La tanqeed X-ray report of contemporary Urdu literature

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In the 1960s, some poets and critics of Urdu from Lahore decided that it was just about time to try to revolutionise Urdu literature and see if it worked. Work it did, albeit briefly, as it found soon a following that turned it into a literary movement. It was called Nai Shaeri Ki Tehreek, or the new poetry movement.

The intellectuals supporting the movement, known as Naya Adabi Group (new literary group) or Nai Shaeri Group (new poetry group), declared, under the influence of new linguistic theories proffered in the west, that conservative diction and old style were useless and what Urdu literature needed was a new lexicon. The group also condemned ghazal and favoured prose poem. Some of the critics of the group went to the extreme of declaring that Urdu’s classical poetry was worthless. They rejected even some modern poets such as Miraji, Faiz, N. M. Rashid and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi.

Although the movement, led by Iftikhar Jalib, Safdar Mir (Zeno), Jeelani Kamran, Anis Nagi and some others, faded after having tried to restructure Urdu literature and its diction largely unsuccessfully, it did influence Urdu literature in two ways: it further popularised free verse and prose poem in Urdu and it influenced some poets of Urdu who, though not associated with the group, infused a new life into Urdu poetry. Among them the most prominent was, and still is, Zafar Iqbal, of course. But, paradoxically, while trying to restructure Urdu poetry’s diction, as desired by the new poetry group, Zafar Iqbal chose ghazal, the genre rejected by the group. Creating the new diction is something that the Nai Shaeri Group surmised but could only strive for. Zafar Iqbal displayed precisely and very successfully what the new diction of poetry ought to be, but he showed that by composing ‘new ghazal’. In fact, he decided to compose ghazal instead of nazm (poem) when ghazal came under severe criticism from some other quarters as well. Although he is sometimes criticised for experimenting with the language (which at times becomes too tortuous), it is the very same reason that Zafar Iqbal is sometimes much appreciated for.

Born on Sept 27, 1932 in Bahawalnagar, Zafar Iqbal took the literary scene with storm with his second collection of poetry, Gulaftab (1966). The title is a portmanteau word, a combination of ‘gul’ and ‘aftab’. Giving Urdu lexicon a new colour is something that Zafar Iqbal has been doing for the last 50 years or so, as the word ‘gulaftab’ suggests. But then he has been writing columns and critical essays for almost the same period. For some, his poetry can be shocking at times. But Zafar Iqbal writes a prose as shocking and pungent as his poetry is. Now he has compiled his critical writings in a book form. Titled La tanqeed (non-criticism) and published by Lahore’s Sang-i-Meel Publications, the book is subtitled ‘Hala nasr-i-maa beshunau’ (now listen to my prose).

Explaining the background of the subtitle, Dr Tehseen Firaqi writes in the foreword to the book that “once Mirza Sauda, the famous poet of Urdu, wrote a poem lampooning an Afghan. While Sauda recited the poem before the Afghan, who was a soldier, he listened quietly. When Sauda finished, the man let loose a barrage of abuses at Sauda. Surprised, Sauda said that abusing was not something expected of a person of his (Afghan’s) status and dignity. Upon which the Afghan pulled out his dagger and said ‘you recited your poem. I cannot compose poetry. So I expressed myself in prose’”. Dr Firaqi adds: “I don’t know whether Zafar Iqbal is in any way related to that Afghan but his aggressive, candid and matter-of-fact style of saying what he has to say does resemble the way in which that gentleman had expressed himself in prose. Zafar Iqbal seems to say ‘now listen to my prose’”.

To see what Dr Firaqi means one has to look for many untold truths that only Zafar Iqbal can state in his tongue-in cheek style with the help of one-liners. For instance:

“The tragedy is that the standard of poetry has been reduced to the lobby. This lobby appreciates your rubbish poetry, causes to sell your books and arranges for the overseas invitations”.

“To sell oneself, every poet has to be a ‘commission agent’.”

“Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s later day poetry suffers from hiccups of expression because by that time Sufi Tabassum had died”.

“Jafer Sheerazi and Yaseen Qudrat had decided not to accept each other as poet. And both were correct up to some extent”.

“One of the reasons for Parveen Shakir’s popularity was her ability to present immature and adolescent romantic emotions. Though Akhtar Sherani and Ahmed Faraz had done that before her but she did it with more maturity”.

“Most of the poets composing ghazal these days hardly bother themselves with reading anything. This renders their IQ local. But their poetry does not have even a whiff of local culture as they copy western culture”.

Zafar Iqbal is a lawyer by profession so he can afford to be straightforward but there are many aphorisms that cannot be quoted here for we cannot run the risk of defamation suits.

Many would feel that Zafar Iqbal is another critic for whom it is very difficult to find anything positive in contemporary literature. But Zafar Iqbal is not a cynic. Neither does he pose to be perfect. He accepts his limitations but states honestly what he feels. His style is crisp and the book is an attempt to break free from the clutches of Urdu’s traditionalist and formal criticism: dry, drab and dull. The crisp language and the freshness of thought feel just like his poetry: readers are shocked out of their shell. Perhaps this is the purpose that this X-ray report serves while revealing many unseen and unheard of facts about contemporary Urdu literature.

You may disagree with some of what Zafar Iqbal has said in this book, but, believe me, there are few who have the courage to say what he has said — without fear or favour.

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