Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
Leading critic Kalimuddin Ahmad’s overview of literary criticism in Urdu, Urdu Tanqeed Par Aik Nazar, has been recently reprinted. Ahmad still carries the reputation of an iconoclast as he became known for his acrimony rather than critical acumen. His name is mainly associated with his pronouncements, especially when he declared ghazal to be a “semi-savage genre” (“neem-wehshi sinf-i-sukhan”) in the book Urdu Shairi Par Aik Nazar.
In a similar vein, Urdu Tanqeed Par Aik Nazar starts with a judgmental announcement which became better known than the book itself: Ahmad declared that literary criticism in Urdu is non-existent, like the imaginary point of Aristotle or the zero-size waistline of the beloved in classical Indo-Persian poetics. However, one cannot help but wonder how, if that is the case, can a book-length study be devoted to it, or is the study helping it come into existence? Of the many things that one may hold up against literary criticism, nothing seems farther from the truth than a complaint of dearth of material. In fact, there has been a sheer profusion, if not an explosion, and literary criticism has grown at a phenomenal rate which makes Ahmad’s work seem dated. However, his method can still be explored.
In this new edition, Urdu Tanqeed Par Aik Nazar invites discerning readers to cast a cold eye. In retrospect, Ahmad seems to be intellectually strong and learned but his attitude is more like swashbuckling. At times he seems to be out on a quixotic mission, imagining and creating adversaries out of thin air. He is dismissive of Maulvi Abdul Haq and cuts him down to size, saying that Abdul Haq is not the critic Urdu literature was waiting for. But then, Haq is respected for his research work, not for critical theories or analytical skills. One begins to wonder about the passion with which Ahmad sets out to be a one-man demolition squad.
For a field of study which he declares to be almost non-existent, Ahmad takes a historical perspective. He examines the old tazkiras and is disappointed that he does not find much critical material there. As he sets out looking for criticism in the modern and very Anglophone style, it is no wonder that he does not find what he was looking for. He seems to miss the point that tazkiras were not meant or designed for any critical purpose. He spends more time and energy on Hali and Shibli, which is appropriate as literary criticism in any proper sense came into its own in the works of these two men of letters who set out to establish new norms under powerful Western influences but tempered with great familiarity of the classical tradition at home.
Ahmad is not off the mark when he accuses Hali of lacking depth, but then he misses the historical context which shaped Hali as well as his contemporary, Muhammad Hussain Azad, also a seminal influence on the development of Urdu criticism. In his own way, Ahmad is under the influence of a colonial mindset as he remains within the confines of what he had learned in English literary studies of the day.
Coming closer to his own day and age, Ahmad is more in his element. He follows a pattern of historical evolution, taking up Akhtar Hussain Raipuri. However, he focuses his attention only on one single essay, the well-known ‘Adab Aur Inqilab,’ generally believed to be the starting point of the progressive movement in literary criticism. Ahmed is, of course, rather scornful of the essay and while one can understand his impatience with Marxist philosophy as not being a literary panacea, on closer examination one can see that he limits his attention to a consideration of the philosophy. He is equally hard on Aziz Ahmed and Ali Sardar Jafari’s studies of the Progressive movement. His views now seem to be frozen in the past. For some strange reason, he circumvents any discussion of Mumtaz Hussain and spends more time and attention on Aal-i-Ahmed Suroor and Ehtisham Hussain. He quotes profusely from the works of both and analyses their critical stance in some detail. He takes Suroor to task for being poetic when he is required to be analytical and avoiding critical pronouncements by managing to plant his feet in two boats at the same time. This part of the book should serve as essential learning material for aspiring critics and writers.
The last edition of the book was updated to include later day critics Muhammad Hassan Askari and Shamsur Rahman Farooqi. Ahmad again focuses his attention on only two critics and quotes extensively from their works while offering his own opinion on it. He does less than justice to Askari as he does not examine his major essays in sufficient detail although these had been published much before the final revisions were made to this book. However, he does make an important point when he questions Askari’s use of the tools of practical criticism. Ahmad is also limited in his analysis of Farooqi’s critical stance, finding echoes of William Empson’s concept of ambiguity. His value as a critic is that he brings up this critical concept in his analysis but his limitation is that he does so in a manner which does justice to neither Ghalib nor to Farooqi’s worth as a critic.
Many of Ahmad’s views seem dated and originating from a colonial reading of Urdu classics. He seems opinionated to the point of being biased, such as when he says that Chekhov is hardly read and consists of nothing but milk and water philosophy. If one keeps these limitations in mind, there can still be some contemporary relevance to this book apart from the mainly historical importance. As such, it is an important milestone for Urdu literary criticism and still useful in the identification of the excess colonial baggage which needs to be shed.
The reviewer is a critic and a fiction writer
By Kalimuddin Ahmad
Poorab Academy, Islamabad