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Updated August 06, 2017


Dr Rashid Jahan (second from right), and her husband Mahmuduzzafar (extreme left) helped stoke the fires of Progressive writing with their contributions to Angarey, a book that was banned for its scorching take on social repressions | Dawn file photo
Dr Rashid Jahan (second from right), and her husband Mahmuduzzafar (extreme left) helped stoke the fires of Progressive writing with their contributions to Angarey, a book that was banned for its scorching take on social repressions | Dawn file photo

In world literature there are quite a few instances of a single collection of works acquiring the position of a landmark and influencing literary figures appearing later on the scene. A convenient example is that of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1798. It marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry, discarding the ornamental poetry of their predecessors, adopting simplicity and spontaneity, and, in the process, inspiring such luminaries as George Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.

In Urdu literature, the publication in 1932 of Angarey [Embers], a collection of prose pieces (including a drama) by four till then unknown or hardly known writers — Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Dr Rashid Jahan and her husband Mahmuduzzafar — marked the beginning of ‘Progressive’ writings in Urdu.

A detailed and analytical account of the contribution of the four writers, the banning of the book and the confiscation of almost all copies can be read in Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode by Carlo Coppola, professor emeritus of Urdu-Hindi and linguistics at Michigan’s Oakland University. The ban on Angarey, he reminds his readers, continues till today.

A fascinating history of Urdu poetry written during the Progressive Writers’ Movement casts a wider historical net

Though the volume, as the title suggests, is about Urdu poetry, Coppola takes a much wider view of Progressive Urdu literature. He debunks the shortsighted view expressed in the 1940s and ’50s that the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) in Urdu literature was an extension of the Aligarh Movement. For one thing, the Aligarh Movement was localised and confined to the Muslim community; the PWM was much more widespread. It was influenced by the writings of Western thinkers and literary giants such as Maxim Gorky and Karl Marx, to mention just two.

Secondly, the Aligarh Movement was led by well-established litterateurs whereas the PWM was forged by young people. Says Coppola: “It was more daring and less confined to bourgeois and elite groups. It would thrust, if not jettison, Urdu literature into modernity, ready or not. And its effects continue to be felt even today.” About Angarey, he adds in the same breath, “It’s a volume about which many critics have written, but which few, until recently, have actually read.”

The PWM was not confined to writers of Urdu and Hindi, but also included literary figures who wrote in different languages, such as Punjabi, Bengali and Marathi. It enjoyed the blessings of literary giants such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mohammed Iqbal, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Sarojini Naidu, Josh Maleehabadi and Munshi Premchand who, in fact, presided over the first Progressive Writers’ Conference held at Lucknow in 1936. The chief guest was none other than Maulana Hasrat Mohani.

Coppola gives a detailed account of the beginnings of the PWM, the seed of which was sown in the United Kingdom where Zaheer and Dr Mulk Raj Anand organised the first meeting of Indian writers in the backroom of the Nanking restaurant in London. The first draft of the manifesto written by them was presented here.

The author narrates the proceedings of the 1936 Lucknow conference in detail and goes on to write in subsequent pages about the conferences held before and after Partition. The one held in Lahore in 1949 and the political developments that followed are bound to interest Pakistani readers in particular.

Coppola does not discuss and analyse literature in isolation; he does so in the context of socio-economic developments. A case in point is the Bengal Famine of 1943 when millions of people died. He quotes from the poems of Sahir Ludhianvi, Akhtarul Iman, Wamiq Jaunpuri and Jigar Muradabadi. Ludhianvi, he says, lamented that Progressives such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Dr M.D. Taseer and Moin Ahsan Jazbi just did not react, at least in verse, to what was a tragedy of monumental proportions.

In the same chapter Coppola highlights the short stories and what he calls “other creative pieces” in prose on the Bengal Famine. He recalls Devindra Satyarthi’s Naey Dhan se Pehle [Before the New Rice Crop] and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Ek Pyali Chawal [A Cupful of Rice] as masterpieces. But the one classic he focuses on is Krishan Chander’s Anndata [The Giver of Grain]. He says: “The story does evoke the galling sense of irony surrounding the famine, the indifference of many people to the plight of the starving populace, and the worst and basest feelings of all people — both the well-fed and the starving — in such a situation.”

Coppola also focuses on paintings executed by different artists on the subject, but fails to mention the heart-rending wash drawings done by the outstanding Bengali artist Zainul Abedin.

Also featuring in the book are references to literature, in both Urdu and Hindi, that emerged from the Partition riots. He ranks Chander’s Hum Vehshi Hain [We Are Savages] and Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti quite high in the Partition literature penned by the Progressives. Not to be forgotten are Saadat Hasan Manto’s two immortal short stories, Toba Tek Singh and Thanda Gosht [Cold Meat] and Ismat Chughtai’s Jarrein [Roots]. Fikr Taunsvi’s reportage Chhata Darya [The Sixth River] makes for moving reading. It refers to the river of blood that flowed side by side with the five rivers of Punjab.

While freedom from the colonial powers was celebrated, the mayhem that came with Partition was lamented in no uncertain terms. One can’t think of many poems that can, in sheer subtlety, match the disillusionment expressed in the Faiz four-liner, “Ye daagh daagh ujala, ye shub-gazeeda sehar” [This stained light, this night-bitten dawn].

Coppola devotes a chapter each to five eminent Urdu poets, discusses in detail their muses and writes briefly about their lives. Faiz, whom he interviewed, is obviously the first and foremost among them. Asrarul Haq Majaz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Ali Sardar Jafri and Ludhianvi are the other four. A student of Urdu literature at graduation level can gain much from these five chapters.

What this reviewer found most helpful was the appendix of the book which outlines the lives and works of Progressive writers — not merely those who wrote in Urdu and Hindi, but also those who wrote in English, such as Anand and Ali, and other Indian languages. Then there are others who either influenced the Progressive writers or dwelt on themes relevant to the PWM.

Another appendix, ‘Communist Party Activities in India Prior to 1935’, helps the reader in understanding the link between communism and the PWM, a bond that disillusioned some members of the latter who did not subscribe to socialism, let alone communism.

Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode is mercifully devoid of errors or inaccuracies. The one that this writer detected was the labelling of Mahirul Qadri as a film lyricist. In fact, Qadri wrote lyrics for not more than one or two films. His forte was religious poetry, which he contributed to the print media and to Radio Pakistan.

One also wishes that the poems or selections from poems could also have been written in Roman script because those who can read them in the original script struggle to discern which translated verses they are.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Urdu Poetry,
1935-1970: The
Progressive Episode
By Carlo Coppola
Oxford University
Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 6th, 2017

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