By Syed Nomanul Haq
ON the literary horizons of Urdu, Miraji is a heavenly body that is not readily visible. Let the metaphor ride: while the massive gravitational field of this luminous body is all-pervading, filling the whole poetic space around us, it is veiled both by clouds and by smoke — one formed by nature, the other generated by human hands. This Lahore-born Muhammad Sanaullah Dar, who renamed himself Miraji in the ultimate transfigurative gesture of love for a Bengali girl called Mira Sen, is not easily accessible as a poet, which is his prime identity, and so the very inherent nature of his poetry obscures him from coming into plain view. Nor does his external life emerge before us clearly due to his very peculiar — often embarrassing — physical appearance and idiosyncrasies, disregarding personal hygiene and expressly running afoul of social conventions. What happened as a result is that he was generally shunned by his cohorts, who in their rejection covered him with a thick smoke of biographical critiques, even calling him a deranged sex maniac, and his face drowned in this smoke. When in 1948 he died in a charity-run hospital in what used to be called Bombay, nobody except the medical staff was at his bedside. He was 38. And so we must now look for Miraji.
But why is it worth looking for him? Why not leave him languishing in obscurity? This question hides a painful historic irony. As we observed at the very outset, Miraji is everywhere in the contemporary world of Urdu poetry since it is he who introduced robustly and sustained poetically the genre of free verse in this ghazal-locked poetic tradition, a tradition with its hitherto hardened conventions of metre, rhyme, and form. Yes, there certainly are other claimants to the throne of the fatherhood of Urdu free verse, chiefly N.M. Rashid and Tasadduq Husain Khalid. And yet, priority claims aside, it was Miraji who raised Urdu free verse to its enduring heights. He made this genre so flowing, so attractive, so rich, so insistent, and provided such unbridled and fresh breeze for nourishment, that it began to rap at the doors of everyone who wrote Urdu verse. They all opened their door, including those progressive poets who did not like Miraji much, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
And now Miraji has become part of the spirit of the age, so well-integrated that we have forgotten the source from which the new free verse radiated forth, a source that passed it on to us after an alchemical treatment that turned it pliable, supple, and — above all — so naturally suited to carry the onus of Urdu poetry’s sensibilities. How often have we walked on smooth pathways cutting through proud mountains that look invincible, not thinking about the immortal hands that tore them apart for our adventures and fun! This is what Miraji did with an unyielding western genre that looked highly incompatible with a Persianised ghazal-esque ethos. He is, then, one of the very anchors from which hangs today’s Urdu poetry. But he is not a box office success; he is neither quoted much nor did he write much quotable poetry. So the irony is that Miraji is ubiquitous, yet hidden from view; he made contemporary Urdu verse what it is, yet his own poetry places such veils before it that we seem to have given up on the task of rending them or even shredding them.
So a rediscovery of Miraji is binding upon us as an imperative. In the discourse on literary history, we must explain the journey of Urdu poetry in which he looms large. And there seem to be good reasons why his verse in its own being is found to be obscure. To begin with, he suffered the afflictions of a pioneer — he had no ready audience. His poetic soil needed to cultivate and nurture an audience. Then, Sanaullah Dar was bubbling with uncontrollable poetic energy inside, and his creative jet went all over the place. It swept across from Mirza Ghalib to Ghalib’s contemporary Charles Baudelaire, and from French, English, and Persian to Urdu, Hindi, and Sanskrit. He imbibed the fascinating and complex play of metaphor-reality-metaphor from the firm ingots of Subk-i-Hindi, and at the same time espoused the 19th-century decadent French symbolism of Stephane Mallarme. He was heartlessly critical of religious rules governing self-expression, but then dived deep into ancient Indic poetry that is irreversibly bound up with a religious cosmology of rites and goddesses and gods. On the one hand, he would declare:
What is the religious creed of nature?
Through and through freedom!
But, on the other hand, he was to write hymns in praise of Hindu gods. Now add to this the new poetic form of the free verse along with the daring attending act of cracking through standard metres of Urdu poetry, and we see — Miraji’s work is hard to swallow! He would at a first glance appear obscure, contradictory, and inaccessible, even bizarre.
