Suchetana – Sir, Thank you for agreeing to give an interview on PWA. I would like to begin by asking how and when did Progressive Writers Movement start because the movement gave birth to the association.
Anisur Rahman – Yes. I think the story is rather long in the sense that you will have to go back to the 30s, 1930s which is a very consequential time in the history of the world so to say entirely. If you look at the very beginning, the Wall Street crash in 1929 or so-called the Black Tuesday and if you take the journey on from there, you will find that several things were happening all over the world especially in two domains, that is, economy and politics. After the Wall Street crash, then you have the great depression that follows and it makes its impact everywhere. Economic recession as a kind of a significant changes taking place in society, culture, politics, economy all over the world, you will find that this is also the time of greatest strifes, of catastrophes, of I would say wars and skirmishes between nations. Say for example, you have the case of Germany, then you have Italy, China, Japan, Ethiopia, Spain and finally the Second World War. So almost all the nations were very very clearly involved in what was happening. Either they were the causes and they were also bearing the brunt of all that was happening all around. As a result of which both the economic and the political climates so to say was totally disrupted and disturbed. It made its impact in another way because you also have, this is also the time of colonisation and also the time when colonisation started. So decolonisation also was taking place.
So if you look at this and that 30s, on the one hand the economic condition, then the political condition and colonisation. And also the efforts at decolonisation. As a result of which the response that we have, we have in the domains of art and more importantly the domain of literature. A very interesting thing is this that it doesn’t happen at one place. For example, if you look at the literatures being produced elsewhere you will find that the echoes of 1930 come in very strange ways. Like for example, the early poetry of W.H.Auden that was happening in America. A text like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird but ours is a different story. And we and say for example in 1930s when everything was happening, some of our Indians, young Indians at that point of time who were in England were watching what was happening all over the world and they were studying in England at that point of time and they wanted to get back to their country and look at their own context and see how things could get better.
So what happened at that point of time is this that not only India but elsewhere things were taking a...for a change say in part literature cultures and society itself. You have simultaneously other things happening like for example the Russian Authors Guild. Then you have in Paris a great conference, The World Conference of the Writers just as it happened during the romantic movement in England when France was, the French Revolution was taking place. Earlier romantics and England setting and beyond that say from across the English channel whatever was happening was being very closely watched by Wordsworth and Coleridge. There is a parallel. There is an analogy. So these Indians students like for example Mulkraj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Mahmud-uz-Zafar, there were several persons who came together from that, of course with different kind of literature and the social dynamics have changed, the economic and the political and the cultural dynamics have changed. So they come back to India after having thought of what is happening and what was happening in France and what was happening in Russia as well as far as literature is concerned.
So that is the time when you look at the Indian context and that is the time when the Progressive Writers Movement takes shape and after that the association takes its birth, the manifesto is created. So the Indian chapter or the Indian story with Progressive Writers Movement from then onwards, say mid 30s, I would say probably. And it takes place as you know ... which is more importantly starting takes place, more important than others, you have great progressive writers and literature being written in Hindi and in Bangla and in Malayalam at the same time. So that is the initial story. After that the Indian chapter starts its work in a significant way.
Suchetana – Sir, what do we exactly mean by progressive literature. What is progressive in case of literature?
Anisur Rahman – I would respond to this question in two ways. One is that it is contextual. If you look at this word progressive in a context, the context which I have just narrated, socio-economic-political-cultural etc, so you have to look beyond. You have to negate, you have to get out of the mentality or the kind of a sensibility that created or that gave birth to a certain kind of traumatic literature, for example in Hindi and Urdu, the literature that was being written was supposed to be very troubling so we have drawn this wholly on that. Considering especially the times in which we were living and the times were different, therefore progressive. What, as Premchand said, on literature especially progressive, you don’t have to write, you can’t write of things because after all literature must have its contemporary relevance. So it has to progress. And Premchand when he said and others when they quote the same views, they were responding to their times and also to the call of literature, broadly speaking, that literature can’t be retro..., you must look at the times in which and you must see the context in which it was written. And from that point of view it is progressive.
So first thing is that it has to be contextualised, it has to be seen in relation to the time, the place and also broadly speaking what progressive means as such which means that it was a step towards modernism. And I would say in Urdu for example or in Hindi, Bangla and Malayalam this is a very significant movement in the sense that it...ways for modernism to come in. So from this point of view progressive writers movement and the work of this association is very significant. This is a kind of bridge I would say. So it is a bridge between the old and the new decades to come. There may be some people and there are people I understand, some critics who say that the progressive writers are propagandists basically. May be. Maybe they are right to a certain extent. But they are very significant. I do not know of any literature literary movement world over where history and politics and the literature in society have been so immensely, the literature gets out of, worn out of this political and the economitory. So from this point of view I would say that the progressive writers movement was a very significant step towards modernism.
Suchetana – So taking a cue from your statement can we say that modernism in India enters in literature through the movement of PW. If we say something modern, the period, if we look at...I know Indian literature can’t be periodised in a universal way but if we still look at trying to periodise it, so do we think that this is the modern era for Indian literature.
