Thought Box



by Aparajita Krishna June 29 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 23 mins, 12 secs

कैफ़ी और मैंकी कैफियत//To borrow singer Jaswinder Singh’s pitch-perfect note, “I would say it is a jugalbandi of prose-poetry and music,” writes Aparajita Krishna

IPTA Mumbai’s ‘Kaifi Aur Main’ has been playing on-stage for years. As a stage-rendition it is written by Javed Akhtar, directed by Ramesh Talwar, designed by M. S. Sathyu, with music by Kuldip Singh. Jaswinder Singh says, “As far as I can recall, the first show of Kaifi Aur Main was held on 29th October 2006 at Prithvi Theatre. It featured Javed Akhtar Saheb, Shabana Azmiji on stage.”

The play emerges out of a memoir, Yaad Ki Rehguzar, written by Shaukat Kaifi, along with portions of interviews with Kaifi Azmi over the years. It may well deserve a little book on itself. Herein I am stringing together a piece that carries in words the voices and experiences of emminent people directly connected with the stage-rendition and some like me who have been a captive-audience. I was in the audience on 27th May 2023, at Tata Theatre, NCPA Mumbai. The show featured onstage Shabana Azmi and Kanwaljit Singh along with Jaswinder Singh as the singer.

This stage adaptation is, to quote the production, ‘Kuch Kaifi Azmi Kuch Shaukat Kaifi Ki Zubani’. It explores the 55-year-long togetherness of the comrade-couple. It journeys the girlhood of Shaukat, the time she first met Kaifi Azmi, their love, comradeship, his political and creative works, their home and the world, till the last day of their togetherness. The letters and writings of Kaifi Azmi to his wife, Shaukat Kaifi, her talks, are brought to life on stage through readings by Shabana Azmi (as Shaukat Kaifi) and Kanwaljit Singh (as Kaifi Azmi). And, most beautifully and appropriately, by the rendition of Kaifi Azmi’s ghazals, non-film songs and evergreen film songs sung by ghazal singer, Jaswinder Singh, in his gentle and mesmerizing voice, with a live orchestra perfectly in-tune. Ramesh Talwar, the noted gentleman-director, has, very sensitively, directed it.

The reading of anecdotes, incidents from the couple’s life and times are deeply personal, social, political, cultural. Its personal history and journey is linked to India’s pre-independence, post-independence times, to the Indian political Left’s ideology, IPTA, Nehruvian India, and the years and climate that followed. The chosen-songs punctuating the narrative had the audience sigh, sway, hum, sing along and sometimes also choke with emotions. The text also invoked the great togetherness and camaraderie between the young and old Kaifi-Shaukat and legendary-citizens such as Ali Sardar Jafri, Sultana Jafri, P C Joshi, comrades and friends from the world of CPI, theatre, films, mushaira. 

As for the participants on stage, Shabana Azmi giving words to her mother Shaukat Kaifi’s life-account, was a mesmerizing live-act. She is to theatre-born and the stage has been akin to a cradle, playground, school, that would have also shaped her later years. Shabana Azmi gave a virtuoso reading-performance. My special claps and admiration for Kanwaljit Singh who, in his part as Kaifi Azmi, was in complete sync with his formidable counterpart. His command on Urdu-Hindi, Hindustani, is commendable.

Between us we have an on-going amused-wonderment-recall of a Doordarshan television-play we had done together around the mid-1980s. We were cast as leads in the teleplay, which was a re-creation of Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh’s seminal play, Lehron Ke Rajhans. It was directed by theatre director Rajender Nath. The period setting, the deeply philosophical and existential text and the presentation of the teleplay as long, verbose, theatrical shots was quite a demand. Cine-actor Kanwaljit would quietly express the challenge it posed, but handle it well with his fine carriage and utmost sincerity. I was then close to theatre as an actor, so perhaps the style came close. Now the roles are reversed. I am disconnected with acting and would shudder to do a play today.

