Don’t let the light go out
In 1981, the cinema theatre near my home in Calcutta became a mehfil-e-mushaira. At the end of each show, majnoohs walked out of the darkness humming tunes and reciting ghazals. Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan allowed non-Urdu speakers to revel in the richness of Urdu culture, which most of us non-Muslims saw as exotic and attractive, yet distant. (Muslim culture would be further rendered exotic in 1982 in two films, Nikaah and Deedar-e-yaar.) These are all films of decline, where a supposedly homogenous Muslim culture is rife with problems – some easy to overcome (divorce rates), and others intractable (the demise of the kotha culture). The elegance of the language thrilled many urbane Indians, who enjoyed the patois but felt uncomfortable with the working-class and rural sections that actually spoke it.
As Ali’s movie thrilled, Biharsharif burned. The local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chapter provoked a major fight over cemetery land, the first confrontation since 1945. The riot that ensued left many dead, and inaugurated a new dynamic in Indian politics. In the mid-1980s, 60 riots shook the small towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh. Late in that decade, in 1987, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana (written by Rahi Masoom Raza) entered the homes of millions of people. All this prepared the terrain for the rise of Hindutva, and for the mayhem of the 1990s.
Umrao Jaan’s lyricist Shahryar anticipated this evolution, as the courtesan travels to Faridabad, the town that neighbours Ayodhya, and sings, “Yeh kya jageh hai, doston.” What kind of place is this, friends?
With Anthems of Resistance, Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir, two brothers hailing from Hyderabad, in the Deccan, come bearing a substantial gift. Archaeologists of a lost sensibility, they tear the wild foliage of communal hatred aside and take us to a promised land: this is not freedom itself, but the articulation of revolution by a generation of poets. The story begins in 1934, at a Chinese restaurant in London, where some of the greatest artists of the day met to found the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). Their unabashedly modernist manifesto called upon artists 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.”
The Urdu writers in the group inaugurated a tradition known as taraqqi-pasandi (progressivism), and poets such as Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi wrote revolutionary anthems to shake off the cobwebs of custom for the creation of an enlightened future. Majaz, in 1933, offered “1917” as example:
Kohsaaron ki taraf se surkh aandhi aayegi
Jabaja aabaadiyon mein aag si lag jaayegi
Aur is rang-e shafaq mein ba-hazaraan aab-o taab
Jagmagaaega vatan ki hurriyat ka aaftaab
(A red storm is approaching from over the mountains
Sparking a fire in the settlements
And on this horizon, amidst a thousand tumults
Shall shine the sun of our land’s freedom.)
The progressive writers, who delved into the rich resource of the Urdu language and the imagery of Urdu poetry, delivered verse at a prodigious rate. During the 1930s and 1940s, there remained spaces for poets to enthral (mostly male) audiences, and to find their couplets on the lips of millions who went in search of freedom. These were, as Ali and Raza Mir put it, “anthems of resistance”. But from the start, they came with equal parts hope and disappointment. A decade after the inauguration of the PWA, the Subcontinent parted and the full freedom of the socialist imagination never happened. Sahir Ludhianvi bemoaned the “same procession of robbers”, who now “wear new clothes”. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s evocative “1947” poem begins wearily and despondently, “Yeh daagh, daagh ujaala, ye shab gazeeda sahar” (This tarnished light, this ashen dawn), and then asks, “Where did the morning breeze come from, which way did it depart?”
But their grief did not last long. Ali and Raza Mir tell us that the poets were “disillusioned by the nation-state” – although it seems from their own evidence that they were merely angered at the direction taken by the new countries. Strong poems for the Telengana fighters (from Makhdoom) or against religious obscurantism (from Kaifi Azmi) indicate that these poets sought to throw in their lot with the struggles of the people to build a better world. Their despondency did not remove them from the fight – too much was at stake. The claustrophobia of their feudal society, the chimera of capitalist freedom and the frustrations of thwarted desire for independence led them, as with Sikandar from M S Sathyu’s 1973 Garam Hawa, into the arms of the communist and people’s struggles.
Theirs is the tradition of song, the ghazal, and it is fitting that the poets found employment writing songs for Hindi cinema. Sahir, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh and others took to the medium with gusto. Pyaasa, from 1957, was the apex, with Sahir’s red-hot indictment of the political class:
Zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao
Ye kooche, ye galiyaan, ye manzar dikhaao
Jinhen naaz hai Hind par unko laao
Jinhen naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hai?
