Modern Urdu Poetry and PWA

in Article
Published on: 18 April 2016

Dr. Anisur Rahman

Professor,Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

The Fall of the Romantic Ideal: Two Modes of Modernist Representation in Urdu Poetry

1. A Prologue      

Modernism in Urdu poetry that emerged with the fall of the romantic ideal is associated with the major marks of a historical period in turmoil, a political order in disarray, and a literary culture in making.

While the pre-modernist Urdu poetry[1] nourished romantic idealism and cultivated chiseled rhetoric, the poetry since the 1930s acquired its strength in new modes of apprehension and expression. This new poetry, which is clearly traceable from the third decade of the last century, evolved along its highly individualistic lines and acquired its definite and organic identity during the following decades. Drawing upon the new-found poetics, the 40s and 50s, which were terribly prone to happenings in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, spelt a new predicament for arts and ideas. The 60s sharpened the contours of modernism even further, and the following decades saw it firmly established as a tradition.

This paper examines the context that made way for the expression of a new consciousness and a new poetics.  Developing upon the socio-political significance of the 1930s in general, and India in particular, it goes on to examine the two modes of modernist representation in Urdu poetry. While the first one was manifested in the expression of social realism that the poets and writers associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement (Taraqqi Pasand Tehreek) chose for themselves to indulge into, the second one was expressed in stylistic innovations made by the poets representing the Circle of Connoisseurs (Halqa-i-Arbab-e Zauq).  Even while both the group of poets drew upon the socio-political conditions at home and beyond, they differed drastically in their understanding of reality and its expression in literary terms.  In doing so, they projected a variety of stances in social, political, and literary domains. The paper examines these two modes of poetic representation to posit that while one disengaged with the stereotypes of attitudes, the other resisted traditional poetics. As one contextualized life in the given time and site, the other discovered a language and a form to do so in a manner that was hitherto unknown in earlier phases of Urdu literary history. In identifying the major marks of the two groups of poets, an effort is made here to evaluate the significance of these poets who have come to acquire their historic and historical significance over a period of time.


2. Historical Context: 1930s

Identified with a number of major events in the domains of economy, polity, culture, and society in many parts of the world, the 1930s has influenced literary production in significant ways. Ever since the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, power brokers of the authoritarian kind took control of the major European countries,[2] while also casting dark shadows on smaller and weaker states of the world. The decade is marked by wars and conflicts,[3] rise of totalitarianism[4], onslaughts of colonization[5], and efforts at decolonization[6] where the case of India deserves special mention for the manner it chose to gain its freedom from the British rule. The impact of the Great Depression on India was severe insofar as the British government devised an economic plan to suit its end, even though it adversely affected Indian economy which drew its sustenance from its agriculture, production, distribution, and other modes of sustenance.[7] It is no wonder, then, that various movements in arts and literature found their forte in social realism, as could be seen from the fact that a world conference of writers for the defence of culture was called in Paris in 1935. In keen response to the events all over, the Indian progressive writers too chose to openly denounced Mussolini’s Ethiopian aggression, Japanese attack on China, and the British policies towards the suppression of press and civil liberties in India, which ultimately led them to develop a literary kinship for socio-political ends.

            The significance of this consequential decade might further be noted with reference to some of the major developments in India that marked it too prominently. These included a series of crucial events beginning with the call for Poorna Swaraj (complete independence) and Civil Disobedience initiated with Salt Satyagraha in 1930. Other events that left the people terribly shaken included the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev in 1931, the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1932, and Gandhi’s three-week hunger strike to protest against the maltreatment of the lower castes in 1933. As the crisis heightened and the political expediency demanded, the suspension of Civil Disobedience followed in 1934, which led further to the introduction of the Government of India Act in 1935.  Gandhi’s fast to protest against British autocracy, and the formation of All India Forward Block by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1939, and several arrests and releases of Gandhi and other freedom fighters during the entire decade, further underlined the predicament of a colonized site that was struggling to claim its liberation.  

All these events of extreme political significance left their mark on the social and cultural lives of the people in general. Precisely, in the year of the Government of India Act, 1935, some Indian writers, in a sensitive response to the happenings all over the world, organized themselves into a group, which later came to be designated as Indian Progressive Writers’ Association. The Association aspired to champion the cause for a just socio-political order by producing a certain kind of literature[8] which we would consider later in the following section.   

