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Poetically inclined

December 25, 2016

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The series of which this article forms the fourth part is aimed at capturing the essence of Pakistani Urdu writing — its history, milieu, towering figures and memorable writings.

Josh Malihabadi wrote several ghazals although he did not favour the genre.— Wikimedia Commons
Josh Malihabadi wrote several ghazals although he did not favour the genre.— Wikimedia Commons

Pakistani Urdu poetry composed in the aftermath of 1947’s riots and massacres reflected shock, emotionality, and anger. But what persisted, in addition to mourning the dead and bewailing the alive, was a deep sense of respect for human beings and their individuality. Revolutionary poetry popularised by the Progressives stressing collectivism began to lose some of its shine and the 1950s saw a revival of the Urdu ghazal in Pakistan. In the pre-Independence era, the modern Urdu nazm, or poem — with its individualistic tone — threatened to dethrone the ghazal which had been enjoying overwhelming popularity for centuries. The ghazal, however, not only survived, but was back in vogue with new poets experimenting with its diction and themes.

In Urdu, when we say nazm we refer to a poem with modern sensitivity, composed in any form or poetic metre [behr], or even without a metre. Though the nazm did exist in Urdu in the classical period, it was Muhammad Hussain Azad and Altaf Hussain Hali who, in the 1870s, introduced — under the aegis of the Anjuman-i-Punjab — the art of composing the new, modern poem in Urdu. They, along with other poets, made the nazm popular by practicing it masterfully and particularly Hali’s poems heralded the dawn of a new era for the Urdu nazm. In the 1930s and 1940s, the nazm’s march was relentless because the Progressives had made it a tool of poetical expression as it was more coherent and more suitable for conveying elaborate themes and political ideas as compared to the ghazal.

Under Western literary influence, in the post-1947 era, the tendency to compose long poems, modernistic poems, verse drama, musicals, cantos, and translations of Western and Persian poetry increased. Another trend was a renewed interest in a few select traditional genres and poetic forms and this includes the ghazal, ruba’i, naat, marsiya, doha and geet.

As for veterans, Josh Malihabadi and Hafeez Jullundhri continued after Independence. Josh composed nazms and ruba’i as well as ghazals, though he was avowedly against the genre of ghazal. Jullundhri, too, wrote ghazals and nazms, but the creative effervescence of both the bards, as wrote Dr Syed Abdullah, was not as sparkling as before. Miraji, originally from western Punjab, stayed back in India after Independence and died there in 1949. Akhtar Sherani came to Pakistan, but died in 1948. Zafar Ali Khan died in 1956. They had composed almost all of their poetry before 1947. Those who wrote outstanding nazms in the early decades of Pakistan, making the genre shine brighter, include Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, and Noon Meem Rashid. Along with them were Qayyum Nazar, Yusuf Zafar, Mukhtar Siddiqi, Zia Jalandahri, Zaheer Kashmiri, Ehsan Danish, Anjum Roomani, Zahoor Nazar, Farigh Bukhari, Arif Abdul Mateen and Aziz Hamid Madni. Other poets such as Ibn-i-Insha with his poems, Jafer Tahir with his cantos, Jamiluddin Aali with his dohas, Qateel Shifai with his geets and Munir Niazi with his poems were becoming prominent and popular. Majeed Amjad, Abdul Aziz Khalid, Wazir Agha, Saleem Ahmed and Himayat Ali Shair were other voices that drew the critics’ attention. Majeed Lahori, Syed Mohammad Jafri and Zamir Jafri were satirising in their poems the social and political issues with which the nascent country was beset.


Tracing the rise of the nazm and the revival of the ghazal in Pakistani literature beyond 1947


Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, a literary circle, played an all-important role in promoting the Pakistani Urdu nazm. The Halqa favoured surrealism, symbolism, and existentialism — trends that the Progressives scoffed at. The experimentation with the nazm’s metre and diction, that the Halqa wholeheartedly patronised, proved fruitful as it inspired latter-day poets such as Aftab Iqbal Shamim, Riaz Majeed, Sarmad Sehbai and many others, making the genre richer.

Interestingly, post-1947 there was renewed interest in traditional genres as well. It was accompanied by a tendency to prefer the traditional style and tone in the ghazal. The Urdu ghazal — lyric poetry — does not have a central theme and its structure and rhyming scheme make every couplet a separate unit with its own meaning. While this makes ghazals seem like jumbled-up entities of disjointed pieces, it is the very structure that gives them the immense popularity they enjoy because in every couplet the poet can introduce a new theme, making each couplet “a two-line poem”, as goes the oft-repeated quote. The ghazal’s behr [metre], qaafiya [rhyming words] and radeef [end-rhyme or repeated refrain] are the threads that bind all the couplets together. The repeated occurring of qaafiya and radeef gives ghazals musical harmony, an important factor in its popularity.


Among the large number of popular poetic forms and genres in Pakistan — qit’a (also pronounced qat’a), naat, marsiya, ruba’i, geet, et al, — ghazals and nazms have dominated the modern era. Modern poets rarely use other genres that were popular once, such as qaseeda, vasaukht, shehr ashob, hajv and masnavi.


