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Taking Stock
Progressive Movement in Urdu
By Rizwan Ullah

Rizwan UllahAny movement in social life is not just a movement, a motive force to break the inertia. It is more than that in terms of immediate and long term social effects. Moreover, it may not necessarily move forward. It may move backwards as well. It is a common observation that when the engine of a vehicle fails to move forward it is made to push back and once it starts moving it is made to run in the direction of the intended destinations. In fact the motivation for the present writing came from a feeling for the recent departures of progressive Urdu writers and poets in a relatively short span of time, the latest to depart being Kaifi Azmi. Never being in the mainstream of any school or movement I enjoyed reading whatever came my way.

I understand that the concept of literary movements is a fall out of the political movements in Europe which had in their wake set the literary firmament in fermentation, otherwise we had the tradition of schools based on styles, dialects, idioms and various nuances and there used to be circles of followers around eminent poets and saints. The influence of such schools could be local, regional or established permanently beyond all limits in terms of time and space. Thus there were Delhi School, Lucknow School, Hyderabad School or those named after great masters in prose and poetry.

It is amazing indeed to observe that during the early decades of the twentieth century while the political movements in the Subcontinent were pulling away from the domination of the European colonial powers the intellectual and literary movements were drawing inspiration from contemporary European thoughts. It is interesting to note the dilemma of our writers and poets; for instance Hali at the advent of the twentieth century was lamenting over the loss of past glory and at the same time he was heralding the western style of rational literary criticism in Urdu. We find even Iqbal entangled into the same dilemma. He was holding fast to all oriental values and traditions with one hand and with the other hand trying to grasp the Western rationalism. It was a great balancing act and its pangs kept his heart bleeding. Contemporary Europeans had no such dilemma to face.

The Europeans had the renaissance behind them. Perhaps their cumulative intellect was trying to find out an alternative to the prevailing monarchies. But at the same time they apprehended great violence in the wake of a new experiment in that direction. So the experiment should be made as far as possible from the European heartland. They did make the experiment in the far eastern Europe. It was a revolution which resulted in the emergence of the Soviet Union, a new socio-political order. Almost at the same point of time another similar experiment was prompted on the southern fringe of Europe tangential to Asia. But this area was different from Russia. Here the king being a caliph at the same time wore a veneer of religious approval. Thus a total revolution would amount to a revolt against Islamic tenets. So in this region separate movements were launched in a vastly scattered area covering almost three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Most interesting developments took place here in our subcontinent where the responses of both European experiments converged and had telling effects on political and intellectual planes. Presently I want to confine myself to the description of Urdu literary scene only, but this too is no less complicated due to the intractable involvement of various political, social, religious and regional factors. Urdu was the language of the masses as well as the elite but a Muslim cultural influence was prominently reflected on political and literary planes. Thus here we may observe the interplay of the two currents, one coming from the contiguous West Asia side where abolition of Caliphate, rather than the abolition of kingship, had rocked the whole society and the other coming from the post revolution Soviet Russia which had lit up the track of Indian revolutionaries.

West European colonizers had invested heavily on ideological exports in different directions which took its time to bring back returns. They would intake raw materials including the human stuff, transform it into sophisticated goods, including the intellectual material and would re-export for a much higher price to undermine the indigenous goods including men and their philosophies. Interestingly enough, the call for the democratic freedom instead of the traditional monarchy came from the proteges of the West and at the same time revolution was being traded from the land where revolution had taken roots, but the wave was too weak to have a lasting impact on the composite culture of a multifarious society with the centuries old tradition of various forms of monarchies and aristocracies held in place with the silent backing and support of theocratic elements. 

This was the perspective in which the origin, development and propagation of the progressive movement in Urdu literature may be seen. The hot air of revolution euphoria had filled the balloons of those coming from the crashing infrastructure of the Muslim society. Those aspirants must have realized that the masters in their preceding genre had devoted their lives to infuse sophistication and subtleties into the Urdu literature they had been causing to produce but they had lived on mercies and died in adversity, so it would be wasteful to follow their foot prints. Moreover, there were not many causes except the freedom to write about or to sing for and the traditional literature was doing its best for that lonely cause. Thus the progressive writers found it easy to adopt the cause of the working class as imported from the land of revolution which could hardly had an elbowing space in the class and caste ridden Indian society. Obviously, the result was stagnation, lack of latitude and diversity. The freshness and fragrance of literature gave way to a stale effusion. Within a period of a little more than a decade the stalwarts of the movement were found faltering in a state of utter frustration. The despair in their works at the dawn of independence is a witness to that fact. The extreme example was that of Zoe Ansari, a life long devotee to all that the progressive movement could entail. He declared a few days before his demise in 1991: "I disown all my writings". It was almost a dying declaration. Did he have a premonition about the impending death of the inspiring revolution itself in its birth place!

There are other amazing features of the progressive movement. Some of its prominent protagonists had come out of the presently much maligned madrasas or had their early education in similar traditionally religious institutions, for instance Zoe Ansari, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and others. Another prominent element of the movement was made up by the offspring of the decadent aristocratic society who might have heard or seen the vestiges of the past glory and could not have visualized any such thing for themselves in future. They must have perceived the permissive progressive movement as a good umbrella to come under, for instance Faiz, Josh, Majaz and many more in Hyderabad. These two elements made strange bed fellows. In fact these wavered intellectuals had no place in free India better than the one under the benign banyan that Nehru was to them who had virtually saved Sajjad Zaheer from the jaws of death in a Pakistani prison and also the company of Krishn Chandra, Gujarat and others was a blessing. I am no body to comment on whether their talents were whiled away and wasted but I must say that I loved the amalgam of the classical and the progressive in Faiz. The progressive spirit deeply embedded into the classics of Majrooh was scintillating and it was encouraging to see Kaifi keeping the flame alive despite his age and ailment. 

Genuine literature must have the fragrance of the virgin earth of its origin. Several questions are posing towards the conclusion: Can literature be imported? Exported? Borrowed? Imposed? Can such literature inspire the people? Can it be abiding and indestructible? Should the intellectuals, the social architects, allow themselves to be haunted by the past? Should they not be able to see a little ahead of their time? In the answers to these lay the future of Urdu language and literature in this subcontinent.

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