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Zia Mohyeddin.–Photo by White Star

KARACHI:  The 5th International Urdu Conference began with thought-provoking speeches on Urdu literature in India and Pakistan and admirable prose rendition by Zia Mohyeddin in the Arts Council Karachi auditorium on Thursday.

Two keynote speeches were made at the inaugural session of the four-day moot. Indian scholar Prof Shamim Hanafi spoke on Urdu literature in India.

He said the concept of democracy was best manifested in the world of literature. Muslims in India did not speak or write in one language as Urdu was one of the 24 national languages spoken in the country. Pointing out the issues confronting Urdu literature, he argued that the advent of information technology had sparked off a tussle between books and machines. He quoted Susan Sontag, who had once argued that the media was posing a threat to literature but in the final analysis had claimed that nothing would be able to replace the efficacy of books. He remarked: “Books respect our solitude.” (kitab hamari tanhaee ka ehtaram kerti hai).

The other issue that Prof Hanafi touched on was intellectual extremism (fikri intehapasandi) that had crept into writers in their endeavor to get closer to power centres.

He said extremism in following the classics or modernists or even the progressive was harmful. He also brought into view the critics’ role and said critics in India had learnt jargons which they had borrowed from different sources which had made them unable to come up with something worthwhile. He said movements like feminism too had not taken root and the overall situation in his country was not very encouraging. Though there had been greats like Quratulain Hyder and Surinder Prakash, on the whole things were not bright enough.

He articulated that each era carried its own metaphor. The 18th century had Mir and the 19th century had Ghalib as their metaphors, but after them so much fragmentation had occurred in society that one great personality could not make any difference — new metaphors were required to piece together the picture.

Intizar Husain spoke on Urdu literature in Pakistan.

He began his speech by suggesting that Urdu’s literary tradition remained the same everywhere in the world. However, partition broke the historic continuum for Pakistan. Critic M. Askari raised the question of what made or distinguished Pakistani literature, which, Intizar Husain said was asked in haste. He said Faiz Ahmed Faiz had too hurled the query about Pakistani culture at a time when those who made Pakistan were not there.

Intizar Husain extended his argument saying that one question led to another and people brought forth their own reasoning. Some suggested our history began with Mohammad bin Qasim and others traced it back to Moenjodaro.

All these questions kept complicating the matter instead of providing with answers as a result of which such issues as the Kalabagh dam reared their heads. “Our national identity has become a puzzle,” he commented. He said a novel like Aag Ka Darya could only have been written after partition.

He urged everyone to read literature first and then come to a conclusion because most of us did not do that.

Before the speeches, Arts Council president Ahmed Shah thanked the participants and guests of the conference.

The second and last session of the day had two parts which were merged owing to shortage of time. Books published by the National Academy of Performing Arts, Urdu translations of some classic western plays with two of Zia Mohyeddin’s books, were discussed and lauded.

The final segment of the day, conducted by music composer Arshad Mahmood, was to acknowledge and appreciate the life and works of Zia Mohyeddin. Asif Farrukhi, Rahat Kazmi, Intizar Husain, Prof Shamim Hanafi and Ahmed Shah briefly spoke on services that the artist had rendered to the world of art. A memento was also given to him.

The highlight of the segment was Zia Mohyeddin’s prose rendition and poetry recitation. The marked aspect of his act was the quality selection of the works of prose (and a poem).

He set the tone for his performance by reading a piece written by Farhatullah Baig which was ostensibly a humorous excerpt but carried layers of meaning, particularly with reference to colonial times and hypocrisy on an individual’s level. He read it out with the correct stresses and pauses, creating visual imageries through words.

His rendition of Miraji’s poem ‘Samandar ka bulawa’ underlined the forlornness that is inherent in the nazm. Perhaps his most heartfelt performance came when he read the foreword to Alf Laila penned by Intizar Husain. He captured the profundity of Intizar sahib’s writing and the crux of his arguments (that Alf Laila had no larger-than-life heroes and the common man was its real protagonist) brilliantly. In the end he read out from Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s selected works.