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‘Hali and Shibli rescued Urdu poetry’

Updated December 28, 2014

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DR Syed Nomanul Haq speaks at the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu on Saturday.—White Star
DR Syed Nomanul Haq speaks at the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu on Saturday.—White Star

KARACHI: Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali was a significant ghazal composer. The life of Shibli Nomani indicates he was not a rigid man. Both Hali and Shibli were beliers of their own thesis.

Literary scholar Dr Syed Nomanul Haq uttered these thought-provoking and instructive remarks at the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu on Saturday.

The scholar, who teaches at the Institute of Business Administration, was invited to speak on the lives and works of Hali and Shibli especially since 2014 is the centenary year of their deaths.

Comparing Iqbal and Hali, Dr Haq said: “Unusually, Hali’s initial conditions were similar to Iqbal’s. Iqbal was married off when he was only 15 years of age and by the age of 18 he had fathered two children.

“Hali was born in Panipat and became an orphan at an early age. He was married off by the age of 17 and had to support his young family and take care of his two elder sisters.”

Speaking about the joy of discovering Hali’s ghazals, he said: “Like others I was only aware of his celebrated Musaddas-i-Hali but then I came upon his ghazals and at first I thought they were written by Ghalib. They had such substance and resonance.” He also mentioned other prominent works of Hali such as Hayat-i-Saadi, Yaadgar-i-Ghalib and biography of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

What Dr Haq found interesting was that Hali wrote Musaddas [which centres around the problems of Muslims at the time] first and then he composed ghazals. He then drew a comparison with Mahirul Qadri, a Jamaat-i-Islami leader, who used to write film songs. When the Indian film actress Nadira of Aan film fame came to visit Pakistan, she sought out Mahirul Qadri but he went into hiding since he had by then become associated with the Jamaat.”

Another curious element about Hali and Shibli was that even though both were enamoured by the English and their ways, neither was familiar with the language.

“These propagators of the West didn’t know English although Shibli learnt French later on. Hali had gone to Lahore and was working in Punjab Publications depot, a government organisation, where several books were being translated into English from Urdu. Hali was assigned to supervise the translations. It is there that he formed his opinion about the English and their literature.”

Discussing their ostensible aversion to ghazal, Dr Haq said that both were beliers of their own thesis. For instance, the structure of muqaddima (preface) of Shaer-o–Shaeri written by Hali is ghazal-like even though the book is against ghazal!
Reading excerpts from the muqaddima, Dr Haq pointed out the English words used in it such as actor, blank verse, despotic government, imagination, magic lantern, self-help, second nature. “All these words are written in Urdu script.”

Coming back to Hali’s apparent aversion to ghazal, Dr Haq said that in his book he was forming a formula about poetry and stating that poetry had one ultimate aim. “But poetry has multiplicity of meanings. A ghazal will have a verse about happiness and the next will be about sadness.”

All this was reflected in his own ghazals, Dr Haq pointed out and read out several verses composed by Hali to further illustrate his point. Shibli also wrote 12 pointers necessary for composing ghazals but he too departed from his formula.

This was necessary especially following the 1857 mutiny when the likes of Hali and Shibli were concerned that Urdu, Arabic and Persian would perhaps disappear and so they took it upon themselves to compose ghazals that gave rise to new meters and took it to a level of a universal experience.

“Hali and Shibli rescued Urdu poetry. They re-conceived Urdu poetry and took it towards a transformation that was the need of the hour.”

According to Dr Haq, there is a difference between versification and poetry. “Outstanding poetry happens when there is poetic departure and a poet is able to take universal meaning out of immediate events.”

Reflecting on the life of Shibli, he said: “He wrote the first volume of Seerat-un-Nabi. And I have already mentioned earlier that he was friends with Atiya Fayzee, which means he must have been a pleasant and delightful (bagh-o-bahar) man.”

Others who spoke on the occasion were Dr Fatema Hassan who informed the sizeable audience that both Hali and Shibli were the first office-bearers of the Anjuman, and Dr Zafar Iqbal of Federal Urdu University who said that Shibli was a vociferous critic of imperialism while Dr Abul Hasan Naghmi discussed the propagation of Urdu literature in the United States where he had been working for nearly 40 years.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2014