Progressive Movement and Urdu Poetry

by Ali Sardar Jafri

The Progressive Movement widened the horizon of Urdu poetry; liberated it from the classical cliche, and added fresh modern imagery structure to the poem; used the rhyming scheme with fresh vigour and introduced and developed new forms like free verse, dramatic and allegorical poems, with experiments in meters; gave it an ideological content and used it as a weapon in the freedom struggle for India; denounced decadence and cynicism, yet discovered in this attitude also an element of protest against existing conditions; enriched the treasury of poetic diction by using ordinary and common words which the older classical poets had banished form the realm of poetry, and thus came closer to the people. 

Many progressive poets actually participated in the freedom struggle with their poetry on their lips, and wrote very good poetry in prison as well. They were the poets of a country where great patriots had mounted the gallows reciting poetry with proud defiance, like Ram Prasad Bismil who immortalized these lines of a poet from Bihar of the same pen name: 

 sar_faroshi kii tamannaa ab hamaare dil me.n hai
 dekhanaa hai zor kitanaa baazuu-e-qaatil me.n hai
 rah_rav-e-raah-e-muhabaat rah na jaana raah me.n 
 lazzat-e-saharaa_navardii duurii-e-manzil me.n hai 
       - Bismil Azimabadi

 (We are prepared to sacrifice our head,
  Let us see the power of the executioner's arm
  Do not linger behind, O traveller of the path of love
  The pleasure of wandering in the desert lies in it's distance)

They had identified themselves with a patriotic movement whose slogan was Inquilab Zindabad (Long live the revolution) given from the height of the gallows by another martyr, Bhagat Singh, who used to quote poetry freely in his letters that he wrote from his death cell. And this slogan Inquilab Zindabad was used by all freedom-fighters including Nehru and Gandhi. Their meetings, attended by thousands of people, at times by hundreds sof thousands, resounded with this slogan, and the word Inquilab became a household word in India. 

This Progressive Movement was a spectrum of different shades of political and literary opinions with Prem Chand, a confirmed believer in Gandhism at one end, and Sajjad Zaheer, a confirmed marxist, at the other end. In between them were various other shades including non-conformists, but every one of them interested in the freedom of the country and glory of literature. 

The basic and fundamental postulate of the Progressive Writers Movement is the unity of art, use and beauty. It is not a violent departure from the past or an angry revolt against tradition as such, although we did reject certain unhealthy and obscurantist trends. And that is how our path was new. What we tried to do was a reiteration of the values getting lost in modern commercial age, or distorted under the weight of the decaying social systems. It is a rediscovery with a new experience and consciousness, and new artistic additions giving fresh vigour to Urdu poetry and literature as a whole. The false notion should be discarded that a few hot-headed men can get together and launch a literary and artistic movement of such a dimension as the Progressive Movement. Poets and writers are like the seeds holding the heart; the movement provides them the good soil and the right climate to blossom. 

Poetry is song as well as declamation; whispering of the breeze in a rose garden, and the rage of the storm that uproots the trees; the soft fall of dew on the green grass, and the torrential rain with thunder and lightning; a sweet smile on a pair of lips, and the shriek of a martyr tortured in prison; the slogan of the nation breaking the chains of slavery, and the symphony of the march of history. It is wrong to presume that poetry is only this and not that. Yet a categorical statement can be made. Poetry is not absurd. 

The theme of poetry is neither religion nor politics nor recording of events. It embraces all aspects of human life, because the basic and the only theme of poetry, as that of all literature and art, is Man. But the emphasis changes from age to age, and the flavour of language and the beauty and style of images according to the country and its people. The people is Man and Man is people in all its aspects, colours, races, names, professions, running into millions. In the words of the great American poet, Carl Sandburg: 

 The people is the great canyon of humanity 
  and many many miles across.
 The people is pandora's box, humpty dumpty, a clock of doom and an
  avalanche when it turns loose.
 The people rest on land and weather, on time and the changing winds.
 The people have come far and can look back and say 
  "We will go farther yet".
 The people is a plucked goose and a shorn sheep of legalised fraud.
 And the people is one of those mountain slopes 
  holding a volcano of retribution.
 Slow in all things, slow in its gathered wrath, 
  slow in its onward heave.
 slow in its asking: 'Where are we now? what time is it?'
     -The People, Yes; by Carl Sandburg

A terrible question that could be put to the poets also: "Where are we now? What time is it?" Poetry is an autonomous Republic of Letters within the sovereign State of Human Civillisation but not a law unto itself. 