Anisur Rahman – Yes, as far as Urdu is concerned and I understand similar is the case with other literatures, as I said this is the bridge. If you look at the history, the development of Urdu literature most specially poetry, we would see at the turn of the century two persons who come on the front, very significant voices, Altaf Hussain Hali and Mohammad Hussain Azad and they gave the call for the big poem to be written because they thought that whatever was being written so far or had been written so far was, it didn’t respond to the times. It was very romantic, very magical, it didn’t really portray the realities of the world. The world was changing very fast, colonisation was there and we had to be colonised and lots of things were there. So they said that poetry especially poetry has to give a start.
They also said that Urdu poetry must get out of creative......the new diction, the new imagery, the new themes, the entire conditions that they were trying to prescribe. So they gave a call and they succeeded partially but also it took time for modernism to arrive. So that is the beginning at the turn of this century.
But when the progressive comes on the scene, two very important things happen as far as books are concerned. One is a book by Akhtar Hussain Raipuri, Adab aur Inquilab (Literature and Revolution), a Marxist text, a very important text. And that made way, created recognition for... Another book, Roshanai which is a book of select writings on progressive writers and their writings. So these two books created a condition. They defined the times afresh and they wanted that literature must and should be written according to this. Of course there were also some poets who were writing at that point of time who didn’t completely subscribe to this but most of them. So it was a big movement that had been expressed. So what I am trying to say is this that they were trying to make, find their voice, evolve in a medium, completely new poetic so to say which was far far away from the poetics that was being followed earlier by poets at the time when Hali was writing and Mohammad Hussain Azad was writing. So till Iqbal you can say it was happening like this. So progressive got a window to modernists.
And during the same time there was another group of writers who were writing, poets especially. If you would go for an English translation, then it will be circle of connoisseurs. In Urdu we call it... So you have poets like Meeraji...not a progressive one. Like say for example a poet like Noon Meem Rashid, N.M.Rashid, so he is not a progressive writer. They are modernists of a very different kind, more like Eliot, like Paul. So at the same time this was happening also which means they didn’t subscribe so clearly to the progressive politics and aesthetics. But among the progressives also you have very powerful voices like for example Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz you know has become an institution. No poet has been read and worked upon and sung so much as much as Faiz has been celebrated. Some people say that Faiz has been over celebrated but that is a different question. So these were the two extremes taking place at the same time. So I would say that while Meeraji and Noon Meem Rashid started the high moralist trends in poetry, these poets who were not with the (hadta!!!) of the day, who did not belong to the circle of connoisseurs, they were writing poetry on social realism. They were writing poetry of great political awakening and they were thinking of ...social system of social justice and economy and all these things that derived concern. So this is definitely the time when modernism takes a leap and then after that it goes into different directions.
Suchetana – Now as you mentioned socialist realism, it is often....now we know that socialist realism as a genre has been much talked about in Indian context with regard to progressive. So how much do you think this because as far as I am aware that it is a European genre, a genre which developed in Europe and specifically in Russia, Soviet at that point of time. So how much did it influence the literary form of the progressives, one. And the second being, if you could elucidate on what exactly is socialist realism.
Anisur Rahman – To put very simply to understand society in the real context, the contemporary context, the things as they are and also behind that, things as they should be because there is a dissatisfaction and therefore there is a view and a vision that you have for the future, so things as they are with which we are not happy and things as they should be, that is there is a dream, there is an aspiration. So this social realism is not something which you can isolate and say that it can be looked in separation from everything else in life and society. You have to take into account the political climate, you have to take into account the economic condition, the suffering of the people. You have to view life afresh. I will give you an example.
In a progressive writers, when this meet, at the Lucknow meet in 1936, when Premchand gives his presidential address, he speaks a very important sentence there. He says, ‘hamein husn ka miyad badalna hoga’, we will have to change the standards of beauty. Now this beauty is now different. I am reminded of something very similar, it is very analogous in the sense that some said in the English context that no longer can we write poetry of the Rose and the Rolls Royce, we now have to write poetry of and we now have to discover the horror and the boredom and the ugliness of life. So this horror and this boredom, this ugliness that is very close to social...you see what is happening. So the reality as it is and what it should be. I could illustrate this by saying that in India of course this was with the progressive writers especially in Urdu, it happened with progressive writers, this idea of social realism and social justice and all these things came to be.
I will give you an example, say for example, if we look at the poems, I will talk about poems because they are more metaphorical and ...in expression. So for example if you look at the poems by early Faiz or even later you can see, a poem like Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na kar or a poem in a similar vein by Sardar Jaffry where he says tu mujhe itne pyar se mat dekh, don’t look at me so fondly because the world has changed, the situations are now different. You have poems by Jan Nisar Akhtar, you have poems by Vamik Jaunpuri, you have poems by Sardar Jaffri and several other poets who were writing at that point of time. And Majaz for example. And poems that were very clearly political in the sense that there are poems on capitalism, sarmayadari. There is a poem in which the poet looks at the beloved in a different way and says that this anchal of yours could also be a flag. So let the figure of the woman change, this anchal may not be an anchal of beauty, it can be a flag, it can announce a revolution. So things like this. This is realism, this is understanding times of the context, social, economic and political. So that was the time.
