DR SYED Abdullah once remarked that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s too much stress on being rational was one of the reasons that directly or indirectly paved the way for the onset of Romanticism in Urdu literature.

The moral, reformist and grimly rational writings by the followers of Aligarh School of thought much emphasised material and mundane affairs. Hence, the humdrum routine writings gave way to something less didactic and more refreshing, appealing to heart and soul rather than mind: literary pieces by the writers flying by the wings of imagination.

The lighter prose and lyrical poetry of the romantics during the 1900s and 1930s was like, wrote Syed Abdullah in his book Mabahis (Lahore: 1965), “light and toned-down music played to entertain the soldiers who had just returned from the war front, having heard all the tumult” (page 296). According to Dr Syed Abdullah, Abul Kalam Azad and Allama Iqbal were the two loud voices expressing dissent against Aligarh’s rational mantra in their quite unique and opposite but equally semi-romantic and emotional ways. So, Romanticism was in a way a reaction to Sir Syed’s unemotional, rationalist and reformist agenda.

Contradictory as it may sound one of the admirers of Aligarh Movement and its literature was Mehdi Ifadi (also spelt Afadi), a romantic much inspired by Shibli Nomani. And Shibli was yet another dissident who revolted against Sir Syed’s too much stress on temporal success. Similarly, Muhammad Hussain Azad — considered among those impressed and inspired by Sir Syed — is not a lesser utopian than any confirmed romantic when it comes to ornamental language and imaginative style of writing.

Romanticism, often dubbed in Urdu as ‘Adab-i-lateef’, or Light Literature, was a new literary trend in the early 20th century and was generally considered, as put by Dr Surayya Hussain, “lyrical outpourings of romantic minds”. Romanticism favoured a highly imaginative and ornamental prose, too, pioneered by Azad and later on practised by Syed Sajjad Hyder Yildirim. Allama Iqbal recommended that Khayalistan, a popular collection of Yildirim’s prose writings, be included in Punjab University’s curriculum, thereby unleashing a flow of such prose and poetry.

The other practitioners of romantic prose were Sajjad Ansari, Niaz Fatehpuri, Sultan Hyder Josh, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar and many others. But almost all of them were creative writers and if Romanticism can be credited with producing a critic, it is none other than Mehdi Ifadi.

Mehdi Ifadi was the first to have ever used the term ‘anaasir-i-khamsa’, or the five elements, for the five towering figures of modern Urdu literature that took the fancy of readers in the aftermath of the 1857 war of freedom. In ancient and mediaeval philosophy, it was believed that the universe was made of four elements, or ‘anaasir-i-arb’a’, namely water, fire, air and earth. Taking a cue from it, Mehdi Ifadi coined the term ‘anaasir-i-khamsa’ and said that modern Urdu literature owed its creation to five giants, that is, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Hussain Azad, Altaf Hussain Hali, Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed and Shibli Nomani.

Mehdi Ifadi is among those few writers of Urdu who did not write much but are known and respected for the sheer quality of their writings. According to Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Ifadi has to his credit just 31 articles, which include criticism as well as translation. Mehdi began writing articles in 1899 and his pieces were published in weeklies and monthlies. Known for his acute aesthetic sense and refined literary taste, Mehdi Ifadi’s critical writings are not drab or dry but offer vividness of language and crispness of thought.

He had a knack for coining terms too and had translated many English terms and phrases into Urdu. But most of his coinages could not get currency because of, as wrote Abdul Majid Daryabadi, “having too much Englishness”. This ‘Englishness’ had found its way into his lifestyle and thought, too. It is often said that Mehdi learnt English from an Englishman and then was much impressed by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s writings. This combination had impressed upon him an indelible mark.

Mehdi Hasan Ifadi was born in Gorakhpur. There has been much speculation about his date of birth and some scholars believe that Mehdi Ifadi was born in 1870 and some put the date somewhere between 1872 and 1874. But Dr Feroz Ahmed has opined in his PhD dissertation after much debate that Mehdi Ifadi was probably born in March 1868.

Mehdi Ifadi was educated at home and later on attended a madressah and a school at Gorakhpur. But his formal schooling remained limited and he could not go beyond secondary classes. Whatever he had learnt was basically through his own effort and study. In 1892, Mehdi was appointed ‘ameen’ at a lower court at Mirzapur. Later on, he was made Naib Tehseeldar and then Tehseeldar to serve at Banaras.

His books Ifadaat-i-Mehdi (1923) and Makaateeb-i-Mehdi (1938) have been published many times over. Mehdi Hasan Ifadi died on Nov 21, 1921 in Gorakhpur.


Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2019