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The Progressive Writers’ Association  – as soon as one hears these four words, one’s mental horizon is illumined with a myriad of stars – Faiz, Majaz, Krishan Chander, Sardar Jafri, Ismat Chughtai, Sahir, Kaifi, Jan Nasar, Ahktar, Rajender Singh Bedi, Majrooh, there are innumerable names which shine like a galaxy and leave us wonderstuck.


‘There was a time when all lived together’!


 Oh what memories come flooding - the fading evening light through the small chink in the prison cell, the beautiful caressing hand of the moonlight on the lonely terrace, the abject poverty of a youth, the ravishing beauty of a widow, the pain writ large on the face of Kalu, the scavenger, the haphazard life of Shamman inching ahead in a crooked line, the Punjab in flames, wounds and scars on the fair and flowery body of Kashmir, a girl squatting all alone in the untiled courtyard of her motley abode staring longingly at her wedding dress whose fate has been sealed forever thanks to the politics of partition, homeless and destitute shoeshine boys and newspaper hawkers, slogan shouting revolutionaries banging their head against the walls of stone ; the bodies of martyrs burning like wax, someone beholding the Taj from a unique perspective ; someone embarks on a journey all alone, soon to find himself to be part of a caravan.


We need to ponder over this movement- who were the people associated with it? What did they set out to do? What could they achieve? To what extent were they successful, if they failed what were the reasons for it? We have to ponder.


We are told that the publication of ‘Angaray’ and later the meeting of a few forward looking young writers in a London restaurant could be seen as the starting point of the movement. I feel nothing gets started unless there are conditions for it to happen. If we wish to comprehend the genesis of its tone and temper, we will have to turn pages of history and identify conditions and circumstances that brought about the birth of the movement. On the one hand, we will have to look carefully at the impact of the British stranglehold on India and on the other, the changing economic system in Europe and how it was affecting the world.


In England, as a result of the Industrial revolution, the feudal system was loosing its grip. Capitalism had become the new order of the day; new changes were coming about in the equations between capitalism, production and labour. Though the basis of the erstwhile feudal system rested on exploitation, in the new Industrial society as well, exploitation touched a new nadir.


Novel and innovative ways of exploitation were employed. The feudal system despite its attendant evils was still a system in which the peasants and farmers were responsible for production and thus however tenuous, a relationship existed. The industrial system brought this affinity to an end. In the feudal system whose mainstay was agriculture there were only two classes of people – the landowner and the peasant. Exploitation was simple and direct. But the capitalist society in order to run its economic exploitative  enterprise needed some literate and educated people as well. Consequently between the capitalist and the workers a new class of people emerged - the educated middle class. That’s another matter that in days to come it was the same middle class from whose ranks there arose people who espoused the cause of the worker. But this happened much later!


At the beginning of the industrial era, there were no laws to safeguard the interest of the workers, and the capitalists were dead against enacting any. A worker would work upto 18 hours a day and was paid a paltry amount that could only help him survive and the 6 hour break was given so that he could work for another 18 hours!.


Obviously there was no question of pension or any other kind of fund, no off days and on top of it this blatant exploitation was being justified phisophically! Adam Smith ( 1723 – 1790) has argued in his world famous book ‘the wealth of nations’ that the economic matters be absolutely delinked from political. He thought that it would be best if business and other economic activity were free of political interference.


Another economics expert, David Ricardo ( 1772- 1823) put forth the view that a capitalist should have the freedom to produce only those goods for which he had sufficient resources and labour. This way production would cost less. The capitalist should also be free to sell his goods to any country without any let or hindrance. Ricardo favoured open markets throughout the world. Today’s globalization seems akin to his view! Herbert Spencer , another economic thinker was totally against state interference in business. He has vehemently opposed all such laws, which sought to protect the right of the worker.


Thus not only labour was being exploited unashamedly but all such exploitative measures were being defended with unabashed vigour. Such a situation was bound to have repercussions.  When a booklet first made its appearance in 1848, little did anyone realize that it was destined to have far reaching impact on all spheres of human life and civilization and that each and every nation of the world would either accept it or reject it but there would be no escape from being  affected by it. Who could imagine that the words of this booklet would echo for centuries to come. This was the c

Communist Manifesto!


Some ninety years later a young Urdu poet who used to write romantic verse read the same communist manifesto. This is what his reaction was in a letter,


“One day Sahabzada Mahmuduzzafar gave me a thin booklet and asked me to go through it and advised caution since it was declared unlawful. It was the communist manifesto and I read it in a single sitting. I felt as if someone had given me the key to the treasure trove of mystery. That’s how my interest in Socialism and Marxism was initiated. Then I read Lenin’s works. Later I read books about the Soviet society by revolutionary writers.  About that time the Indian Progressive Writers Association came into being”.


