India has produced some of the finest masters of the craft of writing, but few have romanticised words the way Kaifi Azmi did. The National Award-winning Urdu poet has been accredited with being the one to bring Urdu literature to Indian films. From the young age of 11, he showcased his way with words and strung them into poetry that would go on to sway generations of wordsmiths. This year his family and admirers commemorated the poet’s centenary birth anniversary. His daughter, eminent film actor, Shabana Azmi, fondly remembered her father and his works at his residence, 25, Janki Kutir, in Juhu, Mumbai. It’s here that many greats from the yesteryears of Indian cinema would meet Kaifi Azmi and his wife Shaukhat Azmi, leading up to long conversations about their craft and film-fare in general. The residence, till date, has a stage on which some of the finest names from the performing arts fraternity put up shows for their followers and closed circuits.
Our conversation with Shabana Azmi shed light on the man’s lifestyle and his endearing relationship with writing. Little did we expect to learn that all his works were penned down using Montblanc fountain pens. “There were just two material things he was possessive about, his communist party card that he kept close to his heart and his Montblanc fountain pens. He was greedy about them,” said Shabana. “I remember that when I returned from abroad, he would ask ‘mera pen?’ I would tell him that he can’t have so many pens, I had given him every pen that there is in the market. Once a friend of mine gifted me a pen, so Abba happily stole it from me and wrote me a very charming letter explaining why the pen was safer with him than it was with me. So, the only things he was greedy about were his fountain pens.”
Kaifi Azmi had 18 Montblanc pens, which were all placed in one wooden box. Every now and then he would take them out and look at them, admiringly. Should something seem wrong with any of his prized possessions, the poet would ship them out to New York to be mended. Such was his dedication to his precious writing tools. The surprising fact is that Azmi never purchased any of the pens in his collection. They were always gifted to him by people he knew or those who admired him.
Like his love for pens was his love for the ritual of writing. Shabana told us that he would ceremoniously fill his pen up with ink and take to writing on a pad that would nestle upon his writing desk. His works reflect the inspiration he drew from the world. Which is why he never forbid his children’s presence in the room while he wrote. She recollects, “I was 9 years old and I would jump into his room, ask him many questions and he would put down his pen to answer me, very patiently. So, we didn’t have the realisation that when Abba is working, nobody should disturb him, because it was completely normal. He never brought his work home. Upon recording a song, I noticed that all other lyricists would be very happy and would make their family listen to it, but he would not even mention it.
Kaifi Azmi’s humility was reflected in the way he dealt with fame. He never sought to bask in its glory. After a successful recital, he wouldn’t even share his works with his family, but kept to himself. Shabana recalls the 100th birth anniversary celebrations and how it would be if Kaifi was around to witness the fanfare. He would certainly be pleased by the painting and drawing competition that was held in his honour. Art, after all, begets art.
Shabana fondly remembers the perseverance of her father. His steadfast belief in sincere effort towards any goal is what made him an exemplar of perfection. His belief in the goal being worth it, even after you have passed from this life, speaks volumes of his high level of thinking. This can be seen in his work that was created towards a larger goal – a cause or a movement that inspired social good and equality. And all of this, in a time before it could find a footing like it does today.
As a tribute to Kaifi’s life and his works, on his centenary year, Shabana Azmi has kickedoff a year-long celebration. The tributes that the poet has received since then are heart-warming. This goes to show that excellence in one’s craft can take an individual a long way. Even if he were to come from a humble village of Mijwan, in Uttar Pradesh, and even if his only currency were to be the outpourings of his beautiful mind.