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.
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
Every little thing stood altered
Maybe as a result of
It was evening.
And evening transforms
Be it the snowing, solitary evening
Or the respiratory, aromatic, moonlit evening
Or the unhappy, forlorn, stormy evening.
Once they exert their magic
Lend acquainted issues such shapes
That they’re laborious to acknowledge.
“The Pursuit of 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
(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.
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”
Got here with the winds
Lingered for some time
On the sky
Vanished into some remoteness
Caught in our locations
Figuring out that
Those that go away
Shall by no means return.
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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