With Gandhi’s Coming, Urdu Poets Became ‘Optimistic’. Here’s Why
On Gandhi’s 150th birth anniv, Rakhshanda Jalil presents a tribute, through the words of Urdu poets who revered him.
The charismatic figure of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi began to exercise a spell on the writers and poets of his age, even before he set foot on Indian soil upon his return from South Africa. On a sea voyage from London to South Africa in 1909, Gandhi had already penned a remarkable document; this was the Hind Swaraj written in the form of a dialogue between himself (as Editor) and an imaginary Reader.
In it, Gandhi had outlined his conception of Indian freedom, the need for ‘soul force’ and passive resistance to win the war against an adversary who was ‘splendidly armed’.
This had been read widely in its English and Hindustani translations, and had exercised the imagination of the poets and writers of the age of the immense possibilities that ‘Home Rule’ could offer. In fact, while Gandhi was still in South Africa, Urdu poets had begun to position him as a beacon of hope. Brij Narayan Chakbast is addressing Gandhi when he is penning these lines:
Watan se hain to duur par nigah kar laina
Idhar bhi aag lagi hai zara khabar kar laina
(You are far away from the country but do look at us
There’s a fire here too, do take heed of us)
How Gandhi ‘Changed’ the Urdu Poet’s Psyche
With the coming of Gandhi in 1915, the tumultuous years of the First World War (1914-1918), followed by Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, and the first non-cooperation movement in 1920, something changed in the Urdu poet’s psyche.
The wistfulness and pathos, the search for a messiah, are replaced by a robust optimism.
Cries for revolution became more vigorous, and the sense of nationhood, stronger. In Awaz-e Qaum (‘The Call of the Nation’), Chakbast is speaking for an entire generation when he is declaring:
Zameen se arsh tak shor Home Rule ka hai
Shabab qaum ka hai zor Home Rule ka hai
(From the ground to the skies there are cries of Home Rule
And the youthfulness of nationalism and the urge for Home Rule)
And in Watan ka Raag (‘Call of the Homeland’), Chakbast is acknowledging that he, like so many others, looks to Gandhi for inspiration:
Hamare waastey zanjeer-o tauq gahna hai
Wafa ke shauq mein Gandhi ne jis to pahna hai
(For us chains and fetters are like ornaments
Gandhi has worn them as a badge of commitment)
In Inquilab (‘Revolution’), Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, the romantic-turned-revolutionary poet is predicting a bloody end to imperial rule long before 1947:
Khatm ho jaane ko hai sarmayadaron ka nizam
Rang lane ko hai mazdooron ka josh-e inteqam
(The rule of the capitalists is about to end
The labourer’s passion for vengeance is finally coming true)
Why Akbar Allahabadi Wanted to be Among Gandhi’s ‘Gopis’
Akbar Allahabadi, the powerful ‘people’s poet’ and virtually a chronicler of his age, became a great admirer of Gandhi, the newly-launched nationalist movement, and the idea of Hindu-Muslim Unity. Admitting his inability to join Gandhi’s popular mass movement till he is in government service, and likening Gandhi’s growing tribe of followers to the gopis who are said to have flocked around Krishna, Akbar writes:
Madkhola government agar Akbar na hota
Uss ko bhi aap paate Gandhi ki gopiyon mein
(Had Akbar not been a part of the government
You would have found him too among Gandhi’s gopis)
Akbar’s ‘Gandhi Nama’, a series of brief poems published from 1919-21, is a paean to syncretism, and a political movement for Independence that could only be propelled by both Hindus and Muslims playing an equal role.
Telling his readers to shun the high poetry of the classical cannon, such as the Shahnama, he begins his Gandhinama thus:
Inquilab aaya nayi duniya naya hungama hai
Shahnama ho chukka ab duur Gandhinama hai
Iqbal, the most powerful poetic voice of his age, writes of Gandhi thus:
Gandhi se eik roz yeh kehte thhe maulvi
Kamzore ki kamand hai duniya mein naa rasa
Nazuk yeh saltanat sifat-e barg-e gul nahiin
Le jaaye gulistan se urha kar jisse saba
The maulvi addressed Gandhi one day thus:
The weak person’s lasso is ineffective in the world
This kingdom is not as delicate as the fragrance of a flower
That the winds of the garden can blow it away
Gandhi & the Khilafat Movement
Gandhi’s growing popularity with both the elite and illiterate, coupled with the encouragement from widely-respected religious leaders (for instance Maulana Mahmud Hasan, the venerable alim from Deoband issued a fatwa in 1920 giving religious sanction to the non-violent non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi in the same year) made him a natural subject for topical Urdu literature.