3. For Life’s Sake: Progressive Writers’ Movement

Progressive Writers’ Movement has emerged like a constant refrain in almost all the studies of modernist Urdu poetry ever since the 1930s. It has been so in spite of the dual distinction it has earned as literally and metaphorically progressive on the one hand, and propagandist and hollow on the other. While it might be argued in one way that all writers (if they are real writers), and all their writings (if they are genuine writings) have to be essentially progressive, it might also be counter-argued in another that no writer and no writing could ever be real or genuine, if they only followed the dictates of a given manifesto. Much that might be said to substantiate either of the positions, might not hold well in our discussion here, as we are concerned with examining how these writers, who came to form a strong and cohesive group, made a historic mark in responding to their times, and in evolving an appropriate idiom for the same. It would be instructive to see how this group came together, and stayed on together, to ponder over the possibility of evolving a voice and re-interpreting the times, which they considered to be oppressive and fit to be challenged. While discussing the policies and politics of Progressive Writers’ Movement, along with highlighting the phenomenal support it received from a huge number of writers and politicians, Hafeez Malik has added an interesting perspective by tracing this phenomenon back to Soviet affiliation: ‘It is not merely a coincidence that only two years after the creation of the Union of Soviet Writers, Marxist intellectuals in India under the leadership of Sajjad Zaheer called the first All India Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow on April 10, 1936’ (649). This clearly underlines one basic issue that the movement sought its inspiration from the Soviet writers and their ways of negotiating with the contemporary crisis, which gave it a clear political complexion, and for which it remained controversial ever after.

            It has often been remembered with considerable pride that some  Indian writers—Sajjad Zaheer (1905-1973), Mohammad Deen Taseer (1902-1950), Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004), and Ahmed Ali (1910-1994)[9]—then living in London and concerned with the happenings at home, deliberated upon the need for a new socio-political order, and a new literary culture. However, literary historians and critics have referred to more names than those mentioned above, even though the names do not always tally. While literary historian, Ali Jawad Zaidi, adds up the names of Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf, Abdul Aleem, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Rasheed Jahan, and Mahmud-uz-zafar (350), to the generally acknowledged list, Hafeez Malik, a literary critic, mentions further the names of Pramod Singh Gupta and Jyoti Ghosh, who contributed to the draft of the manifesto (651). While the number of persons and their affiliations could be a matter of historical record, it is important to consider that the group developed a manifesto[10] in 1935 for what came to be designated as the Progressive Writers’ Association. Essentially political in nature, and declamatory in tone and tenor, the manifesto made way for the emergence of a proper literary movement that shaped up in 1936 with a group of poets and fiction writers subscribing to a given socio-political ideology.[11] Getting into public domain, it found sympathetic response insofar as the writer came to assume the role of more than a writer, and the text of more than a verbal construct. The fact that Hans (Allahabad) and Left Review (London) chose to publish the manifesto in October 1935 and February 1936 respectively, only testified its overpowering appeal and influence over popular imagination.  

The manifesto, that was no less than a radical statement against a decadent sensibility in life and literature, gave a clarion call for reason against sentimentality, realism against romance, and freedom against subjugation. At the social level, it rejected feudal order and decadent morality; at political level, it sought recourse to leftist ideology; and in the domain of literature, it made an organized effort to refute and resist the centuries old romantic-spiritualist tradition, which it considered to be a way of escaping the stark realities of contemporary life. Aiming at socio-political rejuvenation, it called for dismantling all retrograde institutions surviving under the unchallenged authority of tradition and coercive power. Being anti-imperialist in nature, it fostered the spirit of decolonization, called for India’s freedom, and brought people face to face with the general human condition characterized by poverty, backwardness, and oppression. It empowered them with a new mode of apprehension, a new idiom of assertion, and a new will to resist the historical legacies of overall subjugation. The literary writing of the new age had, thus, to disengage from clichés of all sorts and romantic exuberance of all kinds.

Even before the Progressive Writers’ Movement became a reality, at least two literary events had already made way for its emergence. In 1932, the publication of Angare (Burning Coals),[12] a collection of ten short stories by some of the bolder realists like Sajjad Zaheer, Rasheed Jahan, Ahmed Ali, and Mahmud-uz-zafar, spelt out the possibility of writing on issues considered to be taboos. This collection with explicit sexual references and attack on the decadent moral order represented by social, political, and religious institutions, had a liberating influence on moral politics. Taken as too radical in its make up, the book had to be banned but the stories had an impact, as they were thematically interesting and technically innovative. The reader had suddenly become exposed to the worlds of Freud, Lawrence, Joyce and Woolf. The movement called for shedding the age-old traditions, take leave from stereotypes, and explore a new world order. Following this collection of stories, there appeared in 1934, a critical work of radical nature called Adab aur Inquilab[13] (Literature and Revolution) by Akhter Husain Raipuri who, according to Ali Jawad Zaidi also ‘presented a manifesto at the Nagpur session of the Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad setting forth the aims and objects of the new Indian literature embodying the views of the London based Progressives in their manifesto earlier. The Nagpur manifesto was signed, among others by Jawaharlal Nehru and Acharya Narendra Dev, Premchand and Maulvi Abdul Haq’ (350). In discarding the canonical poets like Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib, as degenerate representative of a feudal culture, he pronounced the need for a new poetics empowered by Marxist ideology. This rejection was, however, based on extra-critical considerations as he was more concerned with popularizing Marxist thought in literature than on appreciating the literary worth of writers and their texts.

