Abdul Ahad Azad: portrait of a poet as a revolutionary

Kashmiri poet Abdul Ahad Azad is considered as the first radical writer to push for change in his region

In the summer of 1943, when Kashmir was in the throes of political turbulence following widespread resentment among the people against the autocratic Dogra rule, Amin Kamil, a distinguished short-story writer and poet, remembers paying a visit to Hamdard, a weekly Urdu newspaper run by editor Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz. It was here that Kamil met Abdul Ahad Azad, an obscure person at that time.

Kamil recalls finding nothing distinct in Azad’s persona. “A dark, turbaned man who would not attract people’s attention, except when he spoke,” Kamil describes Azad.

On their second meeting, also in 1943, at the Hamdard office, Azad finally spoke to Kamil and in such a way that reflected the poet’s deep engagement with the people’s struggle for rights.

Bazaz had recently released a pamphlet titled Kisaan Tehreek (Farmer’s Movement), in which farmers and peasants of the valley were advised to maintain a joint and organised opposition to the National Conference, the party led by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Finding that Bazaz had inadvertently used his name as the author of the booklet, Kamil had gone to complain about the matter. Azad was present on the occasion and felt that Kamil’s complaint was genuine. However, he reflected: “I think farmers and peasants should be made to realise the necessity to fight for their rights, they should be united and organised because oftentimes these people are used for political and societal purposes by politicians.

”The well-considered comment by the poet reflected his progressive streak of mind. “Abdul Ahad Azad was a progressive poet. His poetry is an amalgam of political protest and revolutionary zeal,” says poet and historian, Zareef Ahmad Zareef.

What sort of a revolutionary was Azad? This is a question several writers and literary commentators have engaged with.

Azad had a profoundly painful sense of Kashmir’s history, says Shafi Shouq, former Professor of Kashmiri at the University of Kashmir. “Kashmir’s history was to him a record of successive subjugation, plunders by foreign warmongers, macabre events and abject misery. His patriotism had two aspects: love for the natural beauty of the land, admiration for its intellectual and spiritual legacy, and conviction in the freedom of the working classes to be achieved through people’s struggle,” he adds.

Azad wrote at a time when Kashmir was experiencing an awakening: resistance against the Dogra rule. But his poetry doesn’t just reflect and reinforce this resistance. Like a true Marxist, he settles on the idea of “continuous change bringing about a classless society”. His poems The River and Change attune to this idea of a spirit finding no solace in conciliatory political orders.

What is life but the book of change?/
Change – more change – and yet more change!
Flux is the living reality,
And change the meaning of flux.
O compulsion! Slavery! Subjection!
O restless, Helpless heart! O Shame!
Rend the veil! Uncover the seething, bubbling heart!
Change! Change! Bring a new change.

Abid Ahmad, editor of Sheeraza English, a quarterly journal of culture and literature released by J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, believes that Azad was a step ahead of Mehjoor as a revolutionary poet.

“Azad was more rebellious than Mehjoor. He was an idealist who had absorbed communist thought and an idealist has to be absolutely a revolutionary. Through his poetry he kept on hoping for a just and equal society,” says Ahmad.

The opening lines of Azad’s poem The River starkly capture his unassailable desire to seek change.

My yearnings find expression
In bubbles, commotion, tumult;
It’s in wandering to distant goals
That I find the music of life

Azad was born into a peasant household of Raa’nger, Budgam in 1903. His father Mohammad Sultan Dar was a widely regarded Sufi poet, who was well versed in the Arabic and Persian languages.

Sultan Dar had two children before Azad was born; a daughter, Maale Ded, and a son, Ghulam Ali Dar. It is said that Azad was born 12 years after the birth of Sultan Dar’s other two children.

An interesting tale of Sufi foreknowledge surrounds Azad’s birth. A wandering Sufi by the name of Gani Sahab Al-Muarif one day came to stay at Sultan Dar’s home in Raa’nger. During the course of his stay, he told Sultan Dar and his wife that very soon they would be blessed with a son. He stated that the child should be named Ahad and he would earn a great name for himself.

Very soon indeed, Abdul Ahad was born to the amazement and delight of his family.

