Shabana Azmi advises upcoming poets to memorise a thousand couplets

In a candid chat the actor shares memories of her childhood, her mother and why budding poets must read

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  17th August 2018 09:52 PM   |   Published :   |  17th August 2018 09:52 PM

Shabana Azmi

Memory of her father Kaifi Azmi
He was the most gorgeous looking man in the entire world and he had a beautiful voice. He was a man of many colours. Through poems like Ek Lamha, Zindagi Naam Hai Kuch Lamhon Ka - he would surrender himself completely to his love and at the same time, with a poem like Aurat, he would become the man who encourages his love to march with him in life. I refer to his poetry all the time. As a father I took him for granted but I completely get overwhelmed by the poet in him. My work with slum dwellers started with his poem Makaan and my work with women started after I read his poem Aurat, and my work against communalism is inspired by many of his poems. 

Her mother influenced her as an actor
I was just four months old when my mother would strap me on the back and take me to Prithvi Theatre for rehearsals because we couldn't afford a maid. I would travel with her whenever I had vacations. At times I would be dressed up and put on stage as part of a group, so I literally grew up with the smell of makeup in my nostrils. My mother was a hardworking actress. She would do a lot of research and would get into the skin of the character, sometimes she would walk around in the costume.

Her father wrote a letter to her mother with his blood
My woman is an extraordinary woman. She is an actress in her own right, she has been an amazing mother, she has been an amazing house keeper, and a true companion to my father. Without Shaukat Kaifi's presence in his life, Kaifi Azmi wouldn't have been able to do what he did. She was in love with Kaifi. It was quite an extraordinary thing. She came from a fairly good family in Hyderabad. When she fell in love with him all her brothers were against it. He wrote to her with his blood and she took that letter to her father and said, 'I will only marry this man.' This was in 1947. My father then took my mother to Bombay and showed her the commune and how they lived. He said to her, 'now you decide if you will be able to live like this.' They got married. After getting married my mother discovered that the room they got had a rickety old bed which was unusable, so she threw it out and they slept on newspapers.

Shabana never felt the burden of the Azmi surname
I never felt bogged down by the surname. It was never a burden, we were raised in a democratic setup. Children were consulted on all major issues. We were taken to theatre and to mushairas. We were never hushed away. We were given a voice. When I decided to become an actor, my father said, 'I will support you in anything you do, even if you want to become a cobbler, but promise yourself that you will be the best cobbler in the world and I will support you.'

Poetry is her constant companion
I always have a poetry book by my side. One of them is my father's, one is Javed's and the third is Saare Sukhan Humare by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I find solace, encouragement, philosophy in poetry and it gives me strength. Poetry is my constant companion.

Her father wanted her to be a singer
My father was not at all interested in my reading and recitation. He liked my singing and wanted me to become a singer. Probably this was his disappointment that I didn't become a singer. He never liked listening to his poems, but he liked listening to poems by other poets.

My mother was different. Today she is very frail but whenever I recite or sing to her, with whatever energy she has she reacts with a wah expression.

Shabana says, Javed Akhtar is an important poet today
Javed grew up in an atmosphere that respected words. His father Janisar Akhtar was part of the progressive movement, his mother Safia Akhtar was a writer as well. His uncle Majaz was a famous name in the Urdu progressive writers movement. Javed was reading Dostoyevsky at the age of 10. He is informed by the same vision of the world as the progressive writers but his expression was not encouraged because for the progressive writers art is an instrument of social change. So it was always elevating, always about hope, taking people with you and being in leadership.

Javed is a very interesting poet because he is not anybody's echo, he is his own voice. He is informed by the same values. He is cynical and compassionate, his cynicism is directed towards himself, he is not sitting on a podium. In that cynicism towards himself, he is raising many, many important questions. At the moment, the poetry he is writing, Naya Hukumnama, Saazish, Aansu - these are beautiful poems.

Her advice to aspiring poets
My father, Janisar Akhtar or Javed Akhtar - all of them believed that if you want to write poetry, you should be able to remember a thousand couplets by heart. Your input has to be very great. You have to read, read and read. Only when you read a lot of poetry it starts getting internalised in you - the sound, the fluency, the meaning - riyaaz itna karo ki woh ander se nikle. Just to think that you have a few ideas and if you have a way of putting things in rhyme - these are not enough. It is encouraging that a lot of people want to write poetry, but I would encourage people to be committed enough to give it the kind of discipline and hardwork that is required.