It would be in place here to connect these manifestations with yet another literary event that further reiterated the need for a new literary dispensation. Premchand's (1880-1936) famous presidential address to the first conference of Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow in 1936, was a much more precise call to relate literature to social reality. As he believed that literature had a civilizing role to play, he called for revising the standards of beauty, and emphasized upon the value of truth, freedom, and moral courage. Positing that human society was a court of justice, he emphasized that there had to be a balance between nature and society. He underlined the significance of a sound economic and political order, based on the principles of justice and egalitarianism, and went emphatically against capitalism, elitism, and militancy. He ended his address by emphasizing that good and healthy literature is required to be identified while carrying the quest for freedom, beauty, and realism.

The contours of new writing, thus, emerged with great clarity. Every progressive writer was a literary rebel, and every rebellion was for promoting a new poetics of resistance. Basically wedded to the idea of political and social revolution, these writers sought their inspiration in Marx. Major progressive poets—Makhdoom Mohiuddin (1908-1969), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000), Jan Nisar Akhter (1914-1979), Kaifi Azmi (1919-2002), and Sahir Ludhianavi (1921-1980)—even though sharply unequal in literary merit, but charged equally by Marxist ideology, heralded a tradition of modernism, marked by dissent, and resistance to age-old social, political, cultural, and literary establishments. Generally clubbed together as poets who subscribed to the ideology of the Progressive Writers’ Association, they combined poetry with social activism and considered one as a supplement to the other. All these poets were passionate advocates of their ideas in poetry, and their poetry sometimes attained the status of impassioned speech, as many of their compositions on the stock themes concerning freedom, hunger, home and hearth, found a ready space in popular imagination. With a clear socio-political commitment, they developed their individual instances while seeking their inspiration from various quarters—indigenous and foreign, literary and extra-literary. They were prompted by their vision for a just socio-political order as they aspired to construct the nation for its people. They wrote the poetry of their selves but they reflected the hankerings of a whole generation of people at a particular point in the history of the subcontinent.

Among all the progressive poets mentioned above, one poet who has been most widely read and discussed is Faiz Ahmad Faiz, precisely because he has been singularly successful in striking a balance between arts and ideas. Even though he aligned with the group of poets who raised slogans more than they raised poetry on an artistic ground, Faiz did not indulge into creating sentimental catchwords in verse. Critically aware of the poetic traditions in Persian, Urdu, and English languages, he devised a technique and evolved a tone that sounded like soft notes of expostulation. He was inspired more by the spirit of liberation than by slogans. Even while strongly subscribing to an ideology, he could artfully transcend it to create a poem of great contemporary and personal appeal and relevance.  

Faiz had a variegated career as an editor of Lotus, an international leftist magazine for many years, a teacher of English, a Lieutenant Colonel of the British Indian Army during World War II, a recipient of MBE for his wartime services, a broadcaster, and a political activist. His exiles in Paris, London, Moscow, and Beirut, and his readings in western literature helped him view his individual and social predicament with great confidence and clarity. With this unusual career, and with the kind of poetry he wrote to resist the structures of power, Faiz attracted the attention of a larger section of the general and informed readers, and also those who were socially and politically concerned. While he nourished his sensibility by drawing upon the contemporary history of colonial and capitalist oppression in many parts of the world, particularly our subcontinent, Faiz emerged as a dissenter. He was a dissenter but of the most sophisticated sort; he exuded anger but with control and culture; he opposed tyrannies of all kinds but in a manner that made one and all hear him patiently. As such, in his role as a dissenter, he sought, in fact, to act as a negotiator rather than remain a victim of polarities. He, thus, composed his unique poetic oeuvre with great finesse where he placed his central metaphors of freedom against slavery, justice against oppression, gloom against light, hope against despair, friend against foe, and union against separation.