A precocious child, Azad was taught reading and writing by his father and brother, who had opened a maktab (a religious institution). It was here too that he learned the Arabic and Persian languages and pored through volumes of Persian and Arabic literature.

“From an early age Azad had shown a literary cast of mind owing to the atmosphere he was brought up in. He had read a great deal by the age of 14 and had started writing poetry very early on,” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef.

Azad was only 15 years old when in 1918 he was appointed as a government teacher in a school in the nearby village of Zuvhuma, for a sum of 13 rupees a month. During this time, he also researched the Kashmiri language.

“He taught Arabic in the school and devoted all his time to reading and writing besides teaching,” says Zareef. “He carried out thorough research into the Kashmiri language and became well versed with its literature and linguistics.”

The fruit of this research was later collected into a three-volume study of Kashmiri language and poetry, which is today regarded as a seminal work. The History of Kashmiri Language and Poetry is an influential work of the literary history of Kashmiri language written in Urdu. It stands as a work of immense value for both historians of the language and poets and writers. The first volume was published in 1959, 11 years after Azad’s death.

Writing in the foreword of the first volume, Amin Kamil had only praise for Azad’s tremendous effort. “To my mind Azad was the first person who had a deep longing for Kashmiri language and literature to attain a higher status. Here was a weak-bodied, turbaned village schoolteacher who was in profound grief over the morass of oppression and subjugation that the Kashmiri people had been thrown into and who felt Kashmiris should readily wake up to the glorious tradition of their past and live a freedom-filled, dignified life.”

Azad expressed his sadness by invoking Kalhan, Ghani Kashmiri and Yaqoob Sarfi in these lines of lament:

We have got some red, black, green, and yellow dresses.
We have got some red, black, green, white and yellow dresses.
We have got some red, black, green, and white and yellow dresses.
Kalhan Ghani ti Safri seyraab ker yem aaba’n
Sui aab saani baapath zehr e hilal aasyea
(In whose providence Kalhan, Ghani and Sarfi flourished
would those waters prove hemlock for us?)

Azad’s poetic lament was apt as Kashmir was reeling under centuries of decadent foreign rule and subjugation was cowering men and women into lifeless creatures. It was this state of being that Azad was referring to, says Zareef. “Inspired by Allama Iqbal’s concept of Khudi (self-realisation), Azad through his poetry appealed to people to unshackle themselves and take charge of their lives.”

Azad was a radical poet more concerned with ideas, says Abid Ahmad: “Like Iqbal, poetry was only a medium for him to express his revolutionary ideas.

”On a hot August day, with the sun shining fiercely over the lush green paddy fields of Raa’nger, I met Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, Azad’s grandson from his adopted son Javed Ahmad Dar. Mushtaq Dar, 37, is a devout religious man who, while talking, characteristically fingers his flowing black beard. He speaks with reverence about his grandfather. That reverence takes an apologetic and defensive tone when Azad’s Marxist strain is brought up. Mushtaq vehemently denies that Azad was a Marxist poet. “Azad was not a Marxist. Some people have wrongly attributed this label to him for their own political purposes,” he offers.

Mushtaq quotes judiciously from Azad’s poem Insaniyat (Humanity) to substantiate his defence and adds in a slow voice: “Although a revolutionary, Azad derived his poetic inspiration from Sufi thought.”

Azad had married relatively young, as was custom during those days. His wife came from Surasyar, a village some 30km from Budgam. They had a son who died at age four, whose death greatly troubled Azad – it forced him to shun his nom de plume of Janbaaz and adopt Azad for the rest of his life.

For a long time, no more children were born in the Azad household, which led Azad to adopt his brother Ghulam’s son, Javed Ahmed Dar aka Javed Azad.

Javed Azad grew up to be a poet himself and worked in Radio Kashmir. He died at the age of 70 in 2004.

Javed Azad left behind two sons, Hafiz Dar and Mushtaq. Today the grandsons also live in Raa’nger, Budgam, which lies 15km from Srinagar.

A tarmac road passes through Raa’nger, connecting the village with Chadoora. It is named Azad Road in memory of the poet. Raa’nger looks prosperous with concrete houses and tarmac streets.

