The title of the book itself indicates the motivation behind it, viz. a celebration of Progressive Urdu poetry. The authors, Ali Hasan Mir and Raza Mir set out to “reclaim the legacy of the progressive poets in an age when their words, insights, and politics continue to be relevant”. They discuss the work of poets like Josh, Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jaffri who had written about exploitation, oppression, resistance and revolution in general and in particular about the struggle first against colonialism and imperialism and then against the Indian nation state, which they deemed to be hand in glove with the imperialists. The socialist utopia that was imagined in their typically flamboyant flourishes clearly had a transnational character, owing allegiance to “classless” and “revolutionary” China and the Soviet Union. At the time of its inception the Progressive Writers Association consciously widened the scope of its manifesto in order to ensure the inclusion of writers who were not necessarily communists but were broadly socialist, anti-colonial and progressive in their outlook.
However this wider space considerably shrank in the period after Independence on account of the rather rigid position taken by Ranadive on the role of the writer as an active participant in the struggle to overthrow the bourgeois imperialist Indian state. This led to a split within the PWA. However, though the authors note the weakening of the movement on account of it (“Its period of uncontested hegemony had come to an end.”) and outline how the new manifesto of 1949 divided the world into two clearly demarcated camps, the democratic and the imperialist, and India into two groups, feudal reactionaries and progressive forces, they refrain from commenting on the tremendous setback this caused to the movement. The self professed correctness of an approach that sees the world as divided into black and white with no grey areas is never questioned by the authors in their overzealous desire to lionize the stalwarts of progressive Urdu poetry.
The authors fall for all the shibboleths that have been made popular by the communists in India, viz. the independence of 1947 was a myth since power was simply transferred from the British imperialists to their Indian counterparts; a truly democratic and socialist society could only be established through a revolutionary transformation and the inspiration for this would come from Palestine, Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union.
The book has an interesting take on the progressives’ rejection of religious identities particularly in the period after 1947. Instead of explaining it in terms of the thesis that religion was the “opium of the masses”, they argue that for Muslim progressive poets “the burden of the minority and the urge to prove their fidelity to an India that was growing suspicious of its Muslim citizens weighed heavily on them.” This is why many progressive poets penned militant verses during the Indo-Chinese war, Kaifi’s song for the film Haqeeqat, being an example. This is at best a speculative argument. It does make it difficult to reconcile it with the generally accepted image of Kaifi as a passionate revolutionary.
On Sahir, the foremost and exemplary progressive poet, the authors come closest to an acknowledgement of the problems of programmatic poetry. “Notwithstanding the short shrift he has received, Sahir’s work does not allow the serious critic to wave it off,… because of the fact that Sahir pushed the boundaries of an explicitly political brand of poetry that served as an aesthetic experiment of the time.” The authors quote the Marxist critics and theoreticians, Nikolai Bukharin, Christopher Cauldwell and George Thomson, to justify Sahir’s poetry, particularly that which is unabashedly pro-worker and anti-capitalist. Even if one goes along with the authors’ passionate defence of Sahir’s commitment to the cause, and much though one is moved by some of the moving lyrics that he wrote for the film Pyaasa, one still has to ask the question if this qualifies as poetry: My heart cannot countenance the celebration of high culture Even if I wish, I cannot give voice to dream-laden images. Unfortunately, the authors’ strong desire to idolize Sahir makes them approvingly quote even verses such as this: If the wealth of the nation has increased, why this growing poverty? Whatever has happened to the path towards ordinary peoples’ prosperity?
In the chapter ‘Urdu Poetry and the Progressive Aesthetic’, the authors outline how from the time of Hali, there was a movement towards making Urdu poetry utilitarian, to leave behind the wonders of the saki and the jaam and take up problems other than individual love and sorrow. The older images of the bulbul and the shama acquired a new meaning in the hands of the Progressives. They constantly engaged with contemporary issues like the Bengal famine, the anti-imperialist struggle or the tragedy of Partition. And while they believed that human suffering was universal they also insisted that it could be brought to an end. Their struggle for justice and equality was not limited to Indians alone but extended to the whole world. Going beyond religion, community and nation the Progressive poets developed an internationalist sensibility. In the chapter ‘From Home to the World’ the authors distinguish the internationalism of the progressives from that of the pan-Islamism of Iqbal or other poets who eulogized Algerian freedom fighters and the Palestinian cause from a pan-Islamic perspective.
