The All India Progressive Writers’ Movement (AIPWM) has engendered much interest among scholars and academics. Most histories and critical estimations of Urdu literature dwell on the radicalization it brought about. Carlo Coppola’s Urdu Poetry, 1935–1970: The Progressive Episode is perhaps the most comprehensive, systematic, and organized account of the socio-political, cultural and literary network that constituted the movement—the formation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA), the official organization that sponsored the revitalization of subcontinental literature, particularly Urdu literature converting it from an escapist, romantic, bourgeois activity, to a realistic means of mass contact, with humanistic intent. For those familiar with Coppola’s studies, this is an elaboration, corroboration and an updation of his previous investigations. Building on criticism, interviews, meetings, correspondence and biographies—a lifetime of research, as well as a wealth of supplementary readings, Coppola emerges as a historian, providing a detailed account of the formation, the thrust and pull, the decline of the organization, efforts at resuscitation and even reinvention.
The debate between adab bar aye adab and adab bar aye zindagi, (art for art and art for life) germane to the movement is germane to Coppola too. Throughout the study, one perceives concomitance between the personal, the political and the cultural. The study is complemented by detailed appendices, notes to the main text, biographical notes, a chronology of the movement, and a glossary of literary and historical allusions.
Coppola’s study is two pronged. In the first part, dealing with the history of the movement, Coppola maps the Marxist-political culture that led to the ferment of progressivism across Eurasia. He contextualizes the subcontinental movement against the politcal transformations on the Continent while focusing on the indigenous political, literary and cultural antecedents that shaped the writers’ thought. Linguistic chauvanism, the question of a national language and the idea of literature aligned with the freedom struggle, determining nationalist thought, come into perspective. Notwithstanding the three earliest versions of the Progressive manifesto, outlining the role of the writer and the nature of literature he was expected to produce in immediate spacio-temporal context, Urdu Poetry… focuses on literatures that served as epistemological precursors to the movement. The critical treatise of Akhtar Husain Raipuri according to Coppola set the stage for radicalization of literature; Premchand’s addresses outlined the role of literature in society and public adresses of political leaders motivated writers. Humanist, political and revolutionary inspiration came from the poetry of Mohommad Iqbal and Josh Malihabadi. Iqbal’s Islamic and philosophical ideals foreshadowed the socialist realism of Marx and Gorki and Malihabadi’s anti-Imperialist vocalizations contributed towards nationalist fervour. Coppola examines Angarey (Live Coals; 1932) as the immediate precursor in fiction and discusses the role of the authors in redefining Urdu literature in their almost desperate attempt to shake the masses out of their middle-class complacency, employing utilitarianism over and above, European Modernism and Russian futurism. The banality of some of the stories is also evident. One is reminded inadvertently of the avant-garde poetry of Yagana Changezi, rejecting stereotypes, which had also caught Zaheer’s eye.
Coppola charts the rapid and systematic expansion of the movement and the power it exerted as it transcended regional and linguistic frontiers. He focuses on several polarities within and outside the movement, most significantly the intellectual-ideological debate, existent at the inception, and widening with ideological enforcemens of extremists within. His analysis of the post-Partition chapters of the movement, in Independent India and Pakistan, against two very different political cultures exposes the AIPWA and the APPWA (All Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association) quagmired in controversies and hostilities. As rival revolutionary groups question the raison d’être of the organization in India and the Communist Party of Pakistan is flattened, Coppola suggests that the PWM is irretrievable.
The second part of Coppola’s study dealing with Urdu Potery, comprises readings on Faiz Ahmad ‘Faiz’, Asrar-ul Haq ‘Majaz’, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Ali Sardar ‘Jafri’ and ‘Sahir’ Ludhianvi—poets with disparate inclinations. Combinations of personal and progressive or romantic and socio-political in their poetry suggest the dynamisms intrinsic to both, Urdu poetry and Urdu language. The significance of these poets lies in their ability to employ essentially romantic images and symbols to represent the modernist predicament. Their poetry stands testimony to the continuing appeal of the progressive temperament, despite weakened Association activities and formulation of diluted manifestos. It reinforces the instrumentality of individualism. For example, Faiz and Sahir are remembered for linguistic choices and the aesthetic appeal of Subh-i-Azadi (‘The Dawn of Freedom’) and Parchaiyan (‘Shadows’) rather than political diabolisms and profanity, (charges levelled against them, for writing contrarily to progressive ideals) and Majaz’s ‘Raat aur Rail’ (‘The Night Train’) is a masterpeice of modernist apprehension.
It is interesting to note that in this comprehensive study, apart from detailed references to abundant documents and records, Coppola employs several tools such as interviews, inputs from family members and personal narratives to signify the continual interplay between the personal and the political. His serious academic style is broken by several tongue-in-cheek and anecdotal references to gossipy and contentious minutiae, such as the love triangle linking Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar; the political-intellectual controversy that sundered Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmad Ali, or Premchand’s vacillation before his final acceptance to make the presidential address at Lucknow. (May one read a hint of scorn in Coppola’s asides, and his publication of Premchand’s letters, juxtaposed with the politics of a national language and the elder writer’s location in the Urdu-Hindi squall?) Most of the time, he seeems to enjoy his accounts with the twinkle of an eye or a chuckle. As he merges several forms of information to provide a holistic representation, he refreshes the memory of the old timer with several other, unrecorded anecdotes centering the men and the lone woman contributor to Angarey or the card holder and the intellectual.
Coppola translates liberally and quotes at length. Urdu Poetry… is a repository of (translated) Urdu poems, fictional passages, letters, speeches, treatises and essays, otherwise inaccessable to an anglophone reader, employed to validate his hypotheses or elucidate political stance. A bilingual reader, however, will very likely miss the original Urdu poetry, which could have been included perhaps, in some measure, either in Nastaliq or the roman script. In the absence of rhyme and rhythm the translated poems seem lackluster. Moreover, the length of some prose translations impedes the critical narrative.
Coppola treats of the movement essentially as a virile, masculine, precipitation focusing on nationalism, and international politics and excluding from analysis Marxist feminism, the ‘other’ robust bough of progressive writing. Women writers generally, and stalwarts like Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai who were instrumental in articulating silences associated with women’s issues, receive minimal attention. The feminist poetry of Parveen Shakir, Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed among several others qualifies as progressive poetry. But women poets are conspicuous by their omission. Furthermore, Coppola makes no mention of contemporary revivalist tendencies, particularly in Pakistan.
Coppola’s role as a conservative historian charting the swell and ebb of the organization and the literature it spawned is balanced by his teleological examinations propelled by the keen eye of a retrospective observer. His analysis of the faultlines within, juxtaposed against an altering environment is comprehensive. Coppola’s selection and analysis of the poets suggests that progressive literature could continue to be a dynamic force if the word ‘progressive’ were unconstrained by its doctrinaire apparatus and undersood in all the connotations it intrinsically carries. Urdu Poetry, … is a labour of love—a must read for a serious academic probing this very impactful political-literary movement of the subcontinent.
Fatima Rizvi is Associate Professor in English at the University of Lucknow. Her areas of interest include postcolonial literature and literature in translation. She translates Urdu and Hindi.