Of course you are right in saying that it was something very European but I would say that one of the features and one of the important things about progressive writers movement that we should remember is this that it brought to the fore what social realist fiction means and what social realist poetry means and where lies the essence of life as it has to be understood today, how it has to be contextualised, how is the text being changed.
For example, this is a new text, this is a new author, this author is no longer a romantic one and this is no longer the poetry or the fiction that you can read at leisure and then you can fall asleep. This is not the kind. This challenges you. This interrogates, this puts a question, this is not something like a language, it is not romantic, it is very different, so realism from this point of view can be like this.
Suchetana – Now that you say this that this is the time or the kind of poetry or let’s say literature written that boils your blood, that gives you a call to change. Now given the socio-political scenario of 1930s in India the manifesto of the progressive writers claims that it is an anti-fascist organisation because of the growth of fascism all over the world.
Anisur Rahman – Hitler and Mussolini?
Suchetana – Right, Hitler and Mussolini as you rightly put in the beginning of the interview. Now how much was it justified or how did the progressives justify themselves being an anti-fascist organisation to operate from an anti-imperialist stand.
Anisur Rahman – I think those things come to...anti-imperialist and anti-fascist. To extend the same question and the same answer that you put earlier about social realism, you could say that there is a very interesting poem by Vamik Jaunpuri if I remember right, Bhukha hai Bangal, bhukha hai bangal re saathi, bhukha hai.
Suchetana – In fact I ...a programme called bhukha hai Bangal.
Anisur Rahman – Now this is also another part of social realism. But this also relates with decolonisation, this also relates with the new farming policy because after the great depression the economic policies that were changing and especially the British economic policies in India that were changing, the victim was agriculture. So the produce and the proceeds from there, the produce and the proceeds both were very very severely impacted as a result of which there was so much of suffering. So you can rate it both ways, as far as colonial policy is concerned and also as far as the political and the economic policies are concerned and all these things are taken together. So the rise of fascist forces, totalitarian forces, expansionist tendencies, so progressive writers movement is an answer to that. It tries to negotiate with that and tries to speak by creating its own kinds of metaphor, by creating its own figures of resistance. Now this word resistance for example, this is something that we use now and I understand it is the progressive who should be seen as writing the finest resistance literature ever.
And you also at the same time think that there is much literature that has been written because it is written according to manifesto and you know literature cannot be written according to a manifesto. Manifestos are very topical and very time bound sometimes as you can see. It reminds me of the imagists. So when T.E.Hulme comes up with the list of the dos and the don’ts of poetry, well, it did succeed for a time, say for about a decade but after that they lost their vigour and their vitality and that flame was lost. So everyone who were put in that anthology did write according to certain manifesto, this is the kind of image that you have to use, this is the kind of language and this is how you have to project yourself, this is the poet and this is the theme, the idea but after a few years everyone started writing his or her own kind of poetry. Similarly here also you will find that they were writing according to certain ideology, so it was very ideology based poetry or ideology based story but later and that is why some of these stories and some of these poems became very topical and also they didn’t serve the purpose of that literature which stays beyond time, that is, which has a greater shelf life.
But probably among the progressive you have certain very important texts and they are the texts which have longer shelf life historically as well as for their literary merit, historical importance as well as their literary merit. So this is the kind condition. So this progressive writers movement has to be contextualised in relation to the decolonisation and the imperialist forces that is to say and then the fascist...so a kind of a protest. So this is the highest kind of resistance, protest literature that was being produced. So it has to be taken....
Suchetana – Do you think that the publication and proscription of Angaarey in 1933 actually created a kind of base for let’s say the popularity of progressives in one way and even there were certain voices that were getting silenced with the ban of Angaarey in 1933. So would you just talk about this controversy and the debate of Angaarey.
Anisur Rahman – This Angaarey and one more book which I mentioned, that is, Adab aur Inquilab, Literature and Revolution, these are very vital texts and also Roshanai. Now these three texts if you take together, they are very forward looking texts especially Angaarey. It was for the first time that the reader, the Urdu reader specially got to know of a person called Freud and got to know of a story writer like D.H.Lawrence. So suddenly the world of Urdu readers was exposed to what ....obviously joined in....and psychologists and progressive writers. So this was very forward looking from that point of view. As far as the themes are concerned, they were very bold and naturally when you do something for the first time, you shock, you give a shock, you surprise. People are not ready to take it as it is. But it takes some time to settle down and then to see things from some distance also and so there has to be a clinical detachment. It was not possible at that point of time to think of sex and to think of certain very explicit situations, explicit experiences that you talked about. So what they were doing is this, they were saying things for the first time and in a new style and in a new idiom which was very shocking and surprising and therefore not accepted. This happens, this is not surprising. When modernism comes in poetry, this was also very shocking and surprising but then you get used to it. So this is the change of the poetics, this is the change of the yardsticks and once you get used to it, so for the first time when you do something, that shocks and surprises but then you start absorbing.
So it is a shock that you start absorbing in a little while. That is what happened with Angaaray also. Now Angaaray has its historical importance like several other texts of the progressive, it has a very very clear historical significance and one can’t even deny. And those few stories in Angaaray, Rashid Jahan etc. and another important point is this that a woman was also writing like this. Then you came across a writer like Ismat Chugtai who came up with her own kind of literature which was not easily acceptable coming from a Muslim, coming from a woman, coming at a point of time when such kind of literature....actually they were not writing the kind of literature or story or poetry that they expected to gain popularity overnight and I remember I think it was Lawrence Durrell who said that ‘Beware of the poetry that makes its place overnight.’ So this is not the poetry that was making its waves overnight because it was making its place slowly and Angaaray......