(Go, fetch the leaders of the nation
Show them these streets, these lanes, these sights
Summon them, those who are proud of India
Those who are proud of India, where are they?)
Currents that had borne this generation of poets along and extended their political horizon now began to shift. Between 1947 and the early 1970s, the dominant classes in India were held back from self-exertion by the clamp of secular, socialist nationalism. The state did not move in a communist direction, but it also did not move toward full-fledged market capitalism. The freedom movement charged the government with the regulation of license and the sheltering of the indigent. By the 1970s, the freedom movement’s coalition exhausted its potential, and its objective basis withered; globalisation’s lures smashed the import-substitution industrialisation model. The patriotism of the bottom line dominated over forms of national solidarity.
The thug was now as much a hero as the outcast (Awara) and the inherently socialist farmer (Do Bighaa Zamin). Cinema’s Muslim, for instance, was not to be the exotic nobleman or the nationalist partisan, but rather the gangster’s ruthless henchman, the miyanbhai. Cinema’s music also withered. Repetitive beats and meaningless lyrics pulsated through storylines that reflected either the pursuit of wealth or the individualistic revenge of the slum child. The poet no longer controlled the lyric, but was told to produce a set piece. “It is like being told that a grave has already been dug,” Kaifi Azmi grunted, “and now an appropriately sized corpse has to be found to fit in it.”
As the progressives died, their tradition appeared to die with them. But Ali and Raza Mir point us in two particular directions, from both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. Pakistan’s Kishwar Naheed and India’s Javed Akhtar, both born in the early 1940s, are heirs of the tradition, but marked by their different locations. Anthems of Resistance offers a chapter dedicated to the work of the latter, who stands in for an entire tradition. Akhtar commands a large audience – not only because he is one of the premier songwriters for Hindi cinema, but also because he has parlayed his success into a poetry career. He does not mimic the tradition that he comes from, but has produced a style in keeping with the modern age. A mirror placed before the world shows it to be venal and hypocritical. Akhtar also inherited the tradition from his family (his father wrote for the cinema, and his maternal uncle was Majaz), and it was perhaps irrelevant that the broader culture had begun to turn away from the mehfil and its charms.
Kishwar Naheed, on the other hand, worked within a different social framework, where Urdu had not lost its central place. Naheed and other feminist poets (Femida Riyaz, Ishrat Afreen, etc), Ali and Raza Mir explain, “are the true inheritors of the tradition of progressive poetry, its champions, and its trailblazers”. Pakistani arts cultivated that milieu, and its social conditions produced its poets. Zia-ul Huq’s misogynist laws, the disembowelment of Pakistani civil society and the increased militarisation of the state created the objective conditions for sentiments such as this, by Kishwar Naheed:
Ye hum gunahgaar auraten hain
Ke sach ka parcham utha ke niklen
To jhoot se shaah-raahen ati mile hain
Hare k dahleez pe sazaaon ki daastaanen rakhi mile hain
Jo bol sakti theen voh zubaanen kati mile hain
(It is we sinful women
Who, when we emerge carrying aloft the flag of truth
Find highways strewn with lies
Find tales of punishment placed at every doorstep
Find tongues which could have spoken, severed.)
In May 2002, Kaifi Azmi passed on. The fires from Gujarat continued to smoulder, and the anguish of those bitten by the snake of communalism weighed heavily on progressive hearts. A generation had passed away, but its problems had been bequeathed to another. The generation of the PWA poets had worked in an internationalist era where poetry had been meaningful to a broad segment of society; the same could be said for Chile’s Pablo Neruda or Turkey’s Nazim Hikmet. Now, outside the lyrics of cinema music, poetry does not command the kind of mass audience that it once did.
Not for nothing, then, is Anthems of Resistance a celebration – a nostalgic look at a combative tradition that no longer has a popular appeal. The feminist poets of Pakistan and Javed Akhtar’s verse continue the form of the Progressive Writers’ Association, but they cannot have its impact on the broader culture. The medium has shifted, and others, in different media than poetry, will carry forward the values of the PWA. That is the hope of Ali and Raza Mir’s evocative and powerful book. If not, what kind of place is this, friends?