IT was the eighth year in a row. The International Urdu Conference (IUC) in Karachi has enjoyed success all the way through, having become a significant marker on the city’s socio-literary calendar. But, in all earnestness, it is not an unqualified success for the issues plaguing it from day one have also continued all the way through.
A lot of big names were around but quite a few were missing from among the list that the promotional material and even the stage backdrop cited. But those who were not there were not missed by and large because even the presence of those who were there was not optimised as they were made to sit on the stage in all their pomp and glory but had little to say as the allotted time was consumed more often than not by frustratingly lengthy papers read by the others.
But from the suffocating chaos of this unfortunate pattern that has over the years remained the constant low point of the event emerged the high point of the eighth edition of the conference. Across the four days and all the sessions that were there, three names stood out; Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Asif Farrukhi and Akhlaq Ahmed. They spoke precisely, lightly and with complete understanding of what they were doing where. They are not new names on the literary scene by any means. But, yes, they are young — relatively young, that is — with time on their side and that augurs well for the future.
This is not to suggest that the likes of Intizar Husain, Shamim Hanafi or even Iftikhar Arif and Kishwar Naheed stood overshadowed — far from it. But they were the elderly statesmen and crowd-pullers just as they have been for so long. If anything, they will be the happiest to have seen the next generation showing some positive intent and ability.
Nayyar is the leading voice in the context of linguistic manipulations in the modern era of globalisation and high-velocity imperialism. That he is the leading voice is a fact that cannot be disputed simply because he happens to be the only one in the country keeping an eye on the emerging scenario on a global scale with any degree of consistency.
Presenting his views on contemporary Urdu poetry in the light of neocolonial structures, Nayyar made it all sound like child’s play despite the usage of heavy-duty terms like collaborators and cooperatives, and debates like renaissance versus reclamation, and modern versus contemporary. The terms sounded a bit opaque for a while, but the discussion was seriously simplistic and was dotted with refreshingly relevant examples from the realm of Urdu poetry that made every word worth listening to. If Nayyar stole the show in the session on poetry, it was Farrukhi who did it in the one that dealt with Urdu fiction. As silver-tongued as he has always been, Farrukhi read a lucid paper on the supposedly ‘lost element’ of the story from Urdu fiction. Making a pertinent and convincing point, he stressed that even if the “story has been lost” that would only constitute a story in itself. “That being the case, the story would still not be lost,” he stressed, and rightly so.
Moving on, he bolstered his case — the case of Urdu fiction actually — by recalling the “story of the evolution of Urdu short story”. Tracing the modern era back to the watershed launching of Angaaray in the mid-1930s, Farrukhi captured the irony inherent in the simple fact that the original version of the stories has not been available in the markets for years while the English translations were aplenty. “This by all means is a story in its own right,” he commented; the argument being that stories and life go hand in hand, and that all a storyteller needs is an observant, perceptive eye. Well said, indeed.
Ahmed, who has wonderful short stories to his credit but generally keeps a low literary profile, provided the storyteller’s version, or, in his words, the version of a “mere storyteller with no claim to intellectualism”. Terminologies of critique, he said, tend to “terrify the lesser mortals” among the writers, pushing them into the domain of confusion. They make them wonder if they are writing what needs to be written. Were they writing correctly? Should they write at all?
As was the case with Nayyar and Farrukhi, Ahmed spoke in precise terms, was brief and, thus, able to strike a chord with the audience that made the trio stand out in the rather long, very long, list of speakers who preferred to ‘read’ rather than ‘speak’. The ‘readers’ were so pathetically painful that Intizar Sahib, the doyen of Urdu fiction, got visibly upset and remained upset — publicly but more so privately — for as long as he was there at the conference.
Arif’s comment also needs to be seen in the same context. After sitting through a session that included almost a dozen ‘readers’, he commented. “I am out of breath just listening to whatever has been said here!” He then quickly recited three couplets and left. When it was Naheed’s turn, she said nothing except for reading out a very short poem before switching off her microphone.
This is one of the main problems with the event ever since its inception. In their zeal to give everyone a piece of the pie, which, in return, apparently lends them some sort of credibility, the organisers just cram the conference with too many sessions, and every session with too many speakers who may be good writers but are generally bereft of the art of public speaking.
With no time slotted as a buffer between sessions, one thing overlaps the other and the vicious cycle continues session after session, day after day and, indeed, conference after conference which deprives almost everything of a proper climax. “We are running out of time” is a refrain that one hears throughout the conference with irritating consistency. In this context, the eighth edition was no different from the first, which is such a pity.
The latest edition of the conference, however, would be remembered by many as the point in time when the young — the relatively young, mind you — made their presence felt. The trio of Nayyar, Farrukhi and Ahmed shone through, but the impression was cemented in concrete terms by Wusatullah Khan who spoke in the context of Urdu as practised by media practitioners.
If they can do that consistently over the next few years, the baton would surely change hands sooner rather than later. And when that happens it would be largely because of the platform provided by the IUC and such other events that have gathered momentum in the last few years. Not a bad deal, not at all.
A tale of two Anwars and the Ustad
IT was a slight deviation from the past, but had a massive impact on the overall feel of the IUC. Thus far, it had been mostly limited to readings by Zia Mohyeddin as a form of entertainment that went down well with the audience. But this time round, the organisers went a step forward and added three more wonderful evenings and the response they got was, to put it mildly, overwhelming. Anwar Masood did it with his poetry, Anwar Maqsood with prose, and Ustad Raees Khan with his sitar rendition. The two Anwars and the Ustad stole the limelight like only they could.
The evening with Masood was conducted by Amjad Islam Amjad who added invaluable presence and aura to the session with his minimalist approach. There was no jostling for space with Masood who, as is his wont, was in his element all through the hour-long interaction. It is not just his poetry that leaves the audiences enchanted wherever he unveils his magic; it is as much his mannerism and delivery. Masood is a true and respected performer and his social satire captivates everyone around. There were roars of laughter almost every minute of the session for the simple reason that Masood’s satire, in the words of Amjad, is not the satire of a cynic.
Maqsood made his maiden appearance at the Urdu Conference and read out an hour-long script that entailed a dialogue between him and Mir Taqi Mir who was on an imaginary visit to preside over a poetic gathering at the Bilawal House in Karachi!
The beauty of the classical language and the morbid humour associated with life in contemporary Karachi cast a spell that was worth every moment of it. How Mir lands at Maqsood’s house and the subsequent dialogue between the two had everything to make one seriously reconsider the notion that Urdu is a dying language. The dialogue naturally was woven with Mir’s classical poetry — there were around 40 couplets in all — and it was refreshing that every single couplet and linguistic nuance was appreciated with a spontaneous wah! by the audience. If that can happen — and it did happen — then the language is surely alive, one might argue.
The counter-argument would then come from the evening with Ustad Khan that for sure was the pièce de résistance. No description of it can do justice to what the Ustad did that evening in company with his son Farhan and Ustad Bashir Khan who accompanied the father-son duo on the tabla. It was a trance that would be remembered by everyone in the audience that day — and it was an auditorium that was bursting at the seams that evening.
Having said that, if a musical session was arguably the most successful and captivating thing during a four-day event focusing on a language and its literature, the language seems to be in some trouble as far as its long-term survival is concerned.
The writer is a Dawn staff member.