Since the dawn of civilisation the poet has been considered as some kind of a prophet as expressed in Persian: "Shairi juzwest az paighambari". And prophets as founders of religions always spoke in a poetic language and changed the course of history and destiny of Man. And we in the East are the inheritors of the great traditions of the Vedas, the Gospels and the Quran. 
When mankind had just started lisping, in the so-called black Yajurveda the highest principle was manifesting itself as food (Annam). Here are three awe-inspiring stanzas from the Taittirya Brahmana: 

 I am the first born of the divine essence.
 Before the Gods sprang into existince, I was.
 I am the naval (the centre and source) of immortality.
 Whoever bestows me on others - thereby keeps me to himself.
 I am Food. I feed on food and on its feeder.

 The foolish man obtains useless food. 
 I declare the truth: it will be his death.
 Because he does not feed either friend or companion.
 By keeping his food to himself, he becomes guilty when eating it.

 I the food am the cloud, thundering, and raining
 They (the beings) feed on ME -- I feed on everything
 I am the real esscence of the universe, immortal.
 By my force all the suns in heaven are aglow.

  - from Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India

The German Orientalist, Heinrich Zimmer has called this hymn the Cosmic Communist Manifesto. It is not difficult to discover the echo of this hymn in Mahatma Gandhi's utterance: "Even God dare not reveal Himself to the hungry except in the form of bread."

Krishan Chander's famous short story, Anna Daata (Food Giver) which influenced the fictional trends of many Indian languages in the continuation of the same thought, is as old as the Vedas and as new as the progressive fiction. The terrible experience of the Bengal famine in the wake of the Second World War gave it new poignancy. It was also the turning point in the creative life of a romantic who had started with Tilism-e-Khayaal published in 1938. Surendra Prakash's "Bajuka" (The Scarecrow), although inspired by Prem Chand's "Godan", has vage reflections of the same thought. Both, the progressive Krishan Chander and 'jadid' Surendra Prakash, have depicted reality through symbolic images. 

No great poet has ever forgotten his mission as a prophet, the denunciator of evil and upholder of virtue. Every one of them is a nightingale in a garden not yet created (andalib-e-gulshan-e- naafrida). Every one of them is the voice of today as well as the voice of coming tomorrow. His poetic mission has a message, and there is no dichotomy between the message and the word, between the content and the form. Use and beauty are not divorced from each other. Many poets have been treated as sages, and even tyrants bowed before them with reverance, and listened to them with awe. Yet there are poets who have been hounded, imprisoned, tortured and executed for speaking the Truth. They did not recant, and went on murmuring like Galileo, "But the earth does not revolve around the sun". 

No poet of any worth in the past ages could have said what a modern professor at a university who is also an Urdu poet and critic, has written: 
"Real poet does not pursue meaning and sense. He cannot become so low and stoop to this non-poetic level. He opens his inner eye and sees the unconcious happenings within his soul in a state of trance. His job is only to give words-images to these happenings...As such poetry has nothing to do with clear meaning and sense. Therefore it is not necessarily understandable."       
- Dr. Hamdi Kashmiri in Kargah-e-sheeshagaran 

The very idea of enjoyment of meaningless poetry is the reflection of a state of mind created by the decline of civilisation and vulgarisation of culture. The situation is not new. Some fifty years ago a well-known art critic, Ananda K. Coaraswami, wrote in his Introduction to The Art of Eastern Asia: 
If we are to make any approach whatever to an understanding of Asiatic Art as something made by man, and not to regard it as a mere curiosity, we must first of all abandon the whole current view of Art and Artists. We must realise and perhaps remind ourselves again and again that that condition is abnormal in which a distinciton is drawn between workmen and artists, and that this distinction has only been drawn during relatively short periods of the world's history. Of the two propositions following, each explains the other: viz, those whom we now call artists were once artisans; and objects we now preserve in museums were once the common objects of the market place. 

