Asia Society Celebrates 100 Years of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

"Have you ever paid attention to Faiz's prose? Faiz's prose is very polished and has a lot of depth."

So began legendary Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin this past Saturday at a centennial celebration honoring eminent Pakistani poet and intellectual Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) at Asia Society New York.

To convey something of the writer's voice, in a variety of contexts, Mohyeddin read from some of Faiz's most inspirational Urdu poetry, interspersed with prose and passages from the letters Faiz wrote to his wife Alys in English.

Video: Zia Mohyeddin reads one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's letters (4 min., 4 sec.)

Mohyeddin's performance was followed by ghazal and folk singer Tahira Syed, who offered a rendition of several well-known Faiz poems set to music, some of which was composed specially for the event. Although Syed was performing many of these songs for the first time in front of a live audience, listeners' reactions suggested they were won over on a first listen. Syed was accompanied by Azhar Hussain on keyboard, Sabir on tabla, and Sameer on guitar. Composer and actor Arshad Mahmud, best known for his work on Pakistani television, provided the music.

Video: Tahira Syed in concert (6 min., 39 sec.)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born in Kala Kader Village, Sialkot in the Punjab region of British India and after receiving religious education at an early age earned a degree from Murray College, Sialkot, Punjab and post-graduate degrees from both the Government College, Lahore and Oriental College, Lahore. In addition to working as an editor and writer for many distinguished  Pakistani newspapers and magazines throughout his life, Faiz was a member of the All India Progressive Writers' Movement and an avowed Marxist. In 1962, he was the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union. A dedicated supporter of Sufism, Faiz had close relations with several Sufi saints of his time.

Faiz's early poems were more conventional, light-hearted treatises on love and beauty, but while in Lahore he began to comment on social and political issues through his casual and conversational style of poetry. At the time of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Faiz wrote stark poems of outrage over the bloodshed between those countries and what later became Bangladesh. In his lifetime Faiz became the best-selling modern Urdu poet in both India and Pakistan, and he continues to be celebrated as a revolutionary poet by both young people and older generations alike. His poetry has been translated into many languages, including English and Russian.

Watch Asia Society's complete "Celebrating Faiz Ahmed Faiz" program

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Nadia Rasul is an Asia Blog Contributor. She is a human rights activist, and a media, technology and global politics enthusiast.