Meena Kumari: Poet of the night – Frontline – Frontline

Typecast as a tragedy queen, Meena Kumari discovered her personal voice in her poetry, contrasting her vibrant interior world with the superficiality of stardom.

It’s March 25, 1947. In one other 5 months, India might be impartial. Mahjabeen Bano, a woman of 13, has simply misplaced her mom to an inoperable lung an infection. She lives in Iqbal Bungalow, a two-storey home in Bandra West. Mehboob Studios, which might be arrange only a couple blocks away, has not but been based.

Mahjabeen was renamed “Child Meena” on the age of six by Vijay Bhatt of Prakash Studios. Her father, Ali Bux, was not too eager on it however parental objections took a backseat when it got here to the views of Director Saab. In a way, Child Meena was introduced up by the movie studios. Ali Bux had been counting on her since she was 4 to carry house the bread by working as an actor within the Bombay movie business.

In just a few years’ time, Child Meena might be recognized throughout India as Meena Kumari. She’s going to play the position of a grief-stricken, morally unambiguous feminine protagonist in a collection of Manichean Bollywood dramas. A main instance is of that is the character of the younger bride in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), who takes to the bottle simply to make her husband keep at house and never go to brothels. Quickly, Mahjabeen’s id might be subsumed within the character she performs— she might be often known as the tragedy queen of Indian cinema.

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Any public persona dilutes the nuances of an individual’s particular person id. In Mahjabeen’s case, it overrode her id as a poet, who wrote verses Urdu underneath the pseudonym, Naaz. On August 1, 2023, on her ninetieth start anniversary, I co-hosted “The Meena Kumari Poetry Crawl” together with Saranya Subramanian—it was a stroll retracing her footsteps from one residence to a different, whereas reliving her verses and some uncommon anecdotes (which have been sourced from Vinod Mehta’s 2013 e book, Meena Kumari: The Basic Biography). Our journey grew to become an excavation, along with her poetry main us to uncharted neighbourhoods. 

The late scholar Noorul Hasan had translated a group of Mahjabeen’s Urdu poems into English within the e book, Meena Kumari: The Poet (Roli Books, 2014). It has a important introduction by the educational and novelist Daisy Hasan, and her late husband, the tradition critic, Philip Bounds. Discussing Mahjabeen’s poems, Hasan informed me throughout an interview that “scepticism in direction of her writing continues to today”.

Certainly, Mahjabeen’s work continues to be closely discounted, mainly by male critics, as self-absorbed, oversimplified, and missing in nuance. Revisiting her verses nearly a century after her start reveals a shocking voice, robust in its nonchalance, steadfastly refusing to present in to histrionics, at the same time as outward circumstances flip dire. A recurrent theme is the juxtaposition of an interior life crammed with emotional consciousness with an outer life moulded to suit the double requirements of widespread tradition. Hasan articulates this nicely in an essay from his e book, the place he likens her poems to a “slight, informal, …intermittent journey or a vacation she allowed herself from her self-consuming stardom.” 

Right here, I try and take readers on a journey just like the Meena Kumari Poetry Crawl, to unravel the id of a poet and a lady by way of anecdotes from the three locations she lived in. 

Iqbal Bungalow

This house marks a spot of transition and grief in Mahjabeen’s life. Her household shifted right here within the Forties, transitioning from staying in a chawl in Dadar to changing into owners in Bandra. 

The residence is called after Mahjabeen’s mom, Iqbal Begum, whom she misplaced at 13. Notably, Iqbal Begum’s identify was initially Prabhavati; she was a Bengali-Christian dancer who renounced her faith and identify to marry Ali Bux. In response to Mehta, Prabhavati was the granddaughter of Tagore’s youthful brother; so, Mahjabeen had a less-known familial hyperlink with the good poet. 

It’s value taking a pause right here to note the irony: each Mahjabeen and her mom needed to endure a change of identify with a view to present the relinquishment of 1 faith and the adoption of one other (albeit completely different ones) to fulfil societal expectations. Throughout her time at Iqbal Bungalow, Mahjabeen went on to star as varied Hindu goddesses in mythological dramas comparable to Laxmi Narayan (1951). These gigs earned her sufficient cash to purchase her a second-hand Plymouth. Mahjabeen liked to drive: she would sit behind the wheel at any time when the possibility arose. 

Mehta’s biography provides us an anecdote concerning the negotiations over her wage for taking part in the lead position in Anarkali, a movie that was ultimately shelved. The director was Kamal Amrohi, whom she would go on to marry. However this incident passed off lengthy earlier than any romantic alliance had begun between the 2. When Mahjabeen got here to know of the beginning determine (across the unreasonable ballpark of Rs.3,000), she supposedly drove off in indignation from Iqbal Bungalow on her personal. This created issues about shedding the lead actress, and so, the determine was settled at Rs.15,000. 

And right here we come to 2 poems. There may be an easy embrace of the unknown and the evening in “Badli Hui Ra’t” (“The Altered Evening”). And there’s an unsentimental matter-of-factness in coping with irrational grief in “Gham Ki Talash” (“The Pursuit of Grief”). Quoted under are the poems, in Hasan’s translation. 

“The Altered Evening”

There was a way of eeriness

The illusory mild of the cloudy skies

Spectral shadows

Magic mountains

Sundry fragrances—

Every little thing stood altered

Maybe as a result of

It was evening.

