Jammu’s ‘poet laureate’ Pandit Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’ bids adieu

Lalit Gupta
With the demise of Pandit Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’ on 11 Feb, 2019, the cultural landscape of Jammu in particular and Jammu and Kashmir’s contemporary Urdu literature in general has surely become a shade poorer.
An under-known major poetic genius, Pandit Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’, has left behind an oeuvre of soulful poetry in Urdu that marked with intense pain and sense of suffering, is unique contemplation on existentialist issues:
“GalaT sab daleein, galaT sab havaale/andhere andhere, ujaale ujaale” or
“RuH ki PyaaS Hai, LafzoN se KahaaN Bhujti Hai/BanD Karo Yeh Zahiifae, Yeh Kitabain Apni”
The elegiac message sent to Aasi’s friends on poet’s demise by Punjab based Atamjit Singh, the playwright/scholar and Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, reflecting upon the Vidya Rattan Aasi’s poetic genius reads as under: “So sad. It is the end of an era. Nothing and nobody can fill the void that his (Aasi’s) departure has created. My salute to this still unknown genius of Indian poetry! He has been reinventing himself by self-destruction. What a bold unusual way of expression. May his poetry live for ever”.
A master of poetry in chhoti behar (small verse), his poems which generate intense transmission of emotions in few words are profound and starkly honest. Standing firm on tenets of humanism and natural justice, his artistic renderings in a simple Urdu attain a universality and ability to touch every heart.
“Yeh bhi jeeNe meiN koii jeeNa hai, roz marna, kabhi kabhi jeeNa”
One who considered Arsh Sehwai as his ‘ustad’, and also had the privilege of the guidance from Dr Sham Lal Kalra (Abid Peshawari), Aasi’s style of poetry (ghazal) has been linked with the poetic tradition associated with master poets such as Shah Nasir, Zouk and Daag.
“Rafta rafta miT rahe haiN meri barbaadi ke naqsh, Oh sitamgar phir koi taaza sitaM aijaad ho”
Born in Mohalla Chowgan Slathian, Jammu, on 11 July, 1938, Vidya Rattan Aasi’s parents Pandit Shankar Das and Taro Devi were natives of village Cherayi, near Tikri, who had moved to Jammu in 1930s. Mother’s death at a tender age came as a setback for Vidya Rattan. His father, who was forced to look after young son and two daughters, sought support of his relatives and well-wishers. But the life in the city was tough. Passing through years of hardship, child Vidya Rattan soon blossomed into a very fair and handsome young man.
It was during the heydays of bubbling youth, he, smitten with the idea of becoming a film hero left for Mumbai to try luck in the film industry. After failing to make any headway, he came back to Jammu. Therefrom, Vidya Rattan’s journey to settle down and earn livelihood in Jammu took many twists and turns. His unwanted marriage in 1966 further complicated his already stretched life. The prolonged court case for divorce, coupled with financial constraints shattered his sensitive being into bits and pieces. Heart stricken and lonely, he became a kind of maverick. Seeking short duration shelters in homes of with one relative/friend or the other became his fait accompali during that period.
The unfortunate circumstances coupled with his uncompromising nature, led to a feeling of alienation in him. Living life without any mooring whatsoever, he became aloof and cut off from everyone. It was in this state of agony and mental agitation that the inborn talent of Vidya Rattan for poetry seems to have blossomed. Poetry, therefore, not only emerged as tool for him to comment upon social bigotry, hypocrisy, and other ills, but also due to its healing power became a tool of survival, a panacea for anguished real-life. The belief that his state of affairs in life was because of some gunaaH, he chose his pen name as ‘Aasi’, ‘the gunaaHgar’.
Distained to a tumultuous life right form childhood, Aasi’s was like a ‘soul in despair’. His poems are like ‘caesura’ which open up when the heart can no longer consume the pain. These are kind of odes to the searing pain and deep anguish felt by him.
“Jaise maahoL meiN jiye hum loG, aap hote to khudkushi karTe”
The gift of sensitivity, which made Aasi to view and then re-present the reality around him in a unique way, was both a boon as well as bane for him. He, till his breath was haunted by the feeling of homelessness.
During the 1970s, ‘Aasi’ got support from Mr. Puri, the sole distributor of the ‘P’ Mark brand of Mustard Oil, in Ware House, Jammu, and worked as accountant there till the death of his benefactor. During this period of comparative stability, Aasi’s penned down some of his finest poems.
The small measure of public recognition which he enjoyed in last fifteen years of his life was solely due to Punjabi/Urdu writer Khalid Husain and Urdu poet Liaqat Jafari’s unwavering confidence in the excellence and merit of his poetry. They had come together in a philanthropic act to collect Aasi’s verses and published them in a book form. Their efforts resulted in printing and release of Dasht Talab, Aasi’s maiden anthology of Urdu poems in 2003. Though public recognition came very late, but it did open doors for Aasi who started receiving a steady flow of invitations to poetic symposia, calls for special programs from TV and Radio, and above all adulation from a rapidly swelling group of admirers young and old.
Aasi’s carried a heightened sense of ‘ana’-self-respect. He was a loving and kind person always wanting to enjoy and share life with others. A humanist to core he abhorred any kind of religious fundamentalism.
“Jis Se barh jaayeN diloN ki dooriyaN, Aisae majhab ko hamaari banDagi”
He was comfortable with all those who lived honest and matter of fact lives. Be it the humble ‘halva seller’ at the City Chowk, or the owner of tea stall located in an obscure corner of the old city. Full of love and affection, he wanted to share his poetry with as many people as possible. To serve this very end the Hindi transliteration of his Urdu poems has also been released under the title ‘Zindagi Ke Maare Log’.
Aasi, for whom loneliness was a constant companion, breathed his last in presence of friends and admirers.
“Jindgaani jab hamein raas aaye gi, dekh lenaa mout bhi aa jaye gi”
Shradhalanjalis to Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’ have been coming from institutions such as J&K Cultural Academy, IMFA, Theatre Group Rangyug and many others NGOs. The speakers in these functions while highlighting the merits of his poetry also shared their experiences, sojourns, anecdotes, meetings, episodes that reflected upon different facets of Aasi’s life, his traits, liking and disliking and eccentricities etc.
But what also came out strongly during these accolades and praises, was the seething anger and sheer hurt and on the lack of recognition and celebration of its cultural capital of poets, writers and artists by the civil society of the ‘city of temples’. It was observed that while progressive cities/communities elsewhere are engaged in bringing poetry to life and immersing audiences in the worlds of poets through events, commissions and participations, the ‘city of traders’, did not even bother to bat an eye lid at the passing of Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’, a poet of exceptional merit and sensitivity. Who in any other city would have been eulogized and celebrated as a poet laureate.
In an admirable NGO initiative, The Studio Rangyug has decided to set up a trust in the name of Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’, to create an archive of his memorabilia and also to institute an annual literary event to celebrate his memory.
“Bahut Yaad Aa Rahaa HuN NaN, Abhi Taaja Mara HuN NaN”-Aasi
(all quotes verses are by Vidya Rattan ‘Aasi’)