The two-storey house the Azad family lives in is whitewashed outside, giving it the luxurious look of a bungalow situated in some posh colony. A large portrait of Azad hangs on the wall of one of the carpeted, furnished rooms. Azad’s name is spoken with reverence and unmistakable pride inside the house. Mushtaq Ahmad, who runs a pharmaceutical business, after finishing reading Azad’s poem, begins to dwell on the lack of credit given to Azad by the Kashmiri people and academia in particular.

“Azad was a revolutionary poet. His contribution in awakening the Kashmiri people from the slumber of subjugation was immense. But nobody is paying heed to his poetry. Had people listened to him, the long desired freedom would have come to Kashmir,” says Mushtaq.

Abid Ahmad agrees that Azad remained a neglected poet throughout his life and the same can be said even today: “One of the reasons for this is that he would not write in praise of rulers or their adversaries.”

In absence of a strong intellectual tradition in Kashmir, Ahmad says that it’s not enough to just read and appreciate Azad’s poetry but to ask the larger pertinent question: where did such poetry come from? “At an academic level, researchers would only read his poetry without putting him in a wider context. Because of this approach, there is no serious work available on Azad.”

The revolutionary in Azad is not the aspect overlooked just by academia in Kashmir, but in a strange way people in his native village have construed him as a Sufi poet. Ghulam Mohammad, 63, nods appreciatively when I mention Azad to him but is unsatisfactory in the picture he draws of Azad: “Azad was the son of this village. He is revered here as a Sufi.”

On my way home, as the bus waves past the paddy fields, a wrinkled old lady sitting beside me offers her own summation of Azad. “Azad was a mystic. His tomb is a shrine.

”During the 100-year rule of Dogras, it was the Muslim majority population that bore the brunt of an “overtly Hindu state”.

“The Hindu Dogra state had employed its entire machinery to subjugate and oppress Kashmiri Muslims,” says Anwar Ashai, son of Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, a Kashmiri nationalist who was an instrumental figure in the nationalist struggle of Kashmiris in the 1930s and 40s.

It was in this atmosphere of abject poverty and oppression that a voice like Azad found expression. “Azad’s poetry expresses feelings of unease and restlessness. Being at unease with oneself, with the political and social order and with God himself were the elements of his poetry,” says Ahmad.

Lines from The River express this unease:

I move on day and night
Through rocks, ravines and ditches;
I do not pause for raise,
I do not pause for play;
I am at home with the bats
As I am with the bulbuls.

Azad’s lifespan, from 1903 to 1948, was a time of revolutionary upheaval in the world. In Russia, the old autocratic order of tsars was replaced by the Russian Revolution of 1906, followed by two debilitating and monstrous world wars, first in 1914 and then in 1939. During this time, Muhammad Iqbal had earned remarkable fame as a revolutionary poet envisioning a brave new world for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

“It was no surprise that Azad was inspired by Iqbal. In fact many titles of his poems were in part influenced by Iqbal’s poems of the same theme. Shikwa e Iblees is one of them,” says Zareef.

Following Iqbal’s tradition, Azad believed that poetry could be used as a medium to articulate revolutionary ideas about society reeling under subjugation and exploitation. “Azad wrote at a time when the world was being shaped by revolutions, that is 1903 to 1948. And poetry was believed to be most effective medium of reaching to the masses and motivating them to bring about desired social change,” says Professor Shafi Shouq.

Azad’s poetry also broke away from traditional Kashmiri poetry, which Professor Shouq believes had “developed stagnation because of the stereotyped expressions revolving around clichéd notions of human beauty and mystic concepts”. A radical shift from the fantastical descriptions of beauty and myths was needed, and Azad quickly adopted the role to steer society towards upliftment through his revolutionary verses.

Azad was a modern poet who had departed from the long-standing tradition of Sufi poetry, says Ahmad. The advent of modernity in Kashmiri literature was different from the western conception of modernity.

“In our case, modernity means a break from the past. It was a break from the mystic traditions of Sufi poetry.” Azad and Mehjoor were the precursors of modernist poetry in Kashmir.

“Azad rid the Kashmiri language from its mystical tradition of jargon and abstract language,” adds Ahmad.

Writing in the oppressive times of Dogra rule, Azad had felt that writing should infuse hope among readers and a thirst for transformation of the exploitative political order.