But some critics and poets like Josh were not in favour of the ghazal as they thought it had certain restrictions that hindered the flow and expression of diverse and expanded themes, which in turn rendered it unsuitable for continued and coherent ideas. Nevertheless, the ghazal’s comeback in the 1950s led to, among other things, not only acknowledging Mir Taqi Mir as a maestro, but also to following Mir’s style and tone that consist of gloominess, unembellished language and a flowing beat. Mir’s metres — both short and long — are melodious. Poets who got the hang of Mir’s style, and yet found their own voice, are Nasir Kazmi and Ibn-i-Insha. According to Dr Abdullah, although Saifuddin Saif and Qayyum Nazar, too, tried their hand at writing like Mir, they soon quit and were acknowledged as talented poets in their own style and domain. Many poets composed beautiful ghazals in those days and some of them include Josh, Jullundhri, Faiz, Qasmi, Ehsan Danish, Sufi Tabassum, Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, M.D. Taseer, Abid Ali Abid, Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, Manzoor Hussain Shor, Mukhtar Siddiqi, Baqi Siddiqi, Sirajuddin Zafar, Qateel Shifai, Asar Sehbai, Zaheer Kashmiri, Majeed Amjad, Abdul Hameed Adam, Qabil Ajmeri, Jameel Malik, and Atta Shad. The list goes on; it is impossible to name all the poets who enriched the Pakistani Urdu ghazal in different eras. Some of them are Qamar Jalalvi, Jamiluddin Aali, Habib Jalib, Aziz Hamid Madni, Ada Jafri, Shanul Haq Haqqee, Shehzad Ahmed, Mehshar Badayuni, Munir Niazi, Khatir Ghaznavi, Ather Nafees, Sher Afzal Jafri, Mehboob Khizan, Syed Mustafa Zaidi, Zehra Nigah, Ahmed Mushtaq, Saleem Ahmed, Rasa Chughtai, Mohib Arifi, Razi Akhtar Shauq, Mohsin Ehsan, Kishwar Naheed, Fehmida Riaz, Jaun Elia, Ahmed Faraz, Iftikhar Arif, Mushfiq Khwaja and many more. Almost all of them wrote both ghazals and nazms. Parveen Shakir deserves special mention for voicing the peculiar sensitivity and feelings of young Pakistani women in a distinct style.

The martial law of 1958 lent a diction and imagery to ghazals that spoke of political and social issues under the garb of certain symbols, and talking of ‘prison’ or ‘restrictions’ was not limited to Faiz alone. The Pakistani Urdu nazm embraced symbolism and intentional obscurity for expressing discontent against the martial law and the restrictions it imposed on expression. Latter-day poets, when faced with Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law, came out more forcefully and wrote poetry that is now often referred to as resistance literature.


[K]nown as the nai shaeri group, or new poetry group, some poets and critics from Lahore declared in the early 1960s that Urdu’s classical poetry and diction were “worthless” and what we needed was new poetry with a new and different lexicon.


Few poets recorded Pakistan’s rural milieu and peculiar Pakistani diction as did Sher Afzal Jafri and Majeed Amjad. Talking about a peculiar diction and a Pakistani version of the Urdu language reminds one of Zafar Iqbal. He deserves special mention, albeit the jury is divided on whether or not his linguistic and poetic experimentations amount to anything at all. One should pick the thread from nai shaeri ki tehreek, or the new poetry movement, for placing Zafar Iqbal in proper perspective. Also known as the nai shaeri group, or new poetry group, some poets and critics from Lahore declared in the early 1960s that Urdu’s classical poetry and diction were “worthless” and what we needed was new poetry with a new and different lexicon. Impressed and inspired by existentialism and modernism, the group condemned ghazals, favoured prose poems, and rejected even some heavyweights of the day (and the past as well), such as Faiz, Noon Meem Rashid, Qasmi and Miraji. The group, trying to restructure Urdu poetry’s diction, was led by Iftikhar Jalib, Anis Nagi, Jeelani Kamran and Safdar Mir. Though they and other poets produced some different poetical texts and critical writings, the movement fizzled out after some hullabaloo and creating some waves in an otherwise calm and serene sea of Urdu literature, which had already been declared “dead” by Muhammad Hasan Askari. The poets touting new lexicon and new poetry could not practically prove what they meant by “new poetry” and “new lexicon”, but they popularised free verse and the prose poem in Urdu. Zafar Iqbal, though not part of the group, proved what new and different diction meant by using local and Punjabi diction with colloquial ease in his Urdu verses. Paradoxically, he chose to write ghazals, the genre disliked by the group.

