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From Parliament to social media, Rahat Indori's poetry appeals to all

Manavi Kapur/New Delhi 12 Jul 19 | 09:33 PM

“Ghar ki taameer chaahe jaisi ho

Iss mein rone ki jagah rakhna"

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(Whatever be the structure of your home,

Keep a corner for shedding tears)

— Nida Fazli

As he walks into his small study, Rahat Indori says this is his “rone ki jagah" (weeping corner). A glass-paned bookshelf is lined with volumes of poetry, scriptures of various religions, and the literary greats. Above that, in classic middle-class, space-saver style, are his trophies and awards — the “showcase". Indori, the Urdu poet whom parliamentarian Mahua Moitra quoted in her maiden speech on June 25, displays no sign of being an intellectual in the familiarly snooty mould. His desk, for instance, is not a teakwood, leather-top colonial vestige. It is a basic glass-top dining table, covered with a transparent plastic sheet, with a couple of metal chairs around it.

The rest of his home, too, is a reflection of his journey from commercial painter to commercially successful Urdu poet. Born Rahat Qureshi in 1950 in a village on the outskirts of Indore, Indori was a universe away from the culturally vibrant world of Indore. His father, a primary school teacher in the village, took up a job as a cotton mill worker in Indore in search of better prospects. The only thing that led Indori into the world of poetry was his education in Urdu. “Now that I look back, I think I was always fond of sher-o-shayari (Urdu couplets). If I read a 200-page book on shayari, I would be able to recall all 200 pages," he says. “No one taught me grammar or the rules of shayari. It became my interest, and later my passion."

But Indori did not become a poet till he was nearly 30 years old. He worked as an artist, creating large film posters and hoardings in Indore. The passion for poetry, though, was gradually taking shape. He completed his masters in Urdu and then a PhD, and got himself a stable job as professor of Urdu literature at the University of Indore. “I made a compromise with the painter in me and shayari became my life," says Indori.

In 1982-83, he says, his work was featured in newspapers, magazines, books and on the radio. Indori affects no false modesty when he talks about the fame he received. He embraces the happiness he feels with this success but never to the point of presuming literary greatness. For instance, he was on a train when he heard that Moitra’s speech featured his couplet and both her speech and his couplet had gone viral. Indori shrugs and says, “I wrote this couplet decades ago. And I’m not even a big poet to be quoted." His wife, Seema Rahat, sits on the couch from across him, head covered with a wispy dupatta. She seems reticent at first, but opens up instantly when the question of supporting her husband comes up. “My friends used to ask me how we managed our expenses with a poet in the house. I told them we ran our household the same way others did," she smiles.

But in Indori’s case, the struggle wasn’t too hard and he doesn’t falsify it for dramatic effect, either. Soon after he established himself as a poet and found his footing in the mushaira and kavi sammelan (poetry readings and poet gatherings) circuit, he was “discovered" by music producer Gulshan Kumar. “I was approached by a friend asking me to get in touch with Kumar. I spoke to him and Kumar told me that he liked a couplet I had written, which he wanted me to complete and develop into a song for a film," explains Indori. “Because I had a secure job back then, I didn’t take much interest in Kumar’s offer. I kept putting it off by saying I am travelling for different programmes. But Kumar told me he will reimburse all my expenses and fees for the programmes and that I should fly to Mumbai immediately." Kumar, at the time, was known for discovering new talent and giving them a vibrant platform through his T-Series music company.

ALSO READ: Poetry in Parliament

Indori’s first hit song “Aaj humne dil ka har kissa" was for the film Sir, which featured as the most popular song for several weeks on Ameen Sayani’s radio programme, Geetmala. This was also a song that he wrote for music composer Anu Malik, an association that still continues. “Mumbai is known for being harsh to newcomers. But I honestly found success with little or no struggle and I am immensely grateful for that," he says. At 70, Indori is now working closely with director Vidhu Vinod Chopra for a film on Kashmiri Pandits.

While Bollywood satisfied his financial needs — and he is quick to clarify that it was not greed — Indore always held his heart. “I used to be a smoker back then and while we were recording in the studio, I would tell Malik that I would return after a smoke. He would send two people behind me because he was always worried that I would escape to Indore the first chance I got," he laughs. Indori is always ready with his treasure trove of engaging anecdotes, partly because he recited similar stories during a shoot for The Kapil Sharma Show on which he is due to appear as a celebrity guest. This takes him back to his political poetry and ruminations about the Urdu language.

Rahat Indori

“I never set out to attack the prime minister or praise him. I don’t write a couplet and think of whom it will appeal to. My job is to simply write, the meaning derived are people’s own," he says. And swiftly quotes Krishna Bihari Noor: “Main toh ghazal suna ke akela khada raha, sab apne apne chaahne waalon mein kho gaye (I recited my ghazal and stood still, people just got lost in their loved ones)." That, of course, is a clever manoeuvre, where he simply lobs the question of “meaning" back to his reader. It is the only time during this conversation that Indori uses a subtle ruse. His Twitter account, for instance, is not as naïve as it may appear. Managed by his son, Faisal, it often features couplets relevant to a current event, ensuring it becomes viral. It is also the reason critics feel Indori plays too often to the gallery, catering to a WhatsApp- and YouTube-savvy generation.

Rahul Verma, a taxi driver in Indore, says Indori’s poetry speaks directly to him. “He isn’t complicated and my friends and I feel like he’s writing about what we all go through," says Verma. It is also the reason that, according to Indori, his poetry continues to enchant young students, who often complete his couplets when Indori performs at their colleges. “I feel the platforms have changed, the centres of mushairas have shifted and even the format of a kavi sammelan has changed. And the fate of Urdu is the same as other regional languages. They must all adapt in order to survive," he says.

Though his poetry doesn’t feature high in the Urdu canon and retains its earthiness by avoiding complex techniques and turns of phrase, Indori is devoted to Mirza Ghalib’s layered poetry. “I sleep with a copy of his book under my pillow. Sometimes, I wake up in the night, read a couplet and feel as though I had never read it before," he says. “To this generation I will only say that if you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader." It is Indori’s moment in the sun. Whether he is a poet who will outlive a viral social media cycle is another question.

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