Meena Kumari, the poet

meena kumariI begin on a very personal note. Today I am in Jorhat in a posting for the university I work in. In the 1970s when I was a college student I first watched the movie ‘Pakeezah’ in Sibsagar which is around 50-60 km away from Jorhat. When I saw ‘Pakeezah’ what struck me was the anguish of the heroine, and to my mind the real impinged upon the imaginary — what I mean to state is: in being absorbed in Meena Kumari’s acting I felt that in reality she might have experienced the anguish of the protagonist, empathy or call it, what you will. I remember snatches of the movie, but what I can recall is breathtakingly brilliant acting. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the Kamal Amrohi’s story and I was also aware of the fact that this intensely poetic movie was directed by him. Perhaps this was one of the most ‘poetic ‘ movies I have seen in addition to Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulata’.


In reading these translations one is not only transported into the world of ineffable poetry, but one is made aware of deeply felt sensitivities and questions such as life, death, love and relationships. This kind of poetry is ‘opposed ‘ to the kind of clever, cerebral poetry we are witness to today. It is poetry of the heart and felt experience.


Yet the motifs are many and varied: light, darkness, night to name a few. The obsession with night is a haunting reality and leitmotif in the poems. Bharati Mukherjee once said that a creative writer writes out of obsession. Meena Kumari’s obsessions with night, darkness and an intuitive feeling of death give to her poems a starkness. Yet hope in some way or the other does figure, but there is again and again, questioning and self questioning. Darkness and night are not synonymous here, while darkness is metaphorical, night signifies an end, or an open ended question which the poet is forever grappling with. These are sensuous poems, they echo perhaps Omar Khayam, but there is no hedonism. Yes there is celebration, that of life and poetry, life’s dualism, painful living, unrequited love which are some of the themes present here, themes in the context of the poems which are cataclysmic. Some poems have turn of phrases which are aphoristic.


Yet if there is darkness, the antimony light is also present. See for example the poem ‘The City of Lights’ …

The light of the ages

Have slunk away

To be part of some jubilation

Leaving all around

A shivering, savage darkness.

There is constant and recurring interplay of light, darkness and scalding nights! This gives to her poetry many dimensional aspects, at the same time making them lyrical and evocative. But it is always the pain that rings through clearly, the pain of irretrievable love, the pain of being a woman, the pain of the inner conflict having to ‘live up’; to the celluloid image. In their excellent introduction Daisy Hasan and Philip Bounds assert that the poems can be viewed as a ‘barbed critique’ of popular culture, the culture which Meena Kumari represented through her films, but which ironically and trenchantly took away her life. The poem ‘The Empty Shop ‘ is perhaps a commentary on crass consumerism. The ‘Shop of Time ‘ she says is vacuous, gives nothing. In the poem ‘Words ‘ there is juxtaposition of words, light and darkness.


That a public figure is desperate to get away from this image and live more ‘privately ‘ is something that can happen to ‘celebrities ‘. The example of the Bengali actress Suchitra Sen is a case in point. She shunned any public gathering for almost four decades!


All that I have said above would not have been possible if one could not read these cogent translations of Noorul Hasan. They are very well crafted and attempt to be as sincere as possible to the originals. Yet translators do take some liberty. This is the poetic license here. The translator has done painstaking work which is researched, and I am sure over quite a period of time. This shows the hard work and tenacity that have gone into these brilliant translations.


Through these translations Noorul Hasan has made a contribution to the world of poetry, revealing Meena Kumari’s true penchant for the pen.


Title: Meena Kumari: The Poet A Life Beyond Cinema Publisher: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd Pages : 159 Price : Rs 395.

Ananya S Guha

Ananya S Guha

Ananya S Guha works in the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Shillong (Meghalaya) as an Academic Administrator. He has over 30 years of teaching and administrative experience. He has six collections of poetry and his forms have been published world wide. Some of his poems are due to appear soon in an Anthology of Indian Poetry in English to be published by Harper Collins.