Anisur Rahman – And it is very significant, historical importance and very very experimental. So that is why I said it is a very forward looking text. Very forward looking text in theme as well as in style. The narration was very different and that is why it is very typically modernistic, the attitude that they developed towards life.
Suchetana – So do you think that the progressives of let’s say beginning from 30s in Urdu language trying to write more, trying to let’s say change the idioms of poetry more or the prose or the narratives more or they were balanced. Why I ask you this is because as we are taking it for granted to certain extent that the progressives (Marxists) were ideologically inclined to certain things, Marxists. Now whether they were propagating it or not in their writing, I think it changes from writer to writer. We cannot say that everyone was being propagandist from the very beginning, many of them were not. And now keeping that in mind, poetry in itself demands precision and prose in itself demands a kind of elaboration, a kind of narrative. So do you think in order to politically place their ideology or let’s say if not politically also, whatever they believed in it was the forms of poetry they were trying to change or the forms of prose and narrative that they were trying to change.
Anisur Rahman – very rightly and very relevant question I would say in poetry. I would say that we cannot very clearly separate poetry from prose or poetry from short story. Therefore you have to take both together. You can’t say that this poetry and poetry alone is important and stories are not. Similarly that stories alone are important. That is not right to say. Which means that you have to take, develop a holistic view. Having said that, and you were very right in saying that in prose you are more expository, you are explaining more, there is little place for metaphor maybe there. You work through a statement. But that also happened in poetry at that point of time in the progressives that the loss of metaphor does take place at some point. It recovers and metaphors and symbols, they recover later when the modernists come on the scene. For example, at the same point of time when N.M.Rashid was writing and even Faiz, he was also creating metaphor. And for example, the red colour, the blood. So I would say that in some of the poets you see that it comes very close to a statement and poetry is not a statement. Poetry works in a different manner. It works even through silence. So some of these poets were not as effective as a modernist poet would rather be because he works through the technique of indirection, through the technique of suggestion but all poetry written at any point of time is not significant. Therefore we cannot charge the progressive poets only because most of their poetry or even a major part of their poetry was a propaganda. That is why this charge comes, when there is a propagandist element. True, partially true but we have to look at the entire context in which this poetry was written. And as I said all poetry written at all points of time is not significant. So you will have to sift. You will have to see which is more important and which is to be taken aside and not to be taken into consideration. So time tells that story.
Now I think this is the appropriate time to talk about the progressives because the 30s are over, 40’s is over, now we are in millennium century. We are looking back and trying to assess, it takes time. There has to be some objective, some detachment has to be there. So we are detached from the situation. We are living in a post-colonial condition, post colonial India. So progressives are in fact a very significant chapter, three or four languages of India and they made a dent, they made a mark and they brought us very close to modernism. Their poetry and prose have to be taken into account. They have to be looked today from another perspective as well, that is, if you look at the aspect of art and aesthetics and how does that work. So there is enough scope to work even today on how does the art and aesthetics from progressive writers did find its place and how much did it suffer.
For example, there is an idea of how did and if at all it does, how did metaphor suffer? How does language or the idiom or the diction of the progressive writers is much close to a statement, the poetry or the literature of the statements. So these are the questions that one might address and these are very relevant questions to address but I do understand that this was the time when language was trying to redefine itself and so when you redefine something you can’t set standards. Readers have to wait for some time for the voice to concretise and for the images to come with greater clarity and for the metaphors to mature. So naturally this is a time in which experimentations were also being made, new ideas and new themes and new techniques of writing were coming in. So I think this idea that poetry and prose maybe taken separately may not be very right. They have to be taken together and also sometimes in poetry there is a statement, the language of prose comes very handy but at the same time you have certain stories where that idea of suggestiveness, that idea of illusion, for example, in the stories of Angaaray itself, the kind of literature that was being created by Ahmed Ali for example. So you have that kind of a thing.
In certain poets for example, Kaifi Azmi, and if you try and compare you can’t translate the poetry of Faiz for example or Maqdoom Mohiuddin for example, he was a very great activist and several of them were activists, so you will find that in some poets statement precedes, takes over and in some poets it is not a statement, it is very well negotiated, very well formulated, very well negotiated and there that is why Faiz exceeds better than others because he can create that metaphor, he can create that symbol, he can write in a language. So he wants his diction. He had another advantage of his training, of his knowledge of his awareness of Urdu, Persian, English, Arabic. So he drew from many sources and that is how he could and he taught literature also. But he was an activist and he was an editor and he was arrested. So he had broader exposure to life and to literature and to arts and aesthetics and everything. And he had travelled much, he had passed through all kinds of situations, political, even of that he had experienced himself, he was arrested. So he led a very full life and he created a kind of literature out of all this. So this had served as his hinterland experience from which he comes and from that vantage point he speaks. So in him you will find that there was a greater appeal in his poetry but what makes Faiz more appealing is the kind of rhythm that he developed in his poetry. Probably the progressive poets at that point of time did develop this kind of thing. So there was a certain amount of musicality and that is why you see that he has been sung the best.
