Probing deep into Kaifi Azmi’s poetic landscape

’This worthy book is quite exhaustive and contains anecdotal details, archival photo album, bibliography and biography,’ writes Gopal Lahiri.

Poetry can be the culmination of our inquiries into love and anguish, struggles and successes. Kaifi Azmi, the eminent Urdu poet and song-lyricist, offers in his poems the warring impulses for comfort and conflict for a more reasonable response. He has a great vision, and yet connects so personally to the reader. His poems reverberate with ingenious lyricism, meaning and depth, that readers return to at times of personal and national predicament; and highlight the intersectional nature of poetry with music, cadence and footprints of life.

Like most Urdu poets, Kaifi Azmi started writing Gazals in his early life. But it was after his association with ’Progressive Writers Movement’, he found his way to write socially conscious poetry. In spite of his concern for the underprivileged, Kaifi’s language is never high-pitched and always resonates with tenderness and reverence. It’s a quintessentially Indian voice and a beautiful one. He finds a measure of freedom in his writing. The poems undulate, shifting between love and anguish.

Kaifi Azmi believed that poetry is a way to bridge one person to another. Shabana Azmi, the celebrated actor, has recalled her father’s writing, ‘I find his poetry striking for its strong imagery, its sheer power and its broadness of vision. His most personal problem transcends itself in a much larger vision so that his struggle no longer remains his own, but becomes the struggle of all human beings.’

Source : Kaifi Azmi

Recently ‘Kaifi Azmi, Poems/Nazms: New and Selected Translations’, a beautiful bilingual English-Hindi collection, has been published by Bloomsbury to pay homage to the poets birth centenary celebrations. This centenary volume contains fifty poems, selected, introduced, edited and co-translated by Sudeep Sen. The finely crafted poems are translated by Professor Husain Mir Ali, Engineer and academic Baidar Bakht, Filmmaker Sumantra Ghosal, poet and translator Pritish Nandy and the poet-editor Sudeep Sen.

In his introduction, Sudeep Sen has clearly brought out, ‘All of us who have translated Azmi’s poems, bring to this book, a wide variety of approaches, politics and aesthetic sensibilities. Despite the translators sharing a similar linguistic background- Indian/South Asian- the translations themselves are beautifully diverse, centrifugal and manifold.’

It’s a matter of pride that Kaifi Azmi’s voice- and the elegance it carries- shines in most of the translations. In fact, it says something about the liveliness of the poet’s voice that he manages himself heard through various translations. Frankly, the poet has never been stifled into silence. Thus, Kaifi’s poems have never been totally distorted by poor renderings.

All the translators have added some flowery touches of their own in order to find the lilting of the language, the wordplay and the cadence. Each poem hits its mark.

Huain Mir Ali recalls Kaifi’s words, ‘One day, I will fall on this very path and my journey will end, at my destination, or at least, close to it.’

‘All roads lead ultimately to the same Destination
Regardless of where we start from, we will have to walk together, (Invitation)


‘Raste ghum ke sob jaate hai monzil ki taraf
Hum kisi rukh se chale, saath hi chalna hoga’(Dawat)

He has also noted, ‘For Kaifi, the revolution is a debt that is still owed to him.’ He goes on to a great length to mention that ‘Taj Mahal’ poem offers a harsh critique of monarchy and of the concentration of power. ‘Friends I have seen the Taj Mahal/lets turn back’! ‘Dost! Main dekh chuka Taj Mahal/wapas cholo’ (Taj Mahal).

For translator Baidar Bhakt, ‘Accuracy is to be reckoned as the sole canon because as a translator he aims at presenting the creations of the poets as they are.’ A gem is presented below,

The spectacle of earth is blushing
Like a bride in modesty

Kaifi sits quietly in the grass
Remembering someone dear to him (Evening)

Rounak -e-alam sar hai jhukay
Jaise dulhon shormay hue hai

Ghas me gumsum boitha hai ‘Kaifi’
Yad kisi ko aai huye hai (shyam)

Sumantra Ghosal has pointed out in his forward note, ‘the best translations must strike a balance between the mores and customs of the land the poem was born in and those of the country it must now make its home. It is recurring nightmare of the displaced.’ In order to retain the voice of the poet, he has broken stanzas and changed lines, even additions, transportations etc. There is always the presence of rippling terrain in translation. By the end, readers will decide how appropriate it is.

