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Shailja Chandra

Shailja Chandra: ‘The Mona Lisa Phenomenon in Gulzar’s Writings’

The Mona Lisa Phenomenon in Gulzar's writings on Soil and Society
The day was rapidly setting in Sydney's economic centre. The design workshop had approached its final moments without any resolution on how to save the six established native trees and the ancient life in them.
On the screen, a tree – surrounded by annotations on its rich ecosystem and carbon-cycle – stood tall, humbly and helplessly in front of a roomful of progressive professionals.
Most had started packing up but not him. With his spectacles resting precariously at the tip of the nose and eyes glued to the details offered on the last slide of the day, he was heard whispering: “Trees...are like great, solitary men, like Beethoven...and Nietzsche.” (Hermann Hesse) Aware of everyone's gaze at him, he cleared his throat, “I'll review the design, we may be able to find a way to save some of the trees.”
No collective consensus, collaboration, deliberation could have saved those trees. Nothing can be as powerful as a private moment of realisation, belongingness and sincere pledge.
Walking to the train station, I had a spring in my step and a longing to read the complete poem to which the following words belonged. Words that convey intense, personal moments of vulnerability and belongingness, not dry impersonal social commentary:

moD pe dekhaa hai wo buDhaa-saa ik peD kabhii
meraa waaqif hai, bahot saalo’n se mai’n use jaantaa hoo’n


Subah se kaat rahe'n hai'n committee wale
MoD tak jaane kii himmat nahi'n hoti mujhko 2014: 24)

Gibran said, ‘Every beauty and greatness in this world is created by a single thought or emotion inside a man.’
Gulzar's work on the soil, society and on our moral, environmental, ethical recklessness is a treasure trove of such potent, poignant 'single thoughts and emotions'.
At no point does his voice show a contemptuous mirror to the social decadence. Nor does it ever issue dry precepts of reform, or sing ballads of mutiny from an ivory tower. Instead, with deep sentience, he speaks of the raw tales of the scars, spirit and struggles of the soil and society. Here is one such struggle of Asphalt-concrete, longing for a small chunk of sky:

Patthar pe patthar rakh rakh ke
ek makaa’n oopar uThne kii koshish me’n hai
saath kii chhat pe kohnii rakh ke
aasmaan kaa koii konaa dekh sake ! 2014: 58)

This article seeks fresh vantage points to admire the unique authenticity, persuasiveness and virtuosity of Gulzar's voice on the pathos of the environment, our Society and many other socio-political issues of our daur, our time.
The insights presented in this article stem purely from the author’s reverence of his work and are not a commentary, evaluation or interpretation of his work.
Eternal Native In His Voice - With Foresight, Vulnerability and Pain
Kakadu National Park located in the Northern Territory of Australia is a uniquely vibrant place that allows an instant connection with its rich cultural and spiritual heritage through Australian Indigenous folklores called the Dreamtime Stories.
The Dreamtime Stories are not just conduits to the ancient laws, wisdom and values to later generations but are powerful prayers of the Indigenous Communities since time immemorial. Prayers to pay their deep respects to the footprints of the Spiritual Ancestors1 scattered on its timeless soil – the trees, billabongs, rocks, land and the animals. Prayers to show closeness and affinity to them:

We belong to the ground
It is our power and we must stay
Close to it or maybe
We will get lost. (Narritjin Maymuru, Yirrkala 2005: 99)

A similar sense of belongingness, foresight, respect and connectedness with nature flows in Gulzar's sentient voice in moD pe dekhaa hai wo booDhaa-saa ik peD kabhii, meraa waaqif hai, bahot saalo’n se mai’n use jaantaa hoo’n 2014: 24) or ‘hamii’n se ho…hamii’n me phir se boye jaoge, tum phir se lauToge 2014: 14) or “Mai’n jungle se guzartaa hoo’n to lagtaa hai mere purkhe khaDe hai’n….
Just as the Dreamtime Stories of the Bininj and Mungguy natives reflect in the ancient billabong of Yellow Waters, Gulzar's voice resonates in us with immense potency – invoking a sense of affinity and custodianship in us. Like a native folksong, it connects us to the immutable ancient laws of nature and brings us 'home' – to nature, to the forgotten truth:

Mai’n jungle se guzarta hoo'n to lagta hai mere purkhe khade hai’n
main ik nau zaaida bachcha
ye peDon ke kabeele
uth ke haath me mujh ko jhulate hai’n…(Gulzar 2014: 14)


pahaaDo’n se bichhaD kar lauTtaa hoo’n to
kaii din tak utarataa rahtaa hoo’n unse
khalaa me laTka rahta hoo’n
kahii’n paa’nv nahii’n paDte! (Gulzar 2014: 36)

The true essence of his ‘native’ voice rests in his unmatched ability to pour his own vulnerabilities, anguish, despairs into it. Whether he is ruminating on environmental degradation, social decadence or the heartbreaking state of communal riots – his method is of confronting his own reality, not of criticising. Of discovering his personal truth, not of impersonal perspectives. Of compassion, not of uprising:

Jungle se guzarte the to kabhii bastii bhii kahii’n mil jaatii thii
Ab basti me’n koii peD nazar aa jaye to jii bhar aataa hai
Deewar pe sabzaa dekh ke ab yaad aataa hai, pahle jungle tha…
(Gulzar 2010: 125)

The ability to share vulnerabilities lends his voice a rare authenticity and persuasiveness. It bestows him a rare authority to write on our shared existence, our Sanjhaa Rishtaa. “Jab tak mere saamne waale ghar kii baTtii jaltii hai, us ghar kii saarii parchhaiya’n merii deewaar par paDti hai’n – hamaaraa rishtaa to waisaa hai….sanjhaa rishtaa hai”2
In an interview, when the suggestion1 was made that his method for liberation rests in individuality, the anguish was evident in Gulzar's voice,' Kaise individuality? Individuality me kaise? Mai’n jalte shehar me baiTha shaayar iis se zyaadaa kare bhii kyaa? Jab wo kahta hai to wo poore shehar kii baat kar rahaa hai – to wo akela raastaa nahii’n DhoonD rahaa hai akele ke liye, wo poore samaaj kii baat kar rahaa hai”…”Khoon dekh kar Taap ke door ho jaataa hoo’n….nau-gyaarah kii gaaDi pakaDni hai…mai’n aisaa behis huaa hoo’n…” “mai’n apne akele kii baat to nahi’n kar rahaa hoo’n – mai’n us poore samaaj kii baat kar rahaa hoo’n, jise mai’n dekh rahaa hoo’n…”3
I had to rewind this part many times and the question that continued to spool on my mind was: Are these two mutually exclusive? Writing with intimacy and writing about the collective?
No, they are not. Indeed, the more intimacy and vulnerability Gulzar imbues his words with, the more universal and collective his voice becomes. This is an intriguing paradox:
Khoon dekh kar Taap ke door ho jaataa hoo’n….nau-gyaarah kii gaaDi pakaDni hai…mai’n aisaa behis huaa hoo’n…” – a private, intimate reflection such as this is indeed the first step to forge any meaningful kinship with the collective. Without perceiving the pain on a personal, individual level, it is not possible to write authentically about the collective. Without this, only shallow pity or preaching can be expressed, not the sensibility and sentience these lines carry:

kooe’n ke aas paas ab kuchh nahii’n hai
zaraa se faasle par ik puraanaa peD jaamun kaa
ab us par phal nahii’n aate

wo to keh gaii thii, ke phir se louTegii
mai’n chhoDe hue kooe’n kii maanind wahii’n Thehraa huaa hoo’n
utarne lag gayaa hoo’n, khushk hotaa jaa rahaa hoo’n !
(Gulzar 2014: 66)

