounded by a bevy of female admirers. She deliberately ignored Kaifi and went to him for an autograph much later. He wrote a horrible couplet in her book and she asked him sourly-“Why did you write such a horrible couplet on my book?” He replied mischievously-“Why did you go to Sardar Jafri first for an autograph?” The chemistry was intense and instant, and ignited a spark that withstood everything-Shaukat’s prospective engagement to another cousin and marriage in three months, their long distance relationship, Kaifi’s life in a communist commune and his commitment to his cause, a hand to mouth living, Kafi’s stroke that left him partially paralyzed for 30 years. Some beautiful moments were shared on stage by Shabana and Javed whose mesmerizing voices, brought Kaifi and Shaukat to life before our eyes. The romance-Kaifi looking at Shaukat and asking for cup after cup of water, and then looking at her after the umpteen cup, and saying softly-my thirst is still not quenched, of Kaifi writing to her with his blood, professing his deep love for her. For the poet who was synonymous with fiery politics, his soulful love poems,( Tumhari Zulf Ke saaye mein Shaam Kar loonga, Safar ik umar ka pal mein tamaam kar loonga-I shall welcome my evening in the shade of your tresses, and complete my life’s journey in a moment) were perhaps rooted in his passion for the woman who became his partner for 55 years-years that too seemed to have passed by in a moment.
Kaifi was born in a family of landlords and yet he chose a life that took him away from all the comforts. Javed as Kaifi narrates moments from those times with wit and humor. The time when after an altercation with the Police at a political rally Kaifi was arrested with other young men and then released at a distance and was aghast at not being taken to jail.” How will I show my face to anyone?” was the young poet’s refrain! Or when his father tried to get the rebellious atheist educated at an exclusive Shia religious/academic institution, Kaifi formed a students’ union that went on strike and in turn Kaifi was struck from the school. Supposedly Kaifi was sent there to study theology, instead he dug the grave of theologians with orthodox views and moved on!
Political activism, the passion to help mankind, his advent into films and the financial struggles that the couple went through are all etched beautifully in the presentation. “Many people had no idea what a terrific sense of humor my father had”, says Shabana after the play. Indeed the few gems that were sprinkled through the narrative were priceless-the time that Kaifi was unwell and was breathing through his mouth, and was told to shut his mouth and breathe through his nose. Even then lying in the hospital very ill, pat came the response, “If you want to shut a mouth, shut Bal Thackeray’s not mine.”
Always a supporter of equal partnership between men and women, Kaifi’s poem Aurat(Woman) and his poem Makan(House) move people deeply to this day.
His swan song in film making was Heer Ranjha, where the entire script was written in verse. But Kaifi’s advent into writing lyrics for films wasn’t easy either. All the songs he wrote became hits while the movies flopped. He began to be known as an unlucky poet until another unlucky film director showed up at his door-Chetan Anand didn’t budge when Kaifi warned him of his “unlucky charm” status. Anand said his stars weren’t exactly shining bright either at that moment. Then came Haqeeqat and Kar chale hum fida jaano tan saathiyo, and Anand and Azmi never looked back after that. The stars shone as Rafi too churned out one gem after the other in his mellifluous, unforgettable voice, capturing every emotion that the lyrics conveyed with great finesse.
Meanwhile Shaukat after being told by one of Kaifi’s colleagues that a comrade’s wife walks shoulder to shoulder with her husband, went on to start her professional career with a radio program and became one of the most respected actors in the world of theater and films.
Life went on until the fateful night in 1973 when Kaifi came down with a stroke that was misdiagnosed. For thirty years after that, the handsome man fought paralysis, overcame depression and continued to make a difference in the life of others.
My mother, Suman Chhibber, happened to see him a few years before he passed away, when my uncle was Governor of Punjab. Kaifi sahib had been invited to the Governor’s mansion for a Mushaira. Mom recalls, “ Kaifi Azmi was a great man. He came in a wheel chair, and stood before the mike, trembling, seemingly frail, his mouth slightly twisted, and then his magnetism, his words, his passion, mesmerized and lit up the entire room. He became an inspiration and a symbol of courage, light and all that is powerful- obliterating all those able bodied men and women before him. I remain deeply touched by the vision to this day.”
There is so much about Kaifi and Shaukat that transcends the play- to capture an entire life time in a two hour performance is impossible. But what Shabana and Javed did magnificently was to capture the essence, the magic that lay at the core of this multilayered love story seen through the eyes and words of Shaukat and Kaifi and polished and staged through the script of Javed Akhtar.
Jaswinder Singh, a young ghazal singer outdid himself that night, when he sang Kaifi’s Heer especially, along with several other gems, like Tumhari Zulf ke saaye mein shaam kar loonga, waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam, Tum jo mil gaye ho, dekhi zamane ki yaari, tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, to mention a few.
There was not a single person who didn’t have a lump in their throat when Shabana voice spoke of the void that Kaifi’s death left in Shaukat’s life. Shaukat says-“Life goes on just like before Kaifi-but you are lost somewhere. When you left for the village, there was always this hope that you will return some day. I still remember that New Year’s Eve. The house was resonating with the hustle and bustle of celebration. I was running around taking care of my guests, when suddenly from a corner of my heart, this little desire came ignited and wished you were there.
And then my heart was filled with such joy when I suddenly saw you walking towards me holding your walking stick. I raced towards you and embraced you and said” array wah, how did you return? How did you know that your absence was preventing me from enjoying this occasion fully? It feels so good to have you here. Now my new year truly begins.
Can it not happen again Kaifi-that you return suddenly and I , overwhelmed with joy, embrace you tightly?...I console my heart thinking that you have become immortal, but how do I handle this thought that I’m so alone without you Kaifi.”
The night came to an end, like Kaifi’s life, but the memories will always stay alive through productions like these.