The book suggests that the success of this poetry was in large measure due to the fact that it represented the aspirations of the people. But in the period after Independence, the progressive aesthetic lost its broad appeal, because the middle-class (the principal consumer) betrayed the cause: “The middle class sought its emancipation, not through challenging the system, but by learning to play its game.” To blame the middle class for the diminishing appeal of progressive poetry is somewhat misplaced, given that the PWA was itself critical of some of the foremost poets and writers like Ismat Chughtai, Manto, N. M. Rashid, Rajinder Singh Bedi and even Faiz for not toeing the line of the Communist Party strictly enough after the 1949 Bhiwandi conference.
Progressive poets saw the movement for Independence as integrally related to socialist ideals. Freedom from the British meant for them freedom from all forms of exploitation. Thus when the “promised dawn” did not come, they blamed the Indian state and the Congress leadership. Faiz’s extremely moving poem “Subh-e Azaadi” collapsed the redness of revolutionary fervour with the blood spilt over Partition: “Voh intezaar tha jiska ye voh sahar to nahin.” However, with the passage of time the split within the two factions of the CPI headed by P. C. Joshi and Ranadive made the PWA a weaker force with diminishing influence. The anti-war, pacifist position was also not apparent after the Chinese war of 1962 and the first Indo-Pak war of 1965. Except for Ali Sardar Jafri and Sahir most of the writers took a tough line against Pakistan.
In the chapter on the Progressives’ perspective on modernity and the consequent critique of religion, the authors distinguish the radical Marxist poets from their predecessors like Ghalib and Mir. While the latter made sly attacks not on religion itself but on the hypocrisy of the priestly class, the radical progressives critiqued the very notion of Faith as obscurantism. Firm believers in rationality, they were extremely dismissive of religion.
However, the belief in modernity was to be later tempered with the realization that by itself it was not capable of establishing an egalitarian society. A modernity that serves the interests of capitalism and the modern nation-state cannot be accepted as unequivocally good. And the failure of modernity was to be seen in the tainted moment of freedom, the sectarian conflict in South Asia and above all in the inability of the state to provide a dignified life for its citizens. Perhaps the most readable chapters in the entire book are the ones on Progressive poetry and film lyrics. In contemporary times when lyrics are completely overshadowed by sound, the authors remind us of the tremendous contributions made by several progressive poets like Sahir, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri to the Hindi film industry in the fifties and the sixties. If there were Sahir’s radical lyrics in the unforgettable Guru Dutt film Pyaasa, severely castigating the national leadership for the terrible economic deprivation in which women were forced to sell their bodies (Jinhen naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hain?) the IPTA poet Prem Dhawan sounded a more optimistic note with his popular “Chhoro kal ki baaten,…” Even the radical Sahir could on occasion strike a more optimistic note. (“Saathi haath badhana…”) With the shift to popular films the space for socially committed film makers reduced. And with the advent of cassette culture, meaningful lyrics gave way to inane ones like “Gapuchi gapuchi gam gam, kishiki kishiki kam kam” written by none other than the great Sahir himself! The decade of the eighties saw the emergence of fusion music in which sound alone was supreme. It is only now that a poet like Javed Akhtar has recovered some ground for the lyrics despite the constraints. The authors insightfully conclude that popular culture is an ideologically contested ground. According to them Bollywood blockbusters and songs are merely escapist fantasies that legitimize the status quo. Hopefully some of that is changing with film makers now attempting to raise socially relevant issues like communalism or casteism in mainstream cinema like Bombay and Swades. It is perhaps also worth pondering why people cutting across classes have flocked to watch “escapist” blockbusters.
