Shamsher Bahadur Singh: A Poet Stirs
By Akash Bharadwaj
Shamsher Bahadur Singh is a voice: throbbing, quivering, shining, and sometimes still like the water that runs deep in the river.
We are surrounded by shor. No matter where we go, there are voices screaming at us. No matter where we are, someone is always tightening the nuts and bolts of our bodies. It becomes difficult to move and the eerie sound of it won’t let us be still. One screams at oneself to find the same old world again.
In a time like this, reading Shamsher Bahadur Singh is akin to finding a quiet corner for oneself. Shamsher lends dignity and respect to rage, loss, and even seemingly ordinary circumstances. He hints at a world of sensation; an autumn evening… a leaf turned yellow…a tear drop about to fall are images that interest him. Like the landscape world of Monet and Gauguin, his poetry talks about time and texture of the world. About impressions that get etched in one’s memory.
Have you read the prose of ‘earth’?
Simplicity is his life.
Have you opened your book of memories?
When fading off they become clear?
When a tear- drop doesn’t fall off the edge, and
Becomes a flower in the sky?
That will look like my poems to me:
What will you say to me then?
(An extract translated by me from his poem ‘Raga’)
In Shamsher’s poetry, words travel a long distance and take over boundaries, disciplines, and schools. He advocates for a language that has blood of both Hindi and Urdu. He asks the god if he can pray in Arabic and will that make him angry? He brings Mirza Ghalib’s couplet in between his poem to think about existence and writes a poem after listening to a European music on the radio. His range is wide and sensitive. In Shamsher’s world, the task is not to understand what meets the eye; it is to feel the pulse of the time and be with it. You are filled with a sense of conviviality with what surrounds you. His words evoke touch: a wet chowka speaks of a morning and the dusk enters an empty house in muffled steps. As it happens, you become aware that things come from a place and have memories.
Born at Dehradun in 1911, in a Jat family, Shamsher Bahadur Singh grew up to become one of the pioneers of ‘New Poetry’ in Hindi. In his essay, “Kis tarah aakhirkar main hindi mein aaya” (How I finally came to Hindi), he recounts his story – someone said something and that spurred him to take a bus to Delhi with seven rupees in his pocket. He wanted to learn painting. He trained himself under Ukil Brothers and later came back to Dehradun. He was working as a chemist, when Harivansh Rai Bachhan drew him to Allahabad to study English. Though he never finished his degree, he went on to work with different Hindi journals in Allahabad, Delhi, and Bombay. Despite a meager living, he never compromised with his voice. This was also the voice of a painter who was experimenting with different forms to understand his art. He made portraits, still life, and paintings that were expressionist and surreal in character. His Portraits titled, Pagal Kalakar and Vichipt Kavi, are reflective of the struggle of a mad artist and angry poet. Distorted lines and colors form figures that speak of rage and fear.
Shamsher is aware of the fact that knowledge is situated. He writes, “If a critic who espouses romanticism/humanism says realism has no value for him/her, he or she neither understands realism nor romanticism.” Drawing an analogy, he believes a train journey can be mapped not only through station, signal or railway lines but also through what one encounters on the way: rivers, mountains, and villages. Consciousness is paramount for him; it is not the form but an artist’s honesty and sensibility that matters.
In his diary, he once wrote: “the artist is nothing but a child. This is his comedy and his tragedy.” This ability to place two different worlds opposite each other also suggests the influence Marxism had on Shamsher. Raghuvir Sahay recounts Shamsher’s assertion that “three things are truly important in life: oxygen, Marxism, and those features of ours which reflect the ordinary people.” However, like Sahay, “Shamsher refused to put Marxism on top of poetry like a cover.” He imagined what was difficult to imagine. In a poem, a man pushes two mountains at once with his elbows, and yet the clouds in the sky worry him a bit. His poetry talks of both resilience and innocence, what is often described by many as shamsheriyat.
A Poet Stirs (kavi ghanghol deta hai)
A poet stirs
the streams of men
the lakes of many mirrors –
a sight which
makes us serene
in the end.
(Translated by Rosenstein)
In her book, New Poetry in Hindi, Ludmila Rosenstein writes that Shamsher had insatiable curiosity and desire to learn. He was fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Persian, and English, and studied Spanish, French, German, and Sanskrit. Working at Delhi University for 6 years and helping in creating a Hindi-Urdu dictionary, Shamsher brought Urdu’s sensuousness to Hindi. Fluent in many different forms – sonnets, rubai, and ghazals in Hindi and Urdu – he saw himself as standing “between the rivers of Hindi and Urdu.” He had a message for those who aspired to be poets: “be aware of the social and political position in your country, learn science, study different languages and literatures and be acquainted with the world’s literary heritage.”
Namvar Singh, Hindi critic, writes that Shamsher is neither a ‘genuine’ nor a ‘progressive’ poet; he is a poet who defies labels and expectations. For the acclaim and camaraderie, Shamsher has a message for those who take poetry to great heights:
To My Time (mere samay ko) …
My time has been slashed off as if it were just a wish.
A poet is a very big parrot, like I am.
He has protectors.
They are many.
There lies a chessboard.
you put me in one of the boxes.
In air, held in between your thumb and fingers
In that moment
Which I consider as a world of my imagination
Is in fact a sharp move
Of a bated breath.
(Translated by me)
Akash Bharadwaj studies Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
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