Urdu poetry, indeed, has traversed a long way from the obliquities of Mirza Ghalib, didacticism of Iqbal and the lyrical buoyancy of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Regardless of countless premature obituaries, Urdu poetry thrives after three centuries, not alone in printed pages but in popular memory. The social and literary intercourse in the literary culture of Urdu poetry even today remains based on part-printed, part-oral culture. Casting off all stereotypes and adapting itself to changing times, Urdu poetry has held its unmitigated charm over its lovers and unacknowledged connoisseurs, many of whom often take pleasure in its spell without being well-versed with its finer nuances.
mohabbat koi numayannishan nahin
jis se laash ki shinakht men asani ho
(Afzal Ahmad Sayed)
Tamam qaziya makaan bhar tha
makaan kya tha machaan bhar tha
ye shahr-e-laa-had-o-samt mera
Golob mein ik nishan bhar tha
rivaayaton se koi ta-alluq
jo bach rahaa paandan bhar tha
(Rashid Jamal Farooqi)
The contemporary Urdu poet has emerged from the shadow of the past and shares a robust relationship with his literary lineage. He does not feel obliged to tread on the heels of progressives (Taraqqi Pasand) like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Nadim Qasmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, or even Ahmad Faraz—poets who stretched the idiom of classical Urdu poetry to accommodate and inscribe their anti-establishmentarian rage and their ceaseless desire for change (e.g. notice the innovative use of traditional metaphors of Urdu ghazal like Sayyad, Gulchin, Gul and Bulbul in these lines by Faiz: ‘Dast-i-sayyad bhi Aajiz hai, qaf-i-gulchin bhi / bu-i-gul thahri na bulbul ki zuban thahri hai.’). The contemporary Urdu poet also does not consider himself ideologically constrained to follow the modernist aesthetics (Jadeediyat) of N.M. Rashid, Zia Jallundhuri and others who devised new poetic forms to give vent to their disgust with the hollowness of the modern age. The conflicts of Adab Bara-i-Adab (Art for Art’s Sake) and Adab Bara-i-Zindagi (Art for Life’s Sake) that preoccupied the poets of the previous generation do not impress him. The contemporary Urdu poet is confident to express his inner angst, address external realities, deploy metaphors drawn from history and myth available to him and explore the vast possibilities of diction and form to forge an idiom that is in sync with his age and no longer reeks of being exotic and inane.
With the death of many major stalwarts of Urdu poetry in the first decade of the twenty-first century, (Ali Sardar Jafri (d. 2000), Kaifi Azmi (d. 2002), Jaun Elia (d. 2002), Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi (d. 2006), Muneer Niazi (d. 2006), Ahmad Faraz (d. 2008), Shahryar (d. 2012), Shuja Khawar (d. 2012), Balraj Komal (d. 2013), Waris Alavi (d. 2014), Nida Fazli (d. 2016), Zubair Rizvi (d. 2016), the contemporary canvas of Urdu poetry is devoid of towering figures or divinely gifted voices that determine the course of literary history, but cumulatively, much forceful poetry continues to be written in Urdu.
In Pakistan, the Nazm and Ghazal-go poets who have made a mark include Ahmed Mushtaq, Zafar Iqbal, Saqi Farooqi, Iftikhar Arif, Anwer Sha’oor, Afzal Ahmad Syed, Amjad Islam Amjad, Kishwar Naheed, Sarmad Sehbai and many others. In India, Ambar Bahraichi, Shamim Hanafi, Satyapal Anand, Riaz Latif, Mehtab Haider Naqvi, Khurshid Talab and many others are writing poetry. Gulzar Dehlvi, Rahat Indori, Wasim Barelvi, Munawwar Rana are popular poets of Mushaira. Rashid Jamal Farooqi, Shahpar Rasool, Farhat Ehsas, Ahmad Mahfooz
are writing poetry that exhibits a never-ending possibility of newness in Urdu poetic idiom.
These poets move freely from the conventional esoteric poetry to journeys into inward alleys of the soul. They do not utter heroic rhetorics, encourage false dreams or espouse grand causes. They remain firmly anchored in their surroundings. Theirs is neither a dream of grand revolution nor an alienation stemming from the hollowness of man. They are content to address their civic, moral and personal concerns in a diction which is closer to their lives. If there is a note of dissent or resistance in their poetry, it is because they are dismayed at the growing materialism and detect a sordid night in the consumerist dazzle that surround us. Notice this couplet by Farhat Shahzad:
Silte hain to sil jayein kise fikr labor ki
Khushrang andheron ko kahunga main sahr kyun?
