Struggle for art

January 8, 2023

Art expresses itself through a miraculous fusion of empathetic and aesthetic adumbrations

The highly revered modern Sindhi poet, Sheikh Ayaz.
The highly revered modern Sindhi poet, Sheikh Ayaz.


heikh Ayaz, the highly revered modern Sindhi poet, writes in his autobiography Kahin Bhi Rah mein Manzil Na Ho Gi that “Thar is God’s painting”. Since God is the greatest creator, He (obviously in a metaphorical sense) not only possesses a brush but a pen, too. River Sindh is the most adorable and magnificent work of that pen – a long poem penned by Almighty.

Humans are meant not only to appreciate the tremendous creations of God but also to assist Him. Man, in the words of Allama Iqbal, is a co-creator. In the Persian poem Mohawara Ma bain-i-Insan-o-Khuda, (A dialogue between Man and God), Iqbal says: Tu shabafreedi, chiraghafreedam/ Sifaalafreedi, ayahgafreedam(O God you created night, and I the lamp/ You brought into existence mud, and I created a bowl out of it). Hence, first Shah Latif in the 18th Century and then Sheikh Ayaz in the 20th Century not only celebrated God’s painting (Thar) and long poem (River Sindh) ‘written’ on the ‘earthly scroll’ of Sindh but also took ahead the divine purpose of the never-ceasing process of creation. Initially, the poetry of these two giants was inspired by the waters and melodies of River Sindh. It later metamorphosed into a river itself.

In common Sindhi imagination, there are three rivers: Sindhu, Shah Latif and Sheikh Ayaz. The much-cited yet recent coinage Sindhari – a term denoting pure, indigenous, unique, distinct cultural features of Sindh, comprises a triad of Sindhu, Shah and Sheikh. In one of his couplets, Ayaz says:

Kuch Shah nay di, kuch

Seikh nay di

Is Sindhari ko soorat, logo

[O people, first it was Shah Latif and then Sheikh Ayaz who materialised the idea of Sidhari.]

Shah Latif and Sheikh Ayaz seem to believe that the art entrenched in indigenous imagination, besides inculcating a sense of togetherness among people, invigorates their souls and shows them the path to political, moral and spiritual liberation. Unlike other forms of expression, artistic expression avoids being didactic or getting authoritatively instructive. Instead, art expresses itself through a miraculous fusion of empathetic and aesthetic adumbrations. Art is not meant to ignore or avoid anything. Even the most gruesome, ghastly, repugnant things smashing the human psyche or tearing apart the fabric of society are embraced as a theme for art. It is not a small wonder that the art that traverses dark, violent aspects of the human world, does not makes our souls feeble or gloomy. Rather, it gives us a kind of perceptive, moral courage and aesthetic audacity to see and negotiate with the hair-raising truth of ‘darkness’. This theme is wonderfully expressed in Ayaz’s poem Qabristan-i-Maklimein (In the Makli graveyard) set in the historic graveyard. Matti (clay) is made to speak to the dead, asking them to step out of their graves and begin living a courageous life. Here Makli represents a world that has turned into a place of the dead. People are so torpid that they don’t react even to what can deprive them of their dignity and right to life. They are ‘sleeping’ in the graves of their ‘bodies’.

Ayaz claims that his poetry is not like an imaginary moon rising out of the well of Nakhshab – an allusion to Persian poetry, rather, it is a like the sun that shines over Mohenjo-Daro. He asserts that his poetry is deeply rooted in the Indus valley. It is not only referenes to local flora and fauna, the world view of the Indus valley too has evolved over the course of history, constituting the diction and poetics of Ayaz’s poetry. The city of Mohenjo-Daro was unbelievably a non-violent yet prosperous, modern developedcity. Neither palaces nor temples have been found in the city. Hence, no weapons of war and not a jot of ashes indicating the conflagration of cities in wars. The city of Mohenjo-Daro was Utopian in character. Ayaz seems to have retrieved the non-violence spirit of Mohenjo-Daro in his poetry and ideas about art.

Both Jainism and Buddhism also advocate non-violence. These were the dominant religions of the Indus valley before the advent of the Muslim period. Unlike Bhagat Singh and Frantz Fanon, Ayaz believed in non-violent political struggle. He was a firm believer in Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa.

Struggle for art

Art is not meant to ignore or avoid anything. Even the most gruesome, ghastly, repugnant things smashing the human psyche or tearing apart the fabric of society are embraced as a theme for art. 

