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Kaifi Azmi: A Poet for the Ages

January 14, 2023 | By

An important figure in the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry gave voice to those without one and raised social consciousness. However, as a film lyricist, he also proved that his words could encompass a gamut of human emotions, writes Anuradha Warrier. A Silhouette special tribute.

 Kaifi Azmi

A young Kaifi Azmi

When I listen to Hindi film songs, while the melody draws me in, it is the words that keep me engrossed. Words have magic, they transport me to different worlds, express the emotions I feel but cannot say. And, amidst all the poet-lyricists of the Golden Age of Hindi film music, Sahir, Shailendra and Majrooh have my heart. But as I began paying attention to who wrote what, I added Kaifi to the pantheon of lyricists whose penmanship gladdens my listening hours.

Born Athar Husain Rizvi in Mijwan (Azamgarh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh), Kaifi Azmi was destined to be a maulvi. At least, his parents must have hoped so when they sent the young lad to the Sultan-ul-Madaaris, a seminary in Lucknow. Little did they know that their son’s rebellious streak would cause him to lead a strike for students’ rights there.

He had always shown an inclination for poetry, famously writing his first ghazal, “Itni to zindagi mein kisi ke khalal pade” when he was barely 11 years old. At the seminary, he continued to write; his poems – like all fledgling poets – speaking of love and heartbreak with all their associated imagery. But soon, he got his hands on a controversial new book titled Angaare – a collection of nine short stories and a play by contemporary authors like Sajjad Zaheer, Mahmood-uz-Zafar, Rashid Jahan and Ahmed Ali. The stories within questioned not only prevailing religious dogma, social equality, political institutions and women empowerment, it also criticized imperial rule in India. As such, it became the target of both the religious leadership and the British government. Angaare was banned, and all but five copies were burnt.

Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi

Kaifi and Shaukat (Pic courtesy:

However, its influence continued to be felt, since the ban directly led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Kaifi’s poetry too began to reflect a socially conscious tone that championed the cause of the poor. He began to contribute to Naya Adab, a progressive literary magazine edited by Ali Sardar Jafri. By 1942, the young poet had quit the seminary and become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

Kaifi Azmi came to Bombay in 1943 after a brief stint in Kanpur. He began writing for the Communist Party’s Urdu journals, Quami Jung and Mazdoor Mohalla.  His first poetry anthology, Jhankar, was also published the same year.

In 1947, he married Shaukat Khanam, whom he had met at a mushaira in Hyderabad. Almost immediately after, Kaifi Azmi had to go into hiding – the Communist Party was banned, and the Party Office shut down. Shaukat remained with her parents. When she joined him in Bombay, the couple initially lived in a commune. It was then that Izmat Chugtai, a friend from the Progressive Writers’ Association, offered him a chance to write the lyrics for Buzdil (1952). Soon, Kaifi Azmi had turned to films to eke out a supplementary income.

asha sd burman kaifi azmi

Asha Bhosle, SD Burman and Kaifi Azmi at the recording of Tujhe mili roshni in Apna Haath Jagannath (1960)

His initial foray into films wasn’t very successful. While the songs were popular, the films flopped. But chance brought him in touch with Guru Dutt, who was looking for a new lyricist after Sahir Ludhianvi and SD Burman had a falling out. The songs of Kagaz ke Phool have withstood the test of time and are today considered classics, but at the time of release, the film was a disaster. When his next few films followed the same trajectory, Kaifi Azmi was considered ‘unlucky’ by a superstitious industry.

Until Chetan Anand offered him Haqeeqat, considered one of the finest war films to be made in India. Collaborating with Madan Mohan, whose soulful music complemented Kaifi’s evocative lyrics, the songs touched a nation’s consciousness. Critical acclaim was accompanied by commercial success!

Kaifi’s lyrical output is comparatively lesser than his peers, but his penmanship is no less. His poetry is laced with rich imagery, and his lyrics traversed the gamut from sensitive romanticism to pathos or cynicism with equal ease.

Waqt ne kiya

Waqt ne kiya

1. Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam
Kagaz ke Phool (1959)
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Music: SD Burman

Coming at the beginning of Shanti’s (Waheeda Rehman) and Suresh’s (Guru Dutt) association, Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam is a wistful song of ‘If only…’  When Suresh comes into an empty studio, he’s startled by an unexpected sound. He turns around to see Shanti sitting in a corner, knitting. He’s amused. Why is she here so early? She smiles. Why is he? He always comes in early, he quips. She nods, smiling again. She knows. What? Everything. He moves away, disquieted. She follows. Two lonely souls, attracted to each other. And they both know it. But he’s married. She knows that as well. If only…

Kaifi’s words capture the futility of it all.