Kanwaljit, who has been consistently doing television, film, is now also connected with theatre. To quote him “Some three years ago, I played Ghalib. Ramesh Talwar and others were reviving Aakhri Shama for IPTA. It had been earlier done by Balraj Sahni and then by our God of acting, Naseeruddin Shah. Now he wanted me to do Ghalib. I am fond of poetry, but being a fan of Ghalib, Faiz, Meer does not mean I would be able to perform them on stage.  I told them that Ghalib was not as tall as me. They insisted. I called up Shabana Azmi to complain. I told her that in my sleep I get nightmares that I am on stage, have forgotten the dialogues and am perspiring. Shabana tried encouraging me a lot. She told me that theatre’s purely an actor’s medium. Once an actor is on stage there is no one to tell him what to do. I should definitely experience it.” Bravo! Kanwaljit Singh went onto the stage with his adviser-friend-colleague Shabana Azmi in this one.

I have to make a very special, in-admiration, mention of the young singer Jaswinder Singh who beautifully rendered the songs of poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi along with his accompanist-musicians. The young man not just gave his wonderful melodious voice to the remarkable archival songs, but more importantly made them his own. He gave the ageless songs his own individuality, andaz, and without disturbing the celebrated original notes in any way. If perchance the young audience of India 2023 has not heard the original track of these songs sung by the revered original singers, then it may well feel that these priceless songs have been actually rendered by the young Jaswinder Singh himself.

The show marched to its near end on an endearingly emotive note of the song ‘Kar chale hum fida jaano-tan saathiyon/Ab tumhare hawale vatan saathiyon.’ Today’s haqeeqat (reality) reminds us, that the world shaped and built by citizens such as Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Kaifi and their times is the guidance that India 2023 most needs.  And finally, the show ended with Kanwaljit Singh’s expert recitation of a poem written by Javed Akhtar on the occasion of Kaifi Azmi’s passing away. ‘Ajeeb Aadmi Tha Woh…’ 

At the end of the show my personal memories flooded past in recall. The first time I would have heard and seen Kaifi Saheb in person would be sometime in early-1970s at Patna. He had come for CPI’s Anti-Fascist-Conference of which my father was also one of the organisers. I was too young in years to even pronounce fascism leave alone fathom it. But I was in the audience. It was in the mid-1990s that I had the wonderful opportunity of being a part of the making and release of Kaifi Saheb’s audio-book of poems ‘Kaifiyat (A State Of Mind)’, rendered in his own voice with accompanying music by Chintoo Singh. It was released as cassette and CD by Plus Music, the music division of media-conglomerate Plus Channel, helmed by Amit Khanna and Mahesh Bhatt. My father had helped me write the content for the audio-book and its publicity. ‘Poems Of Revolutionary Romanticism. Kaifi Azmi was a poet of a revolution that was not to be.’  It rings more poignant today.

Subsequent to my Facebook-post on ‘Kaifi Aur Main’ shared on 28th May 2023, I was overwhelmed by the response and the queries for future shows coming my way, for some reason. Hence, this tribute-article that carries notes on the ideation of the concept, its history, journey, leading to the show I recently saw and the future shows lined up. This note carries special inputs from Kanwaljit Singh, Jaswinder Singh, Suhail Akhtar Khan, along with some quotes from the audience. Shabana Azmi’s quote is a valuable sharing from the social-media.   

ANUBHA SAWHNEY was in the audience with me. She calls herself ‘a desperate housewife, with years of journalism behind her’. Her deeply insightful appraisal says, “This was a play about voices: Shabana Azmi’s voice - lilting and coy as the young Shaukat, determined and spirited as the newly wed, broken and defeated as the lonely widow. Kanwaljit Singh’s voice - measured, bold, comical, romantic, idealistic, desperate…spanning the life of a man of many moods, and a brilliant mind. Jaswinder Singh’s voice - like pure velvet, owning all the songs he sang, lifting the audience’s spirits with each rendition. Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi’s voices, that spoke of a different India, of tougher but better times, of ambition, aspiration and wishful thinking, of romance with no regrets. A theatrical experience like none other - absolutely lajawab! I will watch it again in a heartbeat.”