Here I would like to add a footnote to Ananda Comaraswami's statement that even today in the villages of Bhihar, Uttar Pardesh, and Gujarat in India the most artistic things of daily use are very common, and that they are the work of ordinary peasant women who do not know that their craft can decorate the museums of the world. To come back to Comaraswami again: 
"During greater parts of the worlds history, every product of human workmanship, whether icon, platter, or shirt button, has been at once beautiful and useful. This normal condition has persisted in Asia longer than anywhere else. If it no longer exists in Europe and America, this is by no means the fault of invention or machinery as such; man has always been inventive. The art of the potter was not destroyed by the invention of the potters wheel...If beauty and use are not generally seen together in household utensils and businesman's costumes, nor generally in factory made objects, this is not the fault of machinery employed by us; it is incidental to our lower conception of human dignity and consequent insensibility to real values." 

Ananda Comaraswani drew this conclusion after a deep study of five thousand years of Indian sculpture and well-defined principles of Hindu iconography. Without having read this celebrated art critic, Majrooh Sultanpuri also came to the same conclusion. When he came to Bombay in 1944 he was writing traditional style ghazals. But after a visit to Ajanta and Ellora he was transformed and he joined the Progressive Writers' Association. He was no more in search of eternal themes which used to be generally traditional. 
He found subjects of poetry scattered all around: 

 Dehr mein Majrooh koie javidan mazmoon kahan,
 main jise chhoota gaya woh javidan banta gaya

 (Where can you find, Majrooh, an eternal theme in this world of flux
  Whatever has been touched by my poetry has become eternal)

And Faiz who is one of the founders of the Progressive Movement wrote from prison in the early fifties: 
 Hum ne jo tarz-e-fughan ki hai qafas mein iijad,
 Aaj gulshan mein wohi terz-e-bayan therhri hai

 (The style of wailing that we have created in the cage
  Has been accepted as the style of song in the garden today)

And Majaz, a contemporary of Faiz said: 

 Iss mehfi-e-kaif-o-masti mein, iss anjuman-e-irfani mein,
 sub jaam bakaf baithe hi rahe, hum pee bhi gaye chhalka bhi gaye

 (In this assembly of ecstacy and intoxication, in this gathering of 
    intellectual understanding.
 The revellers kept sitting with full cups in their hands, we spilled
    a little and drank to the last drop)

And Jazbi, another contemporary progressive poet, sang: 

 ghamon ki dunya ko raund daalen nishat-e-dil paaimaal kar lein
 naaii muhabbat naya junoon hai khudaya kya apna haal kar lein

 (we feel like trampling upon the life of sorrow 
  and the ecstacy of the heart
  Our love is new, our madness new, 
  we know not what to do with ourselves)

This was the poetry with a new temper, with a new ecstacy born out of the turmoil of the freedom struggle of India. Earlier poets had admired the crescent beauty of the curve of the sword hanging on the head; here the progressive poet also held a sword in his hand. Here martyrdom was part of the glory of the struggle. The poet deals with mental and emotional experiences reflecting the climate of mind and the seasons of heart. It is within his power to create gardens or produce deserts of the soul. That is the reason why some of the greatest and most beautiful poetry has been written in the worst periods of history. Tulips and roses have bloomed in the blood-stained landscape. 

 rung pairahan ka kushboo zulf lehrane ka naam,
 mausam-e-gul hai tumhare baam par aane ka naam
      - Faiz

