june issue 2011
Interview: Sarmad Sehbai
“The media-built mainstream has always
marginalised good writing”
– Sarmad Sehbai
Unconventional, unimpressed by the so-called literary and cultural czars, he is the enfant terrible of the literary world who mocks traditional society and its suffocating morality through his art. Sarmad Sehbai is one of the most original poets and playwrights in Pakistan today. He has three collections of poetry to his credit and a few top notch plays like Funkar Gali. In an interview with Newsline, Sarmad Sehbai shares with us his scintillating views on art, literature and theatre.Q: Where do you place yourself in the current literary scene?
A: I don’t think I can place myself anywhere. Frankly, I don’t feel anchored in one particular genre or style of poetry. For me the creative impulse is mercurial — experiencing diverse human expressions not only through our own poetry, but through the whole world. I find it difficult to follow the grand narratives which became a preoccupation with post-industrial literature. Poetry, for me, is a free-floating signifier without the signified.
Q: Would you call yourself a post-modern poet then?
A: I don’t know, but in my view poets are beyond ‘isms,’ because ‘isms’ are traps for them. ‘Ishiq na lagda rah dey naal’ — ‘Love doesn’t follow any route’ — is nearer to me, as Shah Hussain would say.
Q: You have produced very few plays for stage or television and now your book of poetry, Pal Bhar Ka Bahist, has come after 19 years. Why such long gaps?
A: I guess I am not that prolific, but also I don’t get many chances to produce sensible stuff, either on stage or on television. The media-built mainstream has always marginalised and, in fact, banished good writing. Now, multinationals and donors from affluent countries dominate the scene; they tell you what to write and what to perform. Only a few artists subvert this situation and survive. Conversely one can churn out a daily production for them, but I don’t have the talent for it. As for writing, one can practice typing by hammering the typewriter but writing doesn’t come easy.
Q: Do you prefer poetry to drama?
A: I wander from one form to the other.When I can’t produce a play for stage, I do it for television; when denied a space there, I start writing prose or poetry which only requires a pen and a paper. But yes, whatever I do, poetry remains the prime mover.
Q: We find both ghazals and free verse side by side in your book, along with ancient forms of doha and bait. How do you negotiate these diverse forms – is it a wide sweep from ancient to contemporary?
A: The ghazal is a rare gift of our classics. It might appear very accessible and easy to write, but it’s as complex as classical music. Ghazal enacts the profoundest feelings of our being when it juxtaposes its twin meanings of seduction and loss — talking to or about women and the plaintive cry of a wounded gazelle. I am not into practicing one form or the other. For me all forms are fascinating, whether rhymed or unrhymed, ghazal or free verse.
Q: How far are you influenced by tradition?
A: I don’t see tradition as Eliot sees it. Although he talks of simultaneousness, he creates deliberate parallelisms between now and then, the past and present. In a poem, time becomes invisible. You don’t keep a vigil on the dead but passionately embrace those esoteric forms. I live with all the poets and they live in me. You see, we say Mir ‘says’ and not Mir ‘said.’ The historical present defies chronological constraints without closure. Tradition remains with me, an afterglow.
Q: Sensuality always takes centre stage in your poetry?
A: It’s not sensuality but sensuousness taken as sensuality. In our culture, we have a fear of and fascination for the forbidden. There is denial of the unconscious, the womb and often the over-conscious poets assassinate the libido.
Miraji had explored the unconscious of South Asian culture at a time when Urdu poetry was becoming extremely cerebral. Later, sensuousness was brought in by Akhtar Shirani, but he didn’t have any layers to it. In Faiz though, Eros appears to be the primary passion, his burden of social responsibility makes him ambivalent. ‘Loat jaati hey udhar ko bhi nazar kia kejay’ – Faiz sublimates Eros into political allegory where the sensuous beloved is transformed into his homeland chained by the oppressor. But this analogy rarely pays off.
Q: You were a part of the modern poets of the late ’60s. What was their movement about?
A: In my view it was the modern poets of the ’60s and early ’70s who brought in the inner turmoil. The post-partition generation had rejected the superficial romance with the masses and the laboured compassion of weeping princes. It was all about the liberation of art. But soon they were declared as anarchists, absurdists and perverts by the prophets of social change. Earlier, Manto was diagnosed as being mentally sick by the clear-headed progressives. ‘Sane’ society had to send him to the pagal khana (mental institution) where, perhaps, he was inspired to give us his masterpiece, Toba Tek Singh.
Q: You have been called a werewolf, an enfant terrible and a modern Sufi. How do you react to all this?
A: I enjoy the various names given actually not to me, but to the archetypal ‘I’ of the poet who in fact is Everyman. Marxists of the early ’70s had labelled me an anarchist and an absurdist, while the liberal left was generous enough to tag me along with the existential Marxists. I was none of these; I was myself. To me, poetry enables itself to be read on many levels. It is a multiple frame, not a singular narrative of meaning, production or proving something. It is a monologue said aloud, an overheard experience without any specific addressee. It’s there and not there, “Har chand kahein kay hey nahi hey.”
Q: How do you respond to the growing commercialism in theatre, art and literature?
A: We have different kinds of theatres at the moment. One is a reproduction of English musicals performed on the original soundtracks. This kind of theatre is popular among the rich kids and the younger people who look for some fish and chips. Like pop music they are heavily supported by the multinationals and their shows are ticketed. Then we have groups who have manifestos for social change, development and empowerment. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the leftovers of the left were picked by the western donors, on whose charity these NGO theatres flourished. Their plays are usually not ticketed and are for the ‘convert’ invitees. For them social issues are important and the issues exist as long as there is money for them, so social change in fact is the ‘small change.’ Away from these so-called mainstream theatres, we have the popular theatre mostly based on the bhand acts and juggats rooted in the folk and desi natak. They are free from both the donors and the multinationals and earn only through tickets. Apart from these, there are workshops, academies, university and college theatre departments that promote theatre with an academic focus on the art form of theatre. They should ‘present’ not ‘represent.’ However, the (above-mentioned) theatres indulge in the latter.
The value of art is not exchangeable. Mercenary art or the property porn that thrives on the chain of supply and demand of market forces or agendas is consumed. However, artists are not starving anymore and some are making a lot of money. In the past, Lakshmi (money) was sacrificed over Saraswati (art) in the form of nazar, but now it’s the other way round. They have monetised the artist. Now we see a hawker’s tone in most of the artists.
Q: In this age of violence and terrorism, what can poetry do?
A: Man is suicidal, brutal and nasty. But at the same time man is also “angelic in apprehension” and the envy of the archangel Iblees. There have been wars and terror acts from Mahabharata to world wars. What the Buddha says is close to my heart. He says, “Don’t fight fire with fire, create water.” The world is on fire and innocent children play in the courtyard. We must save the children and not ask who started the fire.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jacques Derrida. It was an accidental meeting, he was going for a walk and he allowed me to walk with him. He told me that all images of power like flags, armies, etc., should be replaced by images of art. It sounded quite idealistic and I asked him whether that would ever be possible. “Possible or not possible, it must be done,” he said. I kept quiet. As we reached the end of the road he almost whispered to me, “The language of power must be replaced by the language of art.”