The incident Faiz Ahmed Faiz has referred to in his letter took place in 1935. Post World War I, the long shadow of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany could be clearly discerned. In the last phase of the war the Bolshevik Revolution had already taken place. There can be opposing points of view about it being inherently fraught with contradiction but the fact that the Russian revolution gave a new courage to the helpless laborers caught in the stranglehold of capitalism. It gave them a new daring to dream about a better life free from all shackles, which enslaved  them. The PWA was an offshoot of such noble and lofty ideals.


Ladies and gentlemen’. Understanding this International background of the PWA is all important but we need to put it in perspective and view it in the context of the historical, social, political and economic conditions of our own country.


Because of the British hold on India, the country’s intellectuals and reformers adopted two differing, albeit, opposite viewpoints. One view, whose proponent were the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyoti Baphule and later reformers, was that English education is all too essential and hence they advocated it with fervour. One thing we should be clear about at this point is that Raja Ram Mohan Roy stressed the importance of English at a time when our rulers had not even thought about it. Lord Macaulay ‘s Minutes of Education appeared full two years after Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s passing away. There was a world of difference between  the two. While Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s espousal of English education was for the propagation of a scientific and objective temperament and eradication of religious superstition and other social evils, Macaulay through English education desired to create a middle class which could become part of the ruling administrative machinery.


The other school of thought comprised orthodoxy. They opposed Raja Ram Mohan Roy tooth and nail. On a close appraisal it seems that they neither despised the British nor the English language but  were bitterly opposed to the reform that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was endeavoring to introduce.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy had pleaded for Modern English education in the early part of the 19th century. On the other hand Muslims didn’t spare a thought for it till 1857. It was only after 1857 that Sir Syed and his friends initiated the Aligarh movement. In turn, they met with stiff resistance from Muslim revisionists who drew inspiration from the Wahabi Movement.


Sir Syed’s movement also had its share of opponents. Contemporaries like the satirist Akbar Allahabadi made him the butt of jokes in many of his verses:


          Kya janiye Saiyyed the khudagah kahan tak

          Samjhe na key sidhi hai meri rah kahan tak

          (Who knows how far Sir Syed  saw the truth?

          The end of his straight road was out of sight)


 Akbar wrote a famous quatrain for his son Ishrati:

Ishrati Ghar ki Mohabbat ka maza bhool gaye,

Kha key London ki hawa e-ahde wafa bhool gaye

Pahonche hotel mein to phir Id ki parwa na rahi

Cake ko chakh ke siwayyon ka maza bhool gaye

(Ishrati forgot all the joys of home and family love.

Once in London he broke all his promises and vows.

His new taste for cake and restaurants of London

Made him forget the festival of Eid and the home-made vermicelli”) 


I would like to pose a question here which I failed to answer you too give it a thought. Akbar, who had so many suspicions and doubts about western education and in fact worked down upon it, here was his son enjoying and having a pleasurable time in London devouring cake and developing a taste for the traditional homemade vermicelli? Why did Akbar allow his son to go to the West? This kind of dichotomy in attitude is not confined to Akbar alone. Even today, in our country the flag bearers of Hindi, who denounce English in the strongest terms and consider it to be the last symbol of enslavement, send their own children to English medium schools and later to the US, UK and Australia. Even those who are not willing to effect any changes in the syllabi of madrasas, their children study not in madrasas but other main line schools. I beg your pardon for this digression, lets’ now go back to the Aligarh Movement.


Apart from arousing consciousness for education, Sir Syed and his dedicated band of followers, also initiated the process of a rethink on certain Islamic principles. The writings of people like Sir Syed, Mohsin-ul Mulk and Chiragh Ali contain a liberal and scientific interpretation of Islamic beliefs. However, the Aligarh Movement did not meet with any success on this front, but it did manage to create a mindset among upper and middle classes which later on proved to be congenial for progressive thinking and ideas.


Hali is also a part of Sir Syed’s band. His Preface to Poetry is a document of great importance. Some of his arguments did not find favour with some people but the historical significance of this treatise cannot be denied; Hali has talked about Urdu poetry and the need for reform in it particularly in Ghazal. He was sternly against hackneyed and oft repeated cliches in the classical Urdu ghazal- the candle and the moth; the flower and the nightingale; the cup and the goblet, the lover and the beloved. He advocated the need for purpose and social value norms in literature. This way Hali and his close associate Mohd Husain Azad can be termed as the precursors of the progressive Movement. The duo had settled in Lahore after 1857 and there they organized Mushairas not on a give verse or metre but on a specific subject on which the poet had to compose poems. The first of these symposia was held in 1874. Thus subjects, diction, imagery and idioms enriched Urdu verse. The poet was enabled to look beyond his own personal longings and desires.