 (What is color but your garment, 
  what is fragrance but your scattered stresses
  We call it the season of spring when you appear on the balcony)

 mujhe sehl ho gaiN manzilen who hawa ke rukh bhi badal gaye
 tera haath haath mein aa gaya ke charagh raah mein jal gaye
       - Majrooh

 (It has become easier to reach the destination now, 
 the stormy winds have changed their direction
  With your hand in my hand, the long path 
 is illuminated with lighted lamps)

The asthetic sensibility of progressive poets is not constricted, it has a much wider range: 

 dast-e-sayyad bhi aajiz hai, kaf-e-gulchin bhi
 boo-e-gul thehri na bulbul ki zaban thehri hai
        - Faiz

 Powerless is the hand of the hunter, 
 helpless the hand of the plund'rer of the flowers
 The fragrance of the rose cannot remain imprisoned, 
 the sweet song of the nightingale cannot be stopped

 Sutoon-e-daar pe rakhte chalo saron ke charagh
 jahan talak yeh sitam ki siyah raat chale
       - Majrooh

 go on putting on the top of the gallows the lamps of martyred heads
 As long as this night of injustice and tyranny lasts

 koh-e-gham aur giran aur giran aur giran
 ghamzado teshe ko chamkao ke kuchh raat kate

 The mountain of sorrow becomes heavier and heavier
  O Comrades of sorrow, take up your shining axes 
    to cut the rocks of the night.

 jab kashti saabit-o-salim thi, saahil ki tamanna kiso thi
 ab aisi shikasta kasti par sahil ki tamanna kaun kare
          - Jazbi

 Who cared for the shore when the boat was unbroken and intact?
 Now with this broken boat why should there be any desire to reach the shore

Here I would like to point out that the progressive poets have changed the connotations of old illusions and gave them new meanings according to the temper of the times. Tesha (Axe) in Makhdoom's couplet is an example. It is no more an instrument of suicide as in the old classical poetry. Now it is the symbol of the triumphant working class. Actually this process was initiated by Iqbal. Kohkan (The Mountian Cutter) comes with Tesha (Axe) in his hand and demands the throne of Parvez, the King. The progressive poets inherited this tradition and carried it forward. They also created new symbols and poetic images that run into thousands, but no research work has been done on them so far. 

Once in Bombay, Faiz was surprised to see in the house of a young progressive poet and journalist a picture of Lenin side by side with an image of Christ on the cross. Both are symbols of progressive poetry. Faiz has used Saleeb and Daar most effectively and beautifully. Once again Karbala is emerging as a powerful symbol of revolutionalry poetry. Two years back I wrote my epic poem Karbala and a bunch of other poems with the same symbols. The caption of the recent poems of Faiz is From Karbala-e-Beriut. A younger progressive, Iftikar Arif's poems are full of allusions of Karbala. Hindu mythology and its great epics are also part of our treasury. Kaifi Azmi has a special fascination for them. Earlier Josh Malihabadi combined the two Islamic and Hindu traditions in his revolutionalry poetry. Heralding the dawn of freedom just a few years before 1947, the year of Indian and Pakistani independence, Josh said: 
 ban raha hai sarsar-0-sailab khoone-e-Hashmi
 aaj Abu Sufian ke ghar mein charaghan hai to kya?
 jaa rahi hai aag Lanka ki taraf baDti hui
 aaj agar Ravan ka ghar Sita ka zindan hai to kya?

 (The blood of Mohammad's family, 
  the Hashmi blood is turning into hurricanes and floods
  How does it matter if the house of Abu Sufian (Yazid's Grandfather) 
  is bright with dazzling  lights?
  The flames of fire are rushing towards Lanka
  How does it matter if the courtyard of Ravan is the prison of Sita?

Source: From the archives of ALUP (alt.language.urdu.poetry) 
Posted by: Umang Bali

Source: Urdu Poetry Archive, http://www.urdupoetry.com/articles/art9.html