Several aspects of Uttar Pradesh’s literary landscape have changed over the past decades, while others continue to be in the vortex of change. One way to look at it is that the first half of each century saw huge changes in arts and literature. For example, if you look at the literary history of the 20th century, you notice how every sphere was influenced by the movement of progressive writers. It is thanks to this movement that we still speak with respect of writers like Rahi Masoom Raza, Ali Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi.
After the progressives, there was a brief period in which Urdu writers found themselves leaning towards modernism. However, this could not benefit the literature he spawned so much. Apart from the fact that it could not become popular, it also increased the gap between reader and writer. Once they parted ways, there was a time when writers did some soul-searching about who they were writing for.
Nothing major happened in Urdu literature after that. Today, the movement that made literature a receptacle for all spheres of the human condition may have run out of steam, but contemporary Urdu writing still addresses social concerns. There is also a growing awareness of socio-political changes in the writing of contemporary writers: their pens express these changes in ghazals, novels and tales. And yet, something fundamental has changed.
Today, if we deplore the gradual disappearance of Urdu culture, we must understand that it has its roots in history. The score split the earth, but it also split hearts. Its impact on Indian Muslims was enormous. While some of them opposed partition and did not go to Pakistan, they suffered from the events that unfolded afterward. Several decades after the partition, Urdu could not obtain the status that it should have, neither from the linguistic point of view, nor from its privileged position as a mother tongue.
The culture of ghazals and the mushairas for which several UP towns including Lucknow were famous must have faded, and they did. The zavaal (decline) that took hold there was not accidental, however: there are reasons for its decline. Today, if there are no poets like Asrarul Haque Majaz, Kaifi or Jafri, then it is clear that things have changed. Today, if there are no novelists like Rattan Singh or Rajinder Singh Bedi, it is obvious that things are no longer the same. But there is a new generation of writers taking root. They express themselves through fiction and poetry. Are they aware of a socio-political point of view? Although it’s not always true, today’s writer is a person who carries a sense of pain within him. After being bruised by circumstance and her wound accumulating, she often finds an outlet in literature. The experience of pain forces him to express himself.
there is a new generation of urdu writers taking root. Are they socio-politically aware? it’s not universal, but many of them carry a sense of pain.
Although there have been no poets like Majaz or Kaifi, that does not mean that there is an absolute shortage of poets with similar sensibilities or vision for society. There are new poets like Manish Shukla, Khushbir Singh Shaad or Anees Ashfaq (the latter is better known as a short story writer) who have lent new form and language to Urdu poetry. In their poems, they paint life as it is: alongside pain, there are also accents of protest, which have seeped into their works. Their political conscience is indisputable. Arif Naqvi lives in Berlin but his stories are slices of today’s reality and the writer’s dissatisfaction. Urdu poetry records everyday reality. Young or less young, Urdu poets share social and humanitarian values. Today’s poets and writers have only begun to write about society and politics. One cannot compare their beginnings with the peaks of Kaifi or Jafri. Perhaps a few decades later they may be even more politically aware – more fervent in their attempt to bring revolution through their pens. It is a hope that never ceases to waver in the hearts of those who love the Urdu language.
In a brief period after progressives made literature reflect on ordinary people’s concerns, storytelling became mired in ambiguities and symbolism. This period remains cut off from us. If there is no novel like that of Rahi Masoom Raza Adha Gaon was written after him, the reason for this is that the writers got caught up in allegories and metaphors, and did not deal directly with social change.
Today, whether in Lucknow or any other city, the effects of political change are felt everywhere. It is true that a writer is not able to write as he wishes these days. There are undeclared restrictions on people’s minds that they must navigate. Many find it difficult to tell things as they are. It’s not just about Lucknow tehzeeb (culture) although that too has been at the receiving end of the bias. When people are not given the opportunity to choose their mother tongue while receiving an education, the language will just disappear. We cannot expect people to continue to produce quality literature or public events like mushairas and kavi sanmelans, would continue to thrive. This change is particularly painful for those who have known and seen the Lucknow literary scene as it once existed.
The reason many are not free to speak out is that politics has created an atmosphere in which free speech has suffered. Urdu language is symbolic of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. But there has been an assault on both language and culture, which are now marginalized. It is a sad fact that is too painful to put into words. Lucknow, for a long time, was identified with its mushairasthe language, the culture, the buildings like the Imambara and the sumptuous dastarkhwan. The spread remains the same, the number of those feasting has increased. But the act of cultivation has been lost somewhere. Gradually, the language too fell prey to its challenges and difficulties.
There are many who, during the census, list their mother tongue as Urdu. But that’s not true, because thousands of them don’t speak Urdu. At the same time, there are others who speak Urdu, but are bracketed under Hindi as their native language. So we don’t have the numbers and cannot conclude on the exact number of Urdu speakers in India today. We can only guess how bad things are. If Urdu is not taught in schools, how should we expect literary works like Adha Gaon to produce today? Wouldn’t it be wrong to hope that the younger generation can penetrate complex social structures with Raza’s finesse, when they haven’t been taught the intricacies of the language?
Language is the basis of culture, a beautiful thing. India is a bouquet of several cultures. All need equal space; one cannot take precedence over the other.
Unless there is a provision to impart Urdu education, the deliberations around its role ring hollow. Unless zubaan‘s (language) link with zamine (ground), zindagi (life) or bolshal (spoken language) is established, it cannot stay alive.
How is the tradition of Urdu protest poetry faring today? I think it works, but not the way it should have been. It seems that somewhere in the hearts a feeling of fear has lodged, which prevents practitioners from expressing themselves freely. Previously, discussions around revolution or social change were written freely. A poet (Majrooh Sultanpuri) might write:
Aman ka jhandaa is dharti pe
Kisne kaha lahrane na paaye
Ye bhi koi Hitler ka hai chela,
Maar the sathi, jaane na pay!
Commonwealth ka das hai Nehru
Maar le sathi jaane na paae!
[Whoever said that the flag of peace
Can’t be unfurled on this land
Is it some protégé of Hitler,
Or a mere slave of the Commonwealth?
It’s Nehru, my friends.
Take him by the collar, lest he gets away!]
And yet, nothing would happen to him. Protest in poetry has flourished since the days of Mughal poet Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, who wrote Shahre Ashob in the classical Urdu tradition, a genre that weaves in verse the political, social and economic upheavals of the time. On the other hand, the poets of today do not have the courage to take cudgels. Instead, they resort to hints. The worst thing that happened is that Urdu became the language of Muslims. Tamil Muslims speak Tamil. In Karnataka, Muslims speak Kannada. In Bengal, we speak Bengali. If all Muslims spoke Urdu, this would not be the case. Forget Urdu, no language can be linked to religion. If Urdu is the language of Muslims, Gita would not have been translated there in Mughal times. Even after them, Urdu is a language that has featured in the courts and in police writings.
Language should not be discriminated against. It’s the basis of the culture, which is a beautiful thing. India is a bouquet of several cultures. Each culture embodies a different beauty. All need equal opportunities to grow; one cannot take precedence over the other. Unless we learn to do justice to language and stop harboring hatred against it, no language or culture can survive.
(This appeared in the print edition as “In Search of a Lost Culture”)
(The opinions expressed are personal)
Sharib Rudaulvi is a literary critic and poet born in Rudauli, Ayodhya