Suchetana – Now that you say, the immediate example that comes to my mind is Hum Dekhenge....
Anisur Rahman – Hum Dekhenge, Tarana is there, Dua is there, wonderful poems are there. Mujhse pehli sazaa is there. Bol is a very powerful poem. Bol ke lab azad hai tere. There were several, Dhaka se Wapsi par, Subh e Azaadi....
Suchetana – So these all had political inclinations, statements in it but still it stood out as poetry.
Anisur Rahman – As poetry because Faiz could negotiate it better than some other poets. Of course I understand Majaz was a very important poet. Jan Nisar Akhtar was a very important poet. There were several others. Some poems of Vamik Jaunpuri also were very very important especially this poem which reads like a slogan but it has great contemporary relevance which I referred to, the Bengal famine. (Bhukha hai Bangal) So there were several others but definitely Faiz stands out.
Well, there is another opinion about Faiz. See there is a triology sometimes, Faiz, Rashid and Meeraji. These poets were writing together, contemporaries but they write three different kinds of poetry, all of them, three different kinds of poetry. And there are critics and there are readers, sensitive ones, who say that these two poets, Meeraji and Rashid leave Faiz far behind. And that has been given cognisance. I personally believe that Meeraji and Rashid are very significant poets. Faiz has his own world where he excels very well but Meeraji and Rashid are poets of greater work...The hinterland of that experience is much wider. The kind of, apart from what they have to say, the way they put it, the rhythm that they created in their poetry is very different from the rhythm that Faiz... Faiz’s rhythm is very appealing, it pleases you, it brings you close to music, you lend your ears to that. Meeraji does it in a different manner. He rather challenges you.
For example, there is a very interesting poem of Meeraji called Jatri. It is a long prose poem, it runs into a page and a half, it doesn’t stop anywhere. Ek aaya, gaya, doosra aayega jayega, you keep on reading that poem. Great experimental poem and because Meeraji also had that kind of a background. He was very well grounded in...French and he had drawn upon several kinds of sources and he was a bohemian. People know about that, the very name that he acquired, it is very interesting the story, it has been said that he acquired his name as an ...but because he left someone, a Bengali girl called Meera Sen, so he adopted this name and called himself Meeraji, this is the story. I don’t know how far it is true but then...and he is a very...character. So about Faiz there are notions and there are people who say that Faiz of course was a very significant poet but not at the cost of the two others who were writing. As opposed to that Meeraji and Rashid were probably poets of, I would say greater but definitely much more significant repertoire compared with the progressives. They had a different aesthetics, altogether different aesthetics. It was a small group. Circle of connoisseurs was a small group and in progressives there was a larger group of people. And progressives did not stop at one particular place. They went on and they even write today in 2015, progressive writers write of hunger and economic depression and political exploitation, all that, that is all progressive writing. But of course when you say progressive writers you mean 1930s onwards, that is the time....
Suchetana – Now coming to the political aspect of PWA, we always have heard that progressives were ideologically inclined towards Marxism and they were to some extent a front organisation or a cultural organisation of the then Communist party of India. So how much do you think a cultural organisation of a leftist party which had just entered let’s say Indian politics in early 1920s, not beyond that, how much do you think that this political line actually creeped into or at all did it creep into the organisation’s functionings or let’s say did it anyway dictate its line with regard to the aesthetics of the progressive writers.
Anisur Rahman – I would say that we cannot really separate the political from the literary. This is a different age. The manifesto of the progressive writers movement if you look at it, it point wise they say these are the things that we need to do. They also emphasise upon coming together, integration, need to integrate. They also speak about language that we have to develop a language that is Hindustani. We have to develop a dialogue. And these are the issues that we have to articulate. So this is the formula given to them and that is how they have to write. But at the same time art flow, poetry that was written according to a formula that doesn’t succeed. So naturally you have to renegotiate from your own angle. So there is a difference among the progressives. Majrooh was writing one kind of poetry, Jan Nisar was writing entirely different kind of poetry. So I would say that the two cannot be separated, the political agenda and the literary agenda, there has to be a negotiation. IPTA is a very good example. It is a very good example of that. So there is an ideology but beyond that only on ideology you can produce maybe a week, unless you negotiate it artistically, unless you know dramatology, unless you know the art of delivery, the art of presentation and the stage and the audience. So unless you know that, you just can’t... I have seen their plays which don’t really function, which don’t really matter at all even if you put them on the stage, they don’t really work. It is a different matter that ‘Waiting for Godot’ did work. It was a different kind of a play altogether, very revolutionary. But I think in the case of this kind of literature, this message or this political agenda and the artistic agenda, the agenda of the artist or the writer, the call of the word, the call of the art, there has to be a negotiation and without, only those poets and writers did succeed who could negotiate between the artist and the political.
Suchetana – And I think also, this was the first time in India when the artist or the writers were having a voice of their own to make a statement politically and trying to change it socially even.
