- Thursday, 21 January 2016 09:42
- by Altaf Gauhar
It is a marvel of our age that nations can be brought into existence or sent into oblivion through political negotiations conducted in conference rooms.
A news agency reported from Dakar last month "that with the aid of the United Nations a new country is to be formed in West Africa to be named Senegambia". I recalled a sultry evening in the month of June 1947 when I heard on the wireless a smiliar announcement that the Indian sub-continent will be partitioned and a new State to be named Pakistan will come into existence on the 14th of August 1947.
These bland political pronouncements give little indication of what follows in their wake. One hears of jubilant crowds or of riotous mobs, of celebrations or of desecrations. But rarely of what happens to human beings as individuals. As the noise subsides the individual discovers that he has somewhere along the way dropped his old identity card. His only consolation is the thought that his old card would no longer be valid, and his sole preoccupation-the urgent necessity to get himself a new card.
Since 1947, the Urdu writer in Pakistan has been trying to discover his new identity. Like a great many people he too was caught unawares by Independence. He had closely followed the course of political negotiations which preceded the 'grant' of independence but was in no position to forecast the likely outcome. Would the subcontinent remain a single political entity or would it be divided into two sovereign states? Would it be a confederation of autonomous units or would it have a federal structure? Even after the partition plan had been announced there was a lurking suspicion that it may not go through. It was in this atmosphere of hopes, suspicion and distrust that the crowds arrived and the writer discovered that he was lost. Who am I? It was an overwhelming question which kept recurring relentlessly.
The first poetical whisper which was heard in a moment of rare stillness stirred many a doubt.
Ye Dagh Dagh ujala ye shab gazida sahar
Wo Intizar tha jiska ye wo sahar to nahin.
Is this the dawn for which we had waited for so long?
Is this the new horizon polluted by a million spots?
It was this lack of preparedness which made it so much more difficult for the writer to participate creatively in the experience.
A hundred years ago the Urdu writer was faced with a calamitous situation when every tradition and value crumbled around him. The society to which he belonged was liquidated and the country was brought under political subjugation. But even under those bleak circumstances when there was general deterioration in the quality of creative work there were poets who wrote some of the most profound poetry in Urdu. Long before 1857 they had known what was coming. It was this vision and anticipation which produced in them a sense of detachment and enabled them to experience the full agony of the moment when it arrived. When every day brought news of fresh losses, Ghalib, fully aware of the hopelessness of the situation, could still say, 'this may not be the end'.
Qafas me muj se rodade chaman kehtey na dar
Giri he jis pe kal bijli wo mera ashiyan kiyun ho.
The Urdu literature of the first few years of Independence is replete with two themes – nostalgia for the past and a sense of guilt, both arising from lack of creative preparedness. The past was an escape from an unknown present and the guilt was due largely to the reluctance of the writer to accept any responsibility for his inescapable though unwitting participation in the course of events.
A host of stories and poems based on riots, were written - all grossly sentimental, sanctimonious and not a few thoroughly obscene. All in atonement of the community's guilt.
Neither this fetish for the past nor assertions of self-righteousness proved of any help to the writer in coming to terms with the present. He had to discover his new identity in a situation which had emerged as a result of the emotional and economic needs of the people. As a writer and artist he now belonged to an independent Islamic State. What was the cultural heritage which he could draw upon and what place did he occupy in the new scheme of things?
The poet of the East, Iqbal, who had offered a rationale for the establishment of Pakistan was the authority to which the writers as well as the community referred.
And Iqbal had this to offer: “And in so far as the cultural history of Islam is concerned, it is my belief that, with the single exception of architecture, the art of Islam (music, painting and even poetry) is yet to be born - the art, that is to say, which aims at the human assimilation of Divine attributes, gives man infinite aspiration and finally wins for him the status of God's representative on earth". So the Muslim writer in Pakistan found himself with an artistic heritage which was non-existent except in the field of architecture. He was expected by the community to produce an art which should aim at "the human assimilation of divine attributes". And this art according to Iqbal was dependent on "inspiration" which he conceded was "not a matter of choice." "It is a gift the character of which cannot be critically judged by the recipient before accepting it. It comes to the individual unsolicited".
