Ismat Chughtai and Sahir Ludhianvi: A conversation with Raza Naeem
November 7, 2019
These months not only brings a hint of winters in the air, but also a remembrance of two iconoclast Urdu writers whose writings will surely make temperatures of the soul rise when they unravel the harsh coldness of the society. Ismat Chughtai and Sahir Ludhianwi – both unmasked the hypocrisy of the society and became the voice of the voiceless.
While Ismat Aapa’s writings explore female sexuality, the toxicity of male ego, among a host of other issues, Sahir’s poetry flows like a cascade, yet denudes the underlying rocks by the sheer impact of its flow.
Ismat Aapa’s Lihaaf indeed became a watershed moment in her life. It reeked of desires of a woman, (also showing hints of paedophilia though), who even today barely opens her mouth when it comes to sexuality. I’m not talking of the women in metro cities who descend on streets in protests whenever their voices are muffled. Even among those women some wouldn’t even dare to speak about their sexuality for it’s much easier to fight the enemy outside in the form of regressive governments but not easy to confront the conflict of the flesh and mind. However,
Lihaaf also overshadowed other works of Ismat Aapa. Gharwali, Mughal Bacha, Ghunghat subtly talk about male ego. Many critics also called her the female Manto. However, Raza Naeem, President of Progressive Writers’ Association, Lahore, and noted critic and translator disagrees with this comparison.
“Well personally I don’t believe in such labelling of Ismat or any other writer, I believe Ismat can stand up on her own strong shoulders without being compared to any other writer; I think she would have wanted that as well! Also, as you will know, she is the only female writer among the predominantly male quartet of the pillars of Urdu fiction in the 20th century (Manto, Krishan Chander and Bedi). However, I believe in this age of marketing when many of our youth are rapidly slinking away from Urdu literature and relying on translations, some sort of labelling maybe necessary since it is a given that some writers (like Manto) will be more recognized than others, unfortunately! And let’s not forget that isn’t it ironical that it was Ismat who labelled another fellow-female – albeit comparably junior – writer Quratulain Hyder as ‘Pom-Pom Darling’ and was in turn called ‘Lady Changez Khan’ by the latter,” says Raza.
But even though they raised similar issues, both had their own distinct style. Gori Bi of Ghunghat spends her entire life as a married virgin just because her husband, who was marred by a deep sense of inferiority complex doesn’t lift her bridal veil on the wedding night and deserts her. Ismat's essays like Aurat also changed the definition of feminism.
Raza further notes, “I came to her essay Aurat very accidentally. Call me lazy, but I felt it summarized her philosophy of feminism very succinctly; that is why I immediately translated it into English and have had the pleasure of dramatizing it several times here in Pakistan, including at TEDx talk. It never fails to raise eyebrows among both men and women, both for its provocative stance in the first part, and prescriptive stance, in the second part. In fact just last week, after dramatizing this essay for God knows how many a time on Ismat’s 28th death anniversary (October 24), one of the young organizers came up to me afterwards and confessed that after hearing this essay, he will seek out Ismat Chughtai’s work.
So I feel that for those who are even new to Ismat’s voluminous work, this essay can serve as a good starting point for the rest of her work. But this is not the only essay she wrote; there are other essays like Heroine, which lay bare the changing role of the heroine in Urdu literature from its relatively patriarchal origins to its recent feminist avatar (I have referred to both essays in my latest piece on her). Her essay on Fasaadaat Aur Adab (Partition Riots and Literature) is also perceptive for its time, taking many Progressive writers like Manto and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas to task for giving in to the better part of their immediate emotions post-1947 and not really focusing on the task at hand. So I feel firstly that compared to her stories and novels, her essays have been focused on less by both her critics and translators; and secondly I believe her essays articulate her point of view more effectively than many of her short stories. Ismat wrote few essays, but at least Aurat could be held up any day as a perfect example of the distillation of her philosophy! It is also a fine example of how one can use both satire and seriousness in propagating a message effectively.”
