In this essay, Anusha Khan attempts to look closer at the question as to why artists gain in recognition only after demise and by comparing and contrasting between the two great artists born in different eras, she seeks to understand the concept of Life and Death which ultimately brings martyrdom to the artists.
The paper attempts to look closer at the question as to why artists gain recognition only after demise. Furthermore, when does the life of an artist actually begins? By comparing and contrasting between the two great artists born in different eras, the paper seeks to understand the concept of Life and Death which ultimately brings martyrdom to the artists. The paper absolves a curious attempt at understanding the impact of socioeconomic and political engagements on an artist and how they use the given circumstances to shape their art. The paper will hitherto explore the hypocrisy embedded in society and what makes artists like Guru Dutt’s Vijay in Pyaasa and the Romantic poet John Keats reject society altogether.
John Keats, Guru Dutt, Romanticism, Death Instinct
In 1818, John Keats, one of the last torchbearers of the revolutionary Romantic movement, wrote to his brother, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”1 He was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery in Rome on 23rd February 1821, in an unnamed grave with the gravestone bearing the following words:
The above words echo the actuality of the young poet’s life who was a victim of society and its ways. Since the beginning of his life, Death had always been a prominent part of it. The death of Keats’ father, and his mother followed by ill-health and consequent death of his brother left an indelible impact on the tender-aged poet. One word that becomes synonymous to Keats’ life is therefore brevity. He possessed an acute awareness of Death, an awareness of Life and Immortality.2 Hence a common theme that seeps into most of his works is that of restlessness, failure and the limitations of life which denied the young poet the ability to leave behind a mark like the older Romantics. This idea of brevity is exquisitely encapsulated by Keats’ ode To Autumn. The origin of the poem can be traced from a passage from Keats’ letter to Reynolds in September, 1819:
How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble-fields as much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.3
Moreover, since the poem was conceived after an evening walk in Winchester, two years before the poet’s demise, To Autumn is henceforth extravagant of the aforementioned themes, and by using rich words and literary devices, the poem cradles a sense of latent pain and a sense of awareness of the poet’s physical and impending decay.
Guru Dutt’s magnum opus, Pyaasa (1957)4 begins with Vijay lying under the soothing veil of the blue sky and simply admiring Nature (2:12-3:40). Vijay’s expression is pregnant with ecstasy and inebriated with admiration, and seems to recite the starting lines of Keats’ Ode to Nightingale:
One of the greatest achievements of Guru Dutt is the way he amalgamates dialogues and songs so that the two become an inseparable entity. Here, Mohammad Rafi’s voice becomes the voice of Vijay’s conscience. The words of Sahir Ludhianvi exquisitely and intricately capture the psyche of a Romantic poet5:
Immediately after these lines, the beetle hovering over the resplendent flowers is crushed by a boot out of heedlessness or unawareness of the beetle’s presence (or existence). The affect of this incident is apparent in Vijay’s expression: the blissful experience is abruptly replaced by agony, which is followed by the following words:
The song becomes an elegy to Nature. It bemoans the fatal influence humanity has on it. The poet can offer nothing except for tears and sighs. This sublimity of Nature and its elements, and the transient life acquire a central locus in Keats’ poetry. It becomes a symbol of both mortality and immortality. The moment Vijay’s rendezvous in the bountiful Nature ends, Guru Dutt’s poet enters the mechanized world which offers him nothing but rejection and disappointment. His artistic freedom is denied and he is bound by the oppressive shackles of the society. He becomes restless and therefore wants to escape from this materialistic world. Observe Keats’ Lines to Fanny in which he laments the ill ways of a society which has deprived him of peace and happiness and is saddened by the fact that his friends are compelled to live in lands devoid of Nature. All this ends up afflicting humankind:
Son of a stable-manager, John Keats came from a humbler background as compared to other Romantics, say, Lord Byron or Shelley. Keats till his last breath struggled to be accepted as a poet. Although the fact that Keats left behind tremendous legacy as poet in his short life is quite inspiring, one can’t simply look away from the pain his poetry is steeped in. His poetry was rejected by Lord Byron who never took the poet’s name correctly therefore denying his very identity. In a letter, Byron wrote ‘Johnny Keats’ piss a bed poetry’ and referred to his poems as ‘mental masturbation’. Moreover, he even claimed that Keats chose ‘the wrong line as a poet – [he] was spoilt by Cockneyfying and Suburbing’. Byron rejected his poems because they lacked aesthetics. Keats knew very well that his social and economic background was disadvantageous. On Byron, Keats wrote, ‘you see what it is to be six foot tall and a lord!’ Keats’ publications weren’t a success, and in fact, the publishers were “embarrassed” of them. The review published by the Blackwood’s magazine in 1817 is as follows:
“The frenzy of the Poems (1817) was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion (1818) …”
According to Quarterly Review published in 1818,
“We confess that we have not read his work, ‘Endymion’. Not that we have been wanting in our duty- far from it- indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books…This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype…He cannot indeed write a sentence, but perhaps he may be able to spin a line…”
These harsh criticisms did have an impact on Keats but he always overcame them by producing even more poetry.
In Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, everyone agrees that Vijay is a good poet but no one is ready to publish his poems. At the same time, he is made to feel rejected due to his inability to find a lucrative job. Following Vijay’s mournful encounter in Nature is his conversation with Sheikh Ji, a publisher. The way Guru Dutt crafts the publishing house scenes demands scrutiny. Sheikh Ji rejects Vijay’s poem since his poems are a “crusade against hunger and unemployment” (आपकी बकवास कोई शायरी है? पड़ गए भूख और बेरोज़गारी के पीछे लट लेके।) and instead suggests that he write on “flowers and songbirds, wine and carafe.” Since Vijay’s poems are not akin to Mir and Momin6, the poet finds his poems in the trash can and angrily takes them away with him (Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube):
Vijay: So that’s where my poems were. Who are you to throw them away?
(तो आपने मेरी नज़्में यहाँ रख छोड़ी हैं? इन्हें वहाँ फेंकने वाले आप कौन होते हैं?)
Sheikh Ji: Should I make a paper hat of them?
(इस खुराफात को में इसमें न फेंकता तो क्या अपने सर पर रखता?)
V: Don’t insult them by wearing them on a hollow head!
(मेरी नज़्में किसी खोकले सर पे रक्खी जाएं ये भी उनकी बेज़्ज़ती है!)
SJ: So, my head is hollow?
(आएं! मेरा सर खोकला?)
SJ: How about yours? If you’re a poet, I’m a donkey!
(खोकली आपकी खोपड़ी है! अगर आप शायर हैं तो मैं गधा हूँ!)
V: Obviously, but it’s nice to hear you admit it.
(जी अगर आप अपनी तारीफ न करते तो भी मैं पहचान जाता।)
For the publishers, all that matters is profit. This, no doubt, is a result of the new and exploitative systems that had begun to embrace society. Marx observes that ‘a writer is a productive labour not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publishers who publish his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist.’7 When Mr. Chatterji (56:28) asks Mr. Gosh to publish some poetry by Vijay (Mr. Chatterji’s new assistant), Mr. Gosh retorts, “We publish only famous poets, not the trash of the novices. Fill the blank space with a soap advertisement (Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube) (आपको मालूम होना चाहिए कि हमारी मैगजीन में सिर्फ मशहूर शायरों की चीजें हैं, किसी नौसिखिए की बकवास नहीं।)”.8 The space which could’ve been used to publish Vijay’s poems is replaced by a soap advertisement. The scene (59:28) when Vijay is invited by Mr. Gosh to his house party, the only “poets” we see are dressed in fancy suits. Vijay, on the other hand, is wrapped in a simple white garment.9 When Vijay begins with jaane woh kaise log the, while a guest brings in Vijay’s social status and him being a poet, another guest-poet remarks that “poetry is not the sole prerogative of the rich” (Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube) (“मियां शायरी सिर्फ दौलतमंदों की जागीर नहीं।”) (1:02:48) The poem/song by Vijay is melancholic and induces romantic symbols, rejection and a desire to be accepted:
The song ends with a reluctant reconciliation with life:
While the recitations of the elite poets are praised and applauded, as soon as Vijay finishes his poem, he receives a compliment which is promptly suppressed by the listeners’ glaring eyes and their chattering (1:07:06). The scene ends here. Despite the inherent economic, social and political differences between our subjects, one thing that perhaps remains common in Vijay’s “death” and John Keats demise is their wistfulness, a restlessness to be accepted by the society as an accomplished poet. Both die thinking of themselves as a failure.
