An emotion called Gulzar

Eighty-nine autumns of life have woven through his being, but Gulzar—born Sampooran Singh Kalra—continues to embody the vibrancy of spring with the undiminished zeal for his craft. Every day without fail, for a dedicated six hours, his world revolves around his literary pursuits. His words, forming an intricate dance of metaphors and emotions, have become synonymous with the sentiments of love, loss, and longing, striking chords deep within the soul, earning him an iconic status in the realm of words.

Recently honored with the announcement of the prestigious Jnanpith Award, India’s highest accolade for literature in 2023, Gulzar’s impact is celebrated by legions of admirers. His poignant choice of metaphors stands unmatched, as he embodies the essence of the modern-day bard – an emotion unto himself, an emotion called Gulzar.

His diverse tapestry of work encapsulates an array of themes, from the exaltation of progressive thought, unfettered by conventional norms, to the introspective examinations of societal shifts, from delightful conversations with children to the intimate depths of romantic yearning. Gulzar presents to us a treasure trove—’potli’—abound with elegantly woven verse, demonstrating his mastery in capturing the quintessence of human experiences.

At the 2024 Jaipur Literature Festival on February 2, Gulzar’s presence was enough to set the literary world abuzz. The poet, with nonchalant grace, broached the subject of his latest pursuit. He sought to translate a poem a day, gathering 365 pieces from an array of languages into his latest book, “A Poem A Day.” This endeavor arose from an interaction with students who confessed their inability to resonate with the poetry included in their curriculum.

Gulzar remarked, “Poetry is a living medium, as alive as the headlines of a newspaper. The problem is that in schools and colleges, we teach only classical poetry when the focus should be on contemporary writing.” With his commitment to provide them a daily dose of relatable and contemporary poetry, he has once again shown his unyielding dedication to literature.

It was a full decade after being endowed with the distinguished Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his cinematic contributions that the announcement of the Jnanpith Award illuminated his literary endeavors. Being recognized, he mused, provided an affirming validation for persisting in his literary journey, despite fears that his written works might have remained in the shadow of his cinematic success. “It seems my books have found their honor,” he says, painting his accomplishment with a metaphor of books becoming akin to a bride adorned.

Skeptics and traditionalists may have hesitated in conferring upon him his deserved plaudits, but the cinematic flair in his lyrics has long since possessed a profound literary merit. The distinctiveness of Gulzar’s work was apparent from his earliest offerings.

Far beyond the realm of filmdom, Gulzar’s passion for literature was nurtured by his early education, his encounters with teachers who encouraged beyond-the-textbook thinking, and his absorption of poetic masterpieces across cultures. It was a fondness for the written word and its transformative power that drove Gulzar to become a voracious reader, delving into the works of Tagore and Shakespeare, as well as Jibanananda Das, Nazim Hikmet, and W.H Auden.

The eclecticism of his literary study gifted him the vocabulary and confidence to craft his own narratives. He described the influence of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on his depiction of the bylanes of historic Delhi and the challenge of synthesizing his multitude of linguistic influences into original, heartfelt expressions.

Gulzar’s mellifluous voice possesses a quality so affecting that it could have led him to a career in classical music, yet he chose to channel his aesthetics into words. Early on in his Bombay days, he rubbed shoulders with progressive authors such as Krishan Chander, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Rajinder Singh Bedi. He kept himself at a distance from political labels, finding his identity rooted in humane perspectives.

The venerable artist goes further, reflecting on the country’s linguistic diversity as a strength. In Bombay, conversations echoed with multiple tongues, and Gulzar embraced them all. He penned the complexities of Partition and bureaucracy, and encouraged candid discourse on historical wounds, advocating for an informed understanding over inherited prejudices.

Across India’s vast expanse, while languages and identities sometimes clashed, Gulzar discerned a cultural unity expressed through shared poetic sensibilities, permeating themes of poverty, politics, and escapism.

In an age when the purity of truth is perennially questioned, Gulzar sees poetry as the indefatigable sprout of grass breaking through the rock’s surface. It’s in this undying spirit that he offers an affirming message: never lose hope, for poetry, like life, inevitably finds its way.

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