August 11, 2019


M.D. Taseer, a leading poet and critic in the early and mid-20th century, gained recognition for his writing under the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in British India. In Punjab, along with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and a few others, he was instrumental in consolidating and propagating this movement. Taseer was a formidable scholar who is, perhaps, the first South Asian to receive a doctorate in English literature from England. In his later years, he is said to have deviated a little to receive influences from other schools of thought. However, he died in 1950 at the relatively young age of 48. During his brush with realism of the socialist kind, he wrote his famous ‘Aglay Waqton Ke Shairaan-i-Kiraam’ [Poets of the Yesteryears], a sarcastic poem criticising the limited and abstract themes and subjects of the classical Urdu poets, that revolved around a beloved, her tresses, a garden and a nightingale. And, consequently, how burdensome the consciousness of a modern poet is who deals with real life, its trials and tribulations.

One cannot go to the extent of Taseer in disparaging the asaatiza [masters] of classical Urdu poetry, who mostly belonged to the 18th and 19th centuries. Taseer not only overlooks the contribution of the people’s poets — the likes of Nazir Akbarabadi and Jafar Zatalli — but also ignores the powerful requiems and laments in the asaatiza’s verses that capture the suffering of a citizen of a fragmenting country under conquest, the voice of the vanquished. In any case, the higher aesthetic sensibility and perfection of craft in a work of poetry take it to the level of a classic — from Siraj Aurangabadi to Ghulam Hamdani Mushafi and from Mir Taqi Mir to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. How can that aesthetic prowess ever be ignored? And how can one disregard the fascinating use of metaphors and similes to convey layers upon layers of meanings and instead demand for a directness of expression that lays bare the harsh realities of life?

However, in my humble view, what can be seen as an interesting concern is the choice, custom, treatment and definition of language used by our classical poets and their successors who are writing to this day. Urdu prosody developed differently from the local prosodies in the subcontinent under Persian influence, which in turn had borrowed from Arabic rhyming schemes and metres — something that we call Ilm-i-Arooz. That largely defined Urdu genres including the ghazal, classical poetry’s most representative form — the masnavi and long rhymed poems in the forms of musaddas (six-liners) and mukhammas (five-liners) come later. But, with genres imported from Persian also came the sensibility and vocabulary. Therefore, to give an example, the organic use of language found in Sindhi and Punjabi verse, or Poorbi and Bhojpuri lyrics, is not found in the poetry of standardised Urdu.

Undoubtedly, bodies of poetic works in other languages have accepted influences from Arabic and Persian as well as themes and events from Muslim history on occasion. For instance, Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’ begins with hymns and devotional lines, but transforms into a purely indigenous linguistic description, aided by local similes and metaphors from rural Punjab. Similar is the case with Shah Hussain, Baba Bulleh Shah and others. In Sindhi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai showed the capacity to absorb the whole Muslim historic and mystical experience, but offers purely organic poetry. Wajid Ali Shah Akhtar Piya, the last king of Awadh, and some his courtiers are credited with creating absorbing geet [lyrical poetry meant to be sung with ragas] in Poorbi which use indigenous feelings and expressions. But that is not considered the highest form of verse.

The diction of some of the greatest Urdu poets in ghazal — the most celebrated genre — and even in most nazms, remains heavily Persianised and impacts the use of words, metaphors and similes. Beginning from Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal to Faiz and Noon Meem Rashid, you see classical Persian poetry resonating in Urdu verse to this day. No doubt it has that intoxicating phonetic effect that most find hard to escape. Many of us, knowing fully well that this language is not easily understood by common readers today, are mesmerised by the beauty of these styles and carry on using them.

As has been argued before in this column, our civilisation is an amalgam of Vedic and Arabo-Persian civilisations with a latter Western graft post-19th century. Therefore, insisting on denouncing the use of Persian — as argued by some men of letters such as Professor Amin Mughal — is an impossibility. Nevertheless, one of the finest ever — if not the finest ever — poets who takes Persian and other influences on his own terms and remains native in his aesthetics and sensibility while writing in Urdu is none other but Mir.

Obviously, his influence remains no less sharp on some who came after him, such as Meeraji and Nasir Kazmi. But Mir’s ghazal is entirely indigenous. Unlike others of his generation and those coming after him, he is neither overawed by the Persian diction nor solely imports his imagery from the Muslim experience of West and Central Asia. He creates a universe comprising all the elements of Indo-Persian civilisation without undermining his own cultural milieu, physical habitat, linguistic environment and immediate concerns. Mir introduces local idiom and innovative wordplay and he has the limitless ability to transform the use of the lexicon to his own wish and will.

In this day and age, when standardised language has not only changed, but is also not being taught properly to the new generations, Mir is still more understandable linguistically than both Ghalib and Iqbal, or even Faiz and Rashid. He is no less complex and multi-layered, but his complexity stems from feelings, not words. That brings an incomparable freshness and accessibility to a poet who died more than 200 years ago.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 11th, 2019