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Urdu Literature: Sukrita Paul Kumar



Chest, 17th cent. India. Wood, mother-of-paerl inlay. Museum of Islamic Art, Doha Qatar




A Summary Mapping of the Urdu Literary Scene Today

Urdu literature had flourished in the sixties, seventies and eighties, with a sense of continuity from the pre and post Partition times, when writers and poets such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and others were actively writing. Literary debates were going on at that time with passion and great sensitivity on defining modernity and tradition, progressivism and experimental writing. There was no dearth of readers of Urdu literature since many people could read the Urdu script and the knowledge of Urdu in general was not limited to one community or the other. As Qurratulain Hyder, Ratan Singh, Joginder Paul, Ram Lal, Jeelani Bano took the rich legacy of Urdu literature forward and created modern classics through their commitment to writing fiction, poets such as Shahryar, Nida Fazli, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Syed Mahmood Khundmiri and others carried ahead the sophisticated poetics of Urdu shairi into the folds of modernity. It is not surprising that gradually Urdu readership in India has been somewhat diminishing primarily because Urdu language lost its special status in post-Independence India. Even though Urdu poetry remained vibrantly present in the memory of people and "shairi" retained its value in the society, there is no denying the fact that the presence of Urdu poetry is more in the oral sphere to which Bollywood has contributed to some extent.

While a fairly large number of Urdu journals (more popular ones like "Shama" and "Beeswin Sadi" as well as the less popular but serious ones such as "Shabkhoon") have closed shop, "Aajkal", "Shair", "Zehne Jadid", "Sabras", "Aiwan e Urdu", "Urdu Duniya", "Insha" and "Mizgaan" (Kolkata), "Zabaan-o-Adab", "Tamsil-e-Nau", "Naya Daur" and "Jahan–e-Urdu" (Bihar), "Naya Waraq" and some others have continued to publish new writers. Needless to say that a lot of Urdu writing is happening even today in India and a lot of short stories and poetry are still publishing in these journals. Some of this literature in fact gets published in the Devnagari script for instance in a magazine such as "Doaba". Many Urdu books are also published in the Devnagari script or in Hindi translation. "Dastavez", "Kathadesh" and "Hans" along with some other Hindi magazines publish a lot of Urdu literature in Hindi. All this helps achieve the objective of reaching out to a large number of people and indeed Urdu literature in India today continues to bask in the glory it enjoyed decades ago.

The short story in Urdu is a specially developed form that has had the good fortune of having such pioneering Indian writers as Premchand, Manto and Bedi and then later Qurratulain Haider, Ramlal, Joginder Paul, Jeelani Bano and others. Today more names have been added to the already large pool of modern short story writers, like those of Shaukat Hayat, Shaimol Ahmed, Beg Ahsas, Tarannum Riyaz, Nigar Azeem, Shafak, Khalid Javed and others. Experimentation with form is done with courage and new themes are constantly explored making the fictional scene live.

A form of stories that has a world-wide presence now, even though it is not adequately noticed in the critical domain, is that of what they are called in Urdu, "afsaanche" (short short stories). Manto had earlier explored this form of very short short stories in his volume of "Siyah Hashiye". Subsequently, it is the short story writer Joginder Paul who established the aesthetic foundation for this form through several of his volumes of "Afsaanche" in Urdu. This is duly acknowledged through the writings of the young critic Rabbani on this subject. Nesar Rahi, Azeem Rahi, Anand Patwari, Rahim Anwar and Anand Lehar are some names of Urdu writers who have carried this tradition further.

It may be noted that the attention of the writer in Urdu today is caught more with longer fiction i.e. with the "novel" form. Paigham Affaki's Makan & Palita, Zauki's Phuikeman ki Duniya, Ghazanfar's Manjhi, Khalid Javed's Maut ki Kitab & Nemat Khana, Sarwat Khan's feminist novel Andherapug, are all examples of long fiction that captures the contemporary pulse of individual life as well as societal consciousness. Qamar Jamali, Sadika Nawab Sehr and the young novelist Ahmed Sagheer are paving their way to a larger contribution towards the body of fiction in Urdu. Issues of social justice, gender equality, communal strife and humanistic concerns emerge in the contemporary Urdu novel in a variety of styles and idioms.