In the meantime the artist was expected to parade himself as a "blessing to mankind", "capable of defying life", "an associate of God", who felt "the contact of time and eternity in his soul". The poor devil who did not even know whether he possessed a soul found little solace in this highly idealized description of the artist's role in society.
At a more practical level Faiz Ahmed Faiz attempted an analysis of what constituted Pakistani culture and the demands which this culture expected the writer to fulfil. In his analysis Faiz merely raised questions and offered no answers. The difficulty was that when Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a boundary line on the map of the Indian sub-continent which determined the territorial limits of the two countries, he could not draw a similar line to divide human memory, tradition and values. He did divide libraries and museums. But what could he do to that monumental ode to love-the Taj Mahal or the relics of Moenjodaro and Harrappa, the figurines carved on the stupas in Swat or the remains of the Buddhist University in Taxila? Was Ghalib to be treated as part of Pakistani culture or was he to be regarded as an Indian because he was buried under Indian soil?
Since no one seemed to know the answers, people turned to Government which proceeded by banning the broadcast of certain modes of classical music regarded as alien to Pakistani culture. Recitations from Ghalib were permissible provided the poems were set to Persian tunes.
To add to the confusion the language itself was assailed. Would it be correct to treat it as an Islamic language? It was suggested that Pakistani culture could best be expressed in the Arabic language. Once these doubts had been expressed about the adequacy of the Urdu language, its status as a national language was challenged by various regional languages. The Urdu writer was now faced with a fresh dilemma. To continue to write in Urdu which was not the spoken language in any part of Pakistan or to adopt one of the regional languages?
Askari another Urdu critic, was so disturbed by the prevailing confusion that he condemned the whole lot of Urdu writers, as indifferent, slovenly and self-indulgent.
According to him Iqbal was the only poet who had shared the feelings of the Muslims and had expressed their hopes and aspirations. While most of the other writers had adhered to the western view that a political system cannot be built on religion, Iqbal was the only poet who sternly refused to divorce religion from politics. It was for this reason that the writers had not been able to identify themselves with the people. He concluded by advising the writer to produce literature which should enjoy the confidence of the people.
This initiated a movement in support of what was described as Islamic literature or National literature. Stories and legends of Islamic heroes started appearing in every magazine. There was one writer who in two years produced half-a-dozen long Islamic historical novels and liked being called Sir Muslim Walter Scott. The fashion proved short-lived and nothing worth-while was written while it lasted.
There followed a period of near cessation of all real creative work. The critic having reached the end of his resources cynically decided to leave the artist alone. The bureaucratic agencies which had been assiduously trying to build up an image of Pakistani culture conceived in office rooms had, in the meantime, run into so many contradictions and inconsistencies that they reluctantly withdrew from the field of creative work to attend to their professional responsibilities in the sphere of publicity and public relations.
While the critics lounged in their cynicism and the officials in their foam cushioned chairs the artist secured a reprieve to breathe a little more freely and do some intimate personal stock-taking.
A decade of nostalgia for the past-however severly it may have circumscribed the limits of his originality-brought the Pakistani writer into close contact with Urdu classics. If he adopted Mir's style in poetry - the long wailing line and archaic verbal variations-he also studied Mir's poetry and familiarised himself with Mir's social background. Through a study of the classics carried out in a new context, the Urdu writer reconstructed the literary tradition and theory from which he had been suddenly torn away in 1947.
I shall pause briefly to give an outline of the literary theory in Urdu as it was reconstructed in Pakistan and then resume the argument.
It is customary to discuss the development of Urdu literature in two periods, the first covering nearly six centuries upto the year 1857 and the second spread over the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century. The year 1857 symbolizes the decline of the classical tradition which coincided with the end of the MoghuI Empire and the beginning of the modern movement under the British Raj.
Urdu as a literary language, still in a rudimentary form, appeared in the 13th century. During the succeeding century the new language was used as a vehicle of expression by mystics and poets who were anxious to establish direct contact with the masses. This language, which became the general medium of intercourse between Hindus and Muslims, was the mixture of Persian with a dialect of western Hindi spoken in and around Delhi. Gradually the language acquired literary status and was widely used as the accepted medium of expression for all types of poetical, philosophical, intellectual and religious ideas.
