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Remembering a literary guru

Sajjad Baqar Rizvi’s dynamic voice continues to echo in the hearts of many successive generations of his students

Remembering a literary guru

A young journalist once approached Prof Karrar Husain, as the latter had just finished a public lecture in Lahore, and requested him to name some of his books. Sajjad Baqar Rizvi, who was standing right beside the legendary writer at that moment, along with Intezar Hussain, interrupted the journalist and said: “One of his books is me and another one is Intezar Husain”.

When poet, literary critic and an inspiring teacher Sajjad Baqar Rizvi passed away a quarter of a century ago in Lahore, an English newspaper formed by one of Rizvi’s earlier students Hussain Naqi announced:“….he will be remembered by a widow, two sons and innumerable students”.Untitled-8

Poets and critics are strange bedfellows. Not because of the perennial quarrel of poets and writers with critics, whom the writing fraternity considers to be mostly in the business of fault finding. But because of the contrary nature of their respective jobs: encoding and decoding of the literary text. Poets have a synthetic mind. They, by virtue of the very function of their job, unify apparently diverse experiences; what Eliot might have called “amalgamating disparate experience”. A critic, on the other hand, dissects the text.

These conflicting qualities are hardly ever available in one person, though there are some rare exceptions. Sajjad Baqar Rizvi — generally called and endearingly remembered as Baqar Sahab — was one of them. Additionally, he was a teacher as well. These three, mutually enhancing dimensions were all amalgamated in one indissoluble core of his being.

He looked at, took care of and nourished his students exactly the way he took care of his poems and/or pieces of literary criticism. Engaging in a dialogue with his students was for him as significant as were the other two activities. Possibly, it is one of the reasons that he did not write as much as he could. Besides, he had a penchant for the spoken word and was one of the most captivating conversationalists that I ever came across in my life. He wasn’t like Muneer Niazi, whose sentences and delivery emanated from the magic that a poet is blessed with; nor like Jaun Elia, who used to mix his off-beat remarks with a certain theatricality. Baqar Sb’s sentences had a spark and glow of rare intellect.

One of the first meetings I had with him dates back to 1986 when I had just enrolled myself in MA Urdu at Oriental College. One fine evening, I found myself ascending the stairs of the Sohail Iftekhar Institute near the New Campus bridge where Baqar sb used to sit around this time as its honorary director. At the far end of a spacious room on the campus, I could see him reading by the dim light of a lamp. I approached tiptoeing, but he had already noticed me. After an exchange of greeting, I took a seat right in front of him.

Putting his book aside, he looked at me and asked in a matter-of-fact fashion; Kaise Aana Hua? (What brought you here?).

“Sir, may I request you to take me in your tutorship?”, I asked, rather embarrassingly.

He paused for a moment and said: “But, you are already in my class. Aren’t you? If you think you would get better marks in this manner, you won’t.’ He warned.

“No, I want to learn”, I clarified.

Despite having spent almost the entirety of his active life teaching, Baqar sb’s criticism was pleasantly free from academic triteness. He always took literary criticism as a sub-discipline of cultural criticism. In doing so he became more of a literary theorist than a mere literary critic.

Thereupon, he took a piece of paper, jotted something down and handed it to me, saying: “Go read these books then and come see me afterwards. The first four books are important, but if you like, you can read the last one as well”, he added.

The suggested list contained five books of literary criticism along with the names of their authors: Sitaara Ya Baadbaan by Muhammad Hasan Askari; Nayee Nazm aur Poora Aadmi by Saleem Ahmad; Tanqeed Ka Naya Pas Manzar by Jeelani Kamran; Urdu Shaaeri Ka Mizaaj by Wazir Agha; and last but not the least Tehzeeb O Takhleeq by Sajjad Baqar Rizvi himself. I started working on the reading project from the very next day. I don’t remember how long it took for me to finish reading the texts as they were difficult, but I do remember that during the next few days I was able to establish a rapport with him – a relationship that lasted till the day of his final departure.

When a year later, Zia ul Hasan (now famous critic, poet, and a professor of Urdu at the Oriental College) joined MA Urdu, we started seeing Baqar Sahab together and a bit more frequently. Both of us had a special bond with him, but its manifestations were entirely different. Zia, otherwise assertive was not too vocal in front of Baqar Sahab, and not because he was a new entrant. He was just like this and stayed this way till the end. I was diametrically opposite to Zia, respectful but always bent upon making my point – at times, assertively. I had the feeling that Baqar Sahab liked a good argument, to have someone to what he called, ‘lock horns’ with him. Even though Zia was devotedly attached to him, he was a bit sensitive and Baqar Sb was aware of this fact. As a consequence, Zia was mostly spared. My rebuttals almost always amused Baqar sb, but he would pretend to be annoyed and would scold me nonetheless. This little ‘drama’ used to amuse everyone present.

Attending his class was a formality.  Though I do not remember ever missing any of his lectures, it was actually outside of the classroom that I had the privilege to really benefit from his company. A visit to Sohail Iftekhar Institute was rare since it was too quiet a place to hold a lively discussion. He resided at the New Campus where he was the superintendent of a student’s hostel and would take the university van on his way to Oriental College. There were two departure times for the bus: 12 pm, and 2 pm. Usually, he took the first one. However, occasionally if one of us asked: “Sir, are you sure you are going to take the 12 pm van?”, he would just smile and pose a counter-question: “Do you wish me to take the second one?” After which, he almost always just stayed on.

Baqar Sahab was not reserved as a person, still, he was not too fond of socialising – at least during the time period we saw him. One possible reason could be his aggravated illness and failing health; but despite the fact that apparently he looked like an extrovert, he was at heart an awfully lonesome man. Almost all of his friendships were of a purely literary nature, except with Intezar Hussain, Shohrat Bukhari, Umar Faizi and a few others. But with his students, especially those who formed the inner circle, he laid bare his inner core, opened up his soul and confided in them about his personal life, his sorrows, his dreams, his unfulfilled wishes and so on.

Despite having spent almost the entirety of his active life teaching — first English Language and Literature at Islamia College; and later Urdu Literature at Punjab University, Lahore — his criticism was pleasantly free from academic triteness. He always took literary criticism as a sub-discipline of cultural criticism. In doing so he became more of a literary theorist than a mere literary critic. His poetry that comes predominantly in the form of ghazal is marked by his social concerns. Written in a neo-classical vein, it emerges as a challenge to and a lamentation on the non-creative social mindset and fast deteriorating cultural values.

Though in no way a romantic poet à la Meer Taqi Meer and Firaq, Baqar Sahab was a great connoisseur and a highly refined practitioner of the poetic idiom. In fact, Nasir Kazmi once wrote a preface to Baqar Sahab’s maiden collection of ghazals: Tesha e Lafz — the only preface Kazmi Sahab ever wrote. The tone of his poetry was, however, quite different to that of Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Mushtaq and some of his other friends in Lahore. He could however be compared with one of his earlier poet-friends Saqi Faruqi, who was a great admirer of his poetry, especially of one of his less famous couplets — a couplet that bears a remarkable resemblance to Saqi Faruqi’s own poetic style:

Aftab -- Sher 1

Just an echo it is, don’t trust the magic of air

Don’t startle, and misconceive your own voice.


It has been a long time since that beloved and benevolent voice has faded away physically. However, it still echoes in our poetry, our literary and cultural criticism and in the hearts of many successive generations of his students — and in me.




Dr Aftab Husain

Dr Aftab Husain web
The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University.

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