In explaining his poetic credo, Faiz has very appropriately remarked: ‘To me the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary fall in their proper places in the larger composite tradition of literature. The great advantage—or miracle—of the ghazal form, for example, is that you can use it to render themes in traditional diction and still be in tune with contemporary reality’ (ix). Appropriately enough, in drawing upon the ghazal tradition, Faiz found space for the more pathetic moments of life, which he represented with greater empathy than other progressive poets. This also leads one to posit that he was the last romantic who appropriated the best elements of the romantic tradition in Urdu poetry to configure and represent the vicissitudes of history, politics, and personal dilemmas. His poems like  ‘Bol’ (‘Speak’) ‘Subh-e Azadi’ (Freedom’s Dawn’), ‘Tarana’ (‘Anthem’), ‘Irani Talaba Ke Naam’ (In the Name of Iranian Students’), ‘Aa Jao Africa’ (‘Come Back Africa’), ‘Intisaab’ (‘Dedication’), ‘Sipahi ka Marsiya’ (‘Elegy for a Soldier’), ‘Dua’ (‘Prayer’), ‘Falasteen ke Liye’ (‘For Palestine’) bear ample testimony to his commitment and vision. These poems make sense as appeals, entreaties, complaints, and as songs of resistance, and testimonies of faith. Two poems—‘Speak’ and ‘Prayer’—that represent his will to take cudgels on the one hand, and implore softly on the other, are quoted here in full:

Speak, your lips are free,

speak, your tongue is still yours,

your slim body is yours alone,

speak, this life is yours, still yours.


See in the blacksmith’s forge

flames leap up, iron glows red,

padlocks have started opening up

and every chain is softening its knot.


Speak this short while is long enough

before the demise of body and tongue.

Speak, the truth is alive still,

speak, what you wish to speak.

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 43)


We, who have forgotten how to pray,

we who have forgotten our idols, our gods,

we, who only remember our sears of love—

let’s come together, let’s too lift our hands to pray.


Let’s pray that life, our beloved,

may pour tomorrow’s honey in today’s poison;

let’s pray their nights and days

may turn smooth, who find them tough;

let’s pray their dark nights

may lit up bright, who cannot see the dawn’s face;

let’s pray that they

may find their ways who have none;

let’s pray that those who practice deceit and hypocrisy

may get courage to deny, resolution to believe;

let’s pray that those whose heads wait for swords of tyranny

may have the nerve to fend off the assassin’s hands.

Let’s make a covenant today with our fevered souls,

the subterranean secret of love,

let’s slake its fever.

Let’s own the word of Truth

which pricks the heart like a thorn.

Let’s end our anguish.

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 49)


Reading Faiz is experiencing the human predicament at large and appreciating the true meaning of suffering and glory. Faiz was an artist of ideas and most popular of the poets in both the literary and extra-literary circles. Ten collections of his poetry, published from 1941 to 1984, have represented issues that are private, public, contemporary, and historical. In spite of all their personal merit, sometimes poets acquire and establish their significance in a group rather than individually. From this perspective, Faiz could turn out to be a poet of larger relevance if read along with the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963); the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973); and the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwesh (1942-2008), who, together, constituted a tradition of resistance in their poetry which has now come to acquire a significant space in  modern literary studies. 


4. For Art’s Sake: Circle of Connoisseurs

The name, Circle of Connoisseurs, is amply suggestive.[14] The poets who came together to form this circle were clearly different in their orientation and outlook compared with the progressive poets. They had no slogans to raise, no political ideology to follow; they only had the poem to engage with as an artifact. They were more preoccupied with form and language—the poem as a technically proficient work of art that stood for its own testimony. A poem for them was an attempt at re-defining the poem itself that was typically modernist in tone, tenor, and style.

            The circle comprised N. M. Rashed (1910-1976), Meeraji (1912-1950), Gopal Mittal (1909-1993), Yusuf Zafar (1914-1972), Qayyum Nazar (1914-1989), and Zia Jalandhari (1923-), even though it also had Mohammad Deen Taseer and Patras Bukhari, as the unacknowledged votaries. The group posited a poetics, different from the one championed by the progressive poets.  It did not proclaim any political intentions, nor declare affiliations to any given ideology—social, political, or literary. Rather, it chose for a liberal approach towards the conditions of being that defied a logical or chronological sequence. The poets of this group yearned to apprehend life’s mysteries and ambiguities which constituted its core and called for a liberal negotiation. It acknowledged the presence of baser and finer instincts in human beings, and dealt with them with greater catholicity than constraint. To keep pace with such a liberal approach towards life and its manifestations, these poets chose to liberalize the form itself and make way for blank and free verse that could bear the burden of their experience. Quite naturally, a substantial body of their poetry turned out to be obscure, and needed effort on the part of the reader to decipher the codes, as has been the case with the understanding of much of the modernist poetry written in English, French, and other languages, with whom their association may be justifiably established.