In keeping with the Urdu poetic tradition, these poets also compose ghazals in the zamin of predecessors. Here is a couplet from a ghazal of Ahmad Mahfooz in the zamin of a ghazal by Ahmad Faraz:
Phir Hunar Charah gar ke dekhte hain
zakhm surat ubhar ke dekhte hain
If Iftikhar Naseen ‘Ifti’ (d. 2011) introduced the gay theme in Urdu poetry, Chandrabhan Khayal and Jayant Parmar invigorated Urdu poetry by moulding the elitist idiom of ghazal and nazm to voice Dalit consciousness. Notice this short Nazm from Parmar’s collection Pencil Aur Doosri Nazmein (2006) titled ‘Dalit Ke Liye’:
Tere Dukh Ke
Jalti Chhati Per.
Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are known mostly for their film lyrics but their place in Urdu literary canon cannot be denied. Both have published their anthologies and won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award.
There aren’t many women Urdu poets left in India after the death of Zahida Zaidi (d. 2011), and Sajida Zaidi (d. 2011), but Urdu poetry in Pakistan is marked by the resurgent and subversive voice of women poets who have used poetry to inscribe their sexuality and challenge the patriarchal structures of the society and the state like Kishwar Nahid, Zahra Nigah, Fahmida Riaz, Azra Abbas and Ishrat Afreen. They have not only reinvented the traditional forms of Urdu poetry to articulate embodied experiences of the feminine self, but also forged new forms.Their poetic idiom ranges from the lyricism loaded with domesticity in Zehra Nigah’s poetry (Mulayam garm samjhaute ki chadar / Yeh chadar mein ne barson mein buni hai / Kahin bhi sach ke gul boote nahi hai / Kissi bhi jhooth ka taanka nahin hai / Issi se main bhi tan dhak loongi apna, Issi se tum bhi aasooda rahoge / Na khush hoge, na pashmarda hoge), and Ishrat Afreen’s salvaging of Ghazal form from its gendered contexts, to the subversive and anti-establishmentarian free verses of Kishwar Naheed (ye ham gunaahgar aurtein hain / ki sach ka parcham utha ke niklein / to jhoot se shaahrahein ati milein hain / har ek dahleez pe sazaaon ki daastanein rakhi milein hain / jo bol sakti theen woh zabaanein kati milein hain)
However, not all that is published in Urdu poetry today is of uniform merit. Since self-publishing is still the trend, an examination of anthologies by provincially based poets which often over-emphasize obscure minor local poets reveals that a lot of poetry published in Urdu today would seem distinctly inferior. Time, being the best touchstone, will sift grain from the chaff. The volume of poetry written, published, sung, and heard today definitely holds the promise of a bright tomorrow for Urdu poetry. Here is a sampler:
makaan mein qaid-e-sada ki dahshat
makaan se bahar khalaa ki dahshat
havaa hai khauf-e-khuda se khaali
hai is nagar mein bala ki dahshat
ghira hua hun main har taraf se
hai aaine mein hava ki dahshat
Ham apni dhoop mein baithe hain Mushtaq
Hamare sath hai saaya hamara
azaab ye bhi kisi aur par nahi aaya
ki ek umr chale aur ghar nahi aaya
is ek khwaab ki hasrat mein jal bujhi aankhein
vo ek khwaab ki ab tak nazar nahi aaya
iiman ke saath khaami-e-iiman bhi chahiye
azm-e-safar kiya hai to saaman bhi chahiye
kuchh asl to khule kaheen is zor shor ki
dariya ke raaste mein bayaban to chahiye
Rashid Jamal Farooqi:
jis se mujh ko shikayat rahi hai
ko vo sab ke hisse mein hai kuchh na kuchh
ek mere siva
jis pe rahna hi kaar-e-abas tha
vahi chhodni pad rahi hai
to main itna ghabra raha huun
meri yak-rang roz aur shab
maah aur saal ki
saari uktaahatein kya huiin.
