By Anjum Altaf
In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work.
The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems. Comparisons across time (Tendulkar and Bradman) are fraught by all the things that might have changed – the material of the bat, the nature of the pitch (turf or matting), the advances in physical fitness. Even when time is controlled for (Tendulkar and Kallis), one has to look into the nature of the opposition faced by each – statistics do not capture the differences between a century against Zimbabwe and a century against Australia. The most obvious comparisons become problematic and call for caution – so as with poetry, where we turn to Faiz and Ghalib for different pleasures, we are left to let Tendulkar and Muralitharan enthrall us in their different ways.
I chose a musical metaphor because cricket is not rich enough to capture a central nuance of poetry. Poetry combines words, melody and rhythm to generate powerful emotions, more powerful than even the most magnificent cricket can, and it is possible to read into those emotions one’s own dreams and aspirations in a way that it is not into a cover drive, however majestic.
The emotional richness of poetry is matched by music far more than cricket; it is said that music can evoke nine distinct moods or states of mind (navarasa). This is easy to believe – all one has to do is to think of the background music of different genres of movies, employed to make the viewer feel tender or angry or afraid. Our feelings become one with the music to the extent that is often not possible to separate the cause and the effect, and it is this transference of our emotions into the medium that is not possible to capture with the metaphor of cricket. A poor shot is always a poor shot, but a technically poor verse can still move us.
The musical metaphor, however, failed to resonate with readers, which brings me to another point. Long ago, I took a class in logic, and one of the first lessons was that the intersection of two distinct sets is always smaller than the sets themselves. In a class, if one set were the set of all students with black hair and the other the set of all students with blue eyes then their intersection – the set of students with black hair AND blue eyes – would be smaller than either of the two sets. A pictorial representation is a Venn diagram: two circles represent the given sets, and their intersection is the area where the two circles overlap.
Trying to understand the lack of response to the previous article, I imagined a Venn diagram. If one set is those readers interested in Urdu poetry, and the other all those readers literate (not just interested) in Indian classical music, then the intersection of those sets may be quite small. If we were to then introduce a third set – those readers inclined to participate in virtual discussion groups – the resulting intersection (interested in Urdu poetry AND literate in Indian classical music AND inclined to participate in virtual discussion groups) would obviously be even smaller.
The article might, of course, have simply been a poor one, which would account for the lack of response, but nonetheless my interest has shifted to Venn diagrams and to the smallness of the intersection I have mentioned. The point to reflect here is the following: In Pakistan, the set of those who like Urdu poetry is very large; of those who are literate in classical music, very small and shrinking. Exactly the converse is true in India – the set of those literate in classical music is very large and that of those interested in Urdu poetry is small and shrinking. Therefore, without cultural exchange between the two countries the set of those interested in Urdu poetry AND literate in classical music would very soon approach what happens in a Venn diagram when the two circles do not overlap at all – the null set.
So, should I stop using the language of music and let the language of cricket (with its huge numbers of fans on both sides) suffice? Perhaps, for purposes of communication, I should, but I am not being compensated for what I write nor asked to produce it for anyone. As it stands, I feel a little like the woman in the Andaman Islands who was the last living speaker of her language. When she died, the language died with her. But she spoke it to herself as long as she lived because she loved the sound.