Jayant Parmar's Dalit writing in Urdu makes space for caste issues in Urdu poetry while in fiction, such writers as Gazanfar known for his novel Divyavani, have made a mark in projecting Dalit issues. While Chanderbhan Khyal writes poetry with a keen Dalit consciousness, post- Babri Masjid episode, writers like Zauki (Byan and Landscape ke Ghode) and Ibn e Kanval wrote fiction that engaged with issues that concerned the Indian Muslim identity. Down to earth depiction of social themes in the context of Indian society find visibility, pulling Urdu literature out from romantic and esoteric realms completely. Voices from the margins are heard louder and literature of resistance and protest gets stronger through such writings.

In fact poets such as Iftekar Naseem have also made bold in writing gay love poetry which had somehow been made invisible in modern Urdu literature. Ismat Chughtai who had broached this theme earlier in the forties in her fiction had had to combat a lot of reaction from her readers.

Even though there are no great literary canons identified in Urdu poetry today, it must be noted that a fairly large number of people are writing poetry in Urdu. Nida Fazli and Bekal Utsahi are specially known to have excelled in writing in the form of a "dohas". To name a few poets in contemporary Urdu scene, one must mention the following: After such poets as Sajda Zaidi and Zahida Zaidi who boldly questioned patriarchy, some poets who emerged prominently are Abdul Ahad Soz, Farhat Ehsaas, Shahper Rasool, Kauser Mazhari, Abul Khair Nishtar, Naseem Nighat, Nigar, Tarannum, Khursheed Akbar, Alam Khursheed, Jamal Farooqui, Naushad Ahmed Kazmi, Jamal Owaisi and others. There are many more names that can be mentioned here. But all in all, what is important is to comment on the variety of issues and themes that are chosen by the poets. No longer is Urdu poetry restricted to romantic love, separation and melancholia. The diversity of voices is indicative of the post- modern temper of the poet who has begun to witness the many sidedness of life as well as the multifold truth of one's existence.

Al e Ahmed Suroor, Mohammad Hasan, Qamar Rais, Shams ur Rehman Farooqui, Shamim Hanifi and Gopi Chand Narang from amongst the older generation of critics in Urdu developed a strong tradition of literary criticism in Urdu. In them there is a coming together of a perceptive understanding of Western, Russian and Indian literary theories through which they themselves contributed to the body of critical writing in Urdu. In the contemporary context, some of the critics of the current generation writing with conviction are: Zuhurruddin, Ali Ahmed Fatmi, Sadique, Atiqullah, Irtezzah Karim, Anwar Pasha, Abrar Rahmani, Kauser Mazhari, Abul Kalam Qasmi, Qazi Afzal, Zama Azurdah, Anis Ashfaq, Shehnaaz Nabi (feminist critic and poet) and other emerging young critics such as Abu Zaheer Rabbani, Saliha Zarreen and others.

The scene in the writing of Urdu plays is not very vibrant while there is no doubt that a number of adaptations of plays from different languages of India and abroad are being performed. In fact the Urdu Academy at Delhi holds an annual festival of Urdu plays to encourage the writing of plays in Urdu. Noor Zaheer, Aziz Quraishi and Anis Azmi are some of the prominent names for productions and performances of plays in Urdu.

As for publication houses in Urdu, the contribution of Urdu Academies (national and state level) must be acknowledged. Anjuman Tarraqui e Urdu too has been doing its bit to encourage Urdu language to spread and grow in its literature. In addition, there are other publication houses such as Educational Publishing House (Delhi), Arshiya publishers, Kitabi Duniya, Educational Book House (Aligarh) and others. Though a lot of writing and publishing in Urdu is being witnessed, there is not much evidence of theoretical evaluation currently.

What is called for is a comprehensive critical assessment of the current literary scene in Urdu for its literature to be assessed with insight and sensitivity for the literary traditions to blossom further and not diminish in their significance on the Indian literary scene.

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