The doomed diva
Har ek mod pe bas do hi naam milte hain
Maut keh lo – jo muhabbat na kehne paao
(There are only two names on each pathways (of life)
Call it death, if you can’t call it love)
I am sorry for even trying my hands at translating these beautiful verses portraying intense suffering, tragedy and clamour of an individual. Are there any guesses who penned these lines? I am sure very few of us would rightfully identify this poetess-in-oblivion who wrote many such verses and couplets as a personal way of registering, recording and dealing with her grief-stricken short life of forty odd years.
She was born on 1st August 1932 in Mumbai to Ali Baksh and Iqbal Begum (renamed from Prabhawati Devi). Her father was an actor in Parsi theatre and also dabbled in Urdu poetry and occasionally gave music direction in Hindi movies. This girl, Mahjabeen Bano, was the youngest of her siblings and in the family mired in financial hardships she was literally forced to work in films. Her career started as a child artist at the age of six from a movie called Farzand-e-Watan or Leatherface, directed by Vijay Bhatt in 1939. For the movie she was re-named as Baby Meena.
All of us, or most of us, who are Bollywood buffs definitely know about Meena Kumari, nick named the “tragedy queen” of the film industry. Both in real and in reel life she lived up to that tag. Yes, we are talking about Meena Kumari who graduated from Baby Meena to become one of the living legends of the film industry. Much has been written about her acting prowess and the intensity with which she portrayed her characters. The unforgettable “choti bahu” of Sahib Bibi and Ghulam (released in 1962) and the acute sensitivity depicted in Pakeezah (released in 1972) that went on to become the cult movie of the Bollywood in all times to come is to mention a few. It is often remarked that it was Meena Kumari’s death (she died on March 31 1972), just almost a month after the release of the movie, that made Pakeezah what it turned out to be. But I remember Pakeezah for one more reason. In one of the shots, her character is humming a ghazal written by Mir and sung by Mehdi Hassan: Dekh to dil ki jaan se uthta hai, ye dhuwan sa kahan se uthta hai (Look, where this fume rises from, is it from the heart or from the soul). I frantically searched for the name of the singer who is humming this song in the movie, but I failed. Later, when I incidentally discovered the poetry of Meena Kumari and to my utter surprise when I came to know that she had an album released, consisting of her poetry sung and recited in her voice, I was almost sure that it was she who did the vocals for that ghazal. (I ought to be corrected if I am wrong.)(I have been corrected on this by an annonymous comment; the singer is Naseem Bano. See the comments section.) Thanks Anon.
Very few of us know that she was a fine Urdu poetess. Her works are mainly about love (unsatiated of course), grief, and pain; in other words, morbid curiosities influenced her vision and her writings. The couplet in the beginning is one of the typical in which she depicts the inevitability of love in life and yet her personal failure to find one. In one of the ghazals she says:
Gham hi dushman hai mera gham hi ko dil doondhta hai
Ek lamhe ki bhi judaai agar hoti hai
(Pain is my biggest enemy and yet my heart aches if I am separated from it even for a moment).
She was happily married (at least this is what it appears and have been told) to film director Kamal Amrohi (who made Pakeezah) for twelve years (1952-64) but the divorce swept her into heavy drinking. Apparently, this was the time when she took recluse in poetry, probably finding some solace by giving words to her feelings.
But her poetry was not completely pessimistic (at least this is what I infer from them). She had resigned to fate but had not become fatalistic:
Yeh na socho kal kya ho
Kaun kahe is pal kya ho,
Rowo mat, na rone do
Aisi bhi jal-thal kya ho.
(Don’t think about the future
Who knows what will happen today,
Don’t cry, nor let anyone cry,
Why to panic and feel so dismayed)
The album, I Write I Recite, was brought out most probably in 1971 (by HMV), an year before her death. She had got ten poems/ghazals in the album, five of which are recitals and the other five tuned and sung in the ghazal format. Veteran music director, Khayyam, composed the music. The music is true to the mood of the ghazals; no percussion instrument (for example tabla) has been used. The music background is provided with instruments like Sarangi and Santoor, which add to the melody of the lyrics. For any music lover, and especially those who love ghazals, this is a must-to-have album. It is fairly difficult to get a copy of this album but interested listeners could try online shopping sites or could be watchful when HMV re-produces the old releases.
Meena Kumari passed on her diary to lyricist Gulzar, who fondly called her “Meena didi”. After her death, Gulzar compiled and published her collection of Urdu poems called Tanha Chand (Lonely Moon).
These two things (her album and her collection) are a treasure to remember that diva that though is well known for her acting but hardly commended for her soul-touching poetry and her exquisite singing.