In the second chapter on film lyrics, the authors narrate how the Bombay film industry provided a space for Urdu poetry at a time when the language had been relegated to the margins after the Partition. Hindi film songs have in the long run become one of the “most valuable repositories for the safe keeping and nurturing of Urdu poetry and idiom.” One of the questions that emerges is whether the issue of a national language has not been quietly resolved by the “Hindustani” film industry given that they are avidly watched by viewers cutting across all linguistic categories in India. After all, as the authors note, among contemporary lyricists, Javed Akhtar employs Persian terms (posheeda or khwaabeeda) as easily as the Awadhi dialect (Bijuri ki talwar nahin,…) or even the Ramlila tradition in a film like Swades. Bombay films have perhaps done more than merely provide a refuge to Urdu poetry, they have quietly played a stellar role in national integration by drawing their inspiration from the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of India. Now as Indians increasingly look to colonize foreign shores, films too follow suit in their choice of locales, however “escapist” one may consider them! Notwithstanding his occasional descent into mediocre lyrics in films, Sahir’s centrality in Progressive Urdu poetry is doubly stressed in a separate chapter. He is lauded as the ardent champion of the oppressed people, a pacifist, a forthright critic of religion and a spokesperson of the left. Admittedly Sahir’s passionate lyrics have inspired a whole generation of Indians, but the zeal of the authors becomes a trifle irritating, given that Sahir’s contribution figures in every other chapter. The strength of the book lies in the two chapters in which the authors explore some of the new voices in Urdu poetry, those of Javed Akhtar and the feminist poets from Pakistan. The authors recognize that Akhtar apart from a being an inheritor of the progressive tradition is also a contemporary poet and a realist. Perhaps the humility of the poet in his poem on Mother Teresa is the new note that the authors fail to detect. Even if one accepts that Javed Akhtar is the successor of the famed progressive poets, it is interesting to observe that the shrill note of his predecessors and their smug certainty is nowhere to be heard. Instead what we have is the self-conscious irony in the subject’s position and his location among the very people whom he gently ridicules. “Faced with a cut-throat world in which he finds himself hopelessly implicated, Akhtar does not pitch camp on a moral high round, choosing instead to deploy sharp cynicism as a tool of his critique;…”
The love poetry of Akhtar is modern and related intrinsically to contemporary reality. Unlike the classical love poetry or progressive poetry with its hope of consummation in an egalitarian world, Akhtar writes on the transience of the emotion, the influence of the environment and the past on the lover’s relationship and the tragic irony of love in a modern world. In fact one can detect strains of Eliot in his romanticism which is constantly undercut by his realism. Perhaps Akhtar’s break from the Progressives is nowhere better exemplified than in his poem ‘Jurm aur Sazaa’, in which the poet/plaintiff acknowledges his crime of having “kept a few dreams” for himself, even after agreeing to sell all of them in the market. The punishment is severe: not only is he to give up all that he has concealed, he is now doomed to live a life, devoid of any dreams. Faiz’s defiant prisoner has been replaced by the ironical poet/dreamer who is forced to peddle his wares in the market.
The chapter on the new feminist poets from Pakistan discusses how the Progressives did not really go beyond their classical predecessors in the representation of women as symbols of purity and beauty. The contribution of the feminist poets, particularly Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, against General Zia’s vicious attack on women’s rights is extremely significant. The book also notes that with the exception of Habib Jalib, there were hardly any male poets who took up the women’s cause at that time. Feminist poets not only opposed the sexist policies of Zia, they also criticized the political and social structures that were being used to deny dignity and equality to the Pakistani people. The authors approvingly quote the well known Pakistani critic Rukhsana Ahmad’s statement that the women feminist poets of Pakistan were the true inheritors of the progressive tradition. However some questions arise in this context. Why have progressive male poets not been a part of the feminist revolt? And why do we not have an equally strident feminist voice emerging from progressive Urdu poets in India? The answers would be useful in contextualizing Pakistani feminist poetry in a more nuanced manner.
The book ends with a requiem and a celebration. A requiem for the authors and their inspiring poetry which lost its verve and zeal with the passage of time and a celebration to once again acknowledge their contribution to the utopian egalitarian and just vision that was fashioned in the crucible of the anti-colonial movement for Independence. It is of course worth speculating on why the powerful and engaging vision of the progressive poets lost its lustre. And to do this meaningfully one needs to go beyond the stock radical answers of bourgeois hegemonic control.
Bodh Prakash teaches English at Zakir Huain College, New Delhi.