Anisur Rahman – Yes. Maqdoom Mohiuddin is the best example. He was clearly a member of the communist party, in his own region he was a very active worker and very powerful poetry at the same time that he wrote. Maqdoom Mohiuddin. Another example from this side is Sardar Jaffri. Now it is a different matter. You may agree with the worth of poetry, you may not agree. There are certain poems which don’t make much impact but I would say at the same time if you compare these two poets probably you will find Maqdoom Mohiuddin closer to the art because he speaks that language of revolution in a way that even if you are not a revolutionary, you come very close to listening to that kind of a voice. But in the hands of Sardar Jaffri for example or in the hands of Kaifi Azmi for example, maybe you don’t have similar kind of poetry, it is a different poetry where a statement seemed to be taking off quite frequently. But then the message is important, negotiation is important. So as I said all these writers were trying to negotiate in their own way and succeeding or failing in their own way as well. So not that all poetry that was written at that point of time was major, some was very....it is always that some are important. In every age some are important.
If you look at the history of literature, any literature you will find that an age is known by a few authors and you have 600/700/800 years of literary history. So..for example, English or Urdu or Hindi or Bangla, so in centuries you have ten authors, twenty authors, fifteen authors, these are the canonical authors. So same is the case with progressive. So some authors are there but the significant thing is that there is a movement and this movement is.....
So this is a movement as I said that I don’t think and I can’t think of any movement in literature that has been so significant as far as their response to the politics and the economy of the times is concerned. And that is why there is so....
Suchetana – How much do you think progressives managed to change the or let’s say leave an impact on the language based literatures that we are looking at because you already said that there were four major centres. One Urdu, Hindi, Bangla and Malayalam. So how much do you think they were able to… They were certainly able to break away from the romanticism, from the stalemates of the literary scenario of that time but with respect to language what were the changes that one can look at.
Anisur Rahman – The change is very clear. For this you will have to put it in a historical perspective once again. Say for example take the language of the poetry, the language that was used by Hali....so there is a variety there. Then you come down to Iqbal. High flowing, Persianised, idealised, philosophical, Islamic history, lots of things, very significant. A certain kind of a language. Of course Iqbal is an exception. So this language harks back to the constructions of the past, more Persianised. Hali gave a call for the poetry because they said that so far Urdu poetry had been, had excelled in....now we have to get out of it because .... was talking about only love and admitting love and the suffering and the pains of love. So we need to come out of it. Of course the call was not very well heeded to in the beginning but later it was realised it was an important call. This call really materialised with the progressives. So the language that was handed over to them by Hali and by Azad and of those who came together say in Lahore under that banner which is known as Anjuman-e-Punjab Lahore and then when you come out of there you will see that the language is rather one to one correspondence kind of a language. It gets a little more forward looking, a little more advanced when you reach the progressives. The progressives wrote in a language which was the common day to day idiom of the time. You could communicate more directly with the reader and that was the intention essentially. Whereas the intention, the reader that the earlier poets had defined was a reader who was well read, who was well educated in language, who could understand the nuances, here the poet was addressing a larger mass of people.
Say for example a very significant poem that Sahir Ludhianvi wrote at that point of time called Tajmahal, very well known poem and I have heard that when he read this poem in a mushaira in Calcutta, everyone was mesmerised, the way it was presented. And more than that for the idea, for the ideology, for the experience that he was trying to put forward. Now imagine where was he reading this, who was the audience, of course those who understood this language and also those who didn’t understand this language, that command and reach as one who knows the Urdu language. Say for example, a Bengali listening to Urdu poetry in Calcutta, he too was mesmerised just as anyone else was mesmerised. Mere mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujhse. This kind of poetry.
So what I would say that this is the situation that was developing at the time. So the language was the language of the common day to day conversation and this language had evolved out of the needs of the time. so it was need oriented language, language was being redefined by the progressives and it was moving away from the old school and it made way, as I said in the beginning, it made way for the coming of the next generation poets, the modernists and the high modernists who came after that because Meeraji and Rashid were forward looking poets.
They wrote much in advance I think. Poets like them wrote much later. So they were the people, the torch bearers who wrote the finest kind of poetry at that point of time, very romanticised and very very progressive poetry. So the experiment with language was definitely there and the idea was to develop a dialogue. That is the main reason and that is the main path, develop it so that an element of dialogue, the development of a dialogue. So poetry was as if dialogic in nature and that is what brings it very close to short stories. Short stories was also very dialogic. It was to create, develop a dialogue with the reader, the poetry too was creating. So when Sahir read that poem, it immediately, he could connect with the people because of the dialogue that he was trying to develop. He was speaking not to the beloved, he was speaking to the people. So this is an important aspect which needs to be taken into consideration.
Suchetana – With regard to PWA, what exactly happened after India gained independence and the partition.
Anisur Rahman – Say 1947/48/50 after that 60s, 60s onwards you have a very clear change. Modernist poetry in Urdu trying to seek its place. That was the time of great experimentation both in language and form. So you have a huge number of poets writing simultaneously and they were all making experiments with the language and the form. Progressives were losing fire very naturally. No movement or no milieu for example which was different from ....So loses fire after some time because new voices emerge, new techniques emerge. And that is why I said it is the bridge.