While the new language continued to fulfil certain social and cultural needs so long as the Moghals remained in a position of relative authority. it began to stagnate with the decline of the Moghals. The scope of the language instead of expanding in response to popular needs began to contract and from a growing and living cultural language it degenerated into a highly sophisticated court language. Just as religion deteriorated into elaborate ritual and obscure dogma, mysticism into licence, politics into personal intrigue, the Urdu literature degenerated into a mechanical exercise in words. Reviewing Urdu poetry during this period, a Pakistani critic has summed it up in the following words:
"Urdu poets had started almost bankrupt, and before long there was nothing left in them, except to seek distinction by subtlety and refinement of expression. They became clever manipulators of words and tried to excel by using difficult meters and obdurate quafias and radifs. Words, words, words; this is the best commentary on their works".
It was during this period of social and political decadence that a new literary awareness developed in Urdu. The principal elements in this awareness were the futility of imitating the values of a society which had long declined and disintegrated; a conscious rejection of sophisticated and ornate expression; and identification with progressive ideas.
This awareness, full of creative promise in the beginning, became gradually subservient to western tradition. What was heralded as an era of renaissance turned out to be a succession of dismal decades in which creative talent was used for translating western thought into Urdu. One tradition of imitation was exchanged for another. Imitation of Persian themes and ideas yielded place to imitation of western values. With one significant difference - there was much greater emotional acceptance of the Persian tradition - the west inspired great admiration but little trust. While most of the Urdu writers had sympathy for the Persian tradition, arising from a common faith, English thoughts and ideas remained alien even though their acquisition was known to be essential for all kind of material success. The poetry of Akbar Allahabadi in which everything western is condemned as evil and the works of Iqbal in which the west is depicted as a doomed civilisation are evidence of the profound emotional resistance to western thought. That explains why western forms of expression never gained currency in Urdu. Here and there people wrote odes, lyrics, even sonnets, but it is the Persian Ghazal which has exercised the most lasting influence on poetical expression in Urdu. It is significant that after more than a hundred years of contact with the west, and inspite of the existence of scores of institutions and academies engaged in translating English words into Urdu, the level of the language, in scope as well as application, has remained substantially the same as it was toward the middle of the 19th century.
To resume the argument. In the course of his effort to reconstruct and evaluate literary tradition, the Pakistani writer was left with an overwhelming impression that his predecessors always reverted to the past for inspiration or solace whenever confronted with the present. Revival of the past in all its glory was the only future they could visualise. Between revivalism and imitation, (or renaissance as they called it) they had isolated themselves from the mainspring of creative activity-the present, in its freshness and warmth, its critical urgency and all its compelling complexities. He caught himself in the act and in a lucid moment realised the barrenness of the whole process.
He discovered the same elements of remoteness and imitation in the theory of literary criticism in Urdu. Poetry was the result of inspiration and the source of all inspiration was the mysterious unknown. From the earliest days to the time of Iqbal this was the theory which formed the basis for all critical judgment. The form of expression came to be regarded as a channel for the communication of ideas. Not even Hali who is the precursor of modern Urdu criticism recognised the inseparable character of form and content in creative expression. Since the content of poetry was derived from the unknown, subjects and experiences of day to day life were regarded as unpoetical. While the substance of poetry was thus divorced from life, the form too was refined and chastened to eliminate common words and phrases considered unworthy of inspired communication. The emphasis was on correctness and elaborate rules, substantiated, by precedents, were evolved to ensure compliance by all those who ventured into the field of poetry. A poet who could not quote a precedent when asked to justify the use of any particular word or phrase ran the risk of being thrown out of court, figuratively as well as literally.
