Modern Urdu canon

August 23, 2020

Reform of the modern Urdu canon was an ambitious project having no parallel in the history of imperialism

The word ‘canon’ is being employed here to refer both to a body of works and a set of rules, assumptions and values that lead readers in interpreting and evaluating literary texts.

The modern Urdu canon emerged, partially in response to, and to a larger extent, uncritically carrying out a reform project of 19th century initiated by colonial rulers. The reform was meant to re-form, re-purpose, re-build, re-configure everything falling in the categories of knowledge, art and culture into constructing a ‘colonially modern’ sign system. This was an ambitious project with no parallel in the history of imperialism.

Old, Greek or Arab, imperial powers rarely intended to take full hold of the ‘imaginative landscape’ of their subjects as new Western colonial powers did. The latter did their utmost to not just exercise their ‘colonising constitutional power’ over every inch of the geography of the colonised, but also to leave their imprint on every constitutive feature of the ‘cultural symbolic system’. So, it should not be surprising that the moment we try to describe ourselves or our place in society and the world, we are reminded of this reform project by both the outside observer and the inside witness. This also makes us realise just how complex and multi-layered the decolonising process is. A study of the origin of the modern Urdu canon is a part of the decolonisation through an ‘epistemological introspection’.

“Is life worth living?” was the existential question for Urdu writers of the late 19th century. Their response was in the affirmative, though subject to construction of a new national identity. The new notion of a nation was an alien one for Urdu writers. It was put forward by colonisers who would reinforce their alien identity by maintaining a rigid hierarchy. Paradoxically the alien ideas were attractive to the pantheon of Urdu writers (loosely associated with the Anjuman-i-Punjab and Aligarh Movement) that exuded ‘much desired’ ideas like progress, modernity and indigeneity. Hali’s notion of natural shairy epitomised the indigeneity.

In the late 19th century, Urdu literature became the most proper, fertile and central place for the construction of national identity. Since its inception, the concept of nationalism has been highly problematic. It was much sought after by both the coloniser and the colonised. For instance, it was presumed that national literature explores the shared emotions of the people at some temporal juncture. So, it must be logically correct for the coloniser to promote national literature in a vernacular commonly used by the vast majority of people. Some nuances of the problematic nature of nationalist literature have been adduced by Sir Abdul Qadir in his book New School of Urdu Poetry (1898).

“The first reason why I think it to be important is that the best way of reaching the common people, of enlisting their sympathies in any cause whatsoever of securing their affections of winning their confidence, of enlightening and civilising them is through the medium of the vernacular. It is the only language which has the capacity of furnishing national literature for the country without possessing which no nation can make any progress worth the name as literature plays no insignificant part in making a nation what it is”. (P2)

This was a clear drift from the purpose Urdu adab used to serve in the pre-colonial period. It was a moment of modernity. In being modern, the New School of Urdu poetry came to clasp new hermeneutics to repurpose adab and redefine its relation with the tradition. In order to grasp the magnitude of this drift, a cursory look on the poetics of pre-colonial adab is required.

In the classical period, the ghazal and the dastan characterised the trans-individual and trans-national ethos. The poetics of classical Urdu ghazal had developed over time had no room for the expression of either the poet’s self or his/her personal emotions, dreams, woes or worries. The notion of private, highly individuated, autonomous self and its prerogative to be expressed in individualised style was alien to Urdu poets of pre-colonial period. They shared mazaamin or themes that encompassed a vast arena of human emotions, dreams, anguishes and ecstasies.

The major field of the poet’s struggle for accomplishment was deemed to have been language, not ‘self’. So, a poet could be recognised as having a distinct Andaz-i-bian or praised as a sahib-i-asloob rather than as someone depicting moral, national, psychological or social issues. In his oft-cited verse, Ghalib prides himself on being recognised as possessing a discrete andaz-i-bian.

Hain aur bhi dunya mein sukhanwar bahut achay/ kehtay hen keh Ghalib ka hae andaz-i-bian aur.

Though the search for individual style had a semblance of being a linguistic affair, poets let their imagination roam across the ways not only earlier poets resorted to but new, undiscovered imaginative ways. Relentless mobility aimed at overthrowing any attempt at a linear system of thought was the hallmark of ghazal’s poetics. Though strict observance of qafia or radif connects the verses of a ghazal, each shér (verse) is an independent unit, the sole source and structure of its meaning. The ghazal poet was thus as much of a nomad as the ghazal itself.

Kalim ud din Ahmad, 20th century Urdu critic, derided this attribute of the ghazal poet as barbarianism. A barbarian, he said, lacks the ability to focus on a theme for long. In this, Ahmad was a hard-core representative of the modern Urdu canon. Following his predecessors like Hali, Azad and Azmatullah Khan, Ahmad viewed nazm, introduced by the English, as a site where a civilised and linearly thinking mind could find true expression. Though there is much difference between nomadism and barbarianism, the derogatory connotations of the latter term were grafted on by modern Europe to define itself in contrast to the black, colonised Asia and Africa.

A prominent mazmoon of classical Urdu ghazal related to Shaikh, Zahid, Brahmin, Rind etc. The ghazal poets seemed unanimous in disapproving of the quasi-religious figures in an ironic way. In this post-modern age, it seems unimaginable that mostly Muslim poets in the ‘pre-modern’ era would speak for kufr (infidelity). Glorifying kufr was apparently meant to mock ostentation and hypocrisy of the Shaikh and the Brahmin but inherently bent on defying any effort to proffer a single way of salvation and to impose a single (religious) identity.