So after 60s you have a new direction that Urdu poetry was...and I understand similar was the case with Bangla and Hindi. But after 60s you have a different recognition. Language is again being defined. The experience is being looked. It is a typical post-colonial condition that was....The agenda of the progressives was not the agenda of these poets who wrote after 60s or during 60s or even after. They were more concerned with the immediate in a different manner. The challenges were over. This was the time to realise Nehruvian dream, ideologies were changing, India had become independent. So these kinds of situations were happening, the social, cultural, political domains were undergoing transformation. So it would be futile to expect that same fire would continue for some more time beyond 60s, 70s, 80s, that is not the case because then you have lots of poets who came, made great experiments, spoke in a tone, developed a voice. You have a poet like Mohammed Alvi who is not a progressive and he speaks to you and sits as if he is here sitting next to you, shaking hands, embracing him, wonderful poet. You have a poet like Adil Mansuri, sometimes you think he is absurd, so the absurd was also very....So things of this kind were happening.
You come down later in the 90s and then 2000 and now, again it seems that new myths are being created. These are not the myths from only a post-colonial society, these are the myths of the new life that you are living within your own conditions. You hardly bothered about the post-colonial, you are conditioned there, you are attuned to your own condition which you might as an academic...find. But then these poets are not that way concerned. So their ears and their eyes are open enough to much more, say to greater vistas, the impact comes to them. Of course it did come to them from the government sources, from the way English were more important than the French but the modernist writers, those who came after the 60s, 70s, 80s, they are much prone to the English, American and the European voices. So many of the experiments that they made in their poetry are also drawn from just like in the case of the Indian poets writing in English. Till Sarojini, Derozio, Sarojini and others one kind of poetry.
Then you have a sudden leap. You come to the poetry from Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Daruwala. What I say often is this that these poets have no models for them to develop upon whereas Sarojini had, Toru Dutt Dutt had, Michael Madhusudan Dutt had, they had some model to learn from. Now the poets coming after 1947, after 1950, they have no models. They developed. But so who were their models. Their models were T.S.Eliot and .....30s, again 30s, 30s was again such a significant time. Similar is the case in Urdu and in Hindi, Bangla also. So the echoes of the 30s , the ....were impacting the poets and the writers in our languages as well. But they are much more clearly audible and you can very clearly recognise that signature after 60s. For example William Carlos Williams did impact poetry, Frost did impact, T.S.Eliot was important, W.H.Auden, so this influence was very interesting to trace.
Suchetana – So do you think that say after 1947 when Sajjad Zaheer becomes the first president of Communist Party of Pakistan and Urdu becomes a language which is spoken in my neighbouring country, not any more my country, it becomes a language of the minority in my country, not a majority, how literature shaped immediately after independence because often when I have spoken to the practitioners who were there in let’s say People’s theatre Movement, they said that azaadi ke baad kuch nahin tha, After independence we really did not have anything to fight for. Do you think it was a similar call in the progressive writer’s association also that they really did not have anything to, there was no demand after independence. But as far as I realise this was not the independence they were looking forward to.
Anisur Rahman – Which Faiz very clearly said. In Subh e Azaadi he says that. Yes, to a great extent you are right that there was an agenda and the agenda was over. And still the agenda was not over because getting freedom was not the only aim. That was not the only objective. It was much more. So equity, justice even today you think of these things. We talk of the subaltern today. We talk of the Dalit today vis-a-vis ...., we talk of the gender issues today. Every age brings forth, projects its own conditions, projects its own parameters by which you write, by which rules to apply, by which you are debated. So historically speaking and as far as the literary chronology and the historical chronology goes, the progressives had a call, they listened to that call and responded to that call. But with the passage of time, of course 1947 is significant, so after that the historical and the political situation changed and so the poetry and the literature too had to change and to.....
It couldn’t have been written in the same manner it was, that is not possible. So there comes a time in Urdu literature more importantly that there is a new nation, Pakistan has come into being, Urdu is a major language there, I won’t say the national language because we say that we are a multi-lingual nation India with 22 languages etc by the constitution but in Pakistan also there is multi-lingual condition. You have Urdu, you have Sindhi, you have Saraiki, you have Punjabi, all these languages, so the literary scenario in Pakistan changes because there is an intermixing of different languages there but at the same time I would not say that Urdu literature should be viewed as Pakistani literature and Urdu literature in India. Urdu literature remains the same so far. Even Urdu critics haven’t said that this is Pakistani Urdu literature separate from, so that the division hasn’t taken place there. We know it as Urdu literature. The difference is this that the political situation has demanded a different kind of a text there. 70s is a very powerful time, very significant time in Pakistan. General Zia ul Haq, martial administrator, the kind of the plight of women, the bans and the movement of the women and then their expressions and on the television and lots of things that happened.
So there comes before you a kind of poetry which was never heard of. Poets like Fehmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, then a lot of poets were writing, clearly activist poets and also at the same time there is another very important analogy in this history but also at the same time very powerful poetry comes alive. I would not say they were just feminist poets, they were more than that, they were politically very conscious. They were on the road, they were agitating, they were being arrested, they were being harassed. So all these kinds of things. Now this is the Pakistani experience.
