A progressive poet

Print edition : February 07, 1998

Jnanpith award winning Urdu writer Ali Sardar Jafri has a creative style that upholds the cause of human freedom.

THE conferment of the Jnanpith award on Urdu writer Ali Sardar Jafri is, to quote the Indo-Anglian writer Mulk Raj Anand, a belated recognition of the worth of one who deserves the standing of a world poet.

Mulk Raj Anand told Frontline that Jafri would achieve that standing with the publication of the English translation of his Asia Jaag Utha (Asia Awakes) and other poems.

When contacted, Jafri said that a book titled My Journey, containing translations of 80 of his poems, was slated for early publication. The poems include excerpts from the epic poem Asia Jaag Utha which is rendered in free verse. Bedar Bakht, a Canada-based Indian, and a native Canadian whose name was not immediately available, have done the translation.

The award to Jafri establishes a link, as it were, between the Bharatiya Jnanpith, which sponsors the award, and literary luminaries such as Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann and Henri Barbusse. For Jafri has been a member of the progressive writers' movement ever since it was launched by a group of Indian intellectuals in 1936 in the wake of an anti-fascist writers' conference held in Paris, which was attended by Gorky and the others.

The first manifesto of the progressive writers' movement was drafted in London by Mulk Raj Anand and Urdu litterateur Sajjad Zaheer, both of whom had participated in the Paris conference as observers, with help from fellow Indian students in England. Thereafter, the movement was formally launched at a conference in Lucknow under the presidentship of Urdu-Hindi novelist Premchand. Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu were present at subsequent conferences of the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA).

Ali Sardar Jafri-VIVEK BENDRE

According to Mulk Raj Anand, Jafri and fellow poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Majaz Lakhnavi were the moving spirits behind the progressive movement as far as Urdu literature was concerned. Soon, literary figures of other languages, such as Umashankar Joshi (Gujarati), K. Shivarama Karanth (Kannada), Tarashankar Banerjee (Bengali) and Sumitranandan Pant and Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala' (Hindi), began to be associated with the movement. The eminent Malayalam poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon, was its patron. Many poets, among them Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri, and fiction writers such as Ismat Chugtai, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi, were to enter its fold later.

What bound all these writers together was a sense of revolt against the prevailing social system, conventional morality and India's dependence on Britain. So far as aesthetic ideals were concerned, the movement took its lead from a passage in Premchand's presidential address at the Lucknow conference, the key sentence of which was: "We have to change the criteria of beauty."

Jafri explained to Frontline: Premchand felt that beauty was not confined to an upper-class woman with a well-made-up face; there was beauty in the woman working in a field, perspiring freely, and tending a sleeping child at the same time.

It was this stark reality of the human condition that made Firaq Gorakhpuri (Raghupati Sahai), who belonged to the older generation, whose forte was love poetry (he gave Urdu poetry the touch of eroticism that is found in Sanskrit poetry), associate himself with the ideology of the movement.

"In that sense," says Mulk Raj Anand, "Jafri led the older writers into the fold." Jafri counts Firaq as one of the three poets of his age who influenced him in the formative stages, the others being the firebrand revolutionary poet Josh Malihabadi, who blessed the progressive movement, and the lyricist Jigar Muradabadi. Like Firaq, Jigar too was renowned as a romantic poet. But the riots that followed Partition spurred him to declaim man's inhumanity to man.

During Jafri's childhood in Balrampur in Ayodhya (which was then a petty principality), before he was introduced to the works of the trio, he was profoundly influenced by Marasi-e-Anees, elegies on the martyrdom of Imam Husain, written by Anees. The feudal-age poverty of Balrampur, where he was born on November 29, 1913 also moved him. Later, during 1927-28, Jafri met Gandhiji. He had access to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mohammed Iqbal has held great fascination for Jafri. Iqbal Shanasi, a book of Iqbal studies authored by him, was published in 1977. The Asian Age published in five instalments in November last a critique by Jafri with the intention of establishing that Iqbal was a revolutionary poet and that he had been influenced by Marxism. Jafri maintains that Iqbal predated the progressive movement in adopting working class life as a poetic theme.

