Imtiaz Ali, the Taj of Urdu drama

April 14, 2009


In April 1973, 'Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan' carried an interesting article by Ibadullah Farooqi. It tried to find out whether the famous account of Anarkali and Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir was a historical fact or a mere myth.

Anarkali was a slave-girl whose real name was Nadira Begum or Sharfunnisa Begum. She was brought to Akbar's court by Raja Maan Singh and became one of Akbar's favourites. Akbar gave her the title Anarkali, or 'the pomegranate bud', for her beauty. According to what has become a popular folktale, Jahangir, a prince then, and Anarkali fell in love with each other and once when Anarkali was dancing in the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), Akbar noted their exchange of gestures in the mirror and ordered that she be entombed alive in a wall.

Though Noor Muhammad Chishtie in Tehqeeqat-i-Chishtia says that she was poisoned by other mistresses of Akbar's harem out of jealousy, according to some historians the famous incident of her being immured in a wall took place in 1599 and, writes Syed Muhammad Lateef, Jahangir got a tomb built over Anarakli's grave in Lahore when he was enthroned. The construction work on the mausoleum was finished in 1615. Though sceptics have always had doubts about the authenticity of the incident (one historian has written that in 1599 both Akbar and Jahangir were not in Lahore and the tomb is one of Jahangir's wives, Sahib-i-Jamal, who died in 1599), the author of the article brushed aside all doubts and concluded that the horrendous incident was a historical fact.

Whether fact or fiction, the story is as famous and immortal as any other love story. Although Lahore's Anarkali Bazar, named after Anarkali, and her tomb in Lahore are testimonies to her existence, what has immortalised the story in Urdu literature is Imtiaz Ali Taj's play Anarkali. Based on the famous incident, the play has also immortalised its author.

Rarely does it happen that the parents of a great man are great themselves. But Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj was rare as he was born to a couple that were well-known writers and editors. His father, Shamsul Ulema Syed Mumtaz Ali (1860-1935), was a writer, journalist and religious scholar. Taj's mother, Muhammadi Begum (1879-1908), was the editor of a magazine Tehzeeb-i-Niswan, launched by Taj's father in 1898. The magazine ran successfully for about 50 years. Besides publishing several magazines and running a movement for the betterment of women, Syed Mumtaz Ali established Dar-ul-Ishaat Punjab, one of the leading publishing houses of undivided India in the early 20th century that published hundreds of books. His Rifah-i-Aam Steam Press in Lahore was among the ones that had latest printing machinery.

Syed Imtiaz Ali was born on October 13, 1900, in Lahore. His mother adored him and called him Mera Taj (my crown). When Imtaiz Sahib grew up, he adopted it as part of his name.

Imtiaz Ali Taj is, perhaps, the only child that has ever been presented with the launch of a new magazine for children as a birthday gift. When Taj turned nine, his father decided that it was time to launch a new magazine for children that would cater to the educational needs of his child and thousands of other children's across the country. On October 13, 1909, Phool, a monthly, was launched that ran successfully for about 40 years and ultimately Taj Sahib himself became its editor in 1935 when his father died.

Writing, editing, compiling and publishing were the traits Taj Sahib was born with. In 1918, when he was only 18 and not even a graduate, Taj launched a literary monthly, Kehkashan, but had to close it down after about two years. Having passed his BA from the Government College, Lahore, he began writing Anarkali. But it could not be staged and he had to wait for about 10 years for its publication. Reason? In the foreword to the play, Taj wrote “I had written Anarkali in 1922 but no theatre accepted it in its present form for stage and they rather suggested some alterations which were not acceptable to me”.

In those days, the theatrical companies used to stage plays that were packed with elements typical of our movies even today love, songs, comedy, love triangles, melodramatic scenes and loud and long dialogues which were in some cases versified too. Even Agha Hashr Kashmiri, the so-called 'Indian Shakespeare', wrote plays with commercial considerations since it was the demand of the theatrical companies. Hakeem Ahmed Shuja was probably the first Urdu playwright who wrote purely literary drama. Imtiaz Ali Taj, having deeply studied western drama, wanted to change the course of Urdu drama and resisted all pressures from the so-called drama companies. He finally decided to publish it and it became an instant hit. Although it was staged later and appreciated, some critics said its dialogues were a bit too long that made it seem lingering. Some attributed its success to the well-known story of Anarkali. Anyhow, Taj had become a household name. Taj wrote, and performed in many plays for radio. Later he turned to movie script-writing.

His drama Anarkali has become so popular that it has eclipsed Imatiaz Ali Taj's other achievements. One of his great contributions was transforming Majlis Taraqqi-i-Adab from a small entity to a truly literary institution. When he took over as its director in 1958, Majlis, established in 1950 as the Translation Board, had 10 books to its credit. With Taj Sahib at the helm of affairs, it became a prolific and dynamic literary institution that began to pour out books. In the next years, Majlis produced about 180 books, most of them meticulously edited and annotated versions of Urdu's classical literature. Though after Taj, Majlis continued its remarkable journey under Prof Hameed Ahmed Khan, it is a pity that after Prof Sahib Majlis suffered from lethargy and its glorious legacy was squandered, making it just another government department. It is heartening to note that the present director of Majlis, renowned poet Shahzad Ahmed, has put the Majlis back on the right track and it has produced commendable works in the recent past.

As a critic, editor and compiler, Taj sahib traced and retrieved a large number of texts of classical Urdu drama. He was working on compiling Urdu's classical plays in 30 volumes with introductions and annotations and at the time of his death had published seven of them which consisted of about 100 plays. This alone was such a big achievement that it earned him a seat in Urdu literature's Hall of Fame.

Another of his literary works that make him live on is his famous humorous character Chacha Chhakkan. Adapted from a character of Jerome K Jerome's book Three men in a boat, this character was developed and naturalised in the local milieu so successfully that it has become one of the most famous humorous characters of Urdu literature. Taj translated many classical western pieces into Urdu, including Shakespeare's A midsummer night's dream and some works of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

At midnight in his Lahore home on April 19, 1970, two masked assailants stabbed Imtiaz Ali Taj several times and his wife Hijab Imtiaz (a well-known writer) sustained injuries when she tried to rescue him. Taj Sahib succumbed to the injuries.

Ishrat Rahmani, a drama critic, wrote in one of his articles that Imtiaz Ali Taj was the Taj Mahal of Urdu drama. One wishes that the Taj endures with all its grandeur.