Jaayenge kahaan, soojhta nahin
Chal pade magar raasta nahin
Kya talaash hain kuch pata nahin
Bun rahe hain dil, khwaab dam-ba-dam

A shaft of sunlight peeks through the ventilators and intermittently light them up as they walk to and fro.

Waqt ne kiya is one of the best picturized songs in Hindi cinema, thanks to ace cinematographer VK Murthy. In an interview with in 2004, Murthy reminisced: “We brought two huge mirrors and kept one outside the studio in the sun, that reflected the light onto another mirror, kept on the catwalk, and opened the balcony door to the studio. Light reflected from one to the other and the beam was created. We added some smoke to it, and that scene became a phenomenal craze in the history of cinematography!”

Main ye soch kar

Main ye sochkar us ke dar se utha tha

2. Main ye sochkar us ke dar se utha tha
Haqeeqat (1964)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Madan Mohan

Haqeeqat was a triumph of film-making – it is still considered the most realistic war film made in India. It also boasted a terrific score, each song (including the deleted Zara si aahat) a gem – lyrics, melody, arrangement, singing, picturisation were all so in tune that we were spoiled for choice. Kar chale hum fida is possibly one of the finest patriotic songs ever written, but this one, sung by a soldier on the front, is filled with regret and grief.

He (Sudhir) had left home after a lover’s tiff with his wife. He had assumed that she would run after him and coax him to return, but she hadn’t. Her reluctance to be the one to give in and his stubbornness in not returning until she did has led to a longer separation than either of them had dreamed of.  And now, it’s possibly too late – he had been sent to the front, and who knows, he might never return.

Magar us ne roka na us ne manaaya
Na daaman hi pakdaa na mujhko bithaaya
Na awaaz hi dii na waapas bulaaya
Main aahista arista badhta hii aaya
Yahaan tak ke us se judaa ho gaya main…

Kaifi’s poem ‘Pashemani’ became the anthem of regret.

Ye rut jawan jawan

Ye rut jawan jawan

3. Ye rut jawan jawan
Aakhri Khat (1966)
Singer: Bhupinder
Music: Khayyam

Shot in a nightclub, Ye rut jawan jawan is a sensuous song with music that catches you by the ear and leads you into it. In this very peppy club song, you have two musicians on screen – Bhupinder, singing his very first solo (he had earlier sung a verse in Hoke majboor chala from Haqeeqat) and playing a guitar; and the legendary Chic Chocolate on the trumpet. (Both of them, incidentally, are actually playing the instruments they are shown to be ‘playing’ on screen.)

Chetan Anand, known for his realistically shot films, shoots Bhupinder in the foreground while showing people at the tables, and then, when the shot focuses on the conversation between Inspector Naik (Manavendra Chitnis) and Ladjo (Naqi Jehan), the music recedes into the background.

Kaifi’s lyrics complemented the scene, adding a little nugget of advice seemingly directed at the character on screen.

Gham khushi khushi chupaa liya
Dard ko bhi dil bana liya
Zindagi ne aazmaa liya
Tum to na lo imtehaan

Aakhri Khat is famous for introducing us to the phenomenon that was Rajesh Khanna. Strangely, though, the ‘hero’ of the film was a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler. And Khayyam’s music. Each and every song was a gem.

Ya dil ki suno

Ya dil ki suno duniyawaalon

4. Ya dil ki suno duniyawaalon
Anupama (1966)
Singer: Hemant Kumar
Music: Hemant Kumar

Anupama is the poetically tragic tale of Uma (Sharmila Tagore), a girl unloved by her father unless he’s drunk. The emotionally stunted young woman is so terrified of the world at large that she remains largely voiceless. (Quite literally – Uma has barely ten lines of dialogue in the whole film.) When Ashok (Dharmendra) falls in love with her, he’s compassionate enough not to impose his will on her, no matter what Anne (Shashikala) says. If Uma loves him, he says, she will muster the courage to come to him. But in the meantime, he’s willing to take up cudgels on her behalf against an unfeeling world that treats her with pity, if not outright derision.

Kaifi’s pen drips with sorrow and that feeling of betrayal – on her behalf.

Ye phool chaman mein kaise khila
Maali ki nazar mein pyaar nahin
Hanste hue kya kya dekh liya
Ab bahte hain aansoo bahne do
Ya dil ki suno duniyawaalon
Ya mujhko ab chup rahne do


Naushad, Ali Sardar Jaffry and Majrooh with Kaifi Azmi

Naushad, Ali Sardar Jaffry and Majrooh with Kaifi Azmi (sitting)

5. Har taraf ab yahi afsaane hain
Hindustan ki Kasam (1974)
Singer: Manna Dey
Music: Madan Mohan

When Squadron Leader Rajeev Shukla (Raj Kumar) meets Mohini Batra (Priya Rajvansh) at a party, it is love at first sight for both of them. Unfortunately, before he can do more than tell her of his love, a pre-emptive air strike by the enemy ensures that he’s sent to the front. War heats up, sorties continue and the Indian Air Force men are sent on mission after mission. Amidst the heat of battle, Squadron Leader Shukla can only think of love. It comforts him amidst the horrors of war.

