A conflicted movement

August 20, 2017

A new book on the subject claims that the Progressive Writers’ Movement was the most important literary episode since the Aligarh movement; it jettisoned Urdu into modernity

A conflicted movement

This book is an important study because it charts the course of the Progressive Writers’ Movement on both sides of the border. The Progressive Writers’ Movement was initially conceived as one movement in colonial India, but it fell prey to forces that it had not considered as powerful enough. The division of the country on communal lines created a difficult situation for the Movement, and it seemed unprepared for this eventuality.

In Pakistan everything was black-and-white, the country’s process of banning was also simple and straightforward, in line with pro-American right-wing policies; but in India, which was a left-leaning, secular democracy, at least in those decades, it was fascinating that the movement had to meander and navigate through sensitive areas in the Indian political context. It appears there was much more ideological hair-splitting in India than in Pakistan. There was much that was coined and manipulated, either for survival or in order to stay within the larger mosaic of the Indian political scene.

The Progressive Writers’ Movement was, according to Carlo Coppola, the author of the book under discussion, the most important literary episode since the Aligarh movement; it jettisoned Urdu into modernity. For many years this debate had been gathering strength and a more functional role for literature was being advocated. The Anjuman-i-Punjab, under Hollyrod and Lietner, were pressing for it and it must have been seen as a major victory when the Aligarh literati finally started seeing everything from the same perspective. Initially Hali and much later, others, even Iqbal, were inspired by this overt functional role of literature and focused on the loss of confidence which the Muslim community were suffering since they lost power.

The main characteristics of the Movement were the politicisation of the writers, expansion of literary themes and techniques and cosmopolitanism. It left in its wake a significantly developed body of literary criticism.

Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode is an exhaustive study of the creation of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and the various influences at work at the time of its founding. Detailed analyses of various then-prevalent views, especially as the world order collapsed after World War One, the founding of the Soviet State in Russia and the rise of fascism in parts of Europe, are all present in the book.

The main characteristics of the Movement were the politicisation of the writers, expansion of literary themes and techniques and cosmopolitanism. It left in its wake a significantly developed body of literary criticism.

Given these conditions, the purpose of the arts was being debated anew and it was only natural for the literati in the colonies to get infected and inspired by these catastrophic events and resultant ideas.

Actually, according to Coppola, the beginning was laid in 1934 and Sajjad Zaheer who was at that time in England was inspired by Ralph Fox, a Marxist literary editor, essayist and founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Philips Henderson, a Marxist critic and contributor to New Left Review, the first meeting was held on November 24, 1934. It was a follow-up on the Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers held a few months earlier. According to the author, Zaheer said very little about these meetings in his own account in a book on the subject titled Roshnai where it all starts from the session in Lucknow in 1936.

Coppola has recorded the differences in the manifestoes of the two meetings. Actually the set of writers were bedevilled by their political associations and affiliations and were often criticised for not having separated art and literature from being mouthpieces of a particular political point of view. Even when the association was formed and firing on all cylinders, the debate continued. On one side were the hardliners who wanted art and literature to be ever closer to an unabashed left loyalty and on the other side were those who insisted on keeping a distance between arts and politics, thus drawing a relationship that was neither direct, nor one-to-one.

This has always been the dilemma; from the heydays of the Movement till it became one of the many art and literary movements it has been diverged by this conflict. In India which was a huge landmass with millions of people of different nationalities, ethnicities, linguistic differences and religious denominations, the application of the major point of the manifesto was insufficient to address all these diversities, since the interest of one collided with the interest of the other. In the beginning, it was easier to paper over these diversities for a more uniform approach, but with the passage of time, when things stopped working out according to the given plan, the patchwork began to unravel.

Coppola, professor emeritus of Urdu-Hindi and linguistics at Michigan’s Oakland University in the US, founded, Mahfil, a quarterly of South Asian literature which is now produced as the Journal of South Asian Literature. Coppola has translated South Asian poetry and fiction, has edited books on Urdu, and interviewed major literary figures of South Asian literature.

The later part of Coppola’s book is an analysis of different poets, all hugely popular and dedicated to their convictions, the difference and similarities in their points of view and literary expression. The title of each chapter -- Faiz, a progressive poet as an aesthete; Majaz, a progressive poet as a romantic; Ali Sardar Jafri, a progressive poet but with a consistency of commitment; Sahir Ludhianvi, a progressive and lyric poet; and Makhdum Mahiuddin, a reluctant progressive -- explains its diversity.

The hair-splitting and the deeply nuanced differences indicate that a literary or art movement should only be affiliated to a political ideology in the broadest of terms. The closer it gets to the politics of the party, the block or the segment; it begins to fight for its justification in terms of alliances and allegiances which is not the function of art or a literary movement. Only in its core should there be a similarity of intent alongwith an absolute freedom to venture forth from then on. The most successful writers and poets did just that and negotiated their way out of a more doctrinaire impasse.

Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970 The Progressive Episode
Author: Carlo Coppola
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 665
Price: Rs1,695