Death and an impulse of self-destruction form overarching themes of John Keats’ poetry and Guru Dutt’s movie, Pyaasa. Both of our subjects’ lives are contoured by loss. Although the desire to escape is omnipresent in Pyaasa, the desire to die in Guru Dutt’s poet becomes more prominent post his mother’s demise (1:36:15):
“Everyone has gone. My job has gone. My mother has gone away too. For ever. So what am I doing here? Why am I alive, Gulab?…The world needs nobody. I tried so hard to make my poetry reach the world. But do you know how the world valued it? Waste paper sold for ten annas.”
(Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube)
(“सब चले गए। नौकरी चली गई। माँ थीं वह भी चली गई। हमेशा के लिए चली गई। तो फिर मैं यहां क्या कर रहा हूँ? मैं क्यों ज़िंदा हूँ गुलाब?…..दुनिया को किसी की ज़रुरत नहीं! मैंने अपनी शायरी दुनिया तक पहुंचाने की कितनी कोशिश की, लेकिन जानती हो दुनिया ने उसका क्या मोल लगाया? रद्दी के चाँद टुकड़े जो दस आने में बेचे गए।”)
Guru Dutt’s poet and Keats in his poetry, both play with the idea of Death. For both of them, Death brings with itself a realisation which life cannot. In the sixth stanza of Ode to Nightingale, Keats, intoxicated by the existence of the Nightingale, admits that he has ‘been half in love with easeful Death’ and has ‘Call’d him soft names.’ Freud explains this by calling it ‘death instinct’, opposite of the ‘self-preservation instincts or Eros. Freud’s theory of ‘death instinct’ postulates that there exists an innate desire to ‘re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life.’ Freud states that:
‘If it is true that- at some immeasurably remote time and in a manner, we cannot conceive- life once proceeded out of inorganic matter, then, according to our presumption, an instinct must have arisen which sought to do away with life once more and to re-establish the inorganic state. If we recognize in this instinct the self-destructiveness as an expression of a ‘death instinct’ which cannot fail to be present in every vital process.’
(Freud, New Inductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1933)10.
In his poem On Death, Keats ponders:
Keats questions the very rudiments of life. He ultimately realises the futility of life and how he, although he wishes to, cannot escape from it. He reiterates the banality of human existence and that happiness and pleasures are merely illusions. For the Romantics, life is ephemeral whereas death brings with itself immortality. Henceforth, it is through death that one can achieve immortality. For Keats, while we think that ‘the greatest pain’s to die’, life is in fact more painful than death. However, in order to achieve death, one must live (or suffer):
Observe the song/ghazal Vijay sings at his college reunion party (42:03). The first thing that Vijay receives as soon as he leaves Nature and becomes a part of the man-made society is dejection and pain. Time and again he is reminded of the prison life is. He confesses that he’s tired and disenchanted by the dilemma and paradox of life. He’s scared that he might end up rejecting life itself :
When a man from the audience remarks, ‘Why such a sad song on this occasion? Recite a happy verse’ (Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube)
(अजी जनाब, ख़ुशी के मौक़े पर क्या बेदिली का राग छेड़ा हुआ है, कोई खुशी का गीत सुनाइये), Vijay sings the following and ends his poem on the note of an acquiesced reconciliation with his defeat.11
As the news of Vijay “death” (1:43:28) by suicide spreads, the translucent veil partly covering the inhumane society abruptly falls and the movie becomes chaotic. While Vijay is admitted in a psychiatric hospital devoid of any identity, his brothers and friend who once rejected him, are trying to claim their close relations with the dead poet, and the publishers are struggling to attain profit by publishing Vijay’s poems. Vijay gains consciousness when he listens to his poetry being read by a nurse and claims to be the poet (1:52:53). He is rendered as a man who has lost his mind and the doctors deny his pleadings to be dismissed from the hospital. Moreover, Mr. Gosh, Vijay’s friend and his brothers deny that the admitted man is Vijay since they can only be profited as long as Vijay or the poet is dead. The Vijay who is alive is useless. The dead poet achieves grandeur and is loved by all. The poet who is alive is a burden, a liability. Vijay’s sufferings caused by society resulting in his death by suicide is romanticised and the dead poet is worshipped. The hypocrisy is apparent in the speech (2:03:22) delivered by Mr. Gosh on Vijay’s “death” anniversary in which the poet becomes a martyred hero:
