The Urdu poet Kunwar
Akhlaq Muhammad Khan “Shahryar” (1936–2012) wrote the following maqta‘ (final sher or
couplet of a ghazal) in his fifth collection (Neend ki kirchen/
“Splinters of Sleep”; 1995):
Hai aj ye gila ki akela hai Shahryar //
Tarsoge kal hujum men tanhayi ke liye
Today the complaint is that Shahryar is alone.
Tomorrow you’ll crave solitude among the multitude.
In a prefatory essay
to the same collection, the noted Urdu critic and author Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,
appreciative of the poetry, wrote that the speaker of Shahryar’s ghazals and
nazms (free verse) is “lonely in the desert of stasis”. This condition of the
poetic speaker is the identification mark of jadidshaairi or
“new poetry” in Urdu for detractors and followers alike. An immediate aspect of
the newness of this poetry, said to have started in the mid-1930s, was its move
away from the assumptions of ghazal poetry. New poetry did not speak in the
cliched voice of the ashiq (lover) who, despite his travails
in love, lorded over the garden of poetry. It was his voice that described the
larger-than-life mahbub (beloved), controlled the play of
metaphors and images, and narrated the world we have come to identify
immediately as the world of the ghazal. It is the unyielding expressiveness of
this voice which made Urdu poetry synonymous with the ghazal.
New poetry had to
confront the dominance of this voice in order to say something new. Shahryar
was born in 1936, right when the debate about the ghazal was taking an
epoch-making turn, and he was to be one of the chief architects of this turn.
The two literary camps of taraqqi-pasandi (progressivism) and jadidiyat (modernism)
have been described by critics as two divergent resolutions to the crisis of
the ghazal in a rapidly decolonising British India. This commonsense view
of Urdu literary criticism has long held sway in discussions of new poetry:
poets such as Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Kaifi, Jazbi et al wrote poetry as a socially
conscious, political act while their rival modernists, such as Miraji and
Rashed, wrote poetry primarily conscious of its own aesthetic autonomy. In
crude terms, this period saw a division between art for the sake of politics
and art for its own sake.
Despite these formal resolutions, the ghazal genre thrived in both camps and its amorous scenarios were regularly used in free verse poetry which had otherwise rejected the strictures of meter, rhyme, refrain and the etiquette of ghazal-style love. In Shahryar’s oeuvre, from his very first collection Ism-e aazam (“The Greatest Name”; 1965), ghazals and nazms form two complementary halves of his poetry. This unity of two rival genres symbolised a deeper philosophy underlying this poetry, which we glimpsed in the sher above and in Faruqi’s comment.
While progressive poets are exclusively associated with particular features of a left-wing political programme, Urdu modernist poets have worked hard to describe their vision of poetry in conceptual terms. Following the logic of modernist thought, this vision can come only from within poetry.
Anything referring to the world outside or political ideology is considered external to poetry and its interpretation. It is the achievement of Shahryar’s poetry that it uses both the ghazal (the traditional genre) and the nazm (the new experimental genre) to formulate this vision. In this sense, his work seeks to connect the tradition of love poetry with an emerging view of experiential poetry. But what constitutes the vision behind this union?