THE writers and journalists whose contributions enriched Urdu language and literature in the early 20th century include some who have generally been ignored.
One of the reasons for this was, perhaps, the religious beliefs of these writers. Pyare Lal Shakir Meruthi, a poet, prose writer and journalist was a Christian. In fact, his paternal grandfather had embraced Christianity, renouncing his ancestral faith. So Pyare Lal was a Christian by birth, not a convert, as some erroneously believe. Despite his commendable literary and journalistic work, Pyare Lal Shakir has been forgotten. If people had any idea that Pyare Lal Shakir was somehow related to Meena Kumari, popularly known as the Tragedy Queen of Indian cinema, he would have been much known, as people these days care more about showbiz personalities than intellectuals.
Munshi Pyare Lal Shakir Meruthi was born in Kanker Khera, a suburb of Meerut, UP, on March 13, 1880. After initial schooling at home, Pyare Lal was admitted to Church Mission High School, Meerut. But in 1896, he had to quit his formal education and moved to Punjab, doing some odd jobs at Lahore and Firozpur. His father was in Patiala and asked him to come over and take admission to Mohindra College, Patiala. Pyare Lal just did that but somehow could not continue his education and went to Muzaffarnagar to serve at a Christian mission. A restless soul as he was, Pyare Lal soon moved to Gujrat (Punjab). Here the embers of literary talent, that had been smouldering beneath the ashes found conducive conditions to blaze.
Soon Pyare Lal began composing ghazals in Urdu and took ‘Shakir’ as a takhallus or penname. His latent talent began to shine with encouragement from Shaukat Meruthi, a well-known poet. Pyare Lal became Shaukat Meruthi’s ‘shaagird’, or disciple, as it was customary for a young poet to be under the guidance of a maestro else he was scoffed at as being ‘untrained’. Moulvi Ahmed Hasan Shaukat Meruthi (1839-1922) was a religious scholar and a poet, too. Under his guidance, Pyare Lal Shakir began writing modern Urdu poems.
Back in 1900s, Dr Patel published Tohfa-i-Sarhad, an Urdu newspaper for Christians from Bannu, NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Pyare Lal Shakir became its editor in 1904. At that time Shakir was barely 25. He stayed in Bannu and edited the paper till 1907, when he moved to Kanpur and worked as manager and sub-editor for Zamana, an esteemed Urdu literary magazine. Zamana was launched in 1903 and its contributors included some real big names of the day. Shakir’s writings too began appearing in Zamana, giving him much fame. In 1908, Shakir moved to Allahabad and became assistant editor of Makhzan-i-Maseehi, an Urdu fortnightly published for Christians. He served it from March 1909 to May 1911.
The early decades of 20th century witnessed a flurry of Urdu literary magazines, though a few could survive beyond a few years. Among them was Adeeb. Launched in January 1910 from Allahabad and edited by Munshi Naubat Rai Nazar (1866-1923), Adeeb was a popular literary journal. When Nazar quit Adeeb, Shakir was asked to join and he became its editor in June 1911. Under his editorship, the circulation and popularity of Adeeb rose. Based in Allahabad, Shakir wrote for many other magazines too, such as, Makhzan, Zamana, Ismat and Zaban.
After a year and a half, Shakir quit Adeeb and a few months later in June 1913, it ceased publication. In March 1913, Shakir launched Al-Asr, his own Urdu literary magazine, from Lucknow. Though it could not last long either and had to be closed down in December 1917, Al-Asr set high standards of printing, get-up and contents.
The famous Indian actress Meena Kumari was the granddaughter of Munshi Pyare Lal Shakir Meruthi. When Hem Sundari Tagore’s husband died, she left for Meerut and met Pyare Lal Shakir Meruthi. She embraced Christianity, they got married and had a son and two daughters named Prem Lata and Prabhawati Devi. Prabhawati was a stage actress. She met Master Ali Bakhsh, who belonged to Bhera (now a part of Pakistani Punjab) and worked for theatre, played music and composed Urdu poetry. Prabhawati embraced Islam, was named Iqbal Begum and married Ali Bakhsh. They had a daughter and named her Mahjabeen Bano who was to shine as a star named Meena Kumari.
Pyare Lal Shakir knew Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, English and Persian. According to Abid Raza Baidar, during the last years of his life, Pyare Lal Shakir had a marked tendency towards literature promoting Christianity and in addition to writing articles he also translated many psalms and prayers into Urdu. Shakir also launched Kohkan-i-Hind, an Urdu magazine and was associated with Matthews Lyell to publish Zindagi, another magazine.
Shakir’s other works include Haalaat-i-Sir Syed, Vafa Ka Putla and Urdu translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s biography. Pyare Lal Shakir died on Feb 25, 1956, in Delhi and was buried in Christian Cemetery, Pahar Ganj, Delhi.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020