Thursday, October 13, 2005

The other Mohammad Rafi

Mohammad Rafi has legendary status in the cultural history of Desh. For three decades he had a career as the leading male singer in Bollywood, and while that was curtailed by the minor inconvenience of his death, we have never stopped listening to his songs.

His voice continues to be with us, sharing both the public and intimate moments of our lives. To his songs the people of Desh have laughed, danced, sung along, celebrated and fallen in love, and yes, also grieved and despaired. Also, lest you think we are an over-emotional people, his voice has also accompanied much cooking and bus-driving and lazy sitting around. Even the residents of this blog, generally not given to much civility, talk of him only as Rafi Sahib.

I hope that perhaps one day we might get to read Akbar's thoughts on Rafi Sahib, for out of us three, he loves Rafi Sahib and his music the best, and knows most about them both. In fact, I intend to leave further discussion of Rafi Sahib to Akbar. What I would like to briefly talk about is a second Mohammad Rafi whom I recently came across.

Mirza Mohammad Rafi was an 18th century poet from Delhi. He is better known known by his takhallus, or nom de plume, Sauda (one meaning: madness), but he is not really that well known or popular.

Which is a shame, because from the little I have read so far, he bloody should be. It appears our 18th century Rafi Sahib was a rather distinctive poet: he didn't just content himself with writing within the conventions of classical persian and urdu poetry, he also wrote hilariously rude satirical verse mocking others and their doings.

Not only should his approach and style make him more accessible and enjoyable for the modern reader, it also enables higher quality translations and thus a wider audience. Urdu poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, partly because of the untranslateable and unworkable metaphors, double entendres, and allusions, but also because many poets were originally intentionally ambiguous, selecting words and structuring their writing such that it was open to multiple interpretations, while the translator is unable to replicate this.

But Sauda's satire doesn't seem to suffer to the same extent from these difficulties, as it is far more direct and to the (generally quite sharp) point. Further, because the satires are in the form of couplets instead of the aa ba ca rhyme scheme of the ghazal, the rhyme too can be replicated faithfully. Thus there's every potential of wonderful translations. In fact, I came across one earlier this week, which prompted this blog. A couple of extracts from Sauda's "A Satire on Hakim (Doctor) Ghaus" follow.

This poem is about a charlatan who pretends to be a doctor.

And when he took up medicine, that great lout
From Rome to Syria the lamps went out.
For infamy in every Indian house
Death's Angel can't compete with Doctor Ghaus.
As for the pen he wields for each prescription
The Sword of Fate would be an apt description.
It's not a reed; it's much more like a spike,
Transfixing Hindus, Muslims all alike.
When he began prescribing with that pen,
Heaven and Hell were filled with the souls of men.

or further along:

One day that shameless fool himself fell ill
And wrote his own prescription for a pill.
At once corpse-washers, coffin bearers, all
Professional mourners with their shroud and pall,
Came running in alarm upto his house
And all in unison cried, 'Doctor Ghaus,
Don't take your medicine for pity's sake!
The future of our families is at stake!

(source: An Anthology of Urdu Verse in English, translated David Matthews)

While translated poetry is generally highly unsatisfactory, here it is so well done that the result is reminiscent of the work of the celebrated 20th century humorist Ogden Nash. And as for the subject of frauds posing as doctors, sadly, it still has relevance in Desh over two centuries later. The people of Desh, and of Videsh as well, might rather enjoy getting to know this other Mohammad Rafi too. Certainly I look forward to reading more of his work.

Oh, and my compliments to Mr Matthews on the translation. Matthews Sauda, the sequel to Fitzgerald Khayyam?