Urdu Poetry And The Transitional Era

Urdu Poetry And The Transitional Era
India and Pakistan are both passing through a very turbulent and painful transitional period in our history--transition from a feudal to a modern society. It is a period when there is tremendous turmoil and social churning, as the old society is being uprooted, but the new society has not yet been born. When old values are crumbling, but new values have not yet been established. As Shakespeare said in Macbeth, "Fair is foul and foul is fair", i.e. what was regarded good earlier is bad today, and vice versa.

There are many verses in Urdu poetry which reflect the transitional period in our history. Before dealing with them I may repeat what I wrote in my article 'The true meaning of Faiz' poem Gulon Mein Rang Bharey' published in nayadaur.tv:
Urdu poetry is often written not directly, but in a round about way, by allusions, hints, indications and suggestions. It often has a superficial, literal, outer meaning, and an inner, deeper, real meaning, to understand which one has to wrack one’s brains.

Great Urdu poets like Ghalib believed that poetry should not be written in the language of the common man, and they had a horror of the commonplace. To make it dignified and sophisticated (andaaz-e-bayaan) they often used Persian expressions and metaphors.

So I will have to explain these verses depicting the transitional era:

1. We may take two shers (couplets) from Ghalib's famous ghazal 'Bazeecha-e-Atfaal hai duniya mere aage' :

"Imaan mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr

Kaaba mere peeche hai, kaleesa mere aage"

Which literally means:

"Faith is holding me up, atheism is pulling me forward

Kaaba is behind me, the church is in front "

But here the words 'Kaaba' ( the holiest place for Muslims ) and 'Kaleesa' (i.e. church) must not be read literally. Kaaba here denotes feudalism, and kaleesa denotes modernism. So what Ghalib is trying to say is that we should give up feudalism and become modernised.

" Hai maujazan ek qulzum-e-khoon kaash yahi ho

 Aata hai abhi dekhiye kya kya mere aage "


“ A turbulent sea of blood is before me

But see what all comes hereafter “

In a transitional era there is often a lot of bloodshed. For example, when Europe was passing through its transition from feudal to a modern society (from 17th to 19th century) - this period witnessed tremendous turmoil, wars, revolutions, chaotic conditions, etc. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. At present, the Indian subcontinent is going through this fire. We are going through a very painful prolonged period in our history, which Ghalib has accurately encapsulated in the above sher.

2. Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921) is regarded by many to be a reactionary poet. However, in the poem whose verses follow, he showed himself as surprisingly progressive, and brilliantly captured in verse the coming changes in society in this transitional age:
Yeh maujooda tareeke raahi-e-mulk-e-adam honge

Nai tehzeeb hogi aur nae saamaan baham honge

Khabar deti hai tehreek-e-hawa tabdeel-e-mausam ki

Khilenge aur hi gul, zamzame bulbul ke kam honge

Badal jaayega meyaar-e-sharaafat chashm-e-duniya mein

Zyaada the jo apne zom mein woh sab se kam honge

Ghuzishta azmaton ke taskare bhi na reh jaayenge

Kitaabon mein hi dafn afsaan-e-jaaho hasham honge

Kisi ko is taghayyur ka na his hogaa na gham hogaa

Hue jis saaz se paida usi ke zeyro bam honge

Tumhe is inqilaab-e-deher ka kya gham hai ai Akbar

Bahut nazdeek hain woh din ki tum hoge na hum honge


na ḳhātūnoñ meñ rah jā.egī parde kī ye pābandī

na ghūñghaT is tarah se hājib-e-rū-e-sanam hoñge

badal jā.egā andāz-e-tabā.e daur-e-gardūñ se

na.ī sūrat kī ḳhushiyāñ aur na.e asbāb-e-ġham hoñge

na paidā hogī ḳhat-e-nasḳh se shān-e-adab-āgīñ

na nastālīq harf is taur se zeb-e-raqam hoñge

3. The sher which most powerfully captures the essence of the transition era was written by Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982):

" Har zarre par ek kaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai 

 Ai Saaqi-e- dauraan yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai "

In a marvel of condensation, which would have taken a volume to narrate, this sher (couplet) reflects the transitional age through which the Indian subcontinent is passing, from feudal society to a modern industrial society. At present we are neither totally feudal nor totally modern, but partly both.

"Zarra" means particle, "kaifiyat" means condition, "e" means of, "neem" means half, and "shab" means night. So the first line in the couplet literally means

“Every particle is in a condition of half night”.

Urdu poetry, as mentioned, is often to be understood figuratively, not literally. So this line really means that (in the transitional age) everything is in flux, neither night nor day, neither the old order, nor the new. Also, in the middle of the night if we get up we are dazed, in a state of mental confusion. And so are people in a transitional age.

In the second line, saaqi is the girl who fills the wine cup, but she is also the person to whom one can confide in the innermost thoughts of one’s mind. The poet is imagining a girl, to whom he is describing the features of the transitional era.

'Yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai’ means it is the time of sin. In this transitional age it is a ‘gunahon ki ghadi’ from both points of view. From the point of view of people from the old feudal order, it is a sin to marry according to your choice, and particularly outside one’s caste or religion. It is a sin to give education to women, a sin to treat everyone as equal (as feudal Indian society was caste bound).

At the same time, from the point of view of modern minded people, the caste system is a sin, denying education to girls is a sin, and love marriage is quite acceptable.

In India, Pakistan and other third world countries we see prevalent disorder, crime, corruption, feudal practices like ‘honour killing’, etc.

It is a ‘gunahon ki ghadi’ (era of sins) from both the point of view of the feudal minded people, as well as from the point of view of the modernized people. The feudal people regard inter-caste and inter religious love marriages as a gunah [sometimes deserving honour killing].

They regard dating with a person of the opposite sex before marriage, or sex before marriage, as a gunah (sin). Many such persons regard education for women as a gunah. They regard grant of equality to people of ‘low’ caste as a gunah.

On the other hand, modern minded persons regard ‘honour’ killing as a gunah. Similarly, they are up against keeping a woman uneducated or without equal rights. They regard the caste system as a gunah. Thus old and new ideas are clashing and battling with each other in the transitional age. Urdu poetry brilliantly expresses this state of affairs.
The above sher of Firaq is followed by his following sher:

“Maaloom hai sailabiye sarchashma-e-haiwaan

Bas tashnalabi tashnalabi tashnalabi hai."

This expresses the overpowering desire of the poet for social change.

The transitional era is likely to continue in our subcontinent for another 15-20 years. Afterwards, a modern just social order would be created, in which everyone will live a decent life, i.e. employment, proper education and healthcare, nutritious food, housing, and other basic facilities would be available for all.be available for all.

Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.