This year’s season of Coke Studio has been a lot of things. There have been highs and lows, controversies and outrages, and all the other topsy turvy ups and downs that come with a change in creative brain power.
Yet season 11 had come bearing glad tidings right before it was launched. In the tradition of previous seasons, Ali Hamza and Zohaib Qazi also recorded a collaborative song by all of the season’s performing artists. The one chosen by the new producers for this season was Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s timeless ‘Hum bhi Dekhein Gai’.
While it may not have had the same story or legendary stature as the one sung by Iqbal Bano bac in the ‘80s, it was still a very well received rendition. Yet as with anything, there were many detractors. Those with leftist sensibilities started to complain. This is a socialist anthem they said, written for the people embroiled in class struggle, not something to be appropriated by a corporate entity. And not just a corporate entity at that, but rather this particular poem has been used in election songs by not just the PTI, but has also been used by the Jamat Islami to indicate the ushering in of an era of Islamic governance.
The great Faiz, of course, is without parallel in his era. Urdu literature is usually divided into four eras, each reigned over by a poet King of the language. The first was Mir, and the second was Ghalib. The third and fourth were Iqbal and Faiz, both representing the zenith of the Urdu language. And while comparisons to Iqbal are unwarranted and unhelpful, so great was the influence and depth of Faiz’s impact on Urdu poetry that the language has not had a poet King since his passing away in 1984.
The lyrical power and deep understanding that Faiz created with his words was unparalleled in Urdu. Where Iqbal was a master of creating and manipulating terms, Faiz was a poet of the hearts. Where Iqbal was confused ideologically, sometimes pan-islamist and sometimes nationalist, Faiz had a singular clarity on political ideology – he was a staunch communist.
That the proletarian struggle against the Bourgeoisie was on Faiz’s mind when he wrote and composed this poem there is little doubt about.
But is that it for Faiz? Is he a poet simply for the left? He himself might have wanted it to be so, ye the continues to be a figure venerated across the political chasm. Even as the fourth Faiz International Festival honours the poet as his 34th death anniversary nears, Faiz continues to become a universal figure for Urdu speakers of all political and ideological bents. Nothing is a reflection of this more than the festival itself. This celebration of Faiz’s life and work is a largely and understandably secular affair. The guests of a political nature include Ali Wazir, Ismat Shahjahan, Raza Rabbani, Afsariab Khattak, Taimur ur Rehman, I A Rehman, and Atizaz Ahsan among others. Other speakers at the festival such as Zia Moheyuddin and Tina Sani are of a literary and artistic nature.
Yet the secular nature of the Faiz Festival has not meant that it was attended only by the loosely defined left that exists in Lahore. Rather, this was a vibrant festival full of people of all ideological persuasions. So versatile are the words of Faiz, that they are used as inspiration not just by those like minded with the poet, but even those that would be his vehement opponents in life.
Written texts are not simply the words of an author, and the goal of interpretation is not necessarily going behind the text to discover the meaning or intent of the author. Texts often speak on their own, standing as living, breathing things that converse with the reader and have something to say. Every single reading is different, but if the aesthetic of the writing is strong enough, it will have some affect or the other on the reader – whether it is conversion or appropriation.
There is no doubting the mastery of Faiz’s aesthetic. He is perhaps the only challenger to the near God-like presence of Iqbal that looms large in Urdu literature. And while Faiz’s politics were clear, he is a poet of such brilliance that despite being deeply embroiled in it, he continues to transcend things like politics. His poems stand on their own, alive separate from his person.
With more than three decades since his passing, Faiz is now more a poet of the people – all the people – then he ever could have been as the workers’ poet.