It was not until the progressive writers presented their manifesto in Lucknow in 1936 that the vital link between literature and life – every day life - was clearly recognized. The progressive writers declared it as one of their objects "to bring the arts into closest touch with the people" and announced that it was their belief "that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today - the problems of poverty, social backwardness and political subjugation". The emphasis shifted from imitating the masters to the realities of life and the need to observe and experience them. And life did not mean, as came to be believed under early British influence, beds of roses in blossom and moonlit nights in spring. It meant the grim and sordid fact of political subjection. Sitting in the comfortable position of a spectator, the writer suddenly found a ball of fire thrown in his lap.
This was something unknown to Urdu literature. Earlier poets, like Nazir Akbarabadi and Sauda who selected themes from common day life were not prompted by any organized literary theory. Their work represented a personal protest against the prevailing sophistication and hypocrisy and was treated more with amusement than any serious consideration. The progressive theory was presented at a critical moment and immediately commanded respect. Unfortunately, its adherents proved men of mediocre calibre who insisted on treating all art as propaganda forgetting the elementary fact that repetition which is an advantage in propaganda often reduces the effectiveness of creative expression. They adopted a well defined approach to a limited range of subjects and kept reiterating it till everyone had become thoroughly familiar with it. The movement produced little of artistic merit and failed to make any lasting impact mainly because it proved no more than a studied stance, an imitation of yet another western attitude adopted in intellectual isolation.
While this process of rediscovery was going on in an atmosphere full of doubts, and misgivings, the Ghazal was re-emerging almost imperceptibly. It provided a positive element of continuity with the past. The Ghazal, over the centuries, had developed into a popular medium of expression acceptable at all levels of understanding. A long lasting lyrical note expressive of the deep pathos of a common cultural experience, the Ghazal evoked spontaneous response. It served also another purpose. It allowed a great deal to be communicated without making it culpable. During the last days of the Moghals, the Ghazal had become the most satisfying form of expressive concealment. The unsaid was the most telling, the most significant. From then on the poet always turned to Ghazal whenever he came in conflict with Authority.
It is easy now to sum up the lessons which the Urdu writer learnt during his reprieve.
The present is inexorable and must be embraced as the ultimate source of all experience.
The remains of the past are contained and revived in the present.
Any attempt to escape the present by wallowing in the glories of the past only accentuates the artist's frustration and detracts from his sensitivity.
Language and Literature flourish only in those periods when there exists direct contact and a sense of identity between the creative mind and the people in all their mundanity.
Progress through imitation is a delusion and leads to results which are "at times both pathetic and grotesques." As Professor Humayun Kabeer has remarked, “At best we can become imitation Englishmen and imitators are debarred from citizenship of the world."
But perhaps the most significant and for his immediate purpose the most relevant lesson which the Urdu writer learnt was that the cultural tradition to which he belonged was based on a synthesis of diverse elements and this was in conformity with the basic religious values to which he subscribed. The architectural monuments and remains on either side of the boundary line were convincing evidence of this process of synthesis. The Urdu language itself was an example of cultural unity emerging from diversity.
Was this not the answer to his problem? To continue to -absorb in the main cultural tradition all regional and local variations and thus produce a richer synthesis. "The new role of Urdu literature must be based not on the language of books but on the language of the people." says an Urdu critic. He does not know how and when this will happen. It is possible, he surmises, that the classical Urdu language by coming in contact with the local languages spoken in the country may produce a new language. This reflects in Urdu criticism a growing consciousness and anticipation of a new synthesis.
But the forces which this consciousness has to contend against are powerful and aggressive. First in order, is Authority which at times expects the writer to conform to the prescribed line. The role which it is prepared to concede to the writer is that of a court poet enjoying institutional patronage. To this the writer has found an answer in the Ghazal and in maintaining a stolid sullenness.
There are then the obscurants reveling in their antiquated dogma and their luxurious beards. They would banish all art and establish the mediaeval order if they could. The writer scoffs at them but may live to pay dearly for his irreverence.
Beneath a calm surface a grim struggle is going on between the forces of obscurantism and the forces of culture. I will not predict the result for there can be only one result. And the writer knows it. He has discovered that he cannot lose his identity. He is a part of the vast human identity and belongs to the creative process which is universal and eternal. Regardless of the pressures of individualism he must continue to blend together conflicting shades and colours to produce a new harmony, a new unity and a new synthesis.