Shaukat Azmi epitomised the finest qualities of progressive writers and artists
The All-Indian Urdu Progressive Writers Conference, held in Hyderabad in February 1947, was the highpoint of this powerful literary grouping that had, by now, seized the imagination of creative writers all across the Subcontinent. We get a delightful account of this gathering from Shaukat Azmi, a Hyderabad lass, who met her future husband, Kaifi Azmi, during the conference and was swept up in a life very different from the one she had known. Struck by the lack of affectation in the group of young writers from Bombay, she was to write in her engrossing memoir, Yaad ki Rahguzar (translated into English as Kaifi & I: “The young progressive writers were a refreshing change; they wore their fame so lightly that I was overwhelmed.” No progressives’ conference was ever complete without a mushaira; this one had a virtual galaxy of greats. Shaukat heard Kaifi recite his rousing poem, Taj, a powerful attack on monarchy and injustice (which required some fearlessness in the city of nizams) and was moved beyond words. Throwing caution to the winds, she travelled to Bombay with her father, saw Kaifi’s room in the commune in Andheri, met his friends, and decided to plunge headlong in this life of poetry, politics and progressivism.
Shaukat’s memoir provides a luminous account of her new life in a Bombay bursting with new ideas in the company of gregarious comrades: Sajjad Zaheer and his wife Razia, the affable duo of Munish Saxena and S M Mehdi, Sardar Jafri and his wife Sultana who took Shaukat under her wing, the parsimonious Party Treasurer Comrade S V Ghate (who nevertheless grudgingly parted with Rs 100 to the newly-weds), and P C Joshi, the General Secretary of the CPI (from 1935-1947) who comes across in her narrative as a benevolent despot. Shaukat’s nikah with Kaifi was witnessed by nearly all the progressive writers from Bombay; it was followed, naturally enough, by a mushaira with Majaz reciting Aaj ki Raat and the bride being presented a copy of the groom’s first collection of poetry, Aakhr-e-Shab, dedicated to her. Shaukat describes Kaifi and his friends, who would become her fellow-travellers, thus:
“They were enlightened and humane individuals who were struggling to create a new world for the poor, the destitute and the hungry. Although they were from different parts of India, these people were like one family where everyone was addressed as ‘Comrade’, which at the time meant an evolved human being.”
Kaifi earned Rs 40 as monthly salary from the Party, of which Rs 30 went towards his wife’s boarding expense. Partly to lighten the burden on Kaifi and partly in response to Joshi’s command that “the wife of a communist should never sit idle”, Shaukat got drawn into the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, launched in May 1943 in Bombay with the aim of using the stage and other traditional arts to portray the problems facing the country.
Shaukat’s first role was in Ismat Chughtai’s Dhani Bankein, a play on the Hindu-Muslim riots that were tearing the fabric of a newly-independent India. Soon, she got drawn into the country’s most vigorous cultural movement that had the likes of Zohra Sehgal, Uzra Butt, Bhisham Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor among its stalwarts. While the catalyst for IPTA was the Bengal famine, it continued to be active long after the progressives waned, and Shaukat toured the country with a band of committed young actors intent upon creating a new theatrical vocabulary and aesthetics. The most visible and immediate effect of their efforts was the introduction of a non-sectarian ethos in stage and cinema, one that rose above the narrow confines of caste, creed and religion and worked as a balm on a national psyche traumatised by the communal outrages before, after and during the partition.
Later years would see Shaukat in many memorable roles in Garam Hawa, Umrao Jaan, Salaam Bombay, among others. Muse to her poet husband, working mother, talented actor, house-proud hostess, a woman of the world, she “showed the way” to a generation of women. And proved how it was possible to be all of the above when accompanied by large dollops of humour and humanity.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 26 under the title ‘Comrades in verse’. Jalil is an author, translator and literary historian.