The Passion of Fahmida Riyaz

The story of writer, poet and activist Fahmida Riyaz,who belonged to both Pakistan and India, is a story of the struggles and resistance of women of the subcontinent who dare to be different.

Published: 18th November 2023 07:02 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2023 09:15 AM   |  A+A-

(L-R) Namita Singhai and Meera Rizvi. ( Photo | Shekhar Yadav)

(L-R) Namita Singhai and Meera Rizvi. ( Photo | Shekhar Yadav)

Express News Service

Since the birth of the two as independent nations, blood and poetry have flown in between India and Pakistan. Few artists have spent both as much as writer, poet and activist Fahmida Riyaz. Close to her fifth death anniversary (on November 18), Delhi’s Dastangoi Collective has put the spotlight on Fahmida, partly in a spirit of rehabilitation but also to underscore how art can spring from tight corners. Dastan-e-Fahmida, to be performed by Namita Singhai and Meera Rizvi at the India Habitat Centre today, has been written by Rizvi. Her mother was a friend of Fahmida, who was born in Meerut and who kept up her ties with India, and spent her political asylum here in consequence of her sustained opposition to General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the late ’70s to the ’80s.“For us, the mix of how much politics and how much of her personal life we would keep in the story was important….it had to be a mix of who she was and what we wanted to say,” says Rizvi, a few days before its staging, at a dress rehearsal.

Rebel impulse

Fahmida had other crosses to bear. While the private worlds of women were the subject of many of her poems, Fahmida’s emphasis was on transgression, and that disturbed male-dominated literary and religious establishments. All through her life, her impulse seems to have been to bring her poetry to stand at the barricades, and identify with the most radical strands of thought, wherever she found them. She wrote poems on Karl Marx and Bhagat Singh; she translated the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, almost her kindred spirit in Iran, and like her, revered and reviled.

Singhai, Rizvi’s collaborator in the research and development of the dastan, says her encounter with Fahmida’s poetic sensibility was a big learning for her, the way she talked of being a woman. “In the time that Fahmida came to be known as a poet, I don’t know of any woman poet writing in Hindustani who was talking in the same terms. A poem like ‘Zubano ka Bosa’ (Kissing of the tongue)…it was that graphic…and remember this was 1973.” She spoke of female desire, it was such a big load she had to carry through her life, adds Rizvi, pointing to how male artists through the ages have been forgiven their ‘aberrations’ if they produced great art. “No one says, for example that ‘so and so was a lousy man, but a great poet’.”

A subcontinental story

Rizvi skillfully combines events in the dastan to show how the year 1967 was important for her and for women in the subcontinent. By then Fahmida’s first collection of nazms, Pathar ki Zaban (The Langage of Stones), was out; Indira Gandhi had won her first election as head of the Congress and was to become Prime Minister; Fahmida, by then married, was in London and hosting a women’s programme on the BBC. She was soon to become a mother. “So what was the problem? She wanted it all,” says Rizvi. “Samjhaute ki chadar is how I describe her marriage. Plus maan bannane ka ehsaas and inqilab ki dastak. The duality between the nurturing instinct of a new mother and the call for revolution….for a woman who never gave up on a fight, she was dealing with both.”

The problem of East Pakistan, which was to culminate in the Bangladesh war of liberation, was also about to erupt. “Unlike many in Pakistan, who due to the censorship were led to believe that Pakistan was winning the war till it lay down its arms, Fahmida was aware of the background of intolerance towards Bengalis. In London, she was watching the newsreels. While many men, tongues and pens were silent, or ‘moving on’ after the separation of Bangladesh, Fahmida was writing poems: “kamre mein badi ghutan hai (the room feels suffocating again)…,” points out Singhai.The lasting importance of Fahmida is that she left behind lines that can be uploaded against oppression. “She spoke so well against it. I see her as a medium. Her story is not unique, she is of our times,” says Rizvi. “For even though we may not be able to say what we want to, we can talk of someone who did,” says Singhai.

Act of protest

The ‘field’ of dastangoi is small. It is just two people on a gadda. But from that corner, there are words that can be hoisted like flags, truth can be spoken to power. “We are wearing Awadhi dress and talking of Ganga-Jamuni tenzeeb…. These days it can be considered offensive. But what would be wrong is not speaking at all, to say that it’s a culture not easily asundered without tearing apart the social fabric,” says Singhai and Rizvi, both part of the Dastan Collective for over 10 years now.   

Produced by Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqui has directed Dastan-e-Fahmida. Through its 18-year journey, the collective has staged a wide variety of dastans, including Dastan-e-Partition, Dastan-e-Mantoiyat, Dastan-e-Sedition and Dastan-e-Mahabharata. Says Farooqui: “We work in a society vastly different from where Fahmida worked. This is a democracy where authoritarian trends enjoy widespread support...people with differing political beliefs champion instant justice. In one sense, it is a democratic, equalising process as well as a post truth’s not just the state, it’s the society you have to now watch out for...but you can challenge people, shake them out of their comfort zones provided you don’t talk down to them, it is important not to be shrill, not to be polemical...and that’s what the great Iqbal said.”

Dastan-e-Fahmida is on at The Stein Auditorium, IHC,Lodhi Road, at 7 pm today.


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