N.M. Rashed’s poetry was not instantly acceptable to a larger readership at the first instance,[15] but once he found certain acceptability, it grew upon his readers steadily. On a more critical note, it might be argued that his reputation as a poet kept pace with the appearance of the three collections of his poetry –Mawara (Beyond), Iran Mein Ajnabi (Stranger in Iran), La-Insan (No-man), Guman ka Mumkin (Possible Conjecture), published between 1941 and 1977. While his   first collection challenged the popular taste, it slowly and painfully worked towards creating a readership that could accept his poetic output which was drastically different, both in experience and technique. With each one of his collections, he gained greater ground till he came to be accepted as one of the three major vices of modernist Urdu poetry.

            Rashed chose to face history, nature, and human instinct in his poetry and listen to unheard voices hidden in remote quarters. While rejecting age-old moral values, he initiated himself into life’s s essential spirit by joining it uninhibitedly. Poems in Iran Mein Ajnabi show how he sought meaning in alternating between past and present, as he did between the immediately perceptible and the remotely present. This brought him closer to hope and faith and to an understanding of existential vitality which came out in his later poems with greater confidence. Lines from ‘The Void Was Not Filled’ and ‘Bid Me Farewell’ represent his preoccupation:


It does not matter if we have failed

            and all our efforts are laid waste.

We who have not reached our goals and have suffered grief,

like a beatific mendicant napping on some threshold,

why shoudn’t we fill this void with image of a minaret,

   or the din of colours,

    or the fragrance of dreams?

So that death may stay away—far away from us.

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 21)



Bid me farewell,

It’s late, too late, perhaps much too late—

the twentieth-century night has already struck the clock.

Trees and stones, beasts and tired birds

have all been engaged in parlance

for a thousand years upon this earth.

Just think what shall they feel

that I, like gods,

the eternally insincere,

have again broken my sacred oath.

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 27)


Rashed made bolder experiments in form than others. With his rhymed and unrhymed verse and with his vocabulary shorn of conventional sound and meaning, he drew upon the myriad facets of life lived in privacy and in community and a faith practiced in public and the one in seclusion or solitude. He drew upon shifting cultural motifs, melting geographical boundaries, quibbles of politics, failures of governance, and human values relegated to die in a limbo.  In his poetic apprehension and rendition, Rashed went closer to western modernists with whom he may be read with great profit. M. A. R. Habib has made a point with reference to his kinship with T. S. Eliot. ‘Like Eliot’s verse,’ he posits, ‘Rashed’s poetry is obscure, allusive and questions the very nature of language. And, as with Eliot’s work, these qualities conspire to deny it any “popular” appeal. Those who respect and enjoy Rashed are primarily intellectuals prepared to welcome novelty and difficulty’ (52). He further says: ‘The formal techniques of Rashed’s poems are similar to those used by Eliot. And what is at stake in his individualism also is the complex phenomenon of secularization’ (64)

            In comparison with Rashed, Meeraji’s attitude towards life was that of a total bohemian, but Meeraji’s approach to poetry and poetic expression was rather regulated and well considered. He subscribed to a non-conformist, sometimes even unpredictable, form and idiom, to write his lines that went to explore the inner recesses of human psyche. Meeraji had little regard for conservative value system and showed as much in his eclectic and, quite often, wayward youthfulness. His free associations with objects of attention might be traced in Freudian psychoanalysis, as he was naturally drawn to wards exploring the mysteries of the subconscious. This made him sensational at times but he struck at the very root of the complex psychic functioning. His resorting to sources and inspirations as diverse as Hindu mythology, Freud, Mirabai, Omar Khyyam, Amaru, Damodar Gupta, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire and Corbiere, defined the nature of his poetry that was characterized primarily by a rich fusion of literary and extra-literary sources. His amazing range of references and his ways of drawing upon them in idiosyncratic ways, underlined his typically modernist expression. Two extracts from ‘Sea-call’ and ‘Strange Waves of Ecstasy’ might be considered here:


            There’s no desert now, no mountain, no garden,

            no motion in my eyes, no smile on my face, no gesture,

            only a strange voice is heard—

            ‘Come on, come on, for years I’ve been calling…calling…

            I’m deeply tired in heart and soul…’

            None has ever tired calling, nor shall ever tire.