“It was a time when life was felt to be devoid of grace and beauty. The common masses were consumed by hunger, disease, and forced labour (begaar). Azad, being infused by the revolutionary ideas, decided to locate his poetry within the social, economic and historical situation and use it as an arsenal to fight notions of social hierarchy that justified economic exploitation,” says Professor Shouq.

Azad started saying Kashmiri poetry at the young age of 15. His father, himself a Sufi poet of some status, enjoyed listening to Kashmiri masnavis and songs. Usually the teenage Azad would recite the poetry and this influenced him to write his own. Initially he would recite and write ghazals and sometimes masnavis, but later on he moved to other forms of poetry.

His adoption of Azad as a nom de plume followed a particular awakening of spirit and liberation of soul. During the initial period of his poetic life, Azad had adopted Ahad as his nom de plume before he changed it to Janbaaz.

In 1931, when Quit Kashmir movement was launched against the autocratic Dogra ruler, Azad was accused by the Dogra regime of involvement in subversive activities. His home was searched. Finding only literary magazines and books in his house, the Dogra forces let him go without a prison term, but not without a penance. Azad was transferred to teach in a distant primary school in the Tral region of southern Kashmir. Not allowed to speak to his family before departure, this crude treatment was greatly felt by Azad.

Around this time, Azad’s four-year-old son was taken ill and he could do nothing about it. In exile from his home, he spent time at a shrine of Shah Hamdan in Tral in silent prayer for his son’s recovery. His prayers couldn’t heal his son, who died shortly. With his death, Azad shed his nom de plume of Janbaaz, and adopted Azad.

“It was at the shrine of Shah Hamdan that he adopted Azad as his nom de plume, thus becoming free of religious rituals and bindings,” says Zareef. “Azad started believing that a man could shape his own destiny, thus moving closer to Iqbal’s concept of Khudi (self-realisation).”

In 1935, Azad met Mehjoor, the most prominent poet of that era, and the two became friends. Mehjoor and Azad’s poetry converge at one level but Azad largely remained overshadowed by Mehjoor throughout his lifetime.

“Azad died quite young but he made his mark. His poetry remained purposeful, as all revolutionary poetry is,” says Zareef.

Friendship with Azad gave him confidence, says Zareef. But Amin Kamil is of the view that Azad was not to be swayed by Mehjoor. The two of them had immense respect for each other and Mehjoor would spend days and nights at Azad’s home in Raa’nger, but Azad would not hesitate to disagree with him.

Kamil relates an occasion where both Azad and Mehjoor were invited by the schools inspector Ghulam Ahmad Ashai to his home. While Mehjoor gladly went, Azad stayed back. “He didn’t go because he thought he would have to suppress himself by agreeing with whatever Ashai Sahab said,” says Kamil.

Anwar Ashai alludes to a great friendship between his father, Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, and Mehjoor. “Mehjoor was my father’s intimate friend but I am sure my father knew Azad as well, as all of them were progressive people.”

“His integrity as a poet is remarkable. He was not given to trade his integrity, his self-esteem for worldly gains. It’s why he remained poor most of his life,” says Zareef.

It’s also a commentary on his shadowy stature that Azad remained largely unknown and unread during his lifetime. His posthumous recognition as a poet of equal or even surpassing stature to Mehjoor is debatable, but many argue that his poetry is potent and fits the present picture of Kashmir.

“Take Azad’s poetry and see yourself in it. His poetry is particularly relevant during present times because nothing much has changed since the Dogras. The subjugation and oppression continues, however with a different name,” says Zareef.

For Ahmad, Azad surpasses Mehjoor because he was a more rebellious poet. “Azad was not a court poet. In my opinion, Azad is greater than Mehjoor.

”After his untimely death at the age of 45 in 1948, Bazaz released a booklet, Shayr e Insaniyat (The poet of Humanity), in Azad’s memory.

Azad’s poetry was oriented towards the upliftment of man from the wretched oppressive forms of hierarchies prevalent in Kashmiri society. This earned him a Marxist tagline that was of considerable anxiety to many other poets and writers of the time, who totally ignored him. “It was Azad who for the first time infused Kashmiri poetry with progressive ideas of humanity, but he was strangely ignored by the literary community because of his progressive streak. Even at his death, hardly a tear was shed,” says Kamil.