Only a native voice can be without shallow pity or preaching. Only a native voice can ennoble and dignify the shared existence. Such a ‘native’ eternally dwells in Gulzar's voice.
Lending Voice To The Unseen, the Unheard and the Untouched
Autumn colours surround my street for several weeks between May and July. In those weeks, I find Gulzar's imagery everywhere – on the auburn branches and on the fallen ochre-bronze foliage. Not even the real living-breathing-falling leaves feel as alive, vibrant and fecund as his words.

khizaan jhaaDan4 liye patte giraatii phir rahii hai kyoo’n, darakhto’n se
             khizaa’n ko kyaa huaa?
wo bouraaii huii phirtii hai, jaise piile patto’n par likhii koi ibaarat hai,
             miTaanaa chaahtii hai…
(Gulzar 2014: 106)

The autumn with a duster in hand and the ancestral jungles; the aged rivers and those rowdy clouds; the magical earth and September's allergic sky; February's frost and the ageing tree at the crossroads – each of these spirited portrayals by Gulzar seem to carry nature's own fecund life-energy and its healing and transformational capacity.
His imagery, just like nature, is fresh, fertile, unbound – never stale. We feel as invigorated by his words as we feel amidst the mist of Sanobaars or soaking in the sonorous sound of an exuberant dariyaa.

waqt ne apnaa rukh badlaa aur…
parbat parbat paa’nv rakhtaa neeche utraa
raat kii god me shaam paDii thii
dariyaa lipTaa huaa khaDaa tha peepal se
aur pahaD ke seene par, pahlii-pahlii ghaas ugee thi! (Gulzar 2012: 30)
dhundhle dhundhle ‘drawing book’ me’n bane hue kuchh ‘charcoal’ ke khaake se,
kohare me’n kirdaar ye peDo’n ke kitne achchhe lagte hai’n
‘R K Lakshman’ ke cartoono’n ke kirdaar,
shaayad uD kar jhaaDiyo’n me’n jaa aTke hai’n
havaa kaa jho’nkaa chhootaa hai, to ‘role’ badal jaate hai’n,
in kirdaaro’n kii poshaake’n badal kar louT aate hai’n
(Gulzar 2014: 28)

We long to reach out and touch the maiden ground cover on the broad torso of that mountain. And our time-constrained train journey to work is enlivened and deepened by meeting R. K. Laxman's cartoons in the bushes of Lane Cove national Park...
His anthropomorphic treatise is a truly distinctive and remarkable piece of work for the collective. His imagery is not merely about humanising nature, trees and valleys in charming, spirited roles and characters. His intricate and piercing attention also unveils unseen-unheard-untouched dimensions of the many imperceptible phenomena of nature. And for this, his imagery feels whole, real. Authentic.
The qualities that truly separate Gulzar's voice from other anthropomorphic works appear to be a result of the following:
1) He can perceive nature's cycles coinciding with the cycles of life/day/night. Or how imperceptibly, subtly nature’s soul and body change with the cycles of seasonality:

darakht sochte hai’n jab, to phool aate hai’n
wo dhoop me Dubo ke ungliyaan
khyaal likhte hai’n lachakti shakho’n par
to rang rang lafz chunte hai’n
khushbuo’n se bolte hai’n aur bulaate hai’n …
(Gulzar 2014: 18)

2) He perceives not just the spirited state of the muted members of nature but in deep silence, he also listens to the restless rustles and ripples of the trees and the rivers – touching the eternal truth and trust in the ancient laws of life that they stand for, tall and deep:

khiza’n darwaaze ke baahar khaDii thii
abhii paushaak se pattaa koii udhDa nahi’n tha
sunharii surkh hone lag gaye the zard patte
sabhii ke kaan ‘Gautam Buddh’ jaise lambe lambe
bas ik awaaz ke sab muntzir the
‘Chalo ab chhoDo shaakhe’n,
tyaag do bandhan
sabaa lekar nijaat ab aa rahii hai!!
(Gulzar 2014: 104)