            This voice is now a mirror to me.

Only I’ve tired calling someone.

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 53)


            I wish the world’s eye go on looking at me, so closely looking at me

As one looks at the tender branch of a tree,

Looks at the swinging, tender branch of a tree,

But I wish the burden of leaves, like cast off robes should lie in a heap

By the bed of roses.

I wish the gush of wind should go on embracing me—

Thrilling, tingling, saying something laughingly,

Tottering, tarrying with the burden of shame

in the colourful whispers of ecstasy.

I wish to fare forward—now walking, now running,

As the wind touching the waves of a river, rushes swiftly ahead,

Does not pause. 

(Tr. Anisur Rahman, 59)


Greatly esoteric and experimental in nature, Meeraji reflected in his poetry over the nature of the word and the structure of the poem which defied a given pattern, as life itself often did. This could be borne out by the poems that followed a formal structure as in his songs, or the regular poems that often broke a rhythm to resume it again, or even the prose poems that went on and on without a stop, and did not allow the reader a break of breath. His poems collected in Kulliyat-e Meeraji (Complete Poems) in 1988 represent the great depth and variety of his work. Geeta Patel has attempted an incisive reading of Meeraji’s poetry to mark his aesthetic principles: ‘His definition of new poetry is poetry that blends feeling and thought to completely express what goes on inside the person—“a feeling-thought or desire”—and suits form and language to the issue at hand. Such a poet, rather than resorting to the conventionality of the formal to assess his affiliations to newness and thus to the measures of value, turns form to his own use’ (133). ‘A feeling-thought or desire’ is typically a Meeraji expression.

             Rashed and Meeraji were poets of tough intellectual mould who drew upon a rich variety of eastern and western, literary and no-literary sources.  In resorting to indigenous—spiritual and cultural—sources, they turned them contemporaneously relevant. That was their way of imparting a philosophical halo to their poetry. The way they discovered their metaphors and symbols, their language and ideology, their form and technique, Rashed and Meeraji might best be appreciated as avant garde poets, closely comparable to their western counterparts. As such, their significance could be traced in the fact that they established a robust tradition of modernism in Urdu poetry, and that the poets who wrote after them, closely drew upon them to strengthen their tradition by substantiating, validating, and diversifying it.  


5. An Epilogue

Progressive Writers’ Association and Circle of Connoisseurs were not opposed to each other; they viewed the conditions differently and expressed themselves differently. Non-aligned and major modernist poet, Akhtarul Iman, has made a dispassionate assessment of the merits of both the groups in his autobiography: ‘The basic difference lay in their perspective or attitude. To the progressive writers, writings that did not represent leftist angle were not valuable. It did not matter if that literature had little or no literary merit. I do not want to make any comments as to how far that literature was leftist, and as to how far propagandist’ (104). He has further written about the poets of the Circle of Connoisseurs: ‘The Circle of Connoisseurs did not have any slogan of that kind. They only said that all literary writing must be literary first, or should come under the category of good writing. It is only secondary whether they also have a slogan (113).

 Developing another perspective, I might add that on account of the great emotional appeal of his ideas and the rhythmic nature of his lines, Faiz has enamoured alike the philanthropist and the philanderer, the pious and the profane, the music makers and the dreamers of dreams, but Rashed and Meeraji, arguably greater poets than Faiz, have little to offer to the popular readers or listeners of Urdu poetry, and have, consequently, made sense only to a select readership. The word, the matter, and the form were sensuous bodies for Faiz to play on; they were elusive substances for Rashed and Meeraji to experiment with. While Faiz exploited the romance of realism, Rashid and Meeraji fantasized the real, and concretized the fantastic. Emerging as a myth in his own lifetime, Faiz has been evaluated and translated abundantly in English,[16] while Rashed and Meeraji have received only limited attention in spite of their remarkable literary merit. The three poets worked in their own ways, each distinct from the other, but considered cumulatively, it must be conceded that the trio broke fresh grounds and spearheaded the modernists movement in Urdu poetry.