The irony in fact multiplies. Miraji, the flouter of standard Urdu metres, has such a firm and mind-boggling grasp of these classical metres that he wrote the longest unilinear poems in the known history of Urdu-Persian poetry — the whole poem being effectively a single line, perfectly metrical, but broken up into numerous lines as quasi-hemistiches (misra’). His monumental poem “Jaatrii” (Pilgrim) is a case in point: the poem has 52 practically equal lines in prosodic terms, one flowing into another, merging in complex manners, but in fact they all constitute a single metrically constructed line. This is no minor feat. Likewise, we have “Mahrumi” (Deprivation), written in the free verse form with unequal metrical fragments. But these 46 fragments make up a unilinear poem, a fascinating display of metrical craft. This is unparalleled historic achievement. But this was all a pioneer’s burden, and he was ruthlessly pronounced whimsical and frivolous and obscure.
Removing the clouds and the smoke in which Miraji is wrapped is important also from the historical vantage point of the external world. He was writing when South Asia was in the dark depths of colonial rule. One serious damage, perhaps the most serious damage, done by imperial rulers is what Edward Said once called epistemological dislocation: manufacturing essentialist categories of the “Orient” and the “Occident” and hermetically sealing them apart. This damage is forever enshrined in a ballad of Rudyard Kipling whose line, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet!” echoed from one end of the horizon to the other. In consequence, the recognition of the shared legacy and “impure” ancestry of Europe was through a deliberate policy thrown off board. In this process, the direct Arabo-Islamic and indirect Indic roots of western culture were forgotten. The world was a divided world. Now in the throes of this cultural and intellectual calamity, Miraji lit a lamp and illuminated the western tradition of poetry, telling us that the yearnings of the human soul in the alternative universe of poetry are common to all humanity. Not only did he translate a large number of European works, he marked a turning point in history by naturalising European poetic structures, forms, and imageries. These are now fellow citizens in the Urdu country. So Miraji is also an ambassador of global goodwill and harmony of a very meaningful and lasting kind. The flame of his lamp still flickers.
In so many ways, Miraji can be called a postmodernist poet. This is so because his soil is local, but his canvass comprehends the whole sweep of world poetry. One can say that his creative operation is carried out in Cartesian coordinates — there is a vertically downward dimension in his poetry whereby he enters deep into the Indic cultural ground, revisiting ancient Sanskrit and Hindi imagery,
expression, and structural modes. But then, at the same time, there appears a horizontal axis moving across from one side of the horizon to another, linking Persian, Urdu, European, and Indic traditions. And here is another explanation as to why Miraji became hidden from view: in a world of poetry where poetic inspiration and substantive paradigms were drawn from the almost metaphysical archetypes of Kufa and Baghdad and Oxus and Jaxartes, the mixture of Paris and London and Indus and the Ganges produced an unfamiliar mélange: this was hardly palatable.
Critics have often linked Miraji’s personal life to his poetry. While the poet’s individual biographical history, his experiences, and his private psychology are not altogether irrelevant to his poetry, the relationship between them is a complex one. One cannot speak of a direct correspondence here — either conceptually, or empirically. This is perhaps the reason why, when Miraji defended his own poetry, he failed to articulate his art, as many a critic has observed; he was inconsistent and confused, they say. Explaining art solely in terms of external history and the personal vicissitudes of its creator, a common habit these days among Urdu writers, has played havoc with our understanding of poetics, of poetry as a creative art, surrendering literary criticism to sociopolitical analyses, and explaining away the work of art itself in terms of archaic Freudian psychology of repressed sexualities, for example, or in the idiom of a naïve Marxist ideology.
Still, Miraji’s invisibility is partly due to the peculiarities of his personality. He used to shock people. When he visited friends, he wouldn’t leave. He was a loiterer. He wore dreadlocks, filthy, unwashed dreadlocks. He hung a long string of beads around his neck. Summer or winter, he donned a long woolen coat upon his person. He ignored the principles of hygiene. He would hold three balls in his hand, wrapped in silver paper — the three balls immortalised by Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Teen Golay”, a piece of writing that is just about the best impressionistic profile of Miraji. And Miraji was crushingly lonely. This is not a very heartwarming description.
And truth be told, it did not warm the hearts of many of those who wrote about Miraji. Many got stuck in the cobweb of this disconcerting appearance and forgot the poet underneath. And they raised a smoke of personal remarks — an eminent case of ad hominem treatment. We must blow this smoke away if we want to understand today’s Urdu poetry.
The writer is a senior faculty member at LUMS, and general editor of Oxford University Press’ series, Studies in Islamic Philosophy