Of lost dreams

Print edition : November 05, 2010

SHAHRYAR. HE IS among the most popular Urdu poets who are widely read and respected in Hindi.-V. SUDERSHAN

Jnanpith 2008 for Shahryar is considered a boost to the Urdu language, which has been facing a difficult time in the land where it was born.

THE selection of the Urdu poet Shahryar for the Bharatiya Jnanpith Award 2008 can be considered a boost to the beautiful language of Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib and Iqbal, which has been facing a difficult time in the very land where it was born and flourished until the early years of Independence. It was 13 years ago, in 1997, that Urdu was last honoured by this literary award, considered to be the highest in the country, when it was given to Ali Sardar Jafri, one of the last progressive doyens, well-known for his scholarly poetry and his compilations of Mir and Ghalib as well as Kabir and Mirabai. Sardar Jafri was among the prominent critics who formulated the aesthetics of the Progressive (taraqqipasand) literary movement as opposed to Modernist or Formalist (jadid) literature.

That robust generation of poets, fiction writers and critics who were active in the field of the written word and the visual media got exhausted in the 1960s, leaving a void in Urdu literature. The contradictions and differences of Hindi and Urdu literatures belonging to the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA), mainly on the tedious question of the Nagari script versus the Persian script, also contributed to the further alienation of Urdu.

A revealing testimony of this is a long letter written by the late Balraj Sahni, veteran actor and author, in 1970. In that, he expressed deep anguish over the way almost all Hindi writers had boycotted a conference organised by the Progressive Urdu writers in Bombay (Mumbai) and the widening of the Hindi-Urdu divide.

Curiously, no Hindi journal of that time bothered to publish this historic letter.

Shahryar belongs to a generation of poets that emerged out of the remnants of the Progressive movement and, of course, from the disillusionment with the meta-narrative of the Nehruvian era. The disturbing aftermath of its dreams and hopes had culminated in a deep sense of loss in the new generation of poets and cultural practitioners. The works of the poets to come to the fore in the post-Progressive era, such as Nida Fazli, Balraj Komal, Mohammed Alvi and Shahryar, signify the alienation from the big dream' with a tinge of nostalgia and sadness for the past that once seemed so much full of promises of a new dawn, a resurgent democratic and egalitarian society. This sense of loss is evident in almost all the ghazals and nazms (free verses) of this period.

While Nida Fazli titled his Akademi Award-winning collection of poems as Khoya Hua Kuchh (Something that is Lost), Shahryar wrote: Zindagi jaisi tamanaa thi nahin kuchh kam hai/ har ghari hota hai ehsaas kahin kuchh kam hai (Life is not what we wished for, but is somewhat less/every moment it seems somewhere something is less). In the same ghazal he further says, Ghar ki taameer tasavvur mein hi ho sakti hai/apne naqse ke mutaabiq yeh zamin kuchh kam hai (A home can only be constructed in the imagination / the space for it on this earth is somewhat less).

Interiorising the experience of the loss, Shahryar depicts the dichotomy between the heart and the mind: Dil mein ummeed to kafi hai yaqeen kuchh kam hai (Though the heart is full of hope, faith is somewhat less). It is interesting to note that a number of Urdu poets from the post-Nehru-post-Progressive era voice the feeling of disillusionment, irony and unease with the device of fusing the objective and the subjective which is very similar to each other.

Complexity of experience

Interestingly, the new generation of Urdu poets maintained a certain distance from the taraqqipasand (Progressive) as well as the jadid (Modernist) poetry. They neither took to the well-trodden path of art for art's sake nor joined the hope-generating chorus of the progressives. Instead, the socio-political concerns, the exterior, got interiorised in their andaaz-e-bayan or poetic diction. Thus, the poetry of Shahryar and Nida Fazli mostly speaks in understatements and undertones which denote a paradigm shift. It remained essentially progressive in its content, but its form, texture and expression got transformed into the complexity of experience and the simplicity of language.

