As a young man Ashiq Husain Batalvi worked as the energetic secretary of Sir Mohammad Iqbal. Later he became a renowned scholar, prolific writer, historian, commentator and broadcaster. In his twilight years he worked for BBC Eastern Service from London. In those days, he often repeated an aphorism, frequently in a loud voice as he had become hard of hearing, to various audiences, ''Poetry has saved us.'' I am not sure who Batalvi sahib considered to be saved from whom, and certainly the aphorism can be applied to many divergent situations, but the universal truth of this pearl of wisdom cannot be denied that poetry has acted as a saviour throughout history.
Take the case of Urdu language in post-Partition India. When the Partition was being worked out while a plan, though not a very good one, was put in place about the division of territories a lot of things were left up in the air. As Manto remarks to illustrate the prevailing confusion:
''Now we have partition what exactly does it mean, what about the literature created before the partition? Will that be divided as well?"
Language was another of the entities for which no plan had been envisaged. In particular, Urdu language, where ironically while the majority of Urdu speakers were left in India which decided that Hindi will be the national language, Pakistan, where less than 10% of the population spoke Urdu as the mother tongue decided to make it her national language. Within India the tension over languages was not new and dated back to at least 1860 if not earlier. Vested interests had been keen on fusing language with religious identity and the policies of the colonial rulers had added fuel to fire. This was a three way struggle between proponents of a pure Sanskritized Hindi, a pure Persianized Urdu and a common language Hindustani. At the turn of the century the majority of what is now called Hindi speakers considered Hindustani as their language. All this changed after Partition in 1947 when Urdu was adopted by Pakistan as its national language and as India and Pakistan were born fighting each other, for India Urdu became the language of the enemy. Thus by 1961 Hindustani was eliminated as a language in India and people were forced to chose Hindi or Urdu as their language with Urdu being considered as a foreign language and a language of Muslims who were looked at with suspicion by the state and advocates of Hindu nationalism. The decline of state patronage particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pardesh turned Urdu into a moribund language at one stage. However, at this time, poetry saved Urdu from death. For Bombay film industry acts as the largest cultural institution in India and no one can dream of a Bollywood movie without songs and here, just like no one has yet invented a source of energy to replace fossil fuel no one has been able to substitute a language other than Urdu for poetry of the songs.
Bolyoowd movies used poems of famous Urdu poets as such for their songs, like this ghazal from the 1957 film Lal Qilla
Or this beautiful piece of poetry by Mir Taqi Mir from 1982 movie Bazar:
Even Iqbal, often considered responsible for the vivisection of India was used for Bollywood like this 1967 qawali by Lata:
The king of all movie lyricists Sahir Ludihanvi wrote many great numbers:
And through many others like Kafi Azmi, Majroh Sultanpuri to the present day leader Javed Akthar Urdu poetry continues to provide the words for Hindi film songs, it is sometimes a bit of a shock when the movie characters who speak a language with multiple Sanskrit words in conversation suddenly start singing in beautiful proper Urdu!
Urdu has not only survived in India but to speak proper Urdu and appreciation of Urdu poetry is considered as a sign of being cultured among upper crust Hindus. This is well illustrated in
By the verse:
Voh Yaar hai jo Khushbo ki taraah
Hai jiss key Zubaan Urdu key taraah
And though the song was written by Gulzar these words come from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
So here we can see how poetry has saved Urdu and made it prosper, for it is so much easier to write beautiful poetry in Urdu and the poet has to do it following strict metrical patterns and this ensures that the poetry is written in proper Urdu otherwise it goes out of meter.
Yet Urdu in India is not the only thing saved by poetry, across the border in Pakistan where Urdu received official patronage at the expense of local languages there has been little local support from film industry, but Urdu poetry has flourished in masters like Faiz, Kazmi, Parveen Shakir etc. And the resent ludicrous attempts to destroy Urdu by substituting Arabic words like Allah for Khuda or even calling Pakistan, Bakistan are bound to fail.
People often hate what they fear, and one can see the contempt with which rabidly fanatic mullas and so called scholars look at poetry and music for these merchants of hate are in the business to create divisions, therefore poetry and music which can erase boundaries are their natural enemies.
Further west in the unfortunate war torn country of Afghanistan, men like Masood Khalili who himself was badly injured in the attack that killed Ahmad Shah Masood, believe that restoring poetry to Afghanistan may be the medicine that will heal the wounds of the nation and restore peace, for poets are held in great esteem by Afghans even by those who can't read. Throughout Afghanistan people use the prefix ''Shaer mega (poet says)'' to substantiate an argument.
To explain why I am told by an Afghan that if you go to a strange village and say two plus two equals four the villagers will challenge your authority, but if you say, ''The poet says two plus two equals five'' they will accept what you say without an argument.
And thus the shared poetic heritage of Khushal Khan Khatak, Rehman Baba and Khalil Ulah Khalili can act as the bridge to bring the waring factions closer and stop the endless war.
Looking even further afield we see the Russians and Ukrainians killing each other, yet both speak Russian and both love Pushkin, so why can't they live in peace?
And while a knowledge of language is a big advantage in appreciating poetry it is not always required to be saved, as American musician Jeff Buckly tells us when one day he was walking through Queens contemplating suicide and heard:
His depression lifted and he decided to live again despite not understanding a word of the song!
Poets and their admirers are not the only one who appreciate the qualities of poetry, even politicians are aware of this.
Quoting John F Kenedy:
''When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.''
Over the last few years that I have been actively involved on Facebook, I have made many friends who live in far off places, many live in India, but it is source of great happiness that we all share the love of poetry. And English as well as Urdu poetry. Both actual poems as well as songs in these languages, have often been the common theme that we have shared and talked about. Without doubt, this shared love of poetry has brought us, who have never met, may never ever meet, close to each other and we all feel affection for each other that one only feels for long term real life friends.
In my mind, I have no doubt that poetry has acted as the catalyst to create such feelings. It gives me great pleasure to discuss poetry and songs with friends in Amritsar and Calcutta and find that we love the same songs.
Recently, a friend from Calcutta told me that an evening of poetry took place in Calcutta where a leading local poet gave a lecture on the life of Faiz reading some of his poems and making the audience fall in love with Faiz. So,
Hum hoay, tum hoay, kay mir hoay
Aik he zulf kay sub aseer hoay
What more can be a stronger tie to bind us than common loves?
So maybe here lies hope, here is the salvation, for humanity, for mankind, for us. For it is possible that poetry (and music) will indeed save us.