During the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, Ayaz composed a poem, Sangram, that decried all kinds of violence and its manifestations in the form of mass killings and gore. The first-person narrator in the poem voiced a very troubling question: “How can I kill Narain Shiyam, a Sindhi poet and a friend of mine who migrated to India after partition and is now a citizen of the country that is dubbed the enemy?” In the ‘nationalist political dictionary,’ this question was termed ‘treason’ and Ayaz had to face the music. His books were banned and he was sent to jail. Ayaz’s humanistic values were deemed at odds with the politics of a ‘religious’ nationalism.

Ayaz began his literary career as an Urdu poet bringing out two collections of Urdu poetry – Boo-i-Gul, Nala-i-Dil and Neel Kanth aur Neem kay Pattay. He also translated Bhittai’s magnum opusShah jo Risalo into Urdu. Then he decided to write only in Sindhi - a big decision indeed. He also left Karachi for Sukkur, only to return in his final years. Though leaving a metropolis for a relatively small city was ostensibly a personal choice, it had long-lasting literary and political repercussions. Karachi was not just a ‘colonial’ metropolis and a cultural city but also a centre of the national language: Urdu. So, in the backdrop of Ayaz’s decision, the cities of Karachi and Sukkur came to symbolise a divide between national (Urdu) and regional (Sindhi) languages and a sort of hierarchy of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’.

The case for Urdu as a language of the centre has been extremely problematic. In most post-colonial countries, colonisers’ languages, like English, French, Spanish etc, have become the languages of the centre. These Western languages have displaced, marginalised, disgraced and washed away the languages of indigenous people of Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America. In post-colonial Pakistan, besides English, Urdu has been perceived as the language of the ‘centre’. Which centre? The colonial centre or post-colonial national centre? No serious effort has been made to disentangle and deconstruct the notion of ‘centre’ from the Pakistani perspective. So, a slew of confusions, rifts and discords shrouds Urdu in Pakistan. A historical fact is that Urdu is also a South Asian indigenous language that has suffered at the hands of English – and is still suffering. Most of its speakers belonged to North India, a centre of Indo-Muslim tehzeeb.

Struggle for art

Ayaz perceived his mother tongue through the binary lens of an imaginary colonial-national and real native language. His decision to adopt Sindhi as his sole medium of literary expression decisively impacted not only his political ideas but the themes, diction, and poetics of his poetry too.

Ayaz realised that colonialism had not ended. Goraysanpbilon ko bhagay/ Azadi kay naam peh ham ko/ Kalaysanpmilay. (White snakes have left only for some black snakes to replace them in the name of independence). Hence, freedom was an illusion. To combat the ‘black snakes’ – neo-colonial forces, indigenous language was seen as a necessary lethal weapon. It could subvert and bust colonial canonical narratives about culture and value systems. It could help the ‘native’ retrieve and reclaim what was displaced, marginalised, discarded, lost and forgotten due to colonial linguistic and aesthetic hegemony. Ayaz knew that only through his native language could he traverse the chequered course of centuries-old folk literature and thus connect with the common man and nurture empathy for the people. Ayaz had put up strong resistance against the One Unit scheme in the 1950s. With the passage of time, particularly after the disintegration of the USSR, he came to believe strongly in ‘cultural resistance’. He realized that there was a sort of temporality in active political resistance – though obligatory at many times, cultural resistance was marked with a kind of sustainability. In political resistance, a desire for power was ingrained, but in initiating a cultural resistance, one chose the power of art.

Struggle for art

In his book Sahiwal Jail ki Diary, he unequivocally asserted that a “poet’s world is much larger than that of a revolutionary. I would not object to the artist who seeks to change the world through his art, but a revolutionary has no right to impose his ideas on the artist. Others are struggling for power, but I, for art.”

We know that the Cold War was essentially cultural, a war between two notions of art. The capitalist world nurtured a belief in the autonomy of art and the socialist world in art for revolution. So, there was a war between aesthetics and ethics. Ayaz went with both aesthetics and ethics, though he prioritised aesthetics. However, his notion of aesthetics was not static and limited to romanticism; it was cultural and dynamic.

– An abridged version of a keynote speech delivered at the 8th Ayaz Melo, Hyderabad, on December 23.

The writer is an Urdu critic and short story writer. His new book Naiy Naqaad kay Naam Khatoot is coming soon

Struggle for art