Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anthems of Resistance: Progressive Urdu Poetry

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]

Vijay Prashad has a nice review of a new collection of Urdu poetry up at this month's issue of Himal Southasian. The book is called Anthems of Resistance, and it's edited by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir, two brothers from Hyderabad who now teach at universities in the U.S. (While it's not for sale in the U.S. yet, this Indian book-seller will send it to you for $7.00 USD + postage.)

Prashad's opening by itself raises some interesting questions (and memories):

In 1981, the cinema theatre near my home in Calcutta became a mehfil-e-mushaira. At the end of each show, majnoohs walked out of the darkness humming tunes and reciting ghazals. Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan allowed non-Urdu speakers to revel in the richness of Urdu culture, which most of us non-Muslims saw as exotic and attractive, yet distant. (Muslim culture would be further rendered exotic in 1982 in two films, Nikaah and Deedar-e-yaar.) These are all films of decline, where a supposedly homogenous Muslim culture is rife with problems – some easy to overcome (divorce rates), and others intractable (the demise of the kotha culture). The elegance of the language thrilled many urbane Indians, who enjoyed the patois but felt uncomfortable with the working-class and rural sections that actually spoke it. (link)

This is an interesting analysis of the appeal of Ghazals and the musical Mehfil culture of to many non-Muslims. Of course, the cinematic culture (i.e., the tawaif, or courtesan film) he's referring to is now long dead, as the writers who wrote the songs and scripts of Bollywood's early Urdu films are now gone (Kaifi Azmi died in 2002). Recent films like Fanaa have temporarily revived popular interest in Shayari (the recitation of poetic couplets), but in my view it's more a gimmick than anything else. (I frankly don't know what to make of Aishwarya Rai's remake of Umrao Jaan.)

The rest of Prashad's review is about the poets themselves -- the writers of the Progressive Writers' Association -- who wrote as much about politics as they did about love. (I wrote about another PWA writer, Ismat Chughtai, here. Also, see Saadat Hasan Manto, who was not a member of the PWA as far as I know, though he did have certain things in common with them)

As their name implies, the PWA writers leaned left politically -- and not just a little left! And while the communist slant of some of this writing may not be appealing to many readers, the radical stance they took gave these writers the freedom (and will) to openly criticize the failings of the post-independence governments of India and Pakistan. Here's Sahir Ludhianvi:

Zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao
Ye kooche, ye galiyaan, ye manzar dikhaao
Jinhen naaz hai Hind par unko laao
Jinhen naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hai?

Go, fetch the leaders of the nation
Show them these streets, these lanes, these sights
Summon them, those who are proud of India
Those who are proud of India, where are they?(link)

And just to be clear, Anthems of Resistance also contains selections from poets critical of Pakistan's various failings. (Prashad quotes from the feminist poet Kishwar Naheed, who criticizes the Islamization initiatives of Zia-ul-Haq)

* * *

Incidentally, while Googling the word "Tawaif" for this post, I came across this review of a documentary film on "Gurias, Gossip, and Globalization," which may be of interest to readers curious about Indo-Islamic courtesan culture.


Anonymous said...

"Leaning left" more a case of "reclining left" in quite a number of the poets.

10:23 AM  
Space Bar said...

There're a couple of posts at KAfila that you might find interesting, on Sahir Ludhianvi:


10:07 AM  

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