We had a different kind of experience. Our historical situation was different situation post 1947. So we had our own dilemmas just as they had their own dilemmas but the literature is meant to do this. So inspite of this difference in the historical condition after 1947 literature responds in both the countries in its own way but you will see that there is a great similarity between the way the language and the technique is being employed there, the language and the technique that we are employing here. To write a ghazal for example, to write a nazm for example, these are the two...in which you express yourself in poetry, so that is a very significant aspect in Pakistan as in India because after 1947 though the partition takes place but litterateurs aren’t partitioned, they aren’t. They aren’t partitioned. They are still, of course the experiential variety is there. So we have a different kind of an experiential variety. But in between you have again the growth of the progressive there as well as here. Very very modernist poets looking forward to a time which hasn’t yet come but they can probably foretell, the poet sees much in advance. This was I think, who said this, Ezra Pound, that they are the ‘antennae of their generation’. We don’t have antennas any longer. Children today don’t know what is antennae but we have seen antennae in the rooftops. So they were the antennae of that generation. So these antennas have responded and they have shown the pictures on your screen but these are naked pictures of a society, of the men and the women, the political conditions that is affecting them. So this reflection is very clearly there. So that agenda remains and it keeps on peeping, the agenda, it does differ.
Suchetana – So do you think it still peeps in 2015?
Anisur Rahman – It does. It does because there is no litterateur that doesn’t hark back and doesn’t stay in time and doesn’t ....so it does peep, the past, the present and the future, today’s poetry does respond to these three. You are writing from the present vantage point but you are also futuristic and my opinion is that today’s Urdu literary writing is very futuristic. It looks beyond time given and it looks beyond the techniques that you have been talking to. It is very experimentary, hugely experimental. It has come very close, one of the most remarkable things in poetry is that it has come very close to prose and yet it is not prose. It is very close to prose and yet not prose. And it is as charged as poetry should be and as highly metaphoric as poetry or symbolic as poetry should be. So put it differently you can say the word, the way you use verse of the word, the word becomes in English, they will be....,the metaphor of the metaphor is simplingly simple. So this is the kind of journey that you have seen and these journeys are punctuated by the ages that we have lived in. So progressive did punctuate it at one place of time. The metaphor might have suffered but the succeeding generations took it upon themselves to revive the metaphor. Now we are creating new myths about it. We are investing in 2015 when new myths of our life are being created by both the artists, it may be in the theatre, it may be in the fiction, it may be in the.... The new thing that has happened is the popular literature which used to be set aside and not taken seriously, now this is a literary condition. So even the popular is something that you have to pay heed to.
In the western world people did not read Gone with the wind with great interest and critical curiosity and here it is one of the texts that you read with greatest sincerity. The detective fiction was not read with the same honesty, with the same critical retention....so the situation has changed. New kinds of literary texts are being created. The reader is new, the author is new, the conditions in which he is writing are very new today. It is very futuristic writing that we have right now.
Suchetana – So who do you think, this is a very biased question to ask but who do you think would stand out even today as one of the greatest or say you can name many, as the greatest writers of the progressive movement who a student of literature today or let’s say a connoisseur of literature today should look back to in order to get the taste of what they are reading now.
Anisur Rahman – I would say if you look at poets it would be Faiz for the reasons which I think I have enumerated at some length. You would have Jan Nisar Akhtar. You would have Asrar ul Haq Majaz, a very important poet. You would have Sardar Jaffri. You would have Majrooh Sultanpuri. So about a dozen poets will stand out and a student of literature today will have to if he has to take a stock of the work of progressive poetry and progressive writing will have to hark back to these poets because these were the poets who were making their impact and they still are heard and sung and they are still read with great curiosity. Faiz is a very good example. Some people say that he has been overrated. That is a different literary kind of a...readers might differ, there is no doubt about it but the fact of the situation remains, the fact of the matter remains that Faiz is a very popular poet because he appeals to the common reader, the listener. You remember his poetry more than you remember anybody else’s poetry. His ..... And he was very pragmatic in his attitude towards life. And his poetry does come close to slogan but immediately it recovers and rises up. So say for example bol looks like a very statemental poem but it is not a statemental poem, Bol ke lab azaad hain tere, bol zubaan teri looks like simple prose saying someone you can do this and you can do this and you can speak now but it is beyond that.
Similarly come and raise your hands for prayer or tarana for example, post-maino ke naam, tangewalon ke naam, rickshewalon ke naam....very powerful poetry and he creates a stage. There are characters, there is a dialogue and there is a condition that he leads to you, there is a story that he is telling. That is why he stands out. Sardar Jaffri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Majaz, Majrooh Sultanpuri, these are the poets one can listen to....
One thing which I would add is this that not in the form of ghazal, mostly in the form of nazm. Nazm as you know is a regular poem in which you write any length and there are many genres.....so in the form of nazm, the regular poem so to say, they have succeeded very well there. Some of these poets did write ghazals also and in the ghazals also the same themes, the same themes that the progressives held very close to their heart, they are very much clearly expressed. But ghazal as you know remains a different art form in which you speak to the beloved and so that element is also....but the figure of the beloved has also changed. The beloved is no longer that romantic.....
Suchetana – So the form gets revolutionised.
Anisur Rahman – The form gets revolutionised, the figures get revolutionised, the human figures get revolutionised. So this is what has happened at that point of time.
Suchetana – It has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for having us and giving us this interview.