            Let me bring the discussion to a close by referring to an objective assessment of the entire phenomenon with reference to the two movements represented basically by three poets. I would refer here to the Mahfil interview of N. M. Rashed who recorded as follows:

This new spirit in Urdu poetry was inevitable, as much as it was inevitable in the poetry of any other language. It simultaneously threw up three poets, who in their different ways, sought to interpret modern life. Miraji made bold experiments with form, brought the language of poetry closer to everyday speech, and unraveled some of the mysteries of the subconscious in the light of the new psychoanalytical discoveries; Faiz using most of the traditional clichés, symbols and myths, even as Iqbal had done, evinced a new emotional response to current human problems in line with the socialist doctrine; and I, in my small way, experimenting with new rhyme arrangements, tried to stress some of the current problems, the foremost among them for me being the alien rule, religious dogmatism, moral repression etc. which had continuously dwarfed the Asian soul; and to achieve this, I drew upon my personal experience alone, rather than the experience of others or any ulterior doctrine (2).

Modern poetry in Urdu has moved in several directions since the three poets wrote but these three poets have stayed on as canonical figures to whom the practicing poets have turned again and again. Their contemporary relevance could be located in the resistance they have offered in apprehending and representing the stereotypes of life and art, which the post Faiz-Rashed-Meeraji poets ultimately chose to draw upon.





[1] Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) and Mohammad Husain Azad (1830-1910) gave a call for initiating a new tradition in Urdu poetry that should shun sheer romanticism in thought and expression. Hali wrote his long poem Musaddas that highlighted socio-cultural concerns. In 1867, he and Azad, under the auspices of Anjuman-e Punjab, Lahore, asserted the need for disengaging from romantic ideals and express new realities. Azad reiterated this concern in an address in 1874. Before the coming of the poets owing their allegiance to the Progressive Writers’ Movement, poets like Iqbal (1877-1938) and Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), wrote poetry of religio-philosophical vision and nationalistic and political fervour. Other poets like Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982), Shad Azimabadi (1846-1927 ) Hasrat Mohani (1875-1961), and Yagana (1884-1956) wrote a kind of poetry that followed the grand ghazal tradition of Urdu poetry which had to undergo a major transformation with the coming of the poets since the 1930s.


[2] Two dictators--Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy—persisted with their policies of territorial expansion which was one of the reasons for the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

[3] Colombia–Peru War (1 September 1932 – 24 May 1933), Chaco War (15 June 1932 – 10 June 1935), Second Sino-Japanese War (7 July 1937 – 9 September 1945), World War II outbreaks on September 1, 1939, Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936 – 1 April 1939) and Castellammarese War (1929 - 10 September 1931).


[4] It swayed several countries like Japan, Spain, Russia, Italy, and Germany. The coming to power of Nazi party in Germany, for example, in 1933 by employing coercive methods, was an open declaration of fascist policies that led to the repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, indulgence in persecution of Jews, territorial expansion, and sharp opposition to socialism.


[5] Following the Japanese capture of Manchuria in 1931, Italy invaded Ethiopia during the second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935-36. 


[6] The Indian freedom struggle led by Mahatama Gandhi by employing non-violent means and by resorting to Satyaraha and the famous Dandi March in 1930, is a major example that goes diametrically against the authoritarian governance that was tearing the world apart.


[7] This may be testified by the price decline that took place during 1929-31 whereby it was estimated to be thirty six percent compared to twenty seven percent in UK and twenty six percent in US. Source: Manikumar, K. A. 2003. A Colonial Economy in the Great Depression, (1929–1937). Madras: Orient Blackswan, p. 9

[8] Literary history bears out quite amply that writers from all times and sites have always responded to political events and interpreted them in literary terms in their own ways. Written during the 30s, the poetry of W. H. Auden and other poets of his group may be quoted as suitable example to illustrate this point. Reference may also be made to some fictional works from the English speaking world written during this decade which include: F. Scott FitzgeraldTender Is the Night (1934), J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit (1937), Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932), John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Of Mice and Men (1937), Ernest HemingwayTo Have and Have Not (1937), John Dos PassosU.S.A trilogyWilliam Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934), and Butterfield 8 (1935).


[9] For Ahmed Ali’s association with Progressive Writers Movement, see Zeno, ‘Prof. Ahmed Ali and Progressive Writers Movement,’ Annual of Urdu Studies, University of Wisconsin: Madison, 9, 39-43.

[10] The manifesto reads as follows:

“Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict a new society is emerging. The spirit of reaction however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.

It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist in the spirit of progress in the country. Indian literature, since the breakdown of classical literature, has had the fatal tendency to escape from the actualities of life. It has tried to find a refuge from reality in spiritualism and idealism. The result has been that it has produced a rigid formalism and a banal and perverse ideology.

Witness the mystical devotional obsession of our literature, its furtive and sentimental attitude towards sex, its emotional exhibitionism and its almost total lack of rationality. Such literature was produced particularly during the past two centuries, one of the most unfortunate periods of our history, a period of disintegrating feudalism and of acute misery and degradation for the Indian people as a whole.

