CONTEMPORARY URDU LITERATURE By Razi Abedi SEARCH for identity has been the dominant theme of Pakistani literature and distinguishes it from Urdu literature being produced elsewhere. Like many contemporary writers in the world, the Pakistani writer is primarily concerned with the problem of identity. But, beyond personal iden-
tity, he is also concerned with the problem of national identity. Pakistan was created through a well-defined and deliberate effort and its gensis lay in the assertion of a distinct iden-
tity within the vast complex of Indian cultures. The basis for its existence was the two-nation theory. After political separation from India the question that naturally perplexes our writers is whether they have created a national literature which can be distinguished as Pakis-
In the three decades of its existence, Pakistan has produced a rich variety of sizable liter-
ature of some merit. Creative genius has found expression through regional as well as Urdu literatures. The very experience of indepen-
dence, including the effort that went into the struggle for achieving it and the consequent excitements and disillusions, seem to have released energies expressing the national spirit that apparentary had lain dormant for centuries. Not that the national spirit had disappeared from the sensibility of the people, but that it moved only a few exceptionally creative minds and was not a national phenomenon till modern times. Now the entire nation seems to be in-
volved in the national drama. Our writers are exercising this sensibility and trying to define it. A lot has been written in Pakistan about the Pakistani sensibility, directly and indirectly, from religious, cultural and aesthetic points of view, and it is still a live issue in Pakistan.
Perhaps fity-two years is not a sufficient period of time to develop a palpable national identity. Americans, Canadians and Australians, virtually after centuries of independent nation-
al existence, are still struggling to assert their distinct characters. We in Pakistan are still struggling to assert our own.
Three basic factors must be taken into account when considering Pakistani literature:
1. Pakistan was not created merely as an eco-
nomic venture. It was not seen as an affluent colony created by Indian Muslims. It was rather an assertion of a distinct Muslim nationhood within India.
2. Once Pakistan was created relations with India became strained, and ultimately the borders with India, political as well as social and cultural, were sealed.
3. In Pakistan, immigrant Muslims did not obliterate the local cultures, as happened in British colonies where entire local civilisa-
tions were sometimes wiped out of existence. Here the immigrant culture, which brought a very rich and strong tradition with it, had to deal with the local cultures which were almost as rich, strong and deep-rooted.
Another important factor was that Muslims had always considered themselves aliens in India, even though it was a country which they had ruled for more than a thousand years. They always looked to Mecca and Medina as their true home, and their literature sang of the beauties of Persian flora and fauna. They used the meta-
phors of the Persian Gull and Andaleeb or of the Arabian Tigris and Euphrates and the Lala of the desert. They had no use for the Indian Ganges and Jamuna or the local beauties of nature. They could not sing the praises of India or anything Indian.
It was different with Pakistan. Pakistan was their own land, representing their achievements and aspirations. It was their home and they wanted to sing of it. Thus, in Pakistan a sense of national identity was very strong. Here it was not so much a question of transplanting a culture from one land to the other. The chal-
lenge which the new nation faced was to build on foundations of past traditions a new world based on fresh aspirations and ideals. In the midst of this confusion and controversy the Pakistani writer began producing an indigenous Pakistani literature.
Urdu literature has always been a literature of protest. It may be a protest veiled in meta-
phors, as in the work of Ghalib and Mir, or it may take the satiric form of a Sauda or the overt ironies of Nazir Akbarabadi, but it has always spoken the language of protest. Since 1857 its subject has been predominantly political, as in the exhortations of Hali or the rebukes of Akbar, but always looking for a new compact. Two movements were launched by the British to combat and depoliticalise Urdu literature. One was started in 1800 in Fort William College, Calcutta. Its object primarily was to train British Civil Servants in Indian languages, law, history and customs. The liter-
ature that resulted was essentially romantic and the emphasis throughout is on style. Motifs from the old romantic lore were freely used, and these promoted medieval optimism. The stories are written according to a given framework, following the pattern of the Arabian Nights and were designed to make us feel that however miserable life may be at present, all will be right in the long run, under the guidance of a special Providence.
The other movement was launched under the aus-
pices of Anjuman-e-Punjab in 1865 in Lahore. It arranged the famous poetic symposium (known as Mushaira in Urdu) actively patronised by Col. Halroyed, the Director of Public Instructions for Punjab. This movement was meant to encourge ‘poetry of non-sectarian character...aiming at moral instruction, and presenting a natural picture of feelings and thoughts’. Description of the beauties of nature was defined as the main object of this new poetry. It was obviously another attempt to pursue the aims of Fort William College and to divert Urdu literature into harmless, optimistic and submissive chan
nels. The literature which ultimately emerged was represented by Iqbal who conceived of literature and politics in terms of a spiritual renaissance. The salient features of this movement were the denunciation of the mater-
ialism and depravity of the West and the greatness of our ancient cultural heritage. These two strains to varying degrees still reverberate in our contemporary literature.
Josh and Hafeez continued this tradition in their own, at times in divergent, ways.
