Millennium Post

The actor, the poet

Actors have a power that many might envy - the power of essaying varied, even atypical characters and then returning to their normal lives. The problem however begins when the boundary line between reel and real life begins to blur.

Meena Kumari, a legendary performer of roles of star-crossed and ultimately-doomed women, was a victim of this trend and that melancholy tinges her life - and poetry.

‘Shamaa hoon, phool hoon, ya ret pe qadmon ka nishaan/Aap ko haq hai mujhe jo bhi ji chahe keh le’ is a couplet that uncannily echoes the crushed, social-conforming, desire-denied woman she played in countless tear-jerkers. Or even, ‘Ab yahaan kuch nahi sannata hi sannata hai/Dekh ke veerana log abh bhi yehi kehte hai/Kisi dulhan ka maqbarah hai yeh khandar to nahi!!!’

Meena Kumari’s four-decade life was scarcely enviable - a childhood stunted by the need to work to support her family, a fairytale romance that ultimately soured, lack of genuine love and support, a grievous and eventually fatal illness from heavy drinking and, on the other hand, being ruthlessly typecast onscreen as a quietly-suffering woman in thrall to a dominant male figure.

Poetry was the only exercise of free self-expression for this intelligent and sensitive woman, who writing under the pen name Naaz, could fashion some imaginative and striking imagery or convey an endearing wistfulness, in that queen of languages, Urdu.

But then this was inaccessible to the majority, who only had recourse to some transliterations, occasional translations and, of course, the record I Write, I Recite, in which she performed some of her compositions, set to music by the evergreen Khayyam.

Distinguished scholar Noorul Hasan has performed the signal service of bringing Meena Kumari’s poetry to a wider audience by translating nearly 50 of her works into English, while also providing a transliterated version of the original for the bilingual connoisseur in Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema.

Hasan, who confesses to being impressed by the cadence and clarity of the translated pieces he spotted and how they convinced him to follow suit, also provides an insightful introduction to the poetess Meena Kumari ‘whose flirtations with the pen are as seductive as her universally celebrated femininity’ while his daughter Daisy Hasan and critic Philip Bounds render an equally thoughtful examination of the poetry as a critical reaction to popular culture, specially its Bollywood manifestation.

This is brought out well in the nazm titled ‘Khaali Dukaan/The Empty Shop’ with its wistfully expressed requirement of ‘Pyaar ka ek khoobsurat khwab...’, and ‘Mohabbat ka ek purtapak lamha...’ but ‘Bas inhi ek do cheezon ki main khareedar thi/Aur waqt ki dukaan in cheezon se khaali hai’. 

The translation - ‘I came looking for nothing but these/And the shop of Time/Supplies none of these things’ - faithfully reproduces the rhythm.

This is not a compilation of Meena Kumari’s entire work but a representative selection displaying the refined sensibility she could achieve in verse too. Her poetry may be ‘sad, joyless, pessimistic, morbid...’ but was ‘entirely in character with her life, or at least her comprehension of her life’ as Meena Kumari’s biographer Vinod Mehta observes in Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography. It may not have been very great poetry but was far beyond what her contemporaries (or successors) have been capable of. All those who identified vicariously with her sufferings - on and off screen - owe it to themselves to acquaint themselves with this side of this talented woman too. ians

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