The Role Of Literature In India’s Transition And The Days To Come
India is passing through a painful transitional period in its history: the transition from a semi feudal backward country to a highly developed, highly industrialised one. This historical transition can be successfully achieved only by a revolution, which in my opinion will be more akin to the French Revolution of 1789 rather than the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Chinese Revolution of 1924-49 (though every Revolution is unique). I build upon this theme here, here and here.
In an article that I wrote on the role of art and literature, I mentioned that there are broadly two theories of art and literature
(1) Art for art’s sake (which says that art and literature should only aim at creating a work of beauty or for entertainment), and
(2) Art for social purpose (which says it should primarily help social change)
For the historical transition period through which India is passing at the moment, only the second theory is acceptable. Hence artists and writers should join the ranks of those fighting for transformation of our society. They should highlight the terrible distress of the people, and inspire them to heroic deeds for abolition of this distress, as was done by the stories and novels of the great Bengali writer Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyaya or the works of the great Russian writer Maxim Gorki like Mother, Song of the Stormy Petrel etc.
Urdu poetry is particularly suited for this, as by its very nature it is a poetry of protest. It embodies protest against the afflictions of the common people and against injustice (see my article).
“Imaan mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr
Kaaba mere peechay hai kaleesa mere aage”
“Faith is stopping me, atheism is pulling me forward
Kaaba (the Muslim holy shrine in Mecca) is behind me, the church is in front”
Here the words ‘Kaaba’ or ‘Kaleesa’ (i.e. church) are not to be understood literally. So Ghalib is saying that we should abandon backwardness and modernise, as was advocated by the great Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal.
The great Urdu poet Mir writes:
“Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko poochte kya ho unne to
Kashka kheencha dair mein baitha kab ka tark Islam kiya”
“What do you ask about Mir’s religion?
He has applied the ’tilak’ (the mark applied on the forehead by Hindus), sat in a Hindu temple, and abandoned Islam long ago”
Now here, the poet is not really saying he has converted to Hinduism. He is saying he has given up rituals and rigid customs and beliefs, which was what the Hindi poet Kabir also preached, e.g.
“Kaankar paathar jor ke masjid laee chunay
Ta chadh mulla baang de, kya behra hua khuday”
The poetry of Faiz is, of course, well known. Much of it preaches revolution directly e.g. ‘Hum Dekhenge’
But some of it does so indirectly – through hints and allusions e.g. ‘Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale’
In my opinion, the following sheyr (couplet) of the Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri (which I quoted in a judgment in the Supreme Court, Arumugam Servai vs State of Tamilnadu) best expresses the features of the transitional era :
“Har zarre par ek kaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai
Ai saaqi-e-dauraan yeh gunaahon ki ghadi hai”
Revolutionary ideas of the past often appeared in a religious garb, e.g. the Protestant Revolt spearheaded by Martin Luther. Similarly, much of the Bhaktikaal poetry of Hindi literature was revolutionary, though in a religious garb, e.g. the poetry of Meera, who though apparently a religious devout, was in fact a great social rebel, as explained here.
My favourite doha (couplet in Hindi poetry) is of Rahim, who wrote:
“Deen sabhan ko lakhat hain Deenahi lakhai na koi
Jo Rahim deenahi lakhay Deenbandhu sam hoi”
In Hindi literature God is often referred to as ‘deenbandhu’ i.e. friend of the poor. So the doha means:
“The poor seek help from everyone
But no one helps the poor
The person who helps the poor
Becomes like God”
The revolutionary storm which is approaching in India will require great sacrifices, and for this our people will be inspired by this song ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai’ by the great freedom fighter Bismil (“Now we have the desire to get our heads cut off”). The Indian people now expect our artists, poets and writers to produce similar inspirational works for the coming days in India.
Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.