“Ladies and gentlemen, as you all know we are here to commemorate poet laureate Vijay’s death. On this day, last year, the world’s great poet was taken from us in that terrible moment. If it were possible, I would have given my fortune and my life to save Vijay. But that would not be. Why? Because of you all. It’s said that he took his own life, but in fact you killed him. If only he were alive, he would see the world which made him starve is now ready to shower wealth upon him. The world in which he was unknown is ready to crown him king of hearts, crown him with glory. It would rescue him from poverty and install him in a palace.” (Trans. Ultra Movie Parlour, YouTube)
(“साहेबान, आप लोग तो जानते हैं की शायरेआज़म मरहूम विजय की बरसी मनाने हम लोग यहां जमा हुए हैं। पिछले साल इसी दिन वो मनहूस घडी आई थी जिसने दुनिया से इतना बड़ा शायर चीन लिया। अगर हो सकता तो मैं अपनी सारी दौलत लुटा कर, खुद मिट कर विजय को बचा लेता। लेकिन ऐसा न हुआ। क्यों? आप लोगों की वजह से। कहने को तो दुनिया कहती है की विजय ने अपनी जान ली, लेकिन दरअसल आप लोगों ने उसकी जान ली है। काश आज विजय मरहूम ज़िंदा होते तो वह देख लेते की जिस समाज ने उन्हें भूका मारा आज वोही समाज उन्हें हीरे और जवारात में तोलने के लिए तैयार है। जिस दुनिया में वो गुमनाम रहे आज उसी दुनिया उन्हें अपने दिलों के तख़्त पे बिठाना चाहती है, उन्हें शोहरत का ताज पहनाना चाहती है है, उन्हें वो गरीबी और मुफलिसी की गलियों से निकाल कर महलों में राज कराना चाहती है।”)
Arun Khopkar states that Vijay alive would destroy the sublimity of his martyrdom. Only Vijay, the martyr, can give his publishers profits, can bring his loved one’s royalties, and can provide the public with an idol to worship. The perfectness of the myth would suffer a crack if he were to return alive.12
Pyaasa offers a strong critique of a lustful, selfish and ignorant society and its lethal impact on an individual (here, a poet) every poor soul eventually succumbs to. The final song (2:04:56) ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai is a testimony of this. While earlier, the poet is perplexed and wants to, but is scared to reject life, by the end of the movie (after his “death”) he consciously (and willingly) rejects it. Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai is Vijay’s ode to a world in which a sculpture is more respected than a living human being. The last lines of the song suggest the same:
When Keats’ lungs coughed blood, he observed, “I know the colour of that blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” But surely, we cannot blame tuberculosis to be the sole reason for his death. Mental pain and anguish are equally to be blamed. Keats’ poems were ignored and garbed in oblivion and attracted literary attention decades after his demise. In When I have fears that I may cease to be (composed January, 1818), Keats is scared that if he dies, he’ll fail to derive pleasure from all the beautiful things life has to offer. However, in Why did I laugh tonight? (Composed in 1819), there is a conscious acceptance of Death: he is no longer afraid of it. There is a hue of existentialism and he seeks reason behind his laughter. His laughter becomes a testimony of the fact that he is still alive (“O mortal pain!”) and laughter, which is otherwise associated with happiness, for Keats, becomes a “moan” in the darkness. Keats wrote this poem whilst his mental health was deteriorating. Although in When I have fears that I may cease Keats expresses his fears of missing out Beauty because of Death, in the latter poem, he seems to have come to a conclusion that though all he seeked was beauty and fame, it was Death that he seeked the most:
Today, we know Keats as one of the best second generation of Romantic poets. His poems are widely read, published and taught in schools and universities. Keats died thinking of himself as a failure. What if Keats were alive? Would he still have earned the equal amount of respect? Would he be accepted by society as a ‘poet’ irrespective of his non-aristocratic social background? Keats was aware of the limitations mortality had imposed on him, but he was not scared of it. He was aware that only death could liberate him and bring him acceptance. Death brought him martyrdom. Death made him immortal. Death therefore was the only solace. The following lines from Endymion suggests the same:
1“Selected Letters (Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, October 25, 1818).” Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, Modern Library Classics, 2001.
2Throughout his life, John Keats lived with a foreboding sense of his own early death. This fear no doubt contributed to the rapid pace at which he produced his best work. The roots of Keats’s fears about deaths are to be found in his early childhood (Bloom, Harold, 2001, 11).