Ek halka sa ishaara in ka
Kabhi dil aur kabhi jaan lootega
Kis tarah pyaas bujhegi us ki
Kis tarah us ka nasha tootega
Jis ki qismat mein ye paimaane hain
Hum teri aankhon ke deewaane hain

Based on Operation Cactus Lily, Hindustan ki Kasam focused on the role of the Indian Air Force in the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Indian war veterans flew real IAF planes like Gnats and Hunters, MiG21s and Su-7s.

Ye nayan dare dare

6. Ye nayan dare dare
Kohra (1964)
Singer: Hemant Kumar
Music: Hemant Kumar

Having married a man she had only known for a few days, Rajeshwari (Waheeda Rehman) is puzzled and grieved when her new husband (Biswajeet) is passionate and loving one minute and cold and indifferent the next. What’s more, the chatelaine of the haveli seems to be Dai ma (Lalita Pawar), who’s forever telling Raj how lovely, how loving, how perfect, her husband’s first wife was. Besides, there are strange happenings and stranger people around. It’s no wonder then that Raj turns into a wreck, fearful of her own shadow. This song is sung by the husband during one of the few times he remembers that he’s in love with his new wife. Or at least, he notices her frightened eyes and tries to reassure her. Kaifi Azmi was more successful with his lyrics than Biswajeet’s character in the film. And so we get this hauntingly beautiful melody (composed and sung by Hemantda).

Pyaar mein hai jeevan ki khushi
Deti hain khushi kayi gham bhi
Main maan bhi luun kabhi haar
Tu maane na…
Ye nayan dare dare
Ye jaam bhare bhare
Zara peene do…
Kal ki kis ko khabar
Ik raat ho ke nidar
Mujhe jeene do…

His gentleness towards her, the love in his eyes and in his voice, the words he’s almost whispering chase her fright away. An impish smile lights up her eyes as she looks shyly at him. It’s a wholly satisfying song!


Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

7. Chalte chalte yunhi koyi
Pakeezah (1972)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ghulam Mohammed

There are some songs where the lyrics, the melody and the singer all come together to make it better than just the sum of its parts. Chalte chalte yunhi koyi is one of them. This was the only song written by Kaifi in the film.

When Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is taken away by her aunt (Veena), a young man on the train who sees only her feet leaves her a note praising their beauty. Don’t let them be sullied, he pleads. But the note is unsigned, and she has no idea who her unknown admirer is. But his words – and he – capture her heart. And she can’t stop thinking of him, even though she may never meet him. Now, as she’s forced to sing for other men, it’s of him she sings…

Chalte chalte yunhi koi/mil gaya tha
Yunhi koi mil gaya tha sar-e-raah chalte chalte

It’s a very introspective beginning; she confesses that her night halted there. Now, her night of waiting is coming to an end, and her desperation is evident as she wonders whether she will ever meet him? Because, when the lamps die out, so will she.

Shab-e-intezaar aakhir kabhi hogi muqtasar bhi
Ye chiraagh bujh rahe hain mere saath jalte jalte

(This night of waiting will soon be curtailed
These lamps will die out, burning along with me)

Her yearning is evident in Kaifi’s eloquence. And the increasingly desperate repetition of Ye chiraagh bujh rahe hain culminates in the leitmotif of the film – the whistle of a train.

Ye duniya ye mehfil

Ye duniya ye mehfil

8.   Ye duniya ye mehfil (1970)
Heer Ranjha
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Madan Mohan

Where love blossoms, heartbreak follows. And Kaifi dips his pen into the deep wells of sadness and pathos to pen:

Kis ko sunaaoon haal dil-e-beqaraar ka
Bujhta hua chiraag hoon apne mazaar ka
Ae kaash bhool jaaoon, magar bhoolta nahin
Kis dhoom se utha tha janaaza bahaar ka

 Apna pata mile na khabar yaar ki mile
Dushman ko bhi na aisi sazaa pyaar ki mile
Unko khuda mile, hai khuda ki jinhein talaash
Mujh ko bas ik jhalak mere dildaar ki mile…


Heer Ranjha was famous for being fully in verse. The closest in spirit to Waris Shah’s epic poem, Heer, the dialogues in verse were also written by Kaifi Azmi.