Am I lost? Or is this where I wished to be?
Did I take my own way, or was I brought here?
I can’t tell.
The gaze of the beautiful is lovely,
So, they say,
I have something with me as well,
But what it is I do not know. (Gift)

Rasta bhool gya yea yehi monzil hai meri
Koi laya hai ki khud ayah un malum nehi
Kohtey hai husn ki nazro bhi hansi hoti hai
Mai bhi kuch laya hun, kya laya hun malum nehi (Nozrana)

We can have a quick look at this translation for the same original lines by Sumantra Ghosal and followed by Sudeep Sen and see the variations.

Rise, my love! Walk by my side (Woman)
Uth mari jaan! Mere saath hi cholnaa hai tujhe (Aurat)


Uth mari jaan! Mere saath hi cholnaa hai tujhe (Aurat)
Rise, my beloved! With me, you must walk along (Woman)

Pritish Nandy had earlier written a small book of Kaifi’s poetry in English translation- The Poetry of Kaifi Azmi. In his words, ‘It is this virile diction, the simplicity and sensitivity of a language that has been shorn of all the traditional trappings of its literary heritage and fashioned to meet the demands of a new, contemporary consciousness that I attempted to show in my translations.’

Corpses and biers lie everywhere:
They cannot hear nor endorse what you say
Let peace survive; and its flagbearers. (The Night of Apocalypse)

Jism hi jism hai, kaphon hi kaphon hi kafan
Baat sunte na sar jhukate hai
Aman ki kher, kotwal ki kher (Aakhiri Raat)

Kaifi Azmi’s poems are emotive, adroitly balanced and unwavering in their search of truth. He speaks from the bottom of the heart, stitching together the words with assurances that room for reclamation still exists.

Let someone pay off all the dues,
let someone assume the reins of that imminent revolt
we are still anxiously waiting for (Anarchy)

koi to sud chukaye, koi to jimma le
is inkilab ka, jo aaj tak udhar-sa hai. (Inteshar)

This worthy book is quite exhaustive and contains anecdotal details, archival photo album, bibliography and biography. The best part is the Hindi and English translations are placed side by side and can be read alongside to feel the warmth of both the poems.

In fact, this is a book that has so much sense of itself that it is quite possible to imagine it comprising of original English poems instead of translations. Perhaps, this book holds up the prism of choice and lets light shine through from every corner. What it also has a fine poet editor who has done such a brilliant job in translation. Here are the examples,

The moment I kiss these beautiful eyes-
A hundred lamps in the darkness-glow, glitter (one kiss)

Or job bhi chum leta hun in hasin aankho ko
So chirag andhere me jhilmilane lagte hai (ek bosa)


As yet- love hasn’t conceded defeat
As yet-don’t give up on love (Courage)

Abhi ishq ne haar mani nehi
Abhi ishq ko aajmana na chor’ (Hosla)

The editors and translators deserve admiration for probing deep into the poetic landscape of Kaifi Azmi and in turn meticulously congeals a vibrant bilingual English-Hindi collection of his nuanced poems amassed through new and selected translations written over the years.

This handsome centenary Bloomsbury edition, which comes hardbound with a flap and the elegant cover design, is undoubtedly a treasure and a collector’s item for sure.

(L)- Kaifi Azmi: Poems, Bloomsbury India (2019); (R) – Sudip Sen (source : The Hindu)

Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 18 books (including two joint) published. He has guest edited Setu’ an online journal. His work has been published worldwide.

Read more :

Perceiving the world like a child

A cautionary tale of choice and will

Six poets who fought against oppression



1 Comment

  1. This brilliant sketch reminds me of another moment, away from the average citizens, away from this city. Time within time, as said by Tarkovsky, the penumbra of light and darkness ,the missing links where we belong in our grief or love .
    Thank you so much.


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