It is the object of our association to rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future.

While claiming to be the inheritors of the best traditions of Indian civilisation, we shall criticise ruthlessly, in its political, economic and cultural aspects, the spirit of reaction in our country and we shall foster through interpretive and creative work (with both native and foreign resources) everything that will lead our country to the new life for which it is striving. We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today — the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjugation, so that it may help us to understand these problems and through such understanding help us to act.

With the above aims in view. the following resolutions have been adopted:

• The establishment of organisations of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India; the coordinations of these organisations by holding conferences, publishing of magazines, pamphlets, etc.

• To cooperate with those literary organisations whose aims do not conflict with the basic aims of the association.

• To produce and translate literature of a progressive nature and of a high technical standard; to fight cultural reaction; and in this way, to further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration.

• To strive for the acceptance of a common language (Hindustani) and a common script (Indo-Roman) for India. [This demand was later dropped in appreciation of the India's multilingual structure--ed.]

• To protect the interests of authors; to help authors who require and deserve assistance for the publication of their works.

• To fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion”.

(Quoted in Mir, Ali Husain and Mir, Raza. 2006. Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Urdu Poetry. New Delhi: Roli Books.

[11] Important writers associated with the movement included Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Rasheed Jahan, Sadat Hasan Manto, Mohammad Deen Taseer,   Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Vijaydan Detha, Khagendra Thakur, Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Premchand, Amrita Pritam, Sahir Ludhianavi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ghulam Rabbani Taban, Jan Nisar Akhter.


[12] For a detailed discussion of this publication see Shabana Mahmud, ‘Angare and the Founding of Progressive Writers’ Association,’ Modern Asian Studies, 30 (2), 39-43.


[13] Raipuri had first written an article entitled ‘Adab aur Zindagi’ (‘Literature and Life’) to illustrate at length what  Sajjad Zaheer had laid out as the aim of the Progressive Writers‘ Association. It was published both in Urdu and Hindi to reach to a larger readership.


[14] See Mahfil interview of Rashed where he speaks at length about Halqa-i-Arbab-e Zauq (Circle of Connoisseurs). Mahfil, 7 (1-2) Spring-Summer 1971.


[15] Responses to his first anthology, Mawara, which created almost a stir for the new literary

methods Rashed had employed, were unduly harsh. A good account of his unacceptability at the beginning of his career may be seen in his Mahfil interview. Mahfil, 7 (1-2) Spring-Summer 1971.


[16] Some of these include V. G. Kiernan, Poems by Faiz (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971; Daud Kamal, Selected Poems of Faiz ( Karachi: Pakistan Publishing House, 1984); Faiz A. Faiz: The Living World (Tunis: Lotus Books, 1987); Mouin and Alex la Guma, A Black Rainbow Over My   Homeland, a commemorative volume on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, (New Delhi: Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, n.d.); Naomi Lazard, The True Subject (Princeton University Press, 1989); Agha Shahid Ali, The Rebel’s Silhouette (Deli: OUP, 1992), Shiv K. Kumar, Selected Poems (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1995); Sarwat Rahman,  Hundred Poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, Hind Pocket Books, 2002, 2009); Salima Hashmi and Shoaib Hashmi, A Song for This Day: Fifty two Poems by Faiz Ahmed  Faiz (Karachi: Sang-e Meel Publications, 2009)





Works Cited


Faiz, Faiz Ahmed. 1988. ‘Faiz on Faiz,’ The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl: Poems of Faiz Ahmed

Faiz. Tr. Daud Kamal. Selected and ed. Khalid Hasan. Ahmedabad: Allied Publishers.


Habib, M. A. R. 2007.  ‘T. S. Eliot and Modernism in Urdu Poetry,’ Annual of Urdu Studies,

University of Wisconsin: Madison, 22.


Iman, Akhtar-ul. 2010. Is Abaad Kharabey Mein. Delhi: Urdu Academy.

Mahfil Interview. 1971. Interview with N. M. Rashed. 1-2 (Summer-Spring). (Mahfil later came

to be known as Journal of South Asian Literature)

Malik, Hafeez, ‘The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan,’ The Journal of South

Asian Studies. 26  (4), August 1967.


Patel, Geeta. 2002. ‘Miraji’s Response to the Progressives,’ Lyrical Moments, Historical

Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rahman, Anisur. 1995. Fire and the Rose: An Anthology of Modern Urdu Poetry. New Delhi:

Rupa & Co.

Zaidi, Ali Jawad. 2006. A History of Urdu Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.