3) He whispers to their vulnerabilities, scars, and their inner-most fears and turmoil when their flows collide with the growth-cycles of the developing civilization:

raat kii khamoshi me lekin Thimphu Chhu
kuch jaap kiyaa kartii ho tum
wo kyaa hai?
saagar sangam kahtii ho yaa
phente5 jaane se bachne kii –
chupchaap duaaye’n kartii ko?
(Gulzar 2014: 26)
baDii udaas hai waadii
galaa dabaayaa huaa hai kisii ne unglii se
ye saans leti rahe, par ye saans le naa sake!
(Gulzar 2012: 75)
pataa chaltaa hai, ke parvat pareshaa’n hai !
baDe naaraaz lagte hai’n wo,
jab apnii chaTTaano’n ko uThaakar khandako’n me’n phe’nk dete hai’n !
zamii’n hiltii hai, jab paa’nv paTakte hai’n
unhe’n achchhaa nahii’n lagtaa, sura’nge’n khod ke siine me’n unke
jab koi baarood ke gole uDaataa hai !!
(Gulzar 2012: 110)
kuua’n band ho rahaa thaa
kuue’n kii saans ghuTti jaa rahii thii
paro’n ko phaD-phaDa kar uske paanii me nahaatii thii
pareshaa’n thii…
baDi bechain thii peepal pe uDti faakhtaa din bhar
pareshaa’n thii ke, ik zindaa kuue’n ko log kyoo’n dafnaa rahe the!!
(Gulzar 2014: 64)

Can the pathos of Thimpu Chuu river find a more poignant and persuasive voice than this, and Wadi-e-Kashmir?
Gulzar’s humanising portrayals have earned him a rare authenticity and authority to remind humanity to reinstate nature's role as the tribal head, as the eternal teacher, or as the ancient custodian of the truth and values – just like the reminder in these lines:

mere Sanobaar dekho kitne oonche-oonche qad hai’n unke
tum se saat gunaa to ho’nge
umre’n dekho uskii tum, kitnii badii hai’n (sadiyo’n zindaa rahte hai’n)
kah dete ho kahne ko tum
lekin apne baDo’n kii izzat karte nahi’n tum
(isliye tum logo’n ke qad…itne chhoTe rah jaate hai’n)
(Gulzar 2014: 128)

The Mona Lisa Phenomenon in Gulzar's work
The central enquiry of this article is – how Gulzar’s words persuade us to resign from the position of a passive observer to become an active participant in a deeper, fuller experience of our existence – invoking the caring custodian in us?
The article has explored new insights on this query. In this third and last section, a unique phenomenon is explored to admire the persuasiveness and authenticity of his reflections on soil and society. Named the ‘Mona Lisa Phenomenon’, it appears to be an ever-present quality of his work, which remains subterranean. Something like the third tributary of Triveni!
The two examples here represent this phenomenon – showing how his words become a collective mirror in which an individual 'observer' can recognise their own humanity, hopes, despairs and bondages:

mai’n akhbaar ke panne par apnii tasveer dhundhtaa hoo’n
aaj ke din kitne mare
aaj kaa score kyaa hai
ehsaas nahi’n hotaa ke zindaa hoo’n
kahaa’n se DhoonDhoo’n mai’n haath apne
ke mere haatho’n pe aur logo’n ne haath apne chaDhaa diye hai’n
ajiib hai ye nizaam jis me’n, nizaam ne kaaTkar mere haath
qaaydo’n aur faailo’n me’n chhupaa diye hai’n !
(Gulzar 2012: 120)