mere suboot bahe ja rahe hain paani mein
kise gavaah banaaun saraa-e-faani mein
jo aansuon mein nahaate rahe so paak rahe
namaaz varna kise mil saki javaani mein
Kis ki hai ye tasveer jo banti nahi mujhse
main kis ka taqaaza hoon jo poora nahi hota
main shahr mein kis shaqs ko jeene ki dua doon
jeena bhi to sab ke liye achha nahi hota
Main band aankhon se kab talak ye ghubaar dekhun
koi to manzar siyah dariya ke paar dekhun
kabhi vo aalam ki us taraf aankh hu na uthe
kabhi ye haalat ki us ko deewanawar dekhun
Urdu Journals and Little Magazines: If Urdu poetry survives or rather thrives in India, the credit goes to a large number of Urdu magazines, both supported by government institutions like the State Urdu academies as well as the little magazines publishes by various poets and men of literary taste. In the former category journals like Zuban-O-Adb (Bihar Urdu Academy), Urdu Duniya (National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language), Fikr-o-Fan (Himachal Government), Jamuna Tat (Haryana Urdu Academy), Shiraza (Kashmir Govt), Farogh-i-Adab (Orissa Govt), Tamsil-i-Nau (Madhya Pradesh Government), Aiwan-i-Urdu (Dilli Urdu Academy), Azkar (Karnataka Urdu Academy), Nakhlistan (Rajasthan urdu Academy), Chashma-i-Urdu (Chhattisgarh Urdu Academy), Rooh-i-Adab (West Bengal Govt.), Ghalib Nama (Ghalib Institute), Jehan-i-Ghalib (Ghalib Academy), and so on. Apart from these journals which have the government or institutional support, a host of little magazines have made an immeasurable contribution to the evolution, growth and spread of Urdu poetry. Shabkhoon, for instance, published from Allahabad by the Urdu stalwart Shamsur Rahman Farooqi moulded and transformed the diction of Urdu poetry and propelled it on the path to modernism.
Zehn-i-Jadid published by another well-known poet Zubair Rizvi, along with many others, like Shayar (Bombay), Mizgaan (Calcutta), Asri Akhbar, Kitabnuma, Nai Kitab (Shahid Siddiqui), Shaoor (edited by Balraj Mainra), Tanazur (edited by Dhanraj Varma), Sher-o-Hikmat (edited by Shahryar and Mughni Tabassum), Gagan (Shams Kanwal), Istiara (Hqqani Al Qasmi and Salahuddin Parvez), Naya Safar (Qamar Raees), Mubahsa (Wahab Ashrafi), Istifsar (Sheen Kaf Nizam), Naya Warq (Sajid Rashid), Adab Saaz (Nusrat Zaheer), Sar Sabz (Krishn Kumar Toor), Sada-i-Urdu (Naeem Kausar), have contributed in their own way in promoting Urdu poetry. The success of the little magazines, the evident hunger with which people demand it, not merely in the mofussils but also in the metropolises, bears out that despite the repeated incrimination of the injustice of the Indian State against it, Urdu stubbornly lives on in big and small towns of India.
Urdu Mushaira/Nashist /Literary Festivals:
Much to the dismay of purists, one has to acknowledge that Mushairas have kept the fire of Urdu poetry alive where its serious practitioners failed. Urdu Mushairas of the day vary in standards depending on location and audience, but it remains a place where Urdu poetry is read and heard in abundance. A typical setting would be a large pandal where thousands attend the event that goes on from evening until the wee hours of the morning. The poets who recite their poetry are treated like celebrities and are household names. Some of these poets even find it difficult to recite their new creations because the audience insists on certain popular creations, at times even reciting the lines along with poets. Apart from the Mushairas the tradition of Nashist (a small gathering of poets and poetry lovers), is also popular in Urdu. A strong evidence of the art being practised regularly and not only recycling the old creations is the fact that these events are held around a promoting line (misra-i-tarah) from a well-known poet. While Mushaira and Nashist are age-old practices and part and parcel of Urdu literary culture, literary festivals like Rekhta, Jashn-e-Adab are new trends and if the crowds that surge to attend these events is any sign to go by, no one can deny that Urdu poetry breathes in the lives of people and the circle of its lovers is an ever-expanding one.
Descending from the ivory tower it occupied in the past, Urdu poetry is taking on new mediums like TV and internet (Websites like rekhta.org and web magazines like Aina make Urdu poetry accessible by providing Urdu poetry in Roman script and sometimes even providing the English translation). Famous ghazal singers from India and Pakistan setting it to music further ensures that Urdu poetry remains lodged in public memory. In all, contemporary Urdu poets promise a safe future for Urdu poetry.
Nishat Zaidi teaches English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.