Now if one shifts to Sahir as a poet, Vijay of Pyasa appears to me as the real life Sahir. A poet that didn’t confine his poetry to the zulf and ada of the beloved but revealed the grim and gory face of the society. Sahir's poetry is hard hitting but probably because of it’s lyricism, it soothes yet disturbs the soul at the same time. “Sahir has been credited with recasting class-rebellion as romantic rebellion in film songs to shoehorn his politics into the filmi idiom.
He became arguably the most successful poet of the progressive tradition writing extensively for movies (Majrooh comes a distant second after him in this category) He has been very skilful in making space for progressive inclination in film songs. However, it must be said that Sahir has strangely been ignored by the intelligentsia. Perhaps this is because like Faiz he is neither a poet of the intelligent class nor a poet of the workers’ assemblies like many of his peers; but he appeals more to the nominally-educated middle-class youth,” opines Raza.
Sahir’s repertoire consists of his film poems and songs as well as his non-film poetry. It’s difficult to say that which was better but what’s important to note is that Sahir never let go off his distinct style which was the pain of the underdog of the society. The lines that often resonate within me are from Guru Dutt's Pyasa.
Ye mehlon, ye taqton, ye taajon ki duniya,
Ye insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya,
Ye daulat ke bhookhe rawaajon ki duniya,
Ye duniya agar bhi mil jaaye toh kya hai
Raza says, “I love his ode to Taj Mahal, which though is one of his earliest poems betraying a raw consciousness about a cultural asset has an undeniable individualistic reaction; then there is his qataa which exemplifies his defiance as a poet:
Vajh-e-be rangi-e-gulzaar kahoon to kya ho?
Kaun hai kitna gunahgaar kahoon to kya ho?
Tum ne jo baa tsar-e-bazm na sun-na chaahi
Main wahi baa tsar-e-daar kahoon to kya ho?
His film poem Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon from the blockbuster 1976 film Kabhie Kabhie is an intrinsic part of my childhood growing up in the late 1970s and somehow informs my own image of Sahir. I also like his poem written on the murder of Congolese patriotic leader Patrice Lumumba Khoon phir khoon hai, his poem Ye mahlon ye takhton ye tajon ki duniya and his anti-war poem Parchhaiyan, which in my humble opinion is the best poem written on the topic in Urdu. I continue to love his poems because whether it is his early poems or his later work, it is marked by a poetic lyricism, sweetness and spontaneity which never left him; even in poems which did not bear very deep experiences or consciousness. His style is smooth without any waywardness and artificiality. He has a skill of presenting the experiences that are available to him. His film songs are on one hand, full of lyricism and on the other reflective of new situations and issues.”
His nazm Ai Sharif Insaano remains my favorite anti-war poem. In a nutshell Sahir exposed the futility of war in the lines,
jañg to ḳhud hī ek mas.la hai
jañg kyā mas.loñ kā hal degī
aag aur ḳhuun aaj baḳhshegī
bhuuk aur ehtiyāj kal degi
But even though I have been smitten by Sahir's poetry, I always felt that he could have done justice to his real life love in Amrita Pritam but his commitment phobic nature deserted her. Raza, however doesn’t agree. “I would tend to disagree with this assessment. Firstly, Sahir was a commitment-phobe all his life because his father disowned his mother early in his life; he truly hated only one person in his life which was his father and truly loved only one woman which was his mother. So the travails of his mother made him a feminist before he had even put pen to paper! Perhaps this was why he had a distrust of relationships; this happened in not only with his relationship with Amrita Pritam, but subsequently with the singer Sudha Malhotra and the writer Hajra Masroor.
Secondly, every great personality is a sum of contradictions. Even the great Allama Muhammad Iqbal had contradictions, so were Mirza Ghalib and Josh Malihabadi! So Sahir too is not absolved of this; but let’s learn to accept poets and writers in their entirety rather than denounce them with labels. These contradictions do not take away from their greatness.”
Well, whether Ismat or Sahir, it’s true that like all humans they were made of contradictions but let’s leave at what Raza says that it doesn’t take away from their greatness. Ismat is as relevant today as she was then and so is Sahir. Their works will continue to make one reflect on the extremities of the world around.
First published in Sabrang India.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.