This post was originally written for Himal South Asian, here
There is hardly any poet who talks about his beloved in a manner that makes her seem like a real person; just as imperfect and prone to the vagaries of life like the rest of us. Walter Allen once remarked that the heroines in the novelsof Charles Dickens were always under the spell of constipation. In a similar vein, stand up comedian Raju Srivastava once remarked that female leads in Indian movies have never been depicted in a manner that suggests that they too, like other people, are subject to the outcomes of our digestive machinery.
The constant neglect of these ‘lesser than rosy themes’ in our poetry has completely dehumanised the beloveds in our poetry. It is in this context that I would like to introduce you to Sheikh Baqir Ali Chirkeen, an Urdu poet like no other. Chirkeen, as he is commonly known, is one of the lesser known greats of Urdu poetry. Born in Barabanki (near Lucknow) in late eighteenth century, Chirkeen’s poetry focuses on those aspects of life which his contemporaries generally refrained from. His boldness earned him the wrath of the literati of those times; had it not been for a few brave souls, his works would have been lost a long time ago.
To give an example of his unusual talent, here is Chirkeen taunting his beloved,
“Chirkeen se munh chhipaoge bait-ul-khula mein kya,
be-parda ho gaye kahaan, phir raha lihaaz”
A rough translation would be,
(Why do you hide your face from Chirkeen in the lavatory?
Having seen you in that state, what’s the use of modesty now?)
My first encounter with Chirkeen was through a casual mention by a friend, which led me to launch a frantic google search. Disappointingly, even google, the eternal saviour, did not yield much. Frustrated, I gave up. Soon, the name of Chirkeen receded to the back alleys of my cerebrum. Months passed. Then one fine day, while I was on one of my Purani Dilli jaunts, I decided to visit Nizamuddin Dargah. For those unfamiliar with Delhi, Nizamuddin is one of the most eclectic places in the city. It is a confluence of three strands running through India’s Muslim culture. Apart from the dargah, which is the symbol of India’s vibrant Sufi culture, it is also home to the headquarters of Tableeghi Jamaat, an organization that aims to cleanse Indian Islam of all of its local ‘innovations’ and keep believers away from sin and kufr. Right opposite the headquarters of the Jamaat is the grave of the person who represents the most non-pious strand of Indo-Islamic culture, popularly known as Mirza Ghalib.
Anyway, coming back to my story, it was on one of these random walks to Nizamuddin that Hazrat Chirkeen, like the elusive Khizr decided to reveal himself to me. On my way to the dargah, I had decided to make a quick stop at the Ghalib Academy, adjacent to the mazaar. While I was rummaging through the pile of books on Ghalib, something caught my eye. And there it was, inscribed in bold, red font – Deewan e Chirkeen. I could not believe my eyes. After numerous trips to the Urdu Bazaar which had yielded nothing, I found the master in the house of another master! Anyway, I digress.
Returning to Chirkeen’s poetry, it generally evokes two kinds of reactions. The first is outright disapproval, and this behaviour is generally observed amongst those who consider themselves civilized and above all sh*t. Then there are those connoisseurs of filth (like yours truly), who relish the not-so-nice mode of expression. However, both of these groups commit some fundamental errors. According to Shamsur Rehman Farooqi, a famous critic of Urdu poetry, when it comes to Chirkeen’s poetry, people confuse its form for the content. According to Farooqi, the so-called ‘obscenity’ is not in the poetry per se; rather, it is in the mind of the reader. Thus, in Farooqi’s view, terms such as ‘uncivilised’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘obscene’ are themselves subject to interpretation.
To sum it up, love him or hate him, or even ignore him, Chirkeen is as Chirkeen does. Though grounded in matters seemingly mundane and real worldly, he’s at the same time detached from its allure. He’s not concerned with glory or popularity. In his own words,
Tere ghar se jo ab ke jaoonga,
Mootne bhi kabhi na aaonga
(Having left your house once and for all,
I won’t even come back to pee.)