The two examples show how 'observer' becomes the ‘observed' – just like the known dynamism of Mona Lisa's enigmatic eyes that seem to follow and 'watch' the intrigued onlookers themselves.
The way his words actively draw them in, the ‘Observed’ start partaking earnestly in Gulzar's despairs, ecstasy, compassion, or the urgency and responsibility that he experiences in ‘kahaa’n se DhoonDhoo’n mai’n haath apne’ and ‘Ehsaas nahi’n hota ki zinda hoo’n…’
Bringing a fresh understanding of the persuasiveness of his words and named the Mona Lisa Phenomenon, it is believed to be a result of the following qualities present in his work:
1) Only honest, conscientious reflections of a fine and eternally-present mind have the potency and perceptiveness to 'watch' us with intimacy. Gulzar can pierce into the heart of the matter to un-layer the subtle, the imperceptible, yet something universal. Because he is not opaque to himself, his reflections are luminescent, piercing – instantly relatable:

‘mai’n cigarette to nahii’n peetaa
magar har aane waale se bas itnaa pooch letaa hoo’n ke‘maachis’ hai?
bahut kuch hai, jise mai’n phoo’nk denaa chahtaa hoo’n, magar himmat nahii’n hotii!
(Gulzar 2014: 105)

2) Whether it is a moment of beauty or poignancy, something magical-in-mundane or an elemental truth cocooned in a complex labyrinth of issues – Gulzar unveils the larger patterns and profound poetry of the moment with amazing brevity. He can present the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. He can present a ‘mirror’ that is not fragmented and that reflects more than the eyes can see:

kitne masumo’n ke ghar dango’n me jal kar
malbe kaa dher hue jaate hai’n Gujrat me…
… aur ye hai,
ek TooTe hue rauzan6 me ise
tinke sajaane kii paDi hai!
(Gulzar 2012: 22)
sooraj kii is back-light me ghar ke khanDahar…
aur deewaro’n par baiThe Afghani bachche,
America ke ‘art journal’ ke ‘cover page’ par
ab bhii zindaa lagte hai’n!
halka halka dhuaan niklataa rahtaa hai!!
(Gulzar 2010)

With these qualities, he brings in several layers of meaning and touch-points so that a private reflection starts to eloquently speak to the collective. With these qualities, his words make the 'observer' recognise their own humanity and become the 'observed'.
In Closing
With a sentient native dwelling in his voice, by being able to perceive the many imperceptible dimensions of the unknown-unseen-unheard-untouched nature and through an imagery that 'watches' us like Mona Lisa – Gulzar cultivates deeper and fuller connections with the soil and society.
Gulzar writes about the collective pain and jubilations only after perceiving it on an intimate and personal level first. His imagery is like a mirror that reflects the collective as clearly as our own individual humanity – persuading us to turn inwards…away from pity and preaching – towards perceptiveness…
This is essential to becoming a custodian that actively cares for the welfare of our shared existence – as Osho said: “The more you become yourself, the more you will feel responsible for the world…”
I would like to acknowledge Pavan Jha (A Film and Music critic and official contact for the Official FB Page of Gulzar) and my friend Manbir Kohli for the review of the article. Thank you!

  1. Narritjin Maymuru, Yirrkala, ‘Earth, Fire & Water’ in compilations of Australian Dreaming, New Holland Publishers, Jennifer Isaacs 2010
  2. Gulzar. 2014, Green Poems, Penguin Books India
  3. Gulzar. 2012, Neglected Poems, Penguin Books India
  4. Gulzar. 2010, Pandrah Paanch Pachchhttar, Vani Prakashan
  5. Gulzar. 2014, Pluto, Vani Prakashan
  6. Gulzar. 2009, Pukhraj, Roopa and Company
  7. Gulzar. 2002, Raat Pashmine ki, Roopa Publications India
  8. Gulzar. 2008, Selected Poems, Penguin Books India
  9. Gulzar. 2010, Yaar Julahe, Vani Prakashan


1 The Dreaming, or 'Tjukurrpa', is to 'see and understand the law.' A beloved tradition of Indigenous communities in Australia, it is to pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to the posterity, through performing and fine arts - through song, dance, painting and storytelling. The Spiritual Ancestors – Source <>
2 From an interview
3 In conversation with Syed Mohd. Irfan (from Guftgu, Rajya Sabha TV) <>
4 Duster
5 Churn
6 Ventilator on a wall



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