Criticised for his overtly political poetry and for his critique of religious orthodoxy, the first book (Yaavun H’yeng) published on Azad after his death comments on his poetry thus: “Azad found Mehjoor’s style of poetry restrictive and was looking for his own style where he could voice his political aspiration. His poetry is an expression of a radical revolutionary mind which sometimes goes against the religious orthodoxy and sometimes takes on the freedom movement itself.”

Azad’s posthumous success owes to the changing of political climate in valley from the 1950s and 1960s but Zareef argues that there should be a revival of interest in Azad’s poetry as the oppression and subjugation of the Kashmiri people hasn’t ceased. “Independent research should be undertaken on Azad’s poetry. MPhils and PhDs should be carried out.”

Ahmad is of the view that unless a serious cultural practice of valuing our poets is rooted in our society, there can be no genuine appraisal of Azad. “No serious work has so far been undertaken on Azad. The State Cultural Academy can only do as much as it deems worthwhile. Anti-establishment poets like Azad need to be taken up by independent scholars and writers for serious study.”

The current scholarship on Azad is bleak, save a few papers and an issue of Sheeraza Urdu released by the State Academy. His relevancy, however, is not exhausted. His poetry continues to ring true among literary circles.

“Azad is tremendously relevant in the present because the times we are living in are worse than it was under the Dogras,” says an assistant professor of Kashmiri, at the University of Kashmir. “His poetry is filled to the brim with revolutionary ideas about lifting the spirits of youth and changing one’s destiny.

”Azad’s first collection of poetry, Kuliyat e Azad, was published by Jammu Kashmir Cultural Academy in 1967 under the editorship of Padam Nath Ganjoo, his close friend. The Kuliyat (Collected Works) has been out of print ever since the first edition was sold out, save a few copies released in 2004. At Kitaab Ghar, the Academy-run bookshop, the only available work on Azad is the Sheeraza issue.

Why the Academy hasn’t released a second edition of Azad’s Kuliyat is perhaps a telling comment on how poets and artists are valued in our society.

“The academy cannot publish unless there is a demand for it,” says Ahmad. But the statement shies away from the work the state Cultural Academy is mandated to do, which is to preserve Kashmiri cultural heritage, without bothering about its commercial value.

“The Cultural Academy takes a lot of time in bringing out a new edition. Can you imagine that the Kashmiri dictionary was out of print for five years before they released a new edition last year,” says Altaf Hussain, a Kashmiri language teacher from Baramulla.

There is a single volume of Sheeraza Urdu, a literary journal produced by the Academy, which was released in honour of Azad on his centenary in 2002. “Barring some articles here and there, there is no other research work available on this poet. That’s why a full scale research into Azad’s life and poetry should be undertaken at Mphil and PhD levels,” says Zareef.

Azad died a lonely death at the State Hospital in Srinagar, now the SMHS hospital, on April 4, 1948. He was diagnosed with appendicitis and died following surgery. He was known to be of weak health all his life and often suffered ailments. His death was not received with state and public mourning of the kind Mehjoor’s did, but his dearest friends knew Kashmir had lost a hero, a revolutionary. Shortly after his death, Mehjoor wrote a poem honouring Azad. Fortunately, Azad had left behind a corpus of work through which “his name will be counted among the pioneers of Kashmiri language and literature, who brought revolutionary ideas into this language,” states Zareef.

Among his famous poems, which include Inquilab (Revloution), Dariyaav (River) and Loal to Gaatijaar (Love and Reason), Shikwa e Iblees (Satan’s Complaint) caused considerable controversy and Shikwa e Kashmir (Kashmir’s Complaint) expresses his defiant patriotism.

The vision of his posthumous fame was silently captured by Azad through his own verse. Azad died with these lines:

Alam haa karri yaad Azad Azad
Kuni saat’e wich’te yaad paavai madno
(The world will remember me and cry Azad Azad
My beloved someday I will remind you)

Azad rests in his grave beneath a maple tree in a cemetery located close to his home in Raa’nger. His name is carved on the white marble tombstone. The cemetery is ringed with a concrete fence. On a black marble stone, near the main entrance, is carved in bold letters: “AZAD THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY POET OF KASHMIR”.

(First published in www.contributoria.com)