In one of his poems written on communal riots, Nida says: Dhar ke kaandhe pe hal ghar se baahar nikal/jo huaa so huaa (Put the plough on your shoulder and go out, letting bygone be bygone). Shahryar exclaims, Come, let us go now/ let us look beyond our shell of loneliness/our shadow, let us see where it goes on this black night/which memories it lights up/ which moments it calls to ransom/what it loses, and what it finds today/how it grows, shrinks, then scatters/and how it dies. In fact, poetry, both in Urdu and Hindi, of and after the 1960s carries the melancholy, irony and sadness of its time with a pessimism of the mind and an optimism of the heart, as famously put by the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

AT AN INTER-COLLEGIATE "Antakshiri" competition held to mark the 132nd birth anniversary of the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal in Bhopal in November 2009.-A.M. FARUQUI

Born Akhlaq Mohammed Khan on June 16, 1936, in Bareilly, now in Uttar Pradesh, an important centre of Persian and Urdu in North India, Shahryar studied at Bulandshahar and later at Aligarh Muslim University, where he was later appointed lecturer in Urdu. He became professor there, and in 1996 retired as chairman of the Urdu Department. His first collection of poems, Ism-e-Azam, was published in 1965, followed by Saatvaan Dar (Seventh Threshold, 1969) and Hijr ka Mausam (Season of Separation, 1978), which marked a new kind of imagination and imagery. But it was with the publication of Khwaab ka Dar Band Hai (Door to the Dream is Closed) in 1987 that his poetry came to be recognised by critics as having an intellectual toughness quite different from the classic romantic characteristics of ghazals and a pithiness at the level of diction and textuality.

For the latter collection, Shahryar got the Sahitya Akademi Award the same year. His body of work is not fabulous and he has published only five collections of poems so far, but they have enriched modern Urdu poetry with the simplicity of language and complexity of human experience, their dreaming images and sensual metaphors. He is also known for creating memorable landscapes of human interiors by juxtaposing images of dreams and slumber, tears and sand, sleeping shadows and half-broken moons. In one of his poems, he invites the reader to go a bit further from the misty veil of solitude and see the stars of voices and the moons of sounds/hanging from the cross of silence.

Another interesting aspect of Shahryar's poetic career is that he has mostly shunned mushairas (poetry recitals), a popular and even commercialised platform in the Urdu-Hindi literary public sphere. Although his poetry has all the characteristics of being popular because Shahryar avoids difficult Persian vocabulary and writes in simple, minimalist language, he has been quite hesitant to give readings in big public gatherings. This may be a device to save his poetry from being diluted and becoming commonplace. Nevertheless, he remains a well-known figure in Urdu-Hindi; he has published five compilations of his translations in Hindi. In fact, he is among the most popular Urdu poets who are widely read and respected in Hindi. A selection of his poems in extremely readable English translations of Rakhshanda Jalil, Through the Closed Doorway: a Collection of Nazms, was published by Rupa & Co.


Some of his well-known ghazals are set to music in Muzaffar Ali's films such as Umrao Jaan, Gaman and Anjuman, a popular number, Seene mein jalan aakhon mein toofaan sa kyun hai, being one of them. This may remind one of the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhyanvi, who lent some of his celebrated nazms to a number of successful Hindi films. While Sahir Ludhyanvi and some other very fine shayars (poets) and, later, Shahryar's contemporary and equally significant poet Nida Fazli made it a career, Shahryar did not write independent film songs for Bollywood.

Of course, the choice of Shahryar for the Jnanpith Award did not remain beyond criticism, mostly from critics and poets who believe that his body of poetry is not voluminous and that Nida Fazli or Mohammed Alvi or a noted critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi would have been a better choice. But, in the first place, Jnanpith is given to creative writers only and does not consider literary criticism, and, secondly, this kind of arguments are often put forward by the commercial-populist quarter of Urdu poetry whose contribution to literature is in fact doubtable. There is no doubt that Nida Fazli would have been an equally deserving choice, but there is also no doubt that it would have been the same the other way round.

Recently, Bharatiya Jnanpith, which gives the Jnanpith awards every year, was mired in a controversy following the publication of some rude remarks of the Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Wardha, in its literary journal Naya Gyanodaya, resulting in protests and boycott of the Jnanpith by a number of angry authors.

It may not be out of place to indicate here that the Jnanpith has, to a certain extent, tried to wash off this stigma by announcing the awards for 2007 and 2008 for a well-known Marxist-humanist Malayalam poet, O.N.V. Kurup, and an innovatively progressive figure in Urdu, Shahryar. One may also hope that the award will provide an opportunity to ponder over the shattered state of Urdu literature and language in India and try out ways to ensure its old glory and richness.

Mangalesh Dabral is a Sahitya Akademi Award winning Hindi poet.

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