Suhail Akhtar Khan’s is like a prelude-note wherein he reminisces an experience in the shaping of the manuscript and about the premier night back in 2006.

SUHAIL AKHTAR KHAN (Urdu poet, writer, stage-artiste)

This play, Kaifi Aur Main, rests on the foundation of Shaukat Aapa’s autobiography, Yaad Ki Rehguzar. Those who have read Shaukat Aapa’s spontaneously-written, undisguised and unique book, will especially enjoy the play very much. Those who have just seen the play independently, for them this book would be a very beautiful gift. The play and the book are correlated, reciprocal and important for each-other.

A special quality that Javed Akhtar Saheb carries as a writer is that he revises, corrects his own writings many times to improve it. I doubt anyone else would be doing so. I know this fact from experience. The responsibility to get the hand-written script of this play typed, fell on me. For the first show at Prithvi Theatre, Javed Saheb and Shabanaji were just about to step onto the stage…just 15 minutes prior to the act I handed over to them the final edited script’s printouts. In that Houseful show the audience witnessed an Ace performance!  I don’t know how in each situation they give such a fantastic performance!

To discover how the book is, you should definitely read it. To assess how the play is, you should go watch it. It will be most enjoyable.

In the promo-links featured in 2015, 2018 Shabana Azmi informs, ‘Kaifi Aur Main sirf play nahi, ek theatrical experience hai. Kyunki issmein romance hai, drama hai, shaiyari hai, Kaifi Azmi ke filmy geet hain aur live-singing hai. Jismein Jaswinder Singh apni khoobsurat awaaz mein Kaifi ki shaiyari, unki ghazalein aur filmy nagmon ko bhi live pesh karte hain. Kaifi aur Main mere parents ki zindagi ki kahani hai. Iska ek ek labz sachcha hai. Isse play ki shakl di hai Javed Akhtar ne jo Kaifi ka role bhi karte hain. Aur Shaukat yani meri mummy ka role main khud karti hoon. Ye mere liye shayad sabse challenging role raha hai. Kaifi Aur Main do insaano ki mohabat ki kahani hai, jadojehd ki kahani hai. Ek aisi kahani hai jismein haste hue pal bhi aate hain aur bheege palkon ke lamhe bhi.’ 

JASWINDER SINGH (Ghazal singer with released albums, playback singer, live-performer. He works at He has been associated with the play from its very inception). I talk to him…

Jaswinder, do recall the ideation of this back in years and the final fruition on stage at the first show.  Did this Urdu/Hindustani theatrical presentation get premiered in Mumbai in 2006 on the occasion of the 4th death anniversary of Kaifi Saheb? It was then rendered on-stage by actor-daughter Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar. You rendered the songs back then too. You would have been very young.

I recall that in 2006 in memory of Kaifi Saheb a program was held at Prithvi Theatre. Eminent people shared, in their talks, their experience of knowing Kaifi Saheb and their tributes. This was interspersed with live singing of songs that I along with the IPTA Choir sang. It had Kaifi Saheb’s ghazals and film-songs. The program was attended by the most known citizenry of the film industry and artistic community. After this show the idea struck Javed Saheb, Shabanaji, and some IPTA members that why not prepare and do a full-fledged play on this?

As far as I can recall the first show of Kaifi Aur Main was held on 29th October 2006 at Prithvi Theatre. It featured Javed Saheb, Shabanaji on stage. Back then neither Javed Saheb, nor Shabanaji, or for that matter any of us imagined that it would eventually get played out as a full-fledged play and become such a hit! We thought this is a one-evening show. But that show got such a huge response that it was decided to be held as a theatrical experience at different places. I am so honored, privileged and blessed that from day one I am associated with this play. I was chosen as the voice to render Kaifi Azmi Saab’s songs. Since then, till today I have been performing for all the shows of Kaifi Aur Main. I am very thankful to Shabanaji, Javed Saab and especially IPTA for choosing me and giving me the honor of singing Kaifi Azmi’s poetry!