JAFRI began his literary career at the age of 17, writing poetry and short stories at the same time. His first published work titled Manzil (Destination) (1938) was a collection of short stories. It also represented the end of his dalliance with the genre of short story. Parvaz (Flight), Jafri's first collection of poems, was published in 1944. In 1939, he became co-editor of Naya Adab, a literary journal devoted to the progressive writers' movement. The journal survived until 1949.

Given his early exposure to harrowing poverty, it is not surprising that Jafri found himself at odds with the Establishment early in his life. His exposure to Marxism and Left movements after he joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1933 made him very responsive. By and by, he became a member of the (then undivided) Communist Party of India. Jafri does not remember when exactly he joined the party, for the practice of issuing membership cards was apparently not in vogue during the early days of his interaction with the Communist movement. He says he stopped collecting his card in 1958. But he adds in a lighter vein: "A Marxist holding a card is a Communist, but a Communist without a card is a Marxist."

Jafri was expelled from AMU "for political reasons" in 1936, the year the progressive writers' movement was born. He graduated from Delhi University in 1938. His post-graduate studies in Lucknow University were cut short by his arrest during 1940-41 for writing anti-War poems and the part he played in the Congress-led political movement as secretary of the university's students' union. The Congress was an umbrella organisation at that time; leftists, including Jafri, were with that party. Not long after Independence, the Government banned the PWA. Jafri was arrested on January 20, 1949 for going ahead with the holding of a progressive Urdu writers' conference at Bhiwandi despite a warning from Morarji Desai, Chief Minister of Bombay State. He was arrested again three months later.

Jafri married Sultana in January 1948. The couple have two sons, both of whom are engaged in business activity.

Urdu scholar and linguist Abdus Sattar Dalvi says that Jafri's poetry touches the heart because it embodies a combination of revolutionary ardour and humaneness. Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, published by the Sahitya Akademi, says that Jafri upholds in his poems the cause of human freedom and dignity against subjugation and exploitation. "A recurring theme of his poetry is the festival of creation, which is being celebrated every moment in this world."

The theme occurs in Mera Safar (My Journey), which Jafri considers his best poem. The poem is a celebration of life: individuals may die, but life, renewing itself one way or the other, is eternal. The cycle of life, the journey of humankind, goes on.

TO look upon Jafri as only a poet would be to overlook his versatility. He has a collection of short stories to his credit. Dalvi says that Jafri holds the distinction of being a scholar as well and that he has made significant contributions to Urdu literary criticism. He recalls what Jafri himself seems to have forgotten - that he (Jafri) has translated into Urdu Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare and parts of Kalidasa's Meghadootam. Jafri has also translated a Persian poem of Mirza Ghalib into Urdu. In 1943, he wrote two plays for the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). He has also produced a documentary film (Kabir, Iqbal and Freedom) and two television serials: Kahkashan on Urdu poets, and Mehfil-e-yaaran in which he interviewed people from different walks of life. He has scripted the commentary for son et lumiere (sound and light) shows at the Red Fort, the Shalimar Gardens, Sabarmati Ashram and the Nehru Memorial at Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi. Nine volumes of Jafri's poems have been published. Besides Asia Jaag Utha, first published in 1951, they include Nayee Duniya ko Salaam (Salute to the New World), a long poem (1948); Patthar ki Diwar (The Stone Door), containing poems written in prison (1953); Pairahan-e-Sharar (The Robe of Sparks) (1965); and Lahoo Pukarta Hai (The Blood Calls) 1965.

In the sphere of criticism, Jafri has published volumes dealing not only with Iqbal but with progressive Urdu literature and the oeuvres of Kabir, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib and Mirabai. A monumental work of scholarship that he has undertaken is a six-volume dictionary of Urdu poetry. The first volume is under print.

Besides the Jnanpith award, 20 honours and awards have been bestowed on Jafri. They include the Padma Shri (1967); a gold medal from the Pakistan Government for Iqbal studies (1978); and the Iqbal Samman, the highest award of the Madhya Pradesh Government for Urdu literature (1986). One honour that Jafri particularly cherishes is the honorary D. Litt. that Aligarh Muslim University conferred on him 50 years after he was expelled from that university. In the history of AMU, this honour has been bestowed on only four persons. Iqbal, Sarojini Naidu and Jigar Muradabadi are the other three.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor