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Hamari Shaukat Aapa

A tribute to veteran theater and film personality who passed away on Friday night

Hamari Shaukat Aapa
Photo: Actress Shabana Azmi with her mother Shaukat Azmi (Instagram)

Mohammad Wajihuddin

Jismein jalta hoon usi aag mein jalna hai tujhe

Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe

(You must face the fire that consumes me

Rise, my dear, you have to move with me) 

That was poet Kaifi Azmi exhorting women to rise and walk with men, shoulder-to-shoulder, step-in-step, at a mushaira in Hyderabad. It was an open invitation to rebel against the oppressive male domination. 

The year was 1947 and among the audience was a certain Shaukat, a young, dreamy girl from one of the illustrious families of Hyderabad. “As I heard the lines of Kaifi’s poem Aurat (Women), I thought these were for me,” recalled Shaukat years later in her memoir Yaad Ki Rahguzar (Down Memory Lane). 

It was love at first sight. Next, they exchanged love letters. Despite her father’s premonitions that life would be difficult with the poet who was also a communist and didn’t possess except a few pairs of kurta-pyjama and some books, Shaukat remained adamant and wanted to marry him. 

Then one day the father accompanied his daughter and they came to Bombay where Kaifi lived in a commune with fellow and similarly impoverished communists. But when has wealth attracted those who live with ideologies and in the hope of a new dawn, an Inquilab? Was it not Sahir Ludhianvi, another progressive poet who had hoped against hope with his famous line: woh subah kabhi to aayegi? Though not happy with the life that Kaifi lived with his meagre inome, the father succumbed to his dear daughter’s zid (obduracy). He relented and allowed the daughter to marry the man she loved. After all, Kaifi too liked her a lot, pouring out his heart through letters, including one which he wrote in blood. 

So in the historic year of 1947 Kaifi and Shaukat married at the literary legend Sajjad Zaheer’s house. Stalwarts of Urdu literature, including Ali Sardar Jafri, Ismat Chughtai, Josh Malihabadi, attended the wedding.

The couple began living in commune, first at Andheri, later shifting to Redflag House near Grant Road. It was an 8-room accommodation, each room housing one family. The families shared a lot of things, including a common toilet. Progressives visited it regularly, debating, discussing naya sawera ( new dawn) over endless cups of tea. The sang stirring songs and raised powerful slogans. Revolution was something they never lost hope for. 

Since Shaukat didn’t speak English, it was Sardar Jafri’s wife Sultana who filled her name as Shabana’s mother in her school admission form. “I owe my existence to Sultana Aapa,” Shabana had told this writer on Sultana’s death. 

Later, while Kaifi penned poems for a newspaper, earning him Rs 5 per day, Shaukat joined Prithi Theatre, to supplement the income and keep herself engaged. She toured India with the troupe and saw poverty from close quarters. Kaifi and Shaukat worked also for IPTA, the theatre offshoot of Progressive Writers’ Association. 

Once, seated at Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar’s residence in Juhu, not very far from Janki Kutir, the spartan cottage Kaifi and Shaukat had moved in in the 1960s, Shaukat Aapa told this writer that her association with theatre taught her a lot. It made her understand life better. 

She did memorable roles in films like Garm Hava, Umrao Jaan and Bazaar. But perhaps the toughest role ever offered to her was when Mira Nair asked her to play gharwali (brothel madam in Salaam Bombay. She recoiled, But agreed to do this role only after Nair took her to show life at Kamathipura, the red light area in Mumbai ( then Bombay). 

“My mom lived a full life”, said Shabana Azmi to noted scriptwriter-playwright Javed Siddiqui on Friday evening. Hours earlier, Shaukat Aapa had died in the arms of her daughter. A daughter who doted on her mother. 

We will miss you Shaukat Aapa. 

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a seanior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from NRI Group.

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