So that there is no misunderstanding on this score, too things need to be clearly stated. Hali and Azad may be considered to be precursors of the PWM but were in no way its founders. We will dwell upon the marked difference between form and temper of the Natural poetry of Hali and Azad and that of the PWM. Secondly the social concerns voiced by Hali and Azad were not new to Urdu poetry. Each and every significant poet from Qul Qutub Shah to Ghalib has written about the social conditions of his time. In fact, there is a form in Urdu poetry Shaher Aashoob in which contemporary issues of social concern were versified. Most classical poets have written Aashoob, but Nazeer and Sauda earned unparalleled fame. One of Sauda’s pentagons runs thus:


          Kharab hain wo imaraat kiya kahon khuch tujh paas

          Ki jin key dekhe se jati rahi bhook aur piyaas

          Aur ab jo dekho to dil hoi zindigi se udaas

          Bajaye gul chamano mein kamar kamar hai ghaas

          Kahi sutoon para hai kahin marghol



(How shall I tell you of the miserable plight of those buildings, the very sight of which made the famishing person forget his hunger and thirst! You look at them now and feel sick at heart to see the grasses growing waist high in what was once a garden full of flowers. Here lies a broken column and there an arch.)


Nazeer Akbarabadi has also left behind many such verses which are replete with issues that were adversely affecting society:


Marey hain hat hat pe sab yahan ke dastkar

Aur jitne peshadar hain rotey hain zar zar

Kootey hai tan lohar to peetey hai sar sunar

Khuch ek do key kam ka rona nahi hai yar

Chattees peshey walon ka hai karobar band


(All the craftsmen are sitting idle

and all artisans are in tears

both the ironsmith and the goldsmith weep inconsolably

its not a problem affecting one or two

the business of thirty six professionals  is at a standstill)


 Apart from satires, Urdu poetry is replete with peoms on social occasions, celebrations and festivals like holi, diwali and basant. Breadth of vision and the feeling of national oneness have been the hallmarks of Urdu. Even classical poetry has not remained unaffected by political developments. 


Mir Taqi Mir cried over the dethronement and blinding of Ahmad Shah thus:


Shahan ko kohle jawhar thi khake pa unki

Unhin ki aakhon mein phirti salayan dekhin


(Yes, Monarch were they

Yes, dust under their feet was valued more than the powdered pearls

Yes, I have been a witness

Their glittering eyes being pierced with needle)


Dil ki barbadi ki es  had hai kharabi ke na pooch

Jana Jata hai es rah sey lashkar guzra


(Oh how brutally the domain of heart has been devastated

it seems it was trampled by a marching army.)


The above two couplets graphically describe the plunder death and destruction unleashed  upon Delhi by Nadir Shah. Another  couplet by Ghalib is in the background of 1857:


Qado geesu mein qais o kokan ki aazmaaish hai

Jehan hum hain wahan daro rasan ki aazmaaish 


(Qais the lover and Farhad the stone cutter

are competing with one another to excel in statore and style

but the arena we are in the contest is for the gallose and the noose)


Many progressive  poets like Majroh and Jafri have also echoed these thoughts express by Ghalib who said:


Likhtey rahay junoon ki hikayate khoon chakan

Har chand es mein haath hamarey qalam huai


(What if our hands were chopped off

nothing could stop us from writing tales of frenzy)

Faiz when faced with imprisonment where there was restriction on free expression,boldly declared:

Matae Lauho qalalam chin gayee to kya gham hai

Ki khoon-e dil mein dubolin hain ugliyan maine

Zaban pe mohr lagi hai to kya ki rakhdi hai

Har ek halqa-e zanjeer mein zaban maine

(If ink and pen are snatched from me shall I

Who have dipped my finger in my heart’s blood complain-

Or if they seal my tongue,when I have made

A mouth of every round link of my chain)

 A moot question can be raised that if tradition of poetry has been handed down from generation to generation why should only the Progressive Movement be given the credit of binding literature to society and why should not Hali’s Natural poetry? To answer this question satisfactorily, the difference between the two movements needs to be understood. One, Hali and Azad though their literary movement sought to create educational and social consciousness and their writing had a sense of purpose and reform, it never included political awakening in its agenda. It did not challenge he rulers while the Progressive Movement opposed British imperialism openly. Its protagonists even suffered incarceration for their daring.

 Two, Hali and Azad’s movement addressed those among the uppar and middle classes which farmed the elite. There was nothing in this movement for the ordinary folks, the barber, the baker, the Tonga wallah, the farmer, peasants and the ordinary labour classes. On the contrary in the Progressive Movement the problems and issues affecting the poor, backward, downtrodden became subjects to write about. 

Three, Hali and Azad’s movement did tell the women folk that they were the source of pride to the world but did not tell the world how to treat and respect mothers, sisters and daughters and give them their rights. Respect and pride without any rights is meaningless. The progressives on the other hand took up the issue in right earnest. Way back in 1937 progressive writers Majaz had a strong message for the women of the country:

 Another young progressive writer Kaifi addressed the womenfolk thus:


Nabze hasti ka lahu kanptey aansu mein nahin

Urney khulney mein hai nakhat khame gesu mein nahin

Jannat ek aur hai jo mard key pehlu main nahin

Uski aazad ravish par bhi machalna hai tujhe

Uth mere jan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe


(Life’s veins have blood, not trembling tears only

in what opens and flies lies frangrance, not in tresses only

There is a paradise too, beyond the male’s view point only

To its free rhythm you have to dance in ecstacy

Rise my love! You have to walk along with me.

 In Europe and America women’s liberal and women’s empowerment movements came to the fore in the sixth decade of the last century largely as a result of the writings of two courageous women Germane Green and Belly Friedman, it’s a pity that the world has no knowledge of the fact that 20 years prior to this an Indian woman short story writer had been fearlessly raising these issues and had been to court many a time accused of blasphemy and obscenity but the power of her pen showed no relenting. This woman writer was Ismat Chugtai – one of the most formidable pillars of strength of the PWM.


Another striking difference between Hali and Azad’s Natural poetry movement and the PWM was that the former was never an organized initiative. Having read the Urdu translation of English poetry, Hali and Azad advised Urdu poets to write in a simple language about natural scenery and deal with social subjects with reformist zeal. This movement had a very limited following Apart from Lahore and a few poets of Delhi, it did not attract many votaries. The sphere of influence of PWM was not confined to any one language or any one nation. It was a universal movement. In India almost all the languages came under its sphere of influence . In Urdu the strength with which this movement became a force to reckon with can be gauged from the fact that in all the major centres – Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay, Lahore, Hyderabad and Aligarh almost all prominent poets and writers were influenced by it.


In the light of these facts, distinction between the Natural poetry movement and the PWM becomes amply clear.


On November 24th 1934 some young writers and intellectuals met in a Landon restaurant to ponder over document prepared by Sajjad Zaheer, the purpose being to familiarize literature of Indian languages with new subjects and him aesthetics. From among those present some became  famous writers in their respective languages. Apart from Sajjad Zaheer, Jyotimur  Ghosh, Mulk Raj Anand and Mohammad Deer Taser were in atendence and each one of them earned a name for themselves in their respective languages f Bengali, English  and Urdu. It was decided in the meeting that a body called All India Progressive Writers Association be formed and Sajjad Zaheer was asked to give it a practical shape. By mid 1935 the manifesto of the movement was prepared and Sajjad Zaheer came back to India and discussed it with leading litterateurs.  Munshi Premchand, the top most writer in Urdu and Hindi not only praised the manifesto but also published its Hindi translation in his magazine ‘Hans’.


The first conference of Progressive Writers Association was held in Lucknow on 13th April 1936 and this manifesto as adopted. This manifesto spelt out the social responsibility of writers in the following words “ It is the duty of Indian writers to give full expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and promote scientific and radical outlook and set such critical standards that could adequately combat outdated ideas and beliefs about family, religion, sex, war and society. It is incumbent upon them to check the growth of such ideas and trends, which advocate communalism, racial prejudice and human exploitation.”


Munshi Premchand had presided over this conference, and in his presidential address he had said, “ literature is not a pastime, it shoed does not deal with love and romance but also addresses problems and issues of life, our body of writers does not want literature to be at the mercy of those who only talk about banal subjects of love and beauty and intoxication. Literature should become the medium to send strong messages across and use it as a tool to initiate action, it is not bothered about language with  the loftiness of the ideal, and  breadth of vision, language itself strives towards simplicity, the beauty of meaning can be retained without employing ostentatious and verbose expression. The writer who writes for the classes employs a style which is appreciated by the targeted readers but the ones who write for ordinary folks use a language which is easily comprehended by the masses”.


Most of Premchand’s address became the salient features of the Progressive Movement. for all time to come this address while stressing the need for literature to reflect the realities of life, also wanted the parameters of beauty to be redefined. A progressive writer besides appreciating the beauty of his beloved also shows his concern for other aspects of this fast paced and stressful life and it gives its forceful expression in his works. Premchand’s advise finds sublime poetic expression in the following poem of Faiz Ahmed Faiz…… 


Main ne samjha tha ke too hai to darakshan hai hayat

Tera gham hai to ghame dehar ka jhagra kya hai

Teri soorat se hai aalam me baharon ko sabat

Teri aankhon ke siwa dunya mein rakh kya hai


(Once I thought:

Life would be all lustre

If you were with me ,

The vexing world would not distract 

If I made your grief my own

Your beauty lent permanance to spring

What did the whole world hold out for me;

All this once I thought)


After talking about the rich attributes of the beloved’s beauty, certain other images seize the eye of the poet  the dark mysterious  and spells that countless centuries have cast, the bodies   just being traded in the market place, it moved the poet ( mujhse pehli si muhabbat)no end and he cries………..


Lot jat hai ukhar ko bhi nazar kya kahiye

Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husan kya kahiye

Aur bhi gam hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siwa

Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki rat key siwa


(There are many pains other than love

and many pleasure are there in the world

other than the pleasure of love

Dark-brutal spells of countless centuries,

Bodies woven into brocade, satin and silk

Up for sale in streets and lanes –

Bodies besmeared with dust and bathed in blood –

Bodies, as if emerging out

Of flaming ovens of disease untold,

Puss oozing out of festering wounds –

All these sights too catch the eye, how can I ignore?

But your beauty remains winsome still,

How can I help?


Some detractors of the Progressive Movement considered it to be a movement of certain poets and writers affiliated to the Communist Party. They refused to consider it as a separate movement and dubbed it as a part of the propaganda machinery of the Communist Party- no more no less. To form such an opinion about the PWM a person should either be completely ignorant or untruthful and if fortunately he’ both then he could hold on to this misconceived notion for the rest of his life.


There is no doubt that Sajjad Zaheer and his other friends who had wanted literature to be concerned with social issues, problems and especially backward and weaker sections were affiliated to the Communist Party. Being a communist is neither a crime nor a vice but it is also free that there were many others had no connection with the Communist Party. Premchand himself was ideologically a Gandhian and his presidential address at the first conference is an immensely valuable document which gave firm direction to its aims and objectives, language and style of the Progressive Writers Association.  This movement was also blessed by Rabindranath Tagore , in his message he had said , “ ………………….

 I feel that no one can deny the fact that Tagore was much above petty political parties. Hasrat Mohani, an active Congress leader who was jailed where he underwent rigorous imprisonment was a great supporter of the movement.


Besides Tagore, Premchand and Hasrat Mohini the Progressive movement found favour with countless writers and intellectuals who were not communists. Pandit Nehru, Maulvi Abdul Haq, Josh, Firaq, Aziz Ahmed, Hayatullah Ansari, Ahmed Nadeem Qasami, the Telegu poet Sri Sri , Gujrati poet Uma Shanker Joshi, Punajbi writer Gurbux Singh, Marathi literate Anna Bahu Sathe were great votaries of progressive writing though their political ideology was different. Even among the prominent progressive writers of Urdu not all were members of the Communist party.  Sardar Jafri, Kaifi, and Janissar Akhtar were cardholders of the Communist Party but many others like Khawaja Ahmed Abbas, Rajender singh Bedi, Sahir Ludhanwi, Ismat Chughtai were not members of the communist party yet their involvement with the movement was as deep as any one else’s. However, it’s a fact that in the Progressive Movement there were such people who lacked flexibility in the ideological beliefs. They natural endeavoured to make others fall in line but it did not happen.


In an assembly of Progressives a woman progressive writer during the course of her enthused address said “ Our flag is red, our aims and objectives are red, our pen is red, our ink should be red, our short stories should be red, our ghazals too need to be red.” Among the audience was Majaz known for his wit and ready repartee pleaded with the lady to at least allow the use of pink. I don’t know if the lady condescended or not but in the progressive movement along with red there were many lighter and thin shades of pink as well. The poetry of Naiz Haider, Faiz, Majaz, Kaifi, Janesar Akhtar, Majrooh, Makhdoum and Sahir has not bear the hallmark of a single uniform colour, each had their own peculiarity and distinctive quality. Similarly the short stories of writers like Krishen Chandra, Bedi and Ismat Chughtai were not cast in the same mould.

The problem is that if you raise the issue of minorities or women’s rights, speak against communalism and religious frenzy or about the economic exploitation of peasants and farmers, and liberals aboures you are immediately dubbed as a communist though in actual fact you may not be one. I think my communist friends can take pride in the fact that to be a progressive you needn’t be a communist but a communist has to be progressive!


It is impossible for a communist not to be progressive. Here the question can be asked as to what in reality can be the definition of progressivism. In the light of what Premchand said and what transpired in the many conferences of the PWM addressed by Krishan Chandra and many other eminent writers, it can be said that progressivism is not negating tradition altogether. Instead of being enslaved to tradition, it insists upon drawing lessons from ones own experiences. To accept change can no way be construed as insult to tradition. Progressivism consists of a radical and scientific approach to the problems of the society, to create such literature, which is useful and purposeful. Art and literature should not just give pleasure and enjoyment but they should be a means to inculcate positive values. In the name of abiding by social norms and rituals, women are still subjected to oppression and injustice. Raising your voice against such issues is progressive, to make the problems that plague the socially deprived classes the subject of literature to question the on going exploitation of labour by the capitalist is to be progressive. The question that arises is whether the work of progressive writers is an indicator of their fulfillment of the writer’s social obligations. Progressive short story writers have played an important role in disseminating progressive values. Besides Premchand’s Path-breaking stories there are innumerable stories like Ali Abbas Husaini’s ‘Mela Ghoomni’,Krishan Chander’s’Kalu Bhangi’and Zindagi Ke Mor Par’,Ismat Chughtai’s Genda,Chauthi ka Jora,and Nannhi Ki Naani,Bedi’s ‘Lajwanti’,’Apne Dukh Mujhe Dedo’,Hayatullah Ansari’s’Aakhri Koshish’,Ghulam Abbas’’Anandi’,Balwant Singh’s ‘Jagga’Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi’s’Gandasa’,Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’Ababeel’and Tiddi’,Upendra Nath Ashk’sKakran Ka Teli’who have fulfilled the requirements of social responsibilities asked for by PremChand and the advice proferred by Gurudev Tagore in his message to the 1936 Coference of the PWA.


The list is endless but in the interest of brevity only a few have been mentioned. These short stories are an index of the manner in which the writers have met their social responsibilities as enumerated by Pemchand in his famous address of 1936, and endorsed by Tagore in his message to the conference.  Perhaps taking his cue from the two stalwarts, Krishna Chandra said in a session of the PWA:

“ Its seems that our stories and poems barring few have not come down from the high pedestal. Poetry in particular has not yet outgrown feudal underpinnings. It continues to be in tune with the subdued and melancholic temper of old. It is not firmly rooted in the soil, nor does it contain the sweat and soil of the peasant (nor does it exude the sweat of the peasant’s toil).  I do not find in poetry or other literary genres, the home and hearth of the poor nor the songs of the peasant, nor the workers endless travails. Our poetry does not refer to the working woman’s broken comb with wisps of hair entangled in it ; nor does it refer to Dabbo Manohar’s pet that accompanies him  every morning when he sets out to plough the fields ; it does not reverberate with the sprightly and hold bold love songs which the rural women humm for their menfolk while carrying food for them across the uneven pathways. It does not allude  to their clothes that smell of dung. Our literature  has no reference to bathwa – it does not need to dwell upon the whiff of perfume emitted by the musk-deer nor the locks and tresses of Tataari beauties, and that is its major lacuna. I do not find the humble abodes of my country, its flora and fauna nor a familiar image that would enchant one even after a 100 years! Till such time that we do not come down to earth, and study the life lived by peasants and workers in their homes and paint its true picture with utmost sincerity and effort, till then our literature will not attain literary heights that will compel a reader in the world to conclude that Indians are the same as them. Though the task is difficult we have to accomplish it”.


Krishna Chandra alone could have alone said such things. I am convinced that there are innumerable people in India who have deeply felt the anguish of class struggle, social exploitation and inequality not as a consequence of a political leader’s statement or an economist’s discourse or a sociologist’s thesis, but as an outcome of those progressive short stories that have shaped the readers’ social consciousness.


A large number of novels and short stories and novels written by Manto,Krishan Chander,Ramanand Saagar and many other progressive writers in the aftermath of the partition of India and the riots that followed still take the imagination by storm. Ghaddar by Krishan Chander deserves special mention here. The central character Dina Nath belongs to a feudal Hindu household in a village near Lahore. His ‘Haveli’ is burnt down and all family members are put to death. However he manages to survive and flees to Amritsar witnessing the acts of savagery and bloodshed. The scene remains the same even there- humanity is under fire. Haunted by barbarism, death and destruction, Dina Nath ponders over the hollowness of the pride that man takes in civilization, which is like a veil torn apart by a freak event in history. laying bare the primeval forests of human instincts. Towards the end of the novel, Dina Nath stands alone in a field where a group of Muslims was massacred earlier in the day. Corpses lie all over the place. Dina Nath hears the cry of a child and detaches it from its dead mother. He embraces the child and says to himself “ Dina Nath, you are not following the logic of mutual hatred between the two nations. Where do you go from here?”.


Now I would like to acquaint you with the views of the opponents of progressive literature. Those of us who know a little about these opponents must have heard the name of Gopal Mittal who was the arch enemy of progressive movement. In the silver jubilee issue of his journal, TAHREEK, Anwar Sadeed of Pakistan has this to say about the progressive short story writers “ These writers lost sight of their literary obligations and out of political compulsions exploited the tragedy of partition as padding material before it could become part of the human consciousness. To enhance the effect of the story, events that had not taken place were super – imposed into the story lines. I wish I could ask Anwar Sadeed whether after the barbarism of 1947 there was any need for exaggeration to create effect. Anwar Sadeed further says that progressive writers used the theme of riots consciously to highlight their objectivity but their hypocrisy and partisanship could not remain concealed.”


It is easier to see Anwar sadeed’s comments and I don’t need to delve deeper into it. In a famous story by Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi entitled ‘Parmeshwar Singh – a childless Sikh’ chances upon a Muslim child of seven or eight years during the riots. He thinks of bringing him up as a Sikh but he is jolted by his conscience and feels compelled to restore the child to its family near the border. The child crosses the border but the border Police kills Parmeshwar Singh. Reacting to this story Anwar Sadeed comments “Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi in Parmeshwar Singh  has tried to create the effect of objectivity but has only succeeded in falsifying true human emotions, which means that in other words, had Parmeshwar Singh killed the child or successfully changed his religion, that would have appeared natural to Anwar Sadeed. And if Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi would have Parmeshwar Singh restored the child to its parents, it would appear unbelievable to Anwar Sadeed because it was contrary to human nature. Thus it seems Anwar Sadeed has a poor opinion not only of progressive movement but also of human beings at large. I find it difficult to explain but I’ll ask my brother Dr Salman Akhtar who is psychologist. to do that for me!


The progressive movement has given poets of such eminent stature to Urdu that remains unequalled in the annals of literary history. The history of Urdu poetry would be considered incomplete without the poets like Faiz,Majaz,Jafri,Majrooh,Jan Nisar Akhtar,Makhdoom,,sahir and a host of others..


From 1935 to 1975 poetry has given effective expression to a range of social experiences longings, desires, dissent and aspirations to successive generations. This poetry is not of luxury and indulgences. It is about the common man- peasants, factory workers whose hands are smeared with mud on their hands and sweat on their brows. This poetry is a declaration of war against upper class exploiters. It is about the fast receding night and the impending dawn.


Progressive poets are generally accused of dealing with exclusive themes of an agitational nature. Sometimes political discourses have been versified to pass as poetry. Sometimes propaganda and slogan mongering have been taken recourse to, thereby stifling literary and aesthetic considerations.


I’ll speak the truth and nothing but the truth. It is not that all the accusations are entirely baseless. At the same time they are not wholly true. There is no doubt that barring a few most progressive poets can be faulted one way or the other. At the same time it can be asserted that most progressive writers have produced works that have become the valuable part and legacy of Urdu literature. Poetry, good and bad is a commonplace in all eras but a poet is remembered for its contribution of a lasting value – the weaker parts of his works are either ignored or forgotten or forgiven.  

If Mir could say:

Door baitha Ghbar-e Mir us se

Ishq bin yeh adab nahin aata

(Even my dust settled at a distance from her

This repect can only be borne out of  intense love)

The same great poet also composed the following couplet;

Suna jaata hai ai ghatiye tere majlis nashinon se

Ki tu daru piye raat ko milkar kaminon se

( It is being said by the people whose company you keep

That you go about drinking at night with undesirable ruffians)

But we adore Mir for such couplets as:

Chashme khoon basta se kal raat lahoo phir tapka

Hum to samjhe the ki ai mir yeh azaar gaya

(Last night my blood-soaked eyes oozed drops of blood yet again

Oh! The delusion Mir that I forever was rid of this malaise!)

Will we judge Ghalib’s greatness from the following couplet:

Partaw-e khor se hai shabnam ko fana ki taleem

Ham bhi hain ek inayat ki nazar hone tak

(A mere glance of favour cast over my hapless self

Might have been what the fatal rays of the sun teach the dew drops unseen)

Or from the couplets written in lighter and jocular vein like

Dhaul dhappa us sarapa naaz ka shewa nahin

Hum hi kar baithe the Ghalib peshdasti ek din

(She was not accustomed to fight and fisticuffs

It was me Ghalib who started it all)

Majrooh is accused of composing non-poetic verses like :

Amn ka jhanda is dharti p-ar kisne kaha lahrane na paye

Yeh bhi koi Hitler ka hai chela marle saathi jane na paye

(Who stopped the flag of peace being raised on earth

He seems to be follower of Hitler get him before he escapes)

Look at the profundity and sublimity of Majrooh’s poetic qualities in the the following couplet:

Dekh zindan se pare rang-e chaman josh-bahar

Raqs karna hai to paon ki zanjeer na dekh

(Look beyond the prison walls what flowers have bloomed look at the exuberance and fervour of spring