An offshoot of this anti-Western tradition was the Progressive Movement, which produced a lit-
erature of protest against the old values and the tyrannies of the dominant classes at the time. Faiz, Raashed and Manto represent this trend, though Manto later dissociated himself formally from the movement. Protest and the quest for a new social compact go side by side in all these writers' works. Till independence, our literature, dominated by such vociferous Progressive writers, not only expressed the pain and consequent anger toward prevailing social injustices but also introduced a note of opti-
mism about the outcome of the popular struggle against oppression. The Progressive writers had been brought up in the classical tradition, but they had an acute awareness of prevalent ills which could not be comprehended or expressed in terms of the old ideas or through conventional forms, though some tried to do so. The language and general poetic structure and imagery in the poetry of Faiz, for example, are conventional but convey new ideas. The motif of his poetry is love--not the mystic idea of love (Ishq) any more. Here Ishq stands for a commitment to socio-political ideals.
Partition came at a time when the Progressive movement was at its highest point. Independence brought in its wake a mad dance of death in the form of communal riots all over India which caused an unprecedented upheaval and resulted in the transfer of population on a mass scale. The misery caused by man to man in all forms of fan-
aticism, greed and brutality became the theme of post-independence literature. The hopes that independence would bring a better life were frustrated. Instead, unrest, selfishness and exploitation reigned. The poet cried out:
We have been plunged into darkness again,
The bells of the morning have deceived us.
Thus, starting with complaints and protests and then after a concerted and determined effort, a goal had been achieved which now seemed lost to confusion. Ever since, our writers have been trying to find their direction.
The search has taken different forms in dif-
ferent writers. Some have found their niche in revivalism. This trend has led Intezar Hussain to old folk-lore and to the local interests and customs of his native province--the United
Province--in India. He also attempts to revive the purity of the language. Others have gone to the roots of local cultures, to the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. There have also been serious and systematic works, such that of Qur’at-ul-Ain Haider in Aag ka Darya (The River of Fire), in which she explores the streams of Indian culture which as far back as a thousand years ago. Jafer Taher, on the other hand in Haft Kishwar (The Seven Lands) attempted to write an epic based on his descent from the Middle East.
Many others see themselves as belonging to a civilisation which is essentially Western and who write primarily in English. Even among those who who write in Urdu, there are many who in translation would sound as European or American as any Frenchman or New Englander. Many of our writers are highly trained in modern Western disciplines. Some, like Abdullah Hussain in Udas Naslain (Lost Generations) seek the solution of our problems in Western liberal traditions, and their work echoes the great literatures of the West. Russian and French traditions of social realism find expressions in the works of writers like Sa’adat Hasan Manto and Shaujat Siddiquee. In contemporary Pakistan one finds all the popular philosophies, movements and fads from all over the world. Traditionalism, symbolism, imagism, existentialism, impressionism, progres-
sivism are all here. Pakistanis have attempted everything from the old-fashioned epic to the theater of the absurd.
Though the tradition of drama actually has not flourished here and we have only a few names to mention in this field, such as Agha Hashr and Imtiaz Ali (for his famous Anarkali), recently some good plays have been written by Ibrahim Jalis and Zia Sarhadi. Some amateur young play-
wrights have also shown promise, such as Sarmed Sehbai. Nowadays, much of this dramatic talent gravitates towards television where some good plays are produced, sometimes adaptations from world classics but most of them original.
But there has also been a reaction against the concern with collective social problems, so much emphasised our poetry since 1857, and espec-
ially in the Progressive movement. This reac-
tion has taken the form of emphasizing the individual over the collective, the particular over the universal. As a result the great tra-
dition of ghazal has been revived. Ghazal has traditonally been considered as almost synon-
ymous with poetry itself. An impressionistic poem composed of mutually independent verses of two lines each, connected solely in form, ghazal has served as good vehicle for the communication of all sorts of ideas. Verses in the same ghazal may variously express erotic, mystic, didactic and political ideas. All Urdu poets have written ghazals, but the tradition of Mir, our great master of ghazal, has been revived in modern times by Nasir Kazmi.
Though ghazal is still the most popular form of poetry in Urdu, other genres have also developed and flourished. Geet was the first of them. Originally written in Hindi, geet is a short lyric, expressing erotic ideas and meant to be sung to the accompaniment of music. It has become very popular in popular music, and the film industry has promoted its rapid growth.
The city of Lahore has played a vital role in promoting these as well as other new trends and ideas. Following Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow, Lahore has been the centre for Urdu literature for the last one century. The soil of the Punjab is fertile not only for agriculture but also spiritually and intellectually. Gandhara art, a beautiful blend of Indian and Greek cultures, along withthe Buddhist academy at Taxila, are are examples of Punjabi artistic liberalism. Lahore can equally boast the classical Shalimar gardens built on a pattern of geometrical symmetry, as well as the romantic Bagh-e-Jinnah, modelled on the concept of beauty in a state of nature.
