Few remember today the remarkable contribution of Kashmiri Pandits to the development of Urdu literature. Ratan Nath Sarshar was the pioneering novelist of Urdu, and Daya Shankar Naseem a famous composer of masnavi poetry. But the foremost Kashmiri name in Urdu letters is that of Brij Narayan Chakbast, the firey poet of patriotism. Considered in his lifetime a compeer of Iqbal, Chakbast died young before he could attain the celebrity of his great contemporary.
Chakbast was among the founders of a new school of Urdu poetry which blossomed in the first quarter of the 20th century. In his obituary published on 24 February 1926, the daily Leader of Allahabad called him “one of that small band who have helped to revolutionise the ideals of Urdu poetry.”
Traditional Urdu poets at the turn of the century, the Leader wrote, “were content to play with words and compose sugary verses of lady-like prettiness.” But Iqbal and Chakbast “treated their muse like a queen, not like a tinseled courtesan.” Under the influence of nationalism they “transfigured patriotism into song.”
Apart from its nationalist inspiration and break from the tradition of stylised ghazals and qasidas, the new school also reflected a deep understanding of Western thought. A contemporary connoisseur, the distinguished jurist Tej Bahadur Sapru, described Iqbal and Chakbast as “men who have tasted of the best that English literature has to give us, and yet retained their love for their own literature” in expressing “some of the deepest thoughts and the subtlest of emotions which have stirred the minds of their countrymen during their times.”
Comparing the two poets, Sapru wrote, “if Iqbal is more spiritual and mystical than Chakbast, that is probably due to his philosophy of life – on the other hand if Chakbast is more elegant in form, and shows greater pathos, if he appeals more to human feelings than to intellect, it is because of his environments in Lucknow.”
Nationalism was a potent factor in moulding both poets, apart from the inspiration of natural beauty and the impress of faith and philosophy. The Hindi poet-historian R. S. Dinkar later wrote that Iqbal’s poetry evolved from nationalism to pan-Islamism, but Chakbast remained a poet of patriotism to the end.
The resounding strains of Chakbast’s hymn to the nation Khak-i-Hind (Dust of India) evoke the same mood as Iqbal’s well known Tarana-i-Hindi (Song of India):
Hubbe watan samaaye, aankhon men noor hokar
Sar men khumaar hokar, dil men suroor hokar.
(May love for country pervade you, becoming light of the eyes, exhilarating the mind a intoxicating the heart.)
But the hymn was also a stern warning:
Kuchh kam nahin ajal se khwabe garaan hamara,
Ek leash bekafan hai Hindostan hamara.
(Our deep slumber is no less than death. Our India has become a corpse without a shroud.)
Chakbast’s patriotic fervour found its finest expression in his elegies on the deaths of national leaders. The marsia or elegaic ode was a speciality, of Lucknow steeped in the Shia Muslim tradition of mourning the martyrs of the historic battle of Karbala. The cadences of the classical compositions, of Anees and Dabeer found a secular resonanance in Chakbast. He wrote on the death of Bal Gangadhar Tilak:
Shor-i-maatam na ho, jhankar ho zanjeeron ki,
Chaahiye quam ke Bheesham ko chitaa teeron ki.
(This is no time for loud lament. Let there be the clash of chains. Like Bhishma, the patriarch of the nation deserves a funeral pyre of arrows.)
It is hard to imagine an Urdu poet writing with such passion about a leader from Maharashtra today. But the liberation struggle had given a burning sense of unity to Indians of those times. On the death of another great Indian from Maharashtra Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Chakbast wrote:
Janaazaa Hind ka tere dar se nikalta hai,
Suhaag qaum ka teri chitaa pe jalta hai.
(It is India’s funeral procession which goes forth from your door. It is the nation’s fortune which burns upon your pyre.)
Chakbast also dedicated a poem to Mahatma Gandhi who was still working in South Africa at the time:
Fida watan pe jo ho, admi diler hai woh,
Jo yeh nahin to faqat haddiyon ka dher hai woh.
(The brave man is one who is devoted to his homeland. Otherwise he is only a pile of bones.)
Nationalism was only one theme of Chakbast’s poetry. It equally drew inspiration from human sensibilities. His dirge on the demise of a young relative contains the oft quoted lines on youth snatched away by death:
Khil ke gut kuchh to bahaare jaanfizaan dikhlaa gaye,
Hasrat un ghunchon pe hai jo bin khile murjhaa gaye.
(Some flowers blossomed and displayed the living splendour of Spring. But we long for those buds which have withered without blooming.)
Chakbast’s talent was already in full bloom when he died at the age of 43, felled by a paralytic stroke in a railway compartment while travelling to his home in Lucknow. Though he had eloquently mourned others, his own view of death was deeply Philosophical, as expressed in another much quoted verse:
Zindagi kya hai, anaasir men zahoore tarteeb,
Maut kya hai, inhin ajazaan ka parishaan hone.
(What is lift but a manifestation of order in the elements. What is death but the very same elements scattering once again?)
It was a view derived from India’s ancient philosophy, which has never been interpreted in Urdu poetry as appositely as by Chakbast:
Ain kasrat men yeh wahdat ka sabaq Ved men hai,
Ek hi noor hai in zarra-o-khursqhed men hai.
(In essence this is the lesson of unity in the Vedas. There is but one light which manifests in the sun as well as in the atom.)
A successful lawyer in professional life, Chakbast was born in the small Kashmiri Pandit community settled in Uttar Pradesh. Though he lived and worked for most of his life in Lucknow, he recalled his ancestral land with passionate pride. In a poem on Kashmir, he wrote:
Chhoote huey is baagh ko guzra hat zamana,
Taaza hai magar iski muhabbat ka fasana.
Aalam ne sharaf jinki buzurgi ka hai maana,
Utthe they isi khaak se woh aalime daana.
Tan jinka hat payvand ab is pak zameen ka,
Rug rug men hamaari hai ravaan khoon unhi ka.
Haan, main bhi boon bulbul usi shadaab chaman ka,
Kis tarah na sarsabz ho gulzaar sukhan ka.
(Much time has passed since we left this garden. Yet our love for it is fresh as ever. From its dust arose men of learning and thought whose wisdom was esteemed by the world. Their bodies are now joined to this sacred soil, but their blood courses through our every vein. I too am a nightingale from that garden full of blossoms: how can the flowers of my poetry not bloom?)
Chakbast’s path breaking poetry was published after his death in a collection entitled Subah Watan, which deserves to be brought out again in these days of fading national fervor. So does Bahaar Gulshan Kashmir, the monumental anthology of Urdu and Hindi poetry by Kashmiri Pandits, which is also a testament of their contribution to the literary life of India.
Note: A. N. D. Haksar is a former diplomat who was Ambassador of India to various countries in Europe and Africa. Now devoted to writing on foreign affairs and literary topics, he has also translated various Sanskrit classics, the latest being a new rendition of the famous Hitopadesa in prose and verse (Penguin, 1998)