“Shikwa”: A Recitation

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When presenting “Shikwa,” in Lahore in 1911, Iqbal demurred when his audience asked that he recite the poem with music. Music, Iqbal feared, could distract his audience from the poem’s message, and he proceeded to read his poem without musical accompaniment. Despite his purportedly thick Punjabi accent—about which his rivals in the United Provinces were only too happy to comment—his performance succeeded magnificently. Many were moved to tears, as though Iqbal had put into verse what had been in the hearts and minds of his eager audience.

Many academics, including Pritchett and Russell, have considered “Shikwa” to be among Iqbal’s lesser poems, noting that it lacks the philosophical rigor and poetic cohesion of some of his ostensibly more mature work. While it is true that “Shikwa” generally avoids philosophical discourse and has a few un-Iqbalian slips in meter, these supposed shortcomings help us better understand both Iqbal’s aim and the political power of poetry in early twentieth-century South Asia. “Shikwa,” in short, was intended to teach, and as such its lessons—in Iqbal’s view—could hardly be expected to share the stage with musicians. Excessive philosophy, too, could alienate the masses whom he hoped to address, and a few contrived short syllables were a small price to pay to ensure that the message was clear.

In considering a creative response to “Shikwa,” I was drawn to Iqbal’s insistence on the power of the spoken voice. I have accordingly recited eight or so stanzas of the poem in Urdu, choosing an early section that I believe to be particularly visually evocative. Like Iqbal, I bring my own—infinitely more obvious—accent to the recitation, but I have still made an effort to follow the meter as I decoded it. That meter has in a few cases demanded a few uncomfortable pronunciations of certain words, without which it would seem not to scan. Any mistakes in both the decoding of the meter or in my recitation of it are clearly my own.

Spoken recitation derives much of its power in that it enables the listener to actively engage with the poem in an intimate way. Admittedly, this is true for musical recitation as well, except in the this case the musician arguably holds somewhat more control over the listener’s emotional engagement. Spoken recitation demands that every listener meet with the poem on his or her own terms and approach it with their own associations and interpretations.

The images that accompany my recitation—all my own photographs—are a reflection of my own engagement with this process. In some cases the connections between the verses and the images are quite literal; pictures of Istanbul, for example, accompany verses that obliquely refer to the city, and literal rivers and deserts correspond to their poetic counterparts. Elsewhere, however, the association is more abstract, and represents personal associations. For example, the images of birds that open the recitation point not only to the soaring power of poetry but also to the broad, sweeping view with which Iqbal approaches the history of Muslims. The closing images evoke the poem’s cosmological allusions to Creation and the Sea of Darkness (baḥr-e zulmāt). The Foundation Stone within the Dome of the Rock is associated in Islamic and Jewish folklore with both Creation and the end of times, as is the volcanic island off the coast of Aden.

I recorded my reading of the stanzas not all at once, but over an extended period. My aim was to reveal natural changes in tone and recitation style, thereby underscoring the ways in which our engagement with, and reading of, poetry is situated and evolving. Even though Iqbal believed that a spoken recitation could enable his audience to get at the heart of the piece, my contention is that the meaning of the poem is always contingent on factors quite beyond the poet’s control. Lastly, my reading of the poem begins media res, to give the sense of a fleeting encounter with the poem, in which its images intersect with my own associations.

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