And evening transforms

All that’s

Be it the snowing, solitary evening

Or the respiratory, aromatic, moonlit evening

Or the unhappy, forlorn, stormy evening.

All nights

Once they exert their magic

Lend acquainted issues such shapes

That they’re laborious to acknowledge.

“The Pursuit of Grief”

Grief –

Is it not right here?

Behind this nook

Over that bend

In these mirage whirlwinds.

Isn’t this grief’s double proper right here

Faking the footfall

Of the unique

Shifting like a ghost.

How straightforward the pursuit of grief

Man is the sorriest creature

In all creation

Solely man can carry himself

To commit suicide

These chirping birds

Flourishing flowers

(unmindful of their ephemeral life)

Should not so despondent

As to kill themselves

Over tensions of their marriage stemming partly from circumstances comparable to a strict curfew imposed on her by Amrohi, Mahjabeen departed her marital house in Bandra West in 1964. She lived for just a few months along with her youthful sister, Madhu, and her husband, Mehmood, in Mehmood’s household big household residence, “Paradise”, in Andheri. 

This was a interval of focused surveillance. Mahjabeen was remoted and no visitors have been permitted to see her. Any mail or telephone requires her have been vetted and examined. 

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Mahjabeen wrote as a approach to problem the general public gaze, and to reclaim her area and physique. This may be seen in “Sheeshein Ka Badan” or “Physique of Glass”, the place she writes, “My anklets flip round to say:/ No thorn will prick me now… Even loss of life will discover me/ A tough nut to crack… My whole physique has change into opaque/ As if made solely of glass”. Her poetic persona takes on the position of the critic within the poem, “Khali Dukan” (“The Empty Store”), the place she employs the phrase “store of Time” as a metaphorical substitute for the movie business, which commodifies and distributes “wealth”, “fame” and “pleasure” to all, distracting from life’s unsettling brevity.

“The Empty Store”

Why has Time unfold out its wares earlier than me?

The place are the issues

I used to purchase?

These spurious toys of delight

Paper flowers of fame

These wax dolls of wealth

Locked in glass circumstances

(That may soften at anybody’s contact)

These are usually not the issues I want to purchase

A good-looking dream of affection

Which may cool my infected eyes

A second of excellent intimacy

Which may soothe my stressed soul

I got here in search of nothing however these

And the store of Time

Provides none of those factor

“A Physique Product of Glass”

How mild my physique has change into

As if made solely of glass.

My eyelashes are embellished with a lace

Product of flowers

And the brightness of the Milky Means

My hair has spun a scarf of goals

My anklets flip round to say:

No thorn will prick me now

Even life can now not taunt me.

I can’t succumb to the seduction

Of the night

I refuse to be entertained

By the evening.

Even loss of life will discover me

A tough nut to crack.

My soul resides in exile

My whole physique has change into opaque

As if made solely of glass.

Landmark Constructing

Mahjabeen didn’t attend correct college. She took non-public tuitions, however was principally self-educated, leaning notably in direction of Urdu. She was nicknamed “Studying Mahjabeen” as a result of, as a toddler, she would spend most of her free time on the studios hunkered over a e book within the nook. Rising up, she loved the works of Mir, Faiz, and different Urdu poets. At her last residence, the eleventh flooring flat in Landmark Constructing in Bandra West, one might discover Emily Brontë and Alistair McLean on the bookshelf, together with a group of sea-stones. This was Mahjabeen’s secure area, her “hideout”, as Mehta calls it. 

Mahjabeen’s passing from liver cirrhosis on the Good Friday of 1972, on the age of 39, shocked the nation. She had confronted near-death experiences earlier than. In the course of the shoot of the music, “Tu Ganga ki maoj mein Jamuna ka dhara” for Baiju Bawra, she was nearly thrown right into a waterfall: an overhanging rock that stopped her boat in its tracks saved her. This anecdote brings me to her poem, “Badal aur Chat’tan” (“Cloud and Rock”). Right here, the rock appears to face not just for steadfastness but in addition for the self as a performer, “caught” within the public eye. The viewers, just like the “clouds”, are impermanent; they arrive and go. 

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In the course of the taking pictures of the identical movie, it was found that Mahjabeen liked snakes: she befriended a non-poisonous snake who was a part of the shoot. Her final want was that her physique ought to delivered to her mattress in Landmark, earlier than it was taken for burial. And this brings us to the poem “Aakhri Khwahish” (“Final Want”), the place she listens to “This pervasive symphony of loss of life”, welcoming its embrace. 

“Cloud and Rock”

You’re clouds

Got here with the winds

Lingered for some time

On the sky



Vanished into some remoteness

We’re rocks

Caught in our locations

Figuring out that

Those that go away

Shall by no means return.

“Final Want”

This evening, this loneliness

This sound of heart-beats — this eerie silence

This silent rendering of ghazals

By sinking stars.

This solitude sleeping

On the eyelashes of Time

This final tremor

Of the sensation of affection

This pervasive symphony of loss of life —

These are inviting you!

Come for a second

Embellish the dream of affection

In my closing eyes.

Vasvi Kejriwal is a poet. She facilitates poetry workshops and curates guided poetry walks underneath her initiative, “Contemporary Mint”. 

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