Over the years it has diminished, but until some time ago, there was still a vibrant left-wing political movement in the country. It comprised a number of small and not-so-small political parties, leftist groups, trade unions and cultural organisations. Some of these groups existed within the mainstream political parties as well as the pronounced ethno-nationalist parties. Although these groups or individuals would seldom make it to power, they had a voice, which they used to air the grievances of the struggling classes and disadvantaged communities in Pakistan.

Externally, it took consistent effort on part of the state, over decades, to minimise the volume of this voice. Internally, it is ironic that the continuous infighting and disharmony within the ranks of these groups weakened them further. Some leftist, liberal and nationalist parties still do exist, and there is renewed hope for a reconfigured progressive movement when we witness some of the initial organisational work being done by students and working people in different quarters of the country. But that’s tangential to what I want to discuss.

Both traditionally and even now, these assorted leftist and liberal political groups have attracted and involved writers and poets with a liberal and progressive bent of mind. For instance, members from the Progressive Writers’ Association to the Sindhi Adabi Anjuman, and from the Awami Adabi Anjuman to adabi sangats organised around various languages, took active political positions. This has been happening in parallel to those writers who keep away from social and political issues of communal nature, insist on individual expression and believe in the purity of art for art’s sake. (How much of that is possible for them in a turbulent and increasingly hostile society such as ours, is a separate matter.) This context was only needed to come to the observation I wanted to make.

What I find deeply interesting in Pakistan is that, when it comes to literature, there is a sharp inner divergence of views between the liberal and progressive political workers, along with some like-minded academics on one side, and the socially conscious and progressive poets on other. This disagreement is around four principal issues: the works and significance of Allama Muhammad Iqbal; references to Muslim religious history and symbolism used by progressive Urdu poets; critical appreciation of purely existential poetry; and, the outlook towards other literary traditions, from absurdity to surrealism.

Allama Iqbal — as has been hinted at a couple of times before in this column — in the eyes of many rational political workers and academics, is a conservative, reactionary and confused poet. They pronounce that Iqbal whipped up the baser emotions of the religious community to which he belonged, that out of his selective reading of a chequered history, he proposed solutions from the past to the problems of the present. However, in the opinion of Progressive poets who also happened to be staunch socialists, Iqbal offers a different meaning, with an unmatched aesthetic appeal.

It was none other than leading poet and cardholder of the Communist Party of India, Ali Sardar Jafri, who — in three exhaustive essays on Iqbal, compiled under the title Iqbal Shanasi [Understanding Iqbal] — attempted at establishing the greatness of Iqbal as a poet. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, another socialist and the most cherished poetic voice from Pakistan, wrote a beautiful poem in praise of Iqbal. There are many other poets — both contemporary and from the recent past — with a similar ideological bent as Jafri and Faiz who believe in Iqbal’s ultimate superiority over others in the 20th century.

An elderly lady who happens to be a poetry buff, but espouses purely liberal views, once curiously asked me why a socialist such as Faiz would write a marsiya [elegy] on Imam Hussain and what motivated one of his successors, Ahmed Faraz, to write an ode to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). Likewise, some progressive intellectuals and academics endlessly ask me why contemporary poets of my ilk cannot avoid writing about events and personalities from our history that have religious connotations for many other people.

To them, such references, images, metaphors and similes should only appear in devotional poetry, not in ghazals or nazms that otherwise sport a this-worldly theme. In the same spirit of criticism, someone termed the remarkable, recently released collection of Iftikhar Arif’s verse, Baagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh [The Garden of Red Flowers], too religious in nature, because his treatment of Karbala as a symbol of resistance to power dominates some of the verses.

But that is not how poets see it.

Poets draw upon metaphors which have emerged from their civilisation and collective history. The civilisation is an amalgam of cultures and languages. From these cultures and languages, poetic traditions evolve. It is ironic that many who find Iqbal problematic, still dance to the beat of a dhol [our native drum] when Bulleh Shah is sung. The poetry of Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Khawaja Fareed, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Rehman Baba liberally uses religious symbols while celebrating humanity and seeking its liberation.

Leave alone Mir Anis, for he focused solely on the marsiya, the icon of modern sensibility in Urdu — Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib — has written scores of verses in praise of Hazrat Ali. Before him, the giant-like Mir Taqi Mir had done the same, while effortlessly blending native Indian culture with the Indo-Persian experience. In the same tradition, poets such as Nazeer Akbarabadi and Maulana Hasrat Mohani have not only extracted themes and symbols from Muslim history, but have copiously written about Hindu gods, characters, festivals and mythology.

The genuine poets — progressive or otherwise — also have a different view when it comes to appreciating literature which reflects the inner voice of a person, be it about love and longing or about fears and anxieties. They espouse a different view of modernist literary schools ranging from symbolism to surrealism. They, as individuals, may well be critical of certain trends, but what matters most to them is the depth and aesthetic value in a piece of art.

The columnist 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, April 18th, 2021

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