Prof. Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’
Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’ has long been one of my favorite literary figures. Regarded as one of the most important names in Urdu poetry, literary criticism and language scholarship, Firaq, which means separation in Urdu, was one of those naturally charismatic people. A thinker of subtle but charming self-absorption, he was at equal ease teaching English literature (his professional calling) and creating and reciting his Urdu/Persian poetry.
It is a pity that there is a sparse audio-visual record of Firaq because he was such an effortlessly cinematic figure and could have lent himself to a terrific full-length documentary feature. I have seen few people who smoke cigarettes with such relish and yet such detachment at once.
There is a short documentary about him, which was made by India’s Films Division in 1971, available on YouTube. He was already 75 then. Born in 1896, he died in 1982 at 85. There are also a couple of other sessions from a different video about where he holds forth on how language often rises from much more intimate sources such as individual families. (See the video above). It has one of those rare stimulating conversations carried out by Firaq, unmindful of and unselfconscious about the presence of TV cameras. With his cigarette dangling he discusses finer points of language.
He makes a couple of striking points when he says,”Bhasha ka base illiteracy hai. (The base of language is illiteracy).Aur literature kehte hain brilliant illiteracy ko. (Literature is brilliant illiteracy).” He also says that brilliant literature should not be defined by the use of words that ordinary, perhaps even illiterate, people do not use.
“Great literature aur brilliant literature wahi hai ki itne bade bachche ko jo labz malum hai us se who Gita likh le,” ( Great literature and brilliant literature is one where the words that a child this small knows can use to write the Gita),” Firaq says.
He illustrates his point about the accessibility of great literature by giving the example of Charles Dickens and how his cleaning lady could enjoy his books in her free time. He says the great Hindi litterateurs Premchand and Surdas both had this facility.
I admit to not having read Firaq much but from whatever little one has read one can infer his intellectual depth. I say infer because Firaq was a great proponent of being able to infer when one is not well-versed with something.
The short Films Division documentary does an effective job of capturing the more compelling aspects of Firaq’s personality. Obviously gifted with a charming sense of humor and great skill as raconteur, Firaq’s presence at poetic conventions was a major draw. There are a couple of places in this documentary where Firaq opens his recitation with humor. In one he describes how a man falls inside a well. A poet happens to pass by and he too falls inside the well. Rather than looking for ways to rescue themselves, the poet declares that he would recite some verses from his poetry. The other funny incident that Firaq narrates is about a haunted house which no one wanted to buy. A poet, unable to find any home for himself, decides to buy it. He then drives the ghosts away by reciting his poetry.
There is so much to quote from Firaq’s great body of poetic works but for the purposes of this post I would like to cite just one throwaway line from this documentary.
“Zulmat ke seeney mein humdum
Main roz charagha karta hoon.”
(In the heart of darkness, my dear
I always spread light (His literal words are ‘I light lamps everyday’)
Firaq’s poetry was also defined by the influence of nature, something he said he was inspired to do by the likes of Wordsworth. There is a short discussion with students in this documentary about it.
Perhaps I am wrong but one no longer finds this level of erudition and this finesses and sophistication in articulation of great ideas that the literary giants such Prof. Sahay commanded with such lightness of touch. Pay attention to how he says what a civilization like India has had to balance for millennia before it acquired its greatness.
There is zero provocation for this post today, but then do we really need a reason to acknowledge people of such brilliance? I don’t think so. Not that I need any inspiration to write my own poetry but in the midst of watching this documentary I wrote a ghazal which contains a subconscious tribute to Firaq in these two lines:
Their free translation would be:
Battling darkness is my old pastime
But I can no longer keep the fire going using burnt matchsticks