Josh Malihabadi And His Utopia Of Revolution

Josh Malihabadi And His Utopia Of Revolution
Doyen of the Progressive Writers Movement, Josh Malihabadi dominated the literary scene of 20th century's Sub Continent and is popularly known as Sha'ir-e-Inqilab (the poet of revolution) due to his fiercely written poetry condemning the British rulers of that time.

Josh was born in 1898 (and according to some sources in 1894) in an ethnic Afridi Shiite Pashtun family in a small town of British India called Malihabad (a tehsil of Lukhnow ) which is also famous for its Dusssehri mangoes the world over. Josh's forefathers were rich and also owned mango orchards there.

It is also worth mentioning that reportedly, at least, 300 varieties of mangoes are grown there and one of them is named Ashwarya due to its sweetness and perhaps to pay tribute to the passionate and consummate romanticism of this literary cum revolutionary son of the Indian soil. 

Josh got his formal education mostly from the westernized institutions, such as, St. Peter' college Agra and M.A.O college. Aligarh (called Oxford of the east) and passed his Senior Cambridge in 1914. He is also said to have spent six months at Tagore's university at Shantinketan.

However, after the death of his father Bashir Ahmed Khan in 1916, he could not continue his education any further. His family is said to have a long tradition of producing men of letters. His father and grandfather also had some poetic leanings. Josh's original name was Shabbir Hassan Khan and Josh (passion) was his nom de plume. Although he belonged to a rich bourgeois family, he believed in proletariat ideas.

Josh is regarded as a giant of Urdu literature and is venerated both in India and Pakistan as a great revolutionary and literary figure. He was equally popular with rulers of his times, such as Jawahar Lal Nehru and Field Marshal Ayub Khan. He also received prestigious awards like Padma Bhushan (1954) from India and Hilal-e-Imtiaz (2013) from Pakistan.

I am not an expert on Josh, nor have any literary caliber, but some days ago I received a critical review of Josh's poetry and persona to translate from English into Urdu and came to know about many hidden flaws in his ideology as well as persona. This gave me an impetus to research further and impudence to actually discover some visible contradictions and confusion in the philosophy and persona of this greatly admired poet of Urdu literature who is reportedly regarded second only to Allama Iqbal.

What I found amusing as well as absurd was his criticism of Ghazal as he chose Nazm (poem) as a mode of fiery expression against cruelties and injustices of a class based society that had started to thrive rapidly during the British imperial rule in the sub-continent.  The proponents of poem including Mirajee and N.M. Rashid (or Noon Meem Rashid) believed that Ghazal was not suitable, in strict terms, for coherent ideas due to its characteristic fragmentary nature and disconnected themes.

A Ghazal may accommodate different ideas in every couplet and they may very well contradict each other.

Due to this alleged inconsistency, Ghazal has been cheifly criticized. However, this criticism to me signifies narrowness as well as inability of the alleged Lucknow School (vs. Delhi School) of Urdu Poetry to show some gumption to express ideas in this sophisticated and intricate genre of Urdu poetry that has been the forte of such great progressive thinkers and philosophers like Firaq Gorakhpuri, Jan Nisar Akhta and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Lucknow school, in the words of Rauf Parekh, is also accused of favouring an attitude that stresses on physical pleasure, gaiety, and delicacy bordering on sensuality and Epicureanism Most poets and literati agree that Ghazal is a poetic form which expresses a whole universe in just two lines with clearly defined rhyme scheme and highly symbolic vocabulary.

Firaq sings of love, but behind these seemingly love experiences is depicted a value system born of variegated human relationships. Firaq describes genre of Ghazal as a "series of climaxes" for it versifies the essence of an experience without giving it details.

In his Ghazals, a new type of human relationship between two individuals emerges as the focal point of experience. These relationships are no idealistic infatuations between two starry eyed lovers but between two individuals caught in the cobweb of human predicament.

They are sensible  individuals in love with the good things in life, truly and sincerely aesthetic in approach, who have accepted love not merely as a hedonistic sensation or morbid possessiveness, but a vehicle of cultural catharsis which humanizes a person by purging him of lust and grossness of pleasure through the mellowness of sorrow and pathos.

Firaq wrote a full length book "Urdu ki Ishqia Shaeri" (Urdu Love Poetry) on the subject emphasizing the humanizing role of love by a couplet: 

Yeh Ishq mei'n kehtey ho, heran huey Jatey hei'n

Yeh nahee'n kehtey keh insaan huey jatey Jatey hei'n


(You say that love is bewildering, why don't you say that it humanizes you)(4)


Furthermore, as Nazm of 20th century was not purely indigenous genre as compared to Ghazal, the western influence was most visible in Nazm. Early influence of English poetry could also be traced in the poetry of Hali who acquainted himself with English poetry through some translations.

A large number of poems from different European languages including English were translated into Urdu and Blank verse, the Sonnet, and free verse etc. became common terms in Urdu poetry.

And with this came the deluge western ideas too and hence Nazm was not as reflective of progressive ideas as western or so called modern ideas, such as patriotism, nationalism etc. I am going to throw the light on this problem in detail in later paragraphs, but before that it would be interesting to know about Ahmed Faraz’s comments on Josh's choice of Nazm and criticism of Ghazal in an interview to Amarjit Chandan.

Responding to a query by Chandan regarding Josh Sahib's preference for Nazm, Faraz said that it is naive to think in terms of Nazm or Ghazal. The bread is a bread whether it is triangular or round shaped. The fault does not lie with the form but the poet. He further opined (when asked that why Josh didn't write Ghazal) that Ghazal is self-contradictory - the clichés are inherent in it e.g. Saqi, Qafas, Bulbul.

That way it is just a formula. However, bad poetry is written both in Nazm and Ghazal forms. Josh and N.M. Rashid were weak Ghazal gos. The progressives gave a new life to Ghazal. A genre loses its vitality, if it does not get new blood. In ghazal you have to say all in just two lines. It didn't suit Josh. He keeps on filling words in his Nazm without any imagination.

One cannot help but agree with Faraz. Josh's poetry is full of verbosity. According to Dr. Aslam Farrukhi, in one Nazm Josh has used 37 synonyms for the word Haseen (beautiful. It can also be seen in the following two verses:

i) Kaam hai  mera taghayyer, Naam hai mera shabab

Mera na'ara inqilab, wa inqilab, wa inqilab

(My mission is change, my name is youth

My slogan is revolution, revolution, revolution)

And while addressing the typical Mullah, he says:


  1. ii) Teri Baato'n sei padi jati hai kano'n mei'n kharash

Kufr-o-eema'n, kufr-o-emma'n, ta kuja ? khamosh bash


(Your drivel now gives me an earache

Religion, religion, how long? shut up!)

Now read the following verse of Faiz:

Jis dhaj sei koi maqtal mei'n gaya, Woh Shaan salamat rehti hei

Yeh jaan tau aani jaani hei, Iss jaa'n kee tau koi baat nahee'n

(Praise be to the glory of going to gallows that is immortal

To sacrifice this temporal life for a greater cause is better than an aimless life)

This one verse of Ghazal epitomizes the whole philosophy of life very beautifully in just two lines.