Another experimentation that did not prove very fructuous was the anti-ghazal. Composed by Saleem Ahmed and some other poets like Zafar Iqbal, the anti-ghazal tried to break the shackles of the traditional ghazal, but the revolt against poetical conventions was not very successful. The Pakistani ghazal had inherited a diction that was traditionally poetic and ornate, yet not archaic, and Faiz had displayed how an ideologue Progressive poet could use that very same ‘soft and silky’ traditional diction to spread the word of revolution, though this earned Faiz the epithet ‘Romantic revolutionary’. The Urdu ghazal was in search of a different world, of new themes, new diction, new metaphors and new sensitivity. This inspired experimentation and the poets who bravely toyed with the new style include, in addition to the ones named above, Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed, Jaun Elia, Anwer Shaoor, Shakaib Jalali, Saqi Farooqi, Iqbal Sajid, Riaz Majeed, Khurshid Rizvi, Saleem Shahid, Nasir Shahzad and others.

The war of 1965 bolstered latent patriotic feelings in Pakistani poets and they came up with some moving songs, sung by popular singers and broadcast by Radio Pakistan. The sense of unity among the Pakistani nation was so overwhelming that, except for a few Progressive writers, intellectuals quit their noncommittal stance and agreed with the notion that writers should be loyal to the state (not government). Even the writers associated with Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq — which generally did not believe in commitment in literature and scoffed at the concept of ‘useful’ literature — were committed to the national cause. Some of the national songs that became hugely popular were written by poets coming from different schools of thought and they included Raees Amrohvi, Ehsan Danish, Masroor Anwar, Fayyaz Hashmi, Jameeluddin Aali, Himayat Ali Shair, Hafeez Hoshiarpuri and Sufi Tabassum. Poets who penned memorable poems against the backdrop of the war of 1965 included Qasmi, Majeed Amjad, Munir Niazi, Qateel Shifai, Naeem Siddiqui, Jeelani Kamran, Amjad Islam Amjad, Saqi Javed, Sehba Akhtar, Farigh Bukhari, Ahmed Faraz, Jafer Tahir, and Mahirul Qadri.

Patriotism was sweeping all over, so much so that even in ghazals many poets expressed it.

The Pakistani Urdu ghazal recorded the fall of Dhaka in 1971, too. Ghulam Mohammad Qaasir, Parveen Shakir, Jamal Ehsani, Jalil Aali, Bashir Saifi, Naseem Sahar and many other poets wrote tearful couplets on the debacle. The grief and shock is evident in nazms and other genres, too.

The modern Pakistani Urdu nazm has successfully recorded modern sensitivity and the tragedy of the modern man: despite all that we have, at heart we are all alone, not sure of who and what we are. As put by Jeelani Kamran in his book Nai Nazm ke Taqaze, the problem facing poets writing modern nazms is philosophical and they ask “who am I?” They do not ask questions about the world or society or the universe and why they are what they are. Rather, they only ask for their own, individual identity.

Among the large number of popular poetic forms and genres in Pakistan — qit’a (also pronounced qat’a), naat, marsiya, ruba’i, geet, et al, — ghazals and nazms have dominated the modern era. Modern poets rarely use other genres that were popular once, such as qaseeda, vasaukht, shehr ashob, hajv and masnavi. (Though masnavi is a poetical form as well as a genre, we refer to it here as a genre since its use as a form for writing long poems is still very much alive.)

One can only lament that it is simply not possible to name all Pakistani poets here as the number of poets these days alone runs into the hundreds — yes, hundreds, and this is no exaggeration. So the total number of Pakistani Urdu poets who have been published during the last 70 years must be in the thousands (and there are thousands who never bothered to or got a chance to be published). So I sincerely apologise to the poets whose names or works could not be discussed here. Some, in addition to the ones named above, are (in no order of merit or preference): Muhammad Saleem-ur-Rahman, Adeeb Suhail, Akhter Hussain Jafri, Ameen Rahat Chughtai, Shohrat Bukhari, Raza Hamdani, Tabish Dehlvi, Mohsin Bhopali, Akhtar Hoshiarpuri, Afzal Ahmed Syed, Iqbal Azeem, Ilyas Ishqi, Anwar Masood, Sarmad Sehbai, Sahar Ansari, Tabassum Kashmiri, Tehseen Firaqi, Jamal Ehsani, Obaidullah Aleem, Sirajuddin Zafar, Adeem Hashmi, Mohammad Izahrul Haq, Nasir Zaidi, Ummeed Fazli, Ejaz Farooqi, and Saghar Siddiqi. Others include Muzaffar Warsi, Saleem Kausar, Sabir Zafar, Hafeez Taib, Qamar Hashmi, Fatema Hasan, Shahida Hasan, Aslam Ansari, Partau Roheela, Tauseef Tabassum, Ehsan Akbar, Pirzada Qasim, Aslam Kolsari, Mubeen Mirza, Yasmeen Hameed, Ambreen Haseeb Ambar, Shadab Ehsani, Mohsin Naqvi, Irfana Aziz, Talat Isharat, Raees Farogh, Anwar Mahmood Khalid, Khalid Ahmad, Mubarak Ahmad, Arsh Siddiqui, Sarshar Siddiqui, Najeeba Arif, Razi Mujtaba, Asad Mohammad Khan, Haris Khalique, Murtaza Birlas, Liaqat Ali Asim, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Atiq Jilani, Arif Shafeeq, Saba Ikram, Tassaduq Hussain Khalid, Inayat Ali Khan and many more.

The writer is a former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board and now teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 25th, 2016