Reading Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Aurat’ across the Indian Feminist Paradigm

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Painting: Shaheen Fatima

By Amrita Sharma

While the contemporary Indian feminist ideology refracts through an array of distinct yet similar factors, there are innumerable literary pieces by Indian writers that attempt to capture these issues surrounding ‘womanhood’ and its conception. This article attempts to present a reading of one of the most brilliantly penned Urdu verses, titled “Aurat” (translates to “Woman” in English) by Kaifi Azmi, that continues to stand out as a significantly modern feminist text.

Though written in a historically different context, the text presents one of the most outstanding monologues by a male narrator that is addressed to a ‘woman’ whom he evokes to subvert patriarchal hegemony. Set in the context of war and upheaval, the narrative progresses to address the life of a woman that could be read even today as very contemporary in its thematic essence.

The poem begins with the line “uTh mirī jaan mire saath hī chalnā hai tujhe” (Get up, my love, you have to walk with me), which also forms the closing line for each section as well as the entire poem, and establishes a recurrent vigorous pattern addressed to the woman by the male narrator. While reversing the notion of patriarchal suppression might be considered a typical trait of any feminist thought, this poem presents a dual reversal of gender roles on the part of both the male speaker and the woman to whom he speaks.

A poem ahead of its time, Azmi’s liberating notions remain simultaneously constructive as well as destructive in their approach to the ideas of Indian womanhood. Constructing a pattern of free spirit that appears both empowering and novel for the time, Azmi destructs the narrow lines of supposed femininity that contain such revolutionary ideas for women. Ranging from the perceivably invincible ideas of imposed confinement to those of attaining a mandatory male companionship, the feminist temper of the verse remains unflinching in its construction. In this spirit, he writes:

zindagī jehd meñ hai sabr ke qaabū meñ nahīñ
nabz-e-hastī kā lahū kāñpte aañsū meñ nahīñ
uḌne khulne meñ hai nik.hat ḳham-e-gesū meñ nahīñ
jannat ik aur hai jo mard ke pahlū meñ nahīñ
us kī āzād ravish par bhī machalnā hai tujhe
uTh mirī jaan mire saath hī chalnā hai tujhe

Life is in struggle, not in the restraint of patience
The blood of pulsating life is not in trembling tears
Fragrance lies in free-flight, not in the tresses, of hair
There is another Paradise which is not by the side of men
On its free pathways too you have yet to pirouette
Get up, my love, you have to walk with me

While narrating traditionally defined feminine attributes of a woman in our history so far, the speaker appears to persuade the woman to ‘change’ the dimensions that have been governing her identity till now. Denouncing tears, youth and illusions that surround her persona, he now urges her to embrace fire and indulge in a transformed reality that mark her character. As he writes:

qadr ab tak tirī tārīḳh ne jaanī hī nahīñ
tujh meñ sho.ale bhī haiñ bas ashk-fishānī hī nahīñ
tū haqīqat bhī hai dilchasp kahānī hī nahīñ
terī hastī bhī hai ik chiiz javānī hī nahīñ
apnī tārīḳh kā unvān badalnā hai tujhe
uTh mirī jaan mire saath hī chalnā hai tujhe

History has not known your worth thus far
You have burning embers too, not merely tears
You’re reality too, not a mere amusing anecdote
Your personality is something too, not just your youth
You’ve to change the title of your history
Get up, my love, you have to walk with me

What personally appeals to me about this particular poetic construct is the predominant ‘male’ voice that transforms from its stereotypical role of the oppressor to the one that becomes the agent of ‘liberation’ of the other sex. Thus, while traditional Indian feminism most commonly appears to attack the patriarchal ‘male’ voice, Azmi here presents an alternate narrative of the feminist approach through his powerful invocation. I would like to end this article by leaving the reader with these select lines from the poem, that for me symbolise an extremely positive reassessment of the role of both a ‘woman’ as a passive yet empowered figure, as well as a ‘man’ as a dominant yet empowering persona in the Indian context:

tod kar rasm kā but band-e-qadāmat se nikal
zof-e-ishrat se nikal vahm-e-nazākat se nikal
nafs ke khīñche hue halqa-e-azmat se nikal
qaid ban jaa.e mohabbat to mohabbat se nikal
raah kā ḳhaar hī kyā gul bhī kuchalnā hai tujhe
uTh mirī jaan mire saath hī chalnā hai tujhe

Emerge out of ancient bondage, break the idols of tradition,
the weakness of pleasure, this mirage of fragility
these self-drawn boundaries of imagined greatness
the bondage of love, for this too is a bondage
Not merely the thorns on the path but you have to trample on flowers too
Get up, my love, you have to walk with me

(The text and the translations have been taken from http://www.azmikaifi.com/collections/aurat/)

Bio:
Amrita Sharma is a Lucknow-based writer, currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English from the University of Lucknow. Her works have previously been published in Café Dissensus Everyday, Muse India, New Academia, GNOSIS, Dialogue, The Criterion, Episteme and Ashvamegh. Her area of research includes avant-garde poetics and innovative writings in the cyber space.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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