Moreover, through an ironic critique of Shaikh and Brahmin or Ka’ba and Dair, ghazal poets ventured to dissolve hardwired religious categories which were later conceived as having grave potential for antagonism. Ashraf Ali Faghan, an 18th century Urdu poet, asks if Islam and kufr are poles apart then why does the tasbeeh (bead-roll) carry the elements of Zunnar (the thread worn by Hindus)?

‘Is life worth living?’ was the existential question for Urdu writers of the late 19th century. Their response was in the affirmative, though subject to construction of a new national identity.

Modern Urdu canon not only defied Urdu ghazal but also its poetics. Ghazal was thought to be a decadent genre. Nazm and nation were supposed to be quintessential components of modern Urdu canon. Mazamin-i-khiali (imaginary themes) of classical Urdu poetry were replaced by natural and realist themes. Instead of tradition, immediate present was deemed everything. This gave rise to the unprecedented emergence of individuality, as individual self can engage with the immediate present. This way the notion of a writer’s responsibility and obligations towards the society came into existence. The quest for an aesthetically accomplished style was replaced by simple, natural yet moral bravura. The aesthetic components of the ghazal poetics were driven away using the stick of morality.

Hardwired religious categories mocked by classical poets became the site for formation of modern literary canon. From having a contemptible existence and symbolic significance in classical ghazal, the characters of Shaikh and Brahmin seemed to have awakened to play a fundamental role in re-configuration of the society and a new literary canon. While Ghalib had identified himself as andalib-i-gulshan-i-na afreeda” (nightingale of unborn garden) the new poet branded himself in the words of Iqbal, as andalib-bagh-i-Hija” (nightingale of Hijaz). Ghalib, in whose poetry classical poetics attained its limits, had situated his poetic self beyond the world of appearance – in a space unidentified yet superabundant with possibilities — of meaning and imaginary voyages.

“If I only had possessed a home beyond the sky/ If only a spectacle at greater heights I could create” – Ghalib

The modern poet’s imagination is tied to the present or appearance which is perpetually in a state of transition caused by colonialism and in dire need of a progressive organisation. History was deemed to be a credible source of modernising Urdu literature. First Nazir Ahmad, the novelist, and then poet Altaf Hussain Hali, pioneered in imagining Hijaz as the most authentic site of Muslim national identity (in his poems Shikwa-e-Hind and Musaddas).

Since the late 19th century, every Urdu writer has felt obliged to engage with history either in search of identity or to undo some dominant narrative of national identity – which in turn fostered another contesting narrative of identity. The drive behind their engagement with history was to encounter an unprecedented crisis caused by the simultaneity of colonialism and modernity. Due to diverse, mighty historical forces, they were made to stumble upon nationalism as a solution to the crisis. The most decisive moment in the trajectory of modern Urdu canon was thus when Urdu poets and writers ditched a trans-national, trans-individual poetics for an exclusionary nationalism.

Instead of roaming across limitless landscapes and experiencing wahshat (the wild), they anchored their imagination to a single perspective, i.e. nationalism. Their ‘modern’ revolt against the tradition was consecrated in the name of nationalism. They started boasting of being creators of nations. In reality, most of them were mere disseminators of certain ideas of nationhood.

Nationalism, like modernity, was problematic. Modernity was simultaneously hegemonic and emancipatory – which perpetuated ambivalence among writers, intellectuals and academicians in the post-colonial Pakistan. Nationalism was a Western construct which arrived here via colonialism, yet it became a tool of resistance against colonialism. However, it turned out to be a site of never-ending contestations for modern, modernist and progressive writers. For a plethora of modern Urdu writers, nationalism was linked to Hijaz (Deputy Nazir Ahmad, Hali, Shibli, Akbar, Iqbal, Nasim Hijazi). For another legion of writers ‘we’ as a nation are historically and culturally associated with Ajam (NM Rashid, Jilani Kamran) and for a number of writers, roots of our cultural identity resided in pre-colonial India (Meeraji, Majeed Amjid, Mukhtar Siddiqui, Wazir Agha, Quarat ul Ain Hayder, Intezar Hussain, Mustansar Hussain Tarar).

The ideas were dissimilar, yet none of these writers ever interrogated the idea of nation as a quintessential perspective of modern Urdu literature and its canon. However, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) having noticed an inherent conflict between nationalism and humanity disapproved of nationalism in his poem My Country Awake. He imagined a world “Where the mind is without fear and the head held high/where knowledge is free”.

Archaising (national or cultural) identity has been more or less common among Urdu writers since Abdul Halim Sharar of 19th century (Firdos-i-Barin) to Shams ur Rahman Faruqui of 21st century (Kai Chand thay Sar-i-Asman). Progressive writers, as per their ideology, remained engaged with recent history. Stories by Manto, Krishan Chandr and Bedi resonate with recent upheavals of colonial or post-colonial history. Even short story writers belonging to the Naya Afsana movement of the ’60s, who believed in apolitical, literariness of literature, couldn’t resist history. Surendar Parkash, most prominent among the Naya Afsana writers, in his stories Khisht-i-Gil and Bazgoi, reverted to an archaic past to interpret the social fabric of South Asian society torn at the hands of exclusionary nationalism.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid etc . His forthcoming books include Jadidiat aur Nauabadiat (criticism) and a collection of short stories, Aik Zamana Khatm Howa Hae

Modern Urdu canon