As a ghazal singer I perform ghazal programs on-stage too and have done solo ghazal concerts all over the world. But the experience, the emotion and the feeling that one gets while performing Kaifi Aur Main is altogether another kind. Kaifi Aur Main’s journey started in 2006 and continues to march ahead.

Your voice has given Kaifi Saheb’s written songs, shayari, a young, distinct sound and feeling, while being true to the originals. Do share your journey and preparation. 

As a fan of Kaifi Saheb’s I have been singing his songs and ghazals. My father Kuldip Singhji, my first guru, has always been associated with IPTA. He has been composing and rendering Kaifi Saheb’s songs, ghazals. I was always a part of his choir. So, my relationship with Kaifi Saheb is tied to my childhood.

I must share that bonding over work with Shabanaji and Javed Saheb, observing them, was a big lesson by itself. What is professionalism? What is perfection? The intricacies. To give you a small example. When Shabanaji has to walk from backstage, wings, to her chair on stage, which is a common, ordinary part of the act, that too she rehearses. She rehearses every step of that entry walk too. How much is the distance? Where is the light that I have to catch on stage? Where should my look be? Where is the audience sitting? How am I to look at Javed Saheb on-stage? I learned all of this from Shabanaji. Javed Saheb always inspired and encouraged me. In one of the videos, he even went so far as to say that Jaswinder is the best ghazal singer from the new generation. ‘Ghazal jo hai woh Jaswinder ke kaandhon par aage chalegi (Ghazal tradition will now be shouldered by Jaswinder).’ I got to learn a lot.

Your father-guru, Kuldip Singhji, a most respected IPTA citizen and music-director would have had a big hand in the conceptualisation and execution of Kaifi Aur Main. His songs for chosen films like Saath Saath (1982), all the tracks in it, and for Ankush (1986), in particular Itni Shakti Humein Dena Data, sing in my ears and mind-heart. Then Train to Pakistan (1998), and the Jagjit Singh album Kaagaz Ki Kashti (2017). He was awarded with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Theatre - Allied Theatre Arts. He has composed music for theatre, IPTA - notably for Aakhri Shama and Kaifi Aur Main. Do tell us of Kuldipji’s mentoring as a singer and his impact on you. Your mother too was part of IPTA.

Kuldip Singhji is not just my father, but my guru. Whatever I am today is because of him. Since my very childhood I have been listening to his music and observing him. I have been going to his recordings. I was present for the recording of the songs of film Saath Saath and Ankush. Sometimes I would also play instruments, sometimes sing in the chorus. Then when I started learning music formally, he started teaching me the nuances of ghazals: what all to keep in mind while rendering poetry. Intricacies. Poetry ought to be rendered such that it appears as though you are not singing but conversing (to the audience/listener). What the poet wants to communicate is your own heart-notes. The songs should be rendered such that the listeners identify the text and the word-emotions to be their own jazbaat, emotions, life-story.  

How did Kanwaljit Singh step into the role of Kaifi Azmi, in place of Javed Akhtar? He has done a very, very commendable job. Tell us more.

Javed Akhtar Saheb, because of his busy schedule, was not able to continue with further shows. So, in place of him, though he is irreplaceable, we had Kanwaljit Singh Saheb come in. He had worked with IPTA. He had addressed the role of Ghalib. It was my keen personal view, as also of our director Ramesh Talwar Saheb and Kuldip Singhji, that Kanwaljit Singh Saheb should now address the role of Kaifi Azmi on-stage. His diction and command over the language is very good. And he loves poetry, music passionately. He had read Kaifi Saheb’s works. I think Kanwaljit Singh Saheb was the ideal choice. I was, from the first day, very confident that he will do great. And as we had thought so did it turn out to be. The audience accepted him. Now there is a new fragrance come into Kaifi Aur Main, a new spring, and offers for many more shows. We are looking forward to many shows abroad, in many countries.  

Tell us about the many shows and tours.

As far as I remember we have performed 250 shows of Kaifi Aur Main. We have performed globally to packed audience in America, Canada, UK, Gulf, East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh. Wherever we toured we were asked for repeat performance. We have had two tours of America. Visited Dubai many times. As also Singapore. The show has immense repeat value. Offers are still there from the Gulf countries, Europe, United Kingdom, Singapore, Mauritius. May be in near future we will also tour North America, Canada. 

Apart from the foreign tours there are so many offers for India itself. In August 2023 we are performing two shows in Delhi for the Delhi Theater Festival. What is wonderful is that in every show we get a standing ovation from the audience, not just in India but abroad too.

In your words tell us its USP. Not in a marketing sense, but its unique bonding with the audience.

The content is so strong. Javed Saheb has written such a fine script based on Sahukat Kaifi’s Yaad ki Rehguzar. It has been knit in such an interesting way. Ek mala ki tarah piroya hai. The audience laughs along with it, cries along, gets musically entertained. The production is adorned by such songs of Kaifi Saheb’s that the audience instantly recalls. It is an honor for me that when on stage I render the songs the audience hums, sings along. These are the evergreen, sada-bahar songs. You cannot straight-jacket this theatrical-experience. It leaves a lot of impact on the mind of the listener-audience.

Do share some creative inputs, process, notes that went into shaping this. Also, from your point of view as a singer.

On the surface, this presentation may look very simple, but it is a very difficult show. Imagine to just sit on a chair-table and narrate a script, then create drama in it, create emotions, without any movements, just sitting at one place and expressing the emotions! The songs are very challenging. They are evergreen, nostalgic songs, originally sung by Rafi Saheb, Geeta Duttji, and such legendary singers. To recreate their songs and express them in one’s own way is a task.

Each song that I render reflects the past scene and the scene that is to come. It sets a mood and also takes up further from the mood-note on which Shabanaji and Kanwaljitji have left the scene. I have to catch that emotion and sing accordingly. And then I have to leave a song on a note on which Shabanaji and Kanwaljitji are supposed to catch the note of the next reading. I would say it is a a jugalbandi of prose-poetry and music. And there is no retake. A ghazal singer starts with a cough to clear the throat, then sings an alaap, warm-up exercise. Herein you cannot repeat a line. If you have committed a mistake, you have committed one. I have to stick to the allotted time designed. Say two to two and a half minutes. The song has to get completed in that time frame. It is challenging. I got to learn a lot. My experience in theatre gets reflected here. Perhaps that is why people seem to like my singing.  

Lastly how would you summarize your emotions?

The audience has really extended to us so much of appreciation. I am very thankful to Shabanaji, Javed Saheb, Kaifi Azmi family and especially IPTA, my director Ramesh Talwarji, my music director Kuldip Singhji for giving me this honor to be part of this iconic play.    


Kanwaljit, I happened to watch you perform along with Shabana Azmi and Jaswinder Singh. Over all these years I somehow missed watching the earlier version that had Javed Akhtar apprise the role you now render. So, tell us about your take and preparation.  

To begin the talk, I want to clarify a point. People generally say that ‘Kanwaljit Singh Kaifi Azmi Saheb kar rahe hain aur Shabana Azmi Shaukat Azmi kar raheen hain.’ Shabana Shaukat Azmi kar rahin hain, lekin mera iss-mein take ye hai ki there are only a couple of places where I empathize with Kaifi Saheb. Rest I speak his lines, or, poems as an admirer of his poetry. Usmein meri jhalak zyaada hai. I have not worked upon taking on Kaifi Saheb’s personality, or, voice-delivery. Yes, I empathize in a couple of places, like in the end when he says ‘Bahut kuch ho chuka hai. Aur dushwariyan toh aati rehti hain. Shabana pooch rahi thi ek baar ki aap jitna chahate hain badlav wo nahi ho toh aapko burra nahi lagta? Aapka dil nahi toot jaata?’ This and the explanation given by Kaifi Saheb is so beautiful that I empathize with it. I know how he would have said it. And that moment when after his paralysis he reads a nazm. (Paraphrase) ‘…meri beti ke narm haath mere gaalon par…biwi ke honth mujhe garmi bakshein…mere bete ka mazboot badan mere maflooze badan ko taqat de…’

These are few places where I empathize. Otherwise, I am a great admirer of Kaifi Saheb and I have played it that way as an admirer. As also as an audience how I would like to hear him recite, see him. People were expecting me to do Kaifi Saheb totally. I would then have had to empathize with his personality. Shabana did not agree with it and she said I should be doing Kaifi Azmi (the character). Empathizing with him totally. But inside me lives both an admirer and an audience who with akidat (regard, faith) loves him, admires him.  Does it make sense?

(Me: It is a very good rejoinder, response, regarding your rendition of Kaifi Saheb’s poems, part, as a third-person-insider kind. There is no contradiction in that. There is a very good description of acting - an actor puts the written character inside him and from within him comes out the shaped character. So, there is an intermingling too. Shabana Azmi and your act seemed in complete syn, whatever be your individual way of preparing. This was life prose-poetry rendition, not enactment.)

You have had a very long association with the Azmi family. That would have come in very handy.

The Azmi family has been a great and gracious family. Once way back in years, when I had got hospitalized during a struggling period economically, at that time Kaifi Uncle, Shaukat Aunty, came to see me at the hospital. I used to then call them aunty-uncle. People found it funny. But we belong to Saharanpur. Any elder we would call them aunty-uncle. Then I got into the habit of addressing them as Kaifi Saheb, Shaukat Aapa. I felt myself so close to them. They were like my parents here. When they left the hospital after visiting me, that night the nurse came to change the bedsheet. She spotted some money lying under my pillow. That was Kaifi Saheb!  He did not express it on my face. Quietly he and Shaukat Aunty had left that money for me. It came in very handy. They have always been so gracious and loving. I am totally indebted to them and will remain so for the rest of my life.

Any other notes on the preparation?

The other dilemma was that after doing so many shows the script gets memorized. I know the lines by now. So, now on stage does one keep looking at the script that’s in front of me, or, talk straight to the audience? So, the reading enactment I could not quite comprehend.

Anyway, these are lessons for an actor. An actor keeps learning all through his/her life. I am told that Al Pacino, in one the plays that he did, felt that it was in the 85th show that he had finally got it right. 85th Show! These are inspirations that come from above to writers, poets, Sufis.

Actors were also earlier considered Shaman (member of certain traditional societies, especially of northern Asia and North and South America, who acts as a medium between the visible world and an invisible spirit world. They practiced magic or sorcery for purposes of healing, divination and control over natural events). Dekho kahan le jaati hai zindagi!

Zindagi, life, is taking Kaifi Aur Main marching ahead towards further shows. On August 4/5th 2023 it is scheduled to be performed in Delhi and Gurgaon. I hope that in the valued tradition of a stage-rendition such as this, the life stories in poetry-verse-music-prose of the other great Indian poets and literary writers who preceded Kaifi Azmi-Shaukat Kaifi or were contemporaries, also gets addressed. In some measure Indian theatre is doing so. Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Suhail Akhtar Khan’s stage repertoire in this regard is laudable.

And to end the article on the note of comment-emotions of two who have been an audience to Kaifi Aur Main.

(MOHAN SIROYA) Your detailed account (on Facebook) made my memories more palpable and individualistic (about) what I had felt almost 20 years back when this show used to be a rage. Thanks AK.

(VIJAY AKELA) - Maine iss-e kai baar dekha hai. Jab bhi zehn mein kuch kami aati hai main iss-e jaa dekhta hoon. Magar haan Kanwaljit Singh ko Kaifi Azmi ke roop mein dekhna abhi baaki hi hai. (I have watched Kaifi Aur Main many a times. Whenever the mind feels some kind of an absence, a vacuum, I go and watch this play. But yes, I have to still go and watch Kanwaljit Singh in the role of Kaifi Azmi).

Encore to Kaifi Aur Main. It plays on…            

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.