3QUINN, MICHAEL. “The Objectivity of Keats’s Ode ‘To Autumn’.” <i>Critical Survey</i>, vol. 2, no. 3, 1965, pp. 146–150. <i>JSTOR</i>, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41553684. Accessed 29th May. 2021.
4Pyaasa (unrequited/thirsty/wistful) was a huge success and is considered to be one of the greatest commercial films ever created. One of the other names suggested was Kashmakash (Dilemma). While many suggest that the movie was a reflection of Sahir Ludhianvi’s life as a poet, there are critics who state that Pyaasa was a suicide letter Guru Dutt had unconsciously written. The actor and director had attempted suicide twice before eventually passing away on 10th October, 1964. After Kaagaz Ke Phool, which was welcomed with rejection and harsh criticism, Guru Dutt’s next film, Chaudhvin Ka Chand was a tremendous success. But time had had its toll on the man who was also afflicted by his tumultuous personal life as well. Noted cinematographer V K Murthy, who worked in most of Guru Dutt’s brilliant classics, recalls: While scouting for locations in Baroda for Chaudhvin Ka Chand, he narrated me a line from Pyaasa: Agar yeh duniya mujhe mil bhi jaye to kya hai. I asked him why he said that suddenly and he said, ‘Mujhe waise he lag raha hai. Dekho na, mujhe director banna tha, director ban gaya; actor bana tha, actor ban gaya; picture acha banane tha, ache bane. Paisa hai, sab kuch hai, par kuch bhi nahi raha [I feel this way. I wanted to become a director, I became one; I wanted to become an actor, I became one; I wanted to make good films, I made them. I have money, I have everything, yet I have nothing] (Patcy N ‘Guru Dutt was never satisfied with His work’ www.rediff.com).
5One of the main preoccupations of the Romantic Movement has always been to seek an escape from city life, and a return to Nature to find Beauty, owing to the fact that inner feelings are the source and resource to an individual life and poetry. Introspection and retrospection thus became quintessential. This immediate need of isolating oneself and uniting with Nature and finding Beauty in the ‘humble and rustic life’ is elaborately outlined by Wordsworth in his Preface To Lyrical Ballads, considered to be the manifesto of Romanticism.
6Mir Taqi Mir and Momin Khan Momin were prominent Urdu poets from Delhi. Although they wrote poetry on a variety of subjects, they are usually remembered for their passionate love sonnets. Here, the publisher Sheikh Ji is reiterating the same and suggests Vijay to adopt the same style of writing poetry. Vijay, on the other hand, is inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Josh Malihabaadi, renowned PWA Urdu poets who rejected the conventional Urdu poetry’s obsession with love and instead brought in the issues of hunger, unemployment, revolution etc.
7Marx, Karl. “[CHAPTER IV] Theories of Productive and Unproductive Labour.” www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch04.htm.
8 While the paper attempts to establish the argument that Pyaasa is an echo of Keats’ short life as a failed poet, it is important to consider the context of Pyaasa. Guru Dutt is creating movies in an India which has lately witnessed World War II, the Independence movement, the Partition and capitalism strengthening its grip on the society. Pyaasa is therefore a reflection of all these changes and its impact on an individual living in an exploitative society. Arun Khopkar emphasises that Pyaasa is full of many events. But none of them can be related to a specific period of historical time, except, perhaps the institution of publishing.
9“Images of Suffering.” Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts, by Arun Khopkar, Penguin Random House, India, 2012, pp. 23–24.
10Khopkar, Arun. “The Reality of Dream Images.” Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts, Penguin Random House India, 2012, p. 99.
11Romantic thought believes that there exists an eternal conflict between the artist and society. The sensitive artist is fascinated by the virgin experience. When such experience finds expression in his work, society is disconcerted by its unfamiliarity. It is a romantic belief that society lives on habit. It thrives on the daily monotony of routine, fearing the unknown (Arun Khopkar pg. 19). Vijay’s forceful acceptance of his fate reflects this conflict and defeat and it is ironic since the name Vijay itself means triumph (or the one who is triumphant).
12Khopkar, Arun. “Ruin On the Tide of Time.” Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts , Penguin Random House India , 2012, p. 69.
13100 Selected Poems of John Keats, FingerPrint! Classics, 2019.
14Dutt, Guru, director. Pyaasa . YouTube, 1957, youtu.be/WJK45r-j6TU.
Anusha Khan is a student of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University, New Delhi, India.