A year earlier, in 1919, Gandhi had been convinced by the Ali brothers that the Khilafat was a cause dearer than life to the Indian Muslims, and for the next four years, the Khilafat movement raged across India like a tornado, becoming the first revolutionary mass movement for Indian Muslims — with the words ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Khilafat’ becoming near synonyms, and both poets and publicists alike writing in white heat.
Other Gandhian Concerns Like Agrarian Distress Also Influenced Urdu Writers
As the Khilafat movement faded, other issues raised by Gandhi were articulated by Urdu writers — be it agrarian distress or the plight of the so-called ‘untouchables’. Premchand, for instance, was personally very influenced by Gandhi. His short stories Swarajya and Lal Pheeta and novel Rangabhumi show the extent of that influence. Other contemporary prose writings were the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Swarajya ke Liye by Saadat Hasan Manto, and the more sombre Gul Kharistan by Sudarshan.
Many poets, popular and prolific in their time but lost in the veils of time today, wrote on Gandhi.
Here’s Aaftab Rais Panipati writing on Gandhi Baba with vim and vigour, and enormous nationalistic pride:
Swaraj ka jhanDa bharat men gaḌva diya Gandhi baba ne
Dil qaum-o-vatan ke dushman ka dahla diya Gandhi baba ne
Gandhi Baba has struck the pennant of swaraj in the soil of Bharat
Gandhi Baba has struck terror in the hearts of the enemies of our country
Gandhi’s Death and a Deluge of Pain
Gandhi’s death in 1948 caused an outburst, a virtual deluge of anguish and pain that swept over the literary landscape in the years that followed his assassination.
Every communal outrage is a reminder of the terrible price the country has already paid.
Asar Lakhnavi, likening Gandhi to a lotus flower, one that hid untold secrets that were forever lost to the world, when the bullet fired by one wicked person found its mark:
Apna huwa nishana, har shaatir zamana
Tu phool hai kanwal ka, asraar ka khazana
Anand Narain Mulla, the jurist-poet, minces no words when he writes the dirge-like ‘Mahatma Gandhi ka Qatl’ (‘The Killing of Mahatma Gandhi’) evoking a sense of immense grief and irreparable loss:
Insaan woh uttha jis ka saani sadiyon mein bhi duniya jan na sakii
Murat woh mitti naqqash se bhi jo ban ke dobara ban na sakii
Another such will never be born in the world again as the one who was lost
Even the sculptor can never fashion such an idol of clay ever again
Sahir Hoshiyarpuri (1913-1972) writes with unbridled affection for this fakir, heaping encomiums upon this paikar-e ikhlas (personification of sincerity), ruh-e rasti (essence of truthfulness:
Naam tha Gandhi magar us ke hazaron naam hain
Ek mai-ḳhana hai jis mein har tarah ke jaam hain
(His name was Gandhi but he had a thousand names
It is tavern that has all sorts of different glasses of wines)
Gandhi Continues to Inspire Modern Urdu Poets
Gandhi continues to inspire modern Urdu poets in different ways. Syeda Farhat, writing of Gandhi having shown the path of truthfulness, the right path:
Sachchi baat hamesha kahna sachcha.i ke raste chalna
Bapu ne samjhaya hai Bapu ne samjhaya hai
With the coming of October, the poet found new occasions to remember Gandhi and the many ways and reasons for which his legacy must be celebrated. Here is Kanwal Dhibhaivi (1919-1994) writing in Gandhi Jayanti, claiming ownership of Gandhi, drawing enormous pride in saying ‘Gandhi hamare thhe’ (‘Gandhi was ours’):
Uthi charon taraf se jab ki zulm-o-jabr ki andhi
Payam-e-amn le kar aa gae ruh-e-zaman Gandhi
When the storm of cruelty and tyranny rose from all four directions
Gandhi, the spirit of his age, came bearing the message of peace
And here is Aale Ahmad Suroor lamenting the loss that will never quite fade away in a jewel-like ‘Pir-e Mughaan ki Yaad Mein’ (‘In Memory of the Tavern Saint’):
Ai Meer e karvaan e watan, Ai Shaheed e qaum
Tere lahu se apna chaman lalazaar hai
Tere hii dam qadam se bayabaan mehak gaye
Apne gulon mein jo bhi hai teri bahaar hai
Sidq-o sifa ko tujh se mili chashm-e mohtabar
Amn-o amaan ka dahar mein tujhse wiqaar....
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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