Kaifi, Pt Amarnath and Ustad Amir Khan

Kaifi, Pt Amarnath and Ustad Amir Khan at the recording for Garm Hawa (Pic courtesy: Twitter)

9. Apne watan mein aaj
Do Boond Pani (1971)
Singers: Noor Jehan, Mukesh
Music: Jaidev

Kaifi returns to his socialist roots when he voices the feelings of villagers who are forced to leave their homes due to drought. There’s a deep vein of sadness that runs through the lines,

Apne watan mein aaj do boond pani nahin
To yahaan zindagani nahin

Unable to survive, let alone earn a livelihood, the villagers are leaving their hand. Perhaps they will return when the rains come and life (and livelihood) returns to their village, but oh, how do they leave?

Pyaari dharti chhodein kaise?
Kasmein apni todein kaise?

Marna hoga mar jaayenge
Jeete jii munh modein kaise?

It’s disheartening that more than five decades after this song was written, there are still places in the world that are denuded of people for want of water.


Kaifi and Ismat Chugtai

Kaifi and Ismat Chugtai on the sets of Garm Hawa (Pic Courtesy: MS Sathyu)

10. Meri awaaz suno
Naunihaal (1967)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Madan Mohan

Let me leave you with a song of hope for love, for unity. In an unusual film – where a child runs away to find Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who, he’s told, is his father – the picturisation of this song is particularly poignant, given that it plays out against shots of Pandit Nehru’s cortège and a nation in mourning. Kaifi’s lyrics seem to the exhortations of the dead man, as he urges people not to mourn his death but to listen to his words and follow a path of peace and love.

The lyrics are particularly pertinent today, in a word riven by race, religion, and hatred of the other.

Meri duniya mein na poorab hai na pachchhim koyi
Saare insaan simat aaye khuli baahon mein
Kal bhatakta tha main jin raahon mein tanha tanha
Qafiley kitne mile aaj unhiin raahon mein
Aur sab nikley, mere humdum-o-humraaz suno
Meri aawaaz suno

Pyaar ka raag suno…


Madan Mohan with Chetan Anand

(L to R) Chetan Anand, Priya Rajvansh, Lata Mangeshkar, Madan Mohan and Kaifi Azmi

Kaifi Azmi passed into the ages on 10 May 2002. Poet, writer, rebel, feminist, progressive – we can find an array of labels to describe the man. But, most importantly, he was a humanist, a man whose heart beat for the poor and the deprived, whose pen gave voice to those without a voice, who believed in the humanity within us. His compassion led him, even after a debilitating illness, to work towards the upliftment of his village, Mijwan, a nondescript dot on a map, a place without a pukkah road or even a pin code. Today, the Kaifiyat Express, a train named after him, runs from Azamgarh to Delhi; there is a school and a college for girls in Mijwan, and also a computer centre; the Mijwan Welfare Society also runs a computer centre and a sewing and hand embroidery centre for women.

Koi toh sood chukaaye koi to zimma le
Us inquilab ka jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai

That is how Kaifi Azmi lived. By taking responsibility for a revolution, a change that he knew he would not see in his lifetime but working towards it all the same. His spirit lives on, and so do his words. For those of us who love old Hindi film songs, or read poetry, his voice will reverberate through generations.

More to read

Waqt Ne Kiya – The Introspective Songs of Kaifi Azmi

Jaane Kya Dhoondti Rehti Hai: Of a World Where Love Is Incinerated

Chetan Anand: Exploring the Unconventional to Make Landmark Films

Khayyam: The Poets’ Musician

‘Rehearsals were Never Easy, Music Sittings were Always Fun’ – Remembering Madan Mohan

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Anuradha Warrier is an editor by profession, a writer by inclination, and is passionate about books, music and films, all of which she writes about on her blog, Conversations over Chai.
All Posts of Anuradha Warrier

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10 thoughts on “Kaifi Azmi: A Poet for the Ages

  • Sneh Dhingra

    Very engrossing article on Kaifi Azmi and his contributions to the Hindi Films lyrics arena. The choice of songs to represent his narratives are, indeed, soulful and gripping. The article has left a feeling of enrichment! Kudos to Anuradha Warrier.

  • Songs Of Yore

    This is an outstanding post on one of my greatest favourite lyricists. I also admire your professional sincerity. Even though you were within your rights to post the same article you posted on your blog on the same date, you have made efforts to prepare a different write-up and added some different songs.

  • Joy Christie

    Excellent write up on Kaifi Azmi Sir. A poet much ahead of time.
    Thank you for the detailed information about his early career and how he got into film poetry.
    The songs selected are all class apart with the premium and very thought provoking poetry.
    Thank you Anuradha ji for posting this article.

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