We begin of course in Lucknow, Aghajani Kashmeri’s
birthplace, the city in Northern India that raised him, the city where he imbibed Urdu poetry and literature,
rubbing shoulders with the most famous Urdu writers and poets, being taken on as the pupil (shagird, in Urdu) of Arzoo Lucknowi, the giant among poets in those days. No wonder that he decided in his late teens that his classroom would not be in front of a blackboard.
Arzoo’s most famous quatrain is about his first sexual encounter, first night, after reading a heavy tome on love. The whole experience is like a blizzard and the book is lost in translation. As the blizzard continues, the book wonders whatever happened to the logic it had imparted to its reader! Babba’s life was like a blizzard, to the end. Both his own autobiography, Sahar Hone Tak, and the documentary bear witness to this.
But given the finite nature of books and the superficiality of timing in a documentary, there is a lot of interesting but extraneous material that is left out. I am going to try and recreate some of that here, in the hope that a bell goes off in the mind of somebody out there. And a comment or many comments appear on the post like the magic of day and night, the seasons, love.
Lucknow is a city that survived the wrath of the English Raj after the mutiny of 1857, in which scores of English men and women were slaughtered. The revenge for this was taken in usurious compound interest. But it was also a city where the Urdu language, the language of Bollywood, came into full bloom, after being born in the southern Indian Deccan region and growing up in Delhi, as writer and historian Nasir Abid tells us in the doc.
It was a city where Hedonism, the pleasure of the senses, always clashed with Islam, the religion of the Nawabs who ruled Oudh (Uttar Pradesh or UP today), whose capital was Lucknow. And hedonism always won out, giving rise to Urdu and Hindi literature and poetry, painting, drama, classical Indian dancing and of course magnificent architecture. Almost every well-known neighbourhood would at least once a week see a neighbourhood mushaira or poetry session, in which ghazal, a very distinct poetic genre made up of couplets and quatrains, would be recited or sung. This was Aghajani’s hangout. And this rubbing shoulders with the doyens of Urdu literature, writers of epic stories and fantasies and love tales, poets whose horizons knew no boundary, would propel him to the top of the heap in Bollywood in later years.
(Even in later years, the neighbourhood poetry sessions stayed with him as did the poets he had surpassed in fame although not in the quality of verse. Some of them would stay with him until the end. Among the great ones who would always visit him was the poet Josh Malihabadi. My father’s assistant was Majnu Lucknowi (Munnawar Agha Majnu). In later years, when Josh would visit from Pakistan, everybody from lyricist Rajinder Krishan, Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, and others woulg congregate at our home, along with Begum Akhtar. Scotch would flow freely. Poetry would be written and Begum Akhtar would sing the freshly minted verse in her sonorous voice. In one such session, I remember meeting Haji Mastaan, the well known gold smuggler and billionaire, with his assistant Aziz. Mastaan is the central character in a 2010 offbeat Bollywood flick called Once Upon a Time in Bombay. I realized from my mother’s scrapbook that he connected his old master, Arzoo, with the famous producer and director Mehboob Khan and arranged for him to write the lyrics for one film. Arzoo being a purist, soon faded away from Bollywood for good reason.)
Eventually, Babba, as I called him, would run away from Lucknow to join the movies – Bollywood in those days was a disreputable industry and children from so-called good families did not contemplate a future in the movies, even though in the early 1900s, India was already the third largest movie industry in the world. Today of course it is the largest. He had been offered the lead role in a movie being shot in Rangoon – yes, the header shot of this website is from that movie, Shan-e-Subhan. A friend typed him a letter purportedly that he was getting a job as an assistant manager of a tea estate in Darjeeling. And he was gone, first to Rangoon where his escapades had me rolling in laughter on the floor. One of them is recounted in his obituary published in the Toronto Globe and Mail that you can read by clicking here.
His next stop was Calcutta (Kolkata today) where he acted in several films, joining his
first cousin, the famous character actor, Nawab Kashmiri. In between roles, he would also help write dialogues, but his heart was set on becoming a hero in the Bollywood of the day. Something had to give and it was not happening. In the interim he became friends with a co-Lucknowee, a charming and very artistic woman from a city called Faizabad, near Lucknow, whose literary upbringing matched that of my father. She was quickly becoming the nightingale of Urdu ghazal singing.
Her name was Akhtaribai Faizabadi, who
eventually, after several lead roles, married a Bombay (today Mumbai) lawyer and took on the honorific, Begum Akhtar. Aghajani’s writing career was not going anywhere, and as he described to me, Begum Akhtar sat him down one day and pointed to the hero of a film in which he was a supporting actor – six feet something, a hunk who towered above Aghajani. My father got the message, and quickly agreed with a film producer that he would end an affair his was having with a supporting actress desired by the man for a sum of money and a train ticket to Bombay!
Next stop Bollywood. There is so much more I can tell you, but much of that will have to come out from his autobiography that I am translating. Stay tuned!
PS. In the slideshow of Aghajani Kashmeri’s Lucknow below, you can hear Begum Akhtar singing a famous ghazal by Mir Taqimir of Lucknow whose opening lines are: “Na socha na samjha, na seekha na janaa // Mujhe aagayaa, khud ba khud dil lagana.” (I didn’t think or understand it, learned it or mastered it // Giving away my heart just happened, little by little, bit by bit.”