by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
The danger in being the people’s poet is that the poet may end up being reduced to the limited capacity of his people’s reading, his message shrunken to reflect their superficial grasp of his poetry, his work bent out of shape, and the complexity, depth and subtlety critical to understanding it, utterly lost. While he may remain their beloved representative voice, the people’s poet is ultimately as shallow or enlightened as his people, and no one is less deserving of the punishment of being misconstrued than a poet whose life’s work is to define his people’s angst in all the rawness and refinement due to a poetics honoring both the political truth of the moment as well as the larger forces of history and culture that shape the language in which it is expressed; this is undoubtedly tricky terrain, because he bears the simultaneous (and contradictory) burden of being a singular visionary and having mass appeal. In order to have a reasonable appreciation of such a poet’s message, his people need to step up, and reach for better comprehension.
In recent days, a new rendition of “hum dekhain gay,” a poem by Pakistan’s best loved revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, elicited a strong response on social media, exposing not only political biases but also the extent to which the impassioned debaters understood the poem.
Serving as the preview of Coke Studio’s new season, the video of “Hum Dekhain Gay” showcases an impressive array of performers, a remarkably diverse mix of artists of various linguistic, ethnic, religious backgrounds (Christian, Hindu, Muslim) gender/transgender identities, and genres as wide-ranging as pop, qawwali, classical, folk. Released weeks before Independence Day, the song is a popular lyric expressing collective sentiment: a typical choice for Coke Studio’s season-premier which loosely commemorates the spirit of Independence Day. Whether by design or not, the release date coincided with the day the election results were announced, a move that proved controversial.
“Hum dekhain Gay” is a poem that is easy to love because the refrain lends itself to a shared sentiment of reclaiming the power that rightfully belongs to the people; the refrain is simple, inclusive, powerful, empowering. It is also easy to appropriate for the same reasons— it comes across as the anthem of the people, electrifying, easy to use and abuse, easy to imagine having ownership of it. This poem, in fact, is quintessentially pluralistic, and not, as the following article claims, aimed exclusively at Pakistan’s military, the historical prompt for the poet notwithstanding: https://theprint.in/opinion/what-coke-studio-did-to-faizs-song-pakistan-is-doing-to-its-people/88955/). This poem/song has been appropriated by various political parties over the decades and diminished in its scale and scope by readers with political biases— It is ironic that appropriation is the very thing the poem challenges, and scale is its primary gesture, as it defies those that claim authority and ownership of “the truth,” the supreme balance being the divine scale and the awe-inspiring spectacle of the day of judgment. The greatest quality of the poem is not the populist appeal of the refrain; it is the subversion of rigid, dictatorial religious orthodoxy (as well as all man-made hierarchies and power structures), using tropes that themselves originate from the sacred— from the Qura’an and from Sufi literature.
A staunch Marxist, journalist and political activist, but also a poet whose work honors Islamic heritage in its spirit and aesthetics, Faiz brilliantly employs imagery from the Qura’an (such as mountains floating like cotton-wool) to make the point that those who appropriate religion to control and oppress the masses are the ones that will face the ultimate accountability on judgement day— divine scrutiny and punishment. The ordinary, unorthodox and oppressed, the true “pure-of-heart” are Allah’s beloved people who will be favored over the oppressors.
The Coke studio rendition is profoundly true to the poem in its inclusiveness and enactment of solidarity, even in the varied textures/gestures of music, but there is a curious omission of a verse. While the missing verse may have been the result of music edits/modification of the poem into its song-video version, this powerful verse is not Faiz’s boldest gesture in the poem, as those who dislike the video claim (a claim that comes from a paranoia of censorship and is conflated with PTI’s victory and its relationship with the military). The most daring verse, in my opinion, is “the anthem of ana al Haqq rising”— the Sufi concept of God residing within, the concept which is ultimately egalitarian to Faiz: elevating ordinary people to the highest stature. This is where the poem really plays with fire, recalling Hallaj’s controversial mystical statement, where the poem’s discussion could actually be more interesting than a blanket association of the video with the winning political party. What a pity, the people of the poem never plumbed the depths, or rose to the lofty vision of the poem.