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MODERN Urdu criticism was born with the advent of Hali's 'Muqaddama-i-sher-o-shaeri' in 1893. Though inspired and based largely on Wordsworth's preface to his 'Lyrical Ballads', the 'Muqaddama' proved to be a new Bible of Urdu criticism. Hali's new poetics created ripples that never really ceased to hit the shores — that is, until the Progressive Writers' Movement (PWM) took the subcontinent's literary scene by storm in the 1930s.

But with the passage of time PWM became more and more predisposed to unilateral political and economic philosophies, altogether ignoring literary considerations, which resulted in a kind of literary totalitarianism that degraded literature to the level of propaganda.

Some scholars believe that most of the progressive critics had become too rigid in their literary views and they tried to kind of dictate writers as to what to write and what not to. Some of my progressive friends may take exception to what I have said above but it is on record that Ali Sardar Jafri, one of the diehard Marxist poets, had asked his comrades to “throw pen and pick up sword”. At that critical juncture when the PWM was trying its best to alienate its moderate supporters, the strongest of the saner voices from within the leftist circles which objected to this approach was that of Mumtaz Husssain's.

Shahzad Manzar in his book 'Pakistan mein Urdu tanqeed ke pachas saal' has very rightly pointed out that 1950s was a period when progressive movement was drenched in extreme views and Dr Abdul Aleem and Sardar Jafri had advised writers to pick sword instead of pen as they thought the Marxist revolution was knocking at the doors of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent (which, by the way, was not the case). Both Soviet Union and China were influencing politics in southeast Asia and leftists were very hopeful of a proletarian revolution in this part of the world which, so they thought, as a precursor needed a literature that could create a conducive atmosphere and pave the way. So progressive writers began creating literature in line with the Communist Party precepts and it had, says Shahzad Manzar, everything except a literary touch and aesthetic values.

Prof Mumtaz Hussain was among the Marxists who had a broader vision with a firm belief in the freedom of expression. Contrary to the most of the leftists, he appreciated classical Urdu literature for certain reasons and his literary skirmishes with progressives on the issue of the value and relevance of classical literature are all too well-known. Though he was a committed leftist, he never formally joined the Communist Party. The reason was, perhaps, that he had a scientific approach and instead of evaluating literary pieces on the basis of political dogmas, he favoured a critical analysis that took into account aesthetics, culture and literary traditions. Instead of drawing predetermined conclusions, Mumtaz Sahib, writes Prof Sahar Ansari in one of his articles, would analyse the known facts like a scientist with a detachment and objectivity that one would rarely find in Urdu criticism. His profound study of world literature, a keen eye on Urdu's classical literature and a deep sense of belonging to the subcontinental culture drove Mumtaz Sahib to write about classical Urdu literature illuminating its less explored terrains and determining their merit on literary basis as well as their social, historical and cultural significance. His edited version of 'Bagh-o-Bahar' (1958) carried a scholarly preface and a much needed glossary. A year ago he had published 'Intekhab-i-Ghalib', Ghalib's selected poetry with a preface.

Another classical writer that caught his fancy was Ameer Khusrau. Mumtaz Hussain's book on Khusrau is his signature work that earned him yet more fame and he came to be known as a researcher of great merit, too. The book opened new vistas on Khusrau, not only discovering hitherto unknown facts about his life but also (as a critic of Hasan Askari's stature has mentioned while eulogising Mumtaz Sahib's work on Khusrau) providing ample proof that even Hafiz of Shiraz stepped in the footprints left by Khusrau in the domain of Persian ghazal. Later, he wrote another book on Khusrau in English Amir Khusrau Dehlavi.

Born on October 1, 1918 in a village named Para in Ghazipur district of UP, Prof Mumtaz Hussain did his BA from Allahabad in 1938, MA from Agra in 1946 and BEd from Aligarh in 1943. Beginning his career as an academic, he taught at Calvin College, Lucknow, for a short period but in 1947 he joined Bombay's Anjuman-i-Islam Research Institute as assistant director where he worked till 1949.

After migrating to Pakistan in 1949, Mumtaz Sahib remained associated with different publications in Karachi as a freelance journalist for about two years. Then he had a brief stint with daily 'Imroz' but in 1952, he returned to his first love — teaching — with which he remained associated till the very last. He taught at various Karachi colleges and retired from Sirajuddaula College as principal in 1976. Later, he taught at Karachi's Urdu College (now a university) and Karachi University and also guided students of PhD.

In the beginning, he wrote some short stories but soon turned to criticism and carved out a pedestal for himself within a brief span of time in a field that was already a habitat of giants. It could have never been easy for anyone to get oneself established as a genuine and distinct progressive critic in the presence of stalwarts such as Ehtesham Hussain, Akhter Hussain Raipuri, Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Sajjad Zaheer, Aziz Ahmed and Dr Abdul Aleem. His other books include Naqd-i-hayat, Adabi masael, Nai qadren, Adab aur shaoor, Nae tanqeedi goshe, Ameer Khusrau Dehlavi Hayat aur shaeri, Naqd-i-harf, Hali ke sheri nazaryat and Marxi jamaliyat.

Prof Mumtaz Hussain died in Karachi on August 15, 1992 and was buried in Karachi's Sakhi Hasan graveyard. —drraufparekh@yahoo.com