Students of history are often warned of the pitfalls of ‘big person’ history, or the tendency to see history simply as a series of biographies of extraordinary individuals, ignoring larger socioeconomic forces.

Faced with the loss of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, however, and tasked with remembering his work, I am forced to throw all caution to the wind and look up in awe to this single individual. The amount, range and depth of all his work is hard to describe in a few lines.

Perhaps his single most important achievement was saving the classical Urdu ghazal, and embracing and elaborating its native poetics once and for all. Although Faruqi worked towards this across multiple works, the single most forceful and consolidated expression of this is his magnum opus, Sher-i-Shor Angez [The Tumult-Raising Verse], a four-volume work on the classical Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir (1725-1810).

In the prefaces that he wrote to these volumes, Faruqi carried out an effective recovery of the fast-dwindling meaning of the classical Urdu ghazal in particular, and of all of our pre-modern verse in general.

Let us see what Sher-i-Shor Angez — and, in corollary, much of Faruqi’s life and work — was all about, and remember him by remembering what he was most passionate about.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi recovered the poetic Urdu genre from colonial dismissal, and for that we are ever grateful

All this talk of ‘saving’ and ‘recovery’ begs the question: was the classical ghazal ever in danger? Why did Faruqi have to resort to the vocabulary of loss and recovery (baazyaaft) when he wrote Sher-i-Shor Angez in 1990? Faruqi’s achievement can only be understood in light of the crisis that confronted not just Urdu poetry, but almost all of South Asia’s local traditions — including its religions, its poetry, its medicine and so on — with the rise of the English as the colonial overlords of South Asia.

Though 1857 is usually understood to mark a major political watershed, the loss of Hindustan to the British proved to be an event and trauma of epic proportions in the inner lives of South Asia. Almost everything that preceded the colonial encounter — including entire worldviews and ways of life — came to be regarded with suspicion by the best and with contempt by the worst, not just by the new masters, but by their subjects as well.

The combined traditions of South Asian Persian and, later, Urdu poetry were, by this time, at least 800 years old. But the complex psychology of colonial trauma squeezes many hundreds of years, and the millions of lives — some ordinary, many extraordinary — that lived these years, into a tiny, super-compressed speck, to be flicked away with future-obsessed abandon.

All of a sudden, it was discovered that our preoccupations with the gul-o-bulbul [rose and nightingale] — formerly venerable denizens of the ghazal’s universe — as well as with ‘love’ were shameful, immoral, far from ‘reality’ and in dire need of amends.

One of the most important works to toot this horn of shame and reform was Muhammad Hussain Azad’s Aab-i-Hayaat [The Water of Life] in 1880. Azad called for a new kind of nechari, or natural poetry, which spoke of ‘real’ botanical flowers, real birds and real lakes of Wordsworthian pedigree. Others, such as Altaf Hussain Hali, famously declared our former poetry to be worse than the loo in its stench (“ufunat mein sandaas se jo hae badtar”). It would not be an exaggeration to say — as Faruqi often pointed out — that the views of Hali and Azad continue to hold their pernicious sway for a lot of us till today, even if unconsciously so.

The Progressive Writers’ Movement was one way in which poets and authors responded to the call for reform. Repentance for their former sins came in the form of a new kind of socially and politically committed leftist poetry. But one thing remained unchanged: the disregard with which classical poetry was treated.

There certainly were efforts to reinstate its prestige, but virtually all of these played according to rules set by Western umpires. One such effort was Syed Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb’s Hamari Shaeri [Our Poetry] in 1935. If the charge was that Urdu poetry was immoral, Adeeb tried his best to show that it was actually very moral, but he never questioned, or even explored, the place of morality itself in poetry.

Perhaps the first voice that was able to surmount the seemingly invincible psychological barrier of the-West-as-ultimate-and-universal-standard was that of Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919-78). With searing insight, Askari condemned both critics and poets for creating “Eastern editions of Western literature”, and for blindly applying (half-understood) Western critical standards to our own literature. Most importantly, Askari claimed that all literary traditions were different, that there were no universal critical principles, and that each tradition had the right to produce its own critical standards and be judged according to them.

This insight becomes a keystone in Faruqi’s vast and multifarious critical edifice, and a principle that informed his entire corpus. With confidence instilled by Askari’s incisive and courageous observations, Faruqi could regard the ghazal, the daastaan and the qasida — still seen by even the best with jaundiced eyes — as complete in themselves, in no way inferior to any Western form and worth understanding on their own terms.

But what does the ghazal read like on its own terms, understood from within the world that produced it? What distinguishes a good verse from a bad one? In other words, what are the ghazal’s native poetics? It is precisely this question that Faruqi answered and elaborated in Sher-i-Shor Angez’s prefaces.

Analytical rigour joined hands with profound erudition to carry out nothing less than the recovery of a massive literary genre’s poetics. This required deep excavation, since these ‘rules of business’ were not to be found conveniently written down and elaborated in any theoretical text. Instead, they had simply been known to all, a part of the air one breathed, and seamlessly transferred from person to person as part of the ustad-shagird [teacher-student] tradition.

In other words, these rules and standards were simply second nature. But where does one locate something as ambiguous and diffuse as a literary community’s second-nature?

Fortunately, glimpses of this could be found all over the corpus: in verses mentioning poetic qualities that were admired in a sher (ravaani [flow], for example, or maani-aafrini [meaning-creation]), in the corrections given to shagirds by their ustads, in anecdotes from tazkiras [narrations] and so on. These disparate instances Faruqi painstakingly gathered together to elaborate our classical poetics in an unprecedented, systematic fashion. What Faruqi’s work meant, in effect, was that the complete intellectual and historical framework needed to find the ghazal meaningful again had been recovered.

Importantly, this recovery did not only engage the Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Urdu traditions of poetry and criticism, but displayed an equally masterful grasp of the Western philosophical, literary and critical traditions — both classical and contemporary — as well. Faruqi, like Askari before him, was as at home with French philosopher Jacques Derrida as with poet Amir Khusrau, as well-versed in classical Persian poetry as in postmodernism.

No work of intellectual decolonising can be effective without a mastery of the coloniser’s (or neo-coloniser’s) own knowledge-traditions, and this mastery was crucial to Faruqi’s effectiveness and critical success. Faruqi engaged fully and meaningfully with Western thinkers, but was never (except, perhaps, for one major exception, but that is a topic for later) swept away by them, nor threatened into an inferiority complex, as is so often the case with many others.

With feet firmly planted on his home soil, Faruqi cast his intellectual net wide and deep. As a result, one can confidently say that Sher-i-Shor Angez represents the most thoughtful, complete and decisive defence and elaboration of the classical tradition of the ghazal after the Hali-and-Azad debacle, and one that changed the Urdu critical landscape forever.

After its watershed prefaces, Sher-i-Shor Angez sees Faruqi’s whole framework subsequently applied to the ghazals of Mir Taqi Mir in four sizeable volumes, to constitute one of the best selections, as well as readings, of Mir in recent times. But as we have seen, the importance of Faruqi’s theoretical framework and his recovery goes far beyond a single poet or genre.

It is a reminder of the sheer difficulty but indispensability, and finally the reward, of decolonising ourselves, and rediscovering those parts of our selves — whether it be the ghazal or the daastaan, and so much more — that most of us have been taught to loathe, be ashamed of and forget.

For saving the classical ghazal for us, for teaching us how best to read it, for teaching us how to overcome our mental colonial fetters, for this, and for so much else, we will ever be grateful to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

The writer is a PhD student at the University of Chicago and studies history with a focus on Islam in South Asia. He can be contacted at shariqkhanshariq@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 4th, 2021

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