Between these two extremes Lahore and its people live in a world that is simultaneously classical and romantic--a tradition of ideal flexibility, adaptability, liberalism and creative spontan-
eity. It is no accident that the Punjab gave two religions to the world (the Sikh and the Ahmadi). Significant religious and political movements chose this land for the propagation and practice of their doctrines. Religious scholars like Maulana Maudoodi and Ghulam Ahmed Pervez are among them. Two extreme Islamic fundamentalist-cum political movements, the Ahrar and the Khaksars originated and died here before the birth of Pakistan. In the world of literature, Hali and Azad started their movement for new poetry in the last century in this city under the auspices of the Literary Association of the Punjab (Anjuman-e-Punjab). Great painters like Chughtai, Allah Bux and Sadequain worked in Lahore and rose to eminence in the art world. Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, Roshan Ara, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali and many others enriched Indian classical music, and their melodies can still be heard in this city. Last but not least, the Muslim demand for the state of Pakistan was passed here in 1940, and history has recorded it as the Lahore Resolution. The Lahore Literary Forum, known as Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, which led the new trends in Urdu literature for decades, was founded here just before independence. Not for nothing is this called the Land of God's bounty.
Wherever you go poetry is with you. It is in our bones and is as essential to us as breath. You can find verses inscribed with flowery patterns expressing the most intimate feelings, religious or philosophical truisms, erotic outburst--all of these on the inside and outside of rickshaws, taxis, buses, restaurants, cigarette kiosks and in commercial advertisements. No social function is considered complete without a poetic recita-
tion. Religious ceremonies, social gatherings, gay parties, marriages and even death itself requires poetry. Mushaira is the most popular example of poetic recitation in which the poet and the audience equally and vociferously par-
It is not wholly correct that the addiction to poetry is a remnant of a feudal past, since our folk tradition also abounds in it down to the lowest classes of our society. Poetry is even more popular than music, and connoisseurs can be heard lamenting that people have no ear for music and that a song is appreciated more for its words than for its melody. Even modern industrial Pakistan is being consumed by the poetic. We now have a sizable body of poetry which has as its subject the new situations created by industrialisation. There seems to be no threat to our indigenous poetry from the modernisation of society, though a significant change in its subject matter, structure and the general tone is already discernible.
Ghazal still continues its popularity. However, new experiments are also taking place. Free verse, prose-poem, adaptations from the rich folk tradition and from contemporary literature around the globe abound. New trends have espec-
ially become visible since the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Attempts are being made to break the conventional linguistic barriers, and the vocabulary as well as the syntax are being rudely shaken. These trends have been incorpor-
ated into a school headed by the poet Iftekhar Jalib and his disciples, but its echoes can be heard far and wide, and many young poets, con-
sciously or unconsciously, are following this trend. Strange, outlandish metaphors verging on the absurd, and language rudely shaken out of its ordinary usage are features of this new mode of writing.
Urdu literature has also addressed the forms of humour, travelogue and biography. But in the last few years it has been especially devoted to translation. Hundreds of poets from all corners of the world have been translated into Urdu. But thematically there has been a radical change here. Since 1874, led by the Anjuman-e-Punjab, English romantic and Victorian poets have been translated and in some cases beautifully assim-
ilated into our classical traditions. This pro-
cess received generous official patronage and encouragement. National independence caused a break with this special relationship with English literature. At the same time, partition put up a barrier to Indian influences. Instead, we have become more open to influences from all around the world, particularly from the Third World. Large-scale translations are now being made of writings from Africa, Palestine, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Indochina. Chinese and Russian literatures have become freely available in recent years. We realize that many litera-
tures exist in the world and that New York, Moscow and Peking are more accessible and closer to us than Delhi, Lucknow and Bombay. At the same time, translations from our own folk tra-
ditions and regional literatures are also be-
coming popular. Our contemporary literature is a literature of exploration. The young writer is looking for a new world.
Along with experiments in creative literature, explorations are also being made in the field of literary criticism. Every new literary work appears with a preface attached. Every writer views his work as the start of a new movement for which a proper critical climate has to be created. This practice of writing long exhor-
tative prefaces started with Hali. But the new critical atmosphere is charged with controversy. There are those who, like the critic Hasan Askari, believe that tradition must be rooted in religious faith and that for any sound litera-
ture to exist a sound metaphysical underpining is essential. Other critics adhere to the dia-
lectics of Marx, while still others like Wazir Agha relate literature to the soil and believe that all great literature emerges from the land, both in its physical aspect and in its social and cultural traditions. In the larger context, we have among our critics religious reformists as well as absurdists and pure aesthetes.
To sum up, there now exists a vast literature of sufficient merit which is clearly Pakistani, smelling of the land and expressing the aspira-
tions and anxieties of its people. It is vital, dynamic and emplorative, and scarcely any dog-
matism, and this too augurs well for its future.
(Razi Abedi is Pakistan's foremost literary figure. He was chairman of the Punjab University in Lahore and has published extensively on the literatures of both East and West. His particu-
lar interest is the study of Urdu literature in the context of Third World literature and the literature now being produced in the West. He has also written extensively about education, specifically on its socio-cultural implications. Abedi is actively involved in the cultural and academic life of Lahore and is a member of many organizations in that city. He also writes poetry.)