If you want to dance don’t pay heed to shackles that bind your feet)


Rok sakta hamen zindan-bala kya Majrooh

Hum to awaz hain deewar se chan jate hain

(Majrooh how could I be imprisoned in a looney citadel

My cries flilter through the stony walls )

Sardar Jafri who is often accused of just praising and eulogizing Russia and Stalin,has also given very memorable poems to Urdu literature:

Safed ata siyah chakki se raag bankar nikal raha hai

Sunehri chulhon mei aag ke phool khil rahe hain

Patiliyan gunguna rahi hain

Dhuen se kale tawe bhi chingariyon ke honton se hans rahe hain

Dupatte aangan mein doriyon par tange hue hain

Aur unke aanchal se dhaani

Sunehri pagdandiyon ke dil par

Siyah lahengon ki srkh gotein machal rahi hain

Yeh saadgi kis qadar hasin hai

(White flour pours forth like a melody

from hand-driven mills.

Flowers of fire spring into bloom

From golden hearths

Pots are singing.

Hot plates charred with smoke

Are laughing with cinder-black lips

Scarves are hanging

On clothes-lines in the courtyard,

And they are dripping dhani drops.

Read hems of black skirts

Are dancing on the heart

Of golden bypaths.

How beautiful is this simplicity!


One can apply the strictest norms of aesthetic standards and can not but be enchanted by the following stanzas composed by Sardar.


Pattiyon ki palkon par

Oos jagmagati hai

Imliyon key peron par

Dhoop par sukhati hai

Muskuratey hain tarey

Chand key katorey sey

Chandni chirakti hai

Jail ki fizaaon mein

Phir bhi ek andhera hai

Jesey ret mein gir kar

Doodh jasb ho jai

Roshni key gallon par

Tirgi key nakhoon ki

Sekron kharashen hain


(Dewdrops shine

On the eyelashes of leaves.

Sunlight dries its feathers

On tamarind trees

The sun laughs

Stars smile

Moonlight spills from

The cup of the moon.

The compound of the prison

Is still bathed in darkness;

As if milk is absorbed

In a vast expanse of sand.

Nails of darkness

Have left countless scratches

On the cheeks of the light.


 Every Progressive writer has contributed some poems and some pieces of verse that have made Urdu literature proud.  ‘Ham Jo Tareek Rahon Mein Mare gaye’, Zindan Ki ek Subh’, ‘tanhai’by Faiz; ‘Chand Taron Ka ban’ and ‘Andhera by Makhdoomi’ ‘Taj Mahal and ‘Parchaiyan’ by Sahir;  ‘mera safa’ and ‘pathar ki Dewaar’ by Jafri; ‘Khak-e-dil and Aakhri Mulaqaat’ by Jan Nisar Akhtar, ‘Meena Bazaar’ and ‘Zameen’ by Wamiq; ‘Ibn-e-Maryam’ and ‘Aurat’ by Kaifi; ‘Maut’ by Jazbi and several pieces by him and Majrooh which have become aphorism and proverbs in Urdu.  The words of all these poets bear a stamp of their love of human beings, their faith in the destiny of man, and the greatness of human life.  I am reminded of a few couplets of Jan Nisar Akhtar which celebrate the beauty and greatness of life thus:-


Jeeney ki har tarah sey tamanna hasin hai

Har shar key bawajood yeh duniya hasin hai

Dariya ki tund barh bhayanak sahi magar

Toofan sey khelta hua tinka hasin hai

Sehra ka har sukoot darata rahay to kiya

Jangal ko kat-ta  hua rasta hasin hai

Dil ko hilaye lakh Ghataon ki ghan garaj

Mitti pey jo gira wohi qatra hasin hai

Raton ki teergi hai jo purhaul  gham nahin

Subhon ka jhankta hoa chehra hasin hai

Lakhon saubaton ka  agar samna bhi ho

Har jehad har amal ka taqaza hasin hai


(The desire to remain alive is beautiful

Despite all evil this world is beautiful

The awful  flow of the river may be terrifying

But the lonely straw battling with the storm is beautiful

The silence of the desert may be intimidating

But the path which cuts across the wild is beautiful

The sound and fury of dark skies may cause commotion in the heart

But the tiny drop that falls down is beautiful.

Never mind if the darkness of the night is fearsome

The face of the dawn peeping through it is beautiful.

Even if scores of challenges stare in the face

The will to toil and labour is beautiful.

 Though the shade, temper and diction of all progressive poets is distinct, they have all dedicated their works to the common cause which Faiz has so masterfully delieuated  in the following poem.

 (Place : Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Date : 16/8/2005.)

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