One of literature’s most potent and impactful movements in the Indian subcontinent was the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the early 20th century during the nationalist struggle for independence. Tackled lucidly and elaborately by the author of her thesis, later published as a book called Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu (Oxford Publications), Professor Rakhshanda Jalil from the University of Delhi gives us a glimpse into this socio-literary movement. A movement of eclectic, pioneering times, the Tarakki Pasand Movement, as it was called, united all languages of the country on a literary and ideological level. It was influenced with Marxian ideas of using
literature as a social tool for change and progress. It brings to the fore the play of the democratic ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity, and was also greatly influenced by Marxist ideas.

Perhaps we take it for granted now – but the idea of modernity, and of how it should be incorporated into the unique cultural and traditional fabric of India, was being debated through these literary writings. Yet, the primary focus was the upliftment of the underprivileged and the exploited. It was for the first time, in Urdu and other regional Indian literature, that the idea that literature could have a social aim, and transcend the fantastical and imaginative realm, was put forth, influenced as it was by European literature that were focusing on realism too. On a whole, it can be seen as a part of a larger global literary movement (though, occurring much later in Indian subcontinent) of literature’s emphasis on realism, truth, rationality and social consciousness. It can be seen as a culmination of the ideas of democracy – equality, liberty and fraternity – on the Indian consciousness (the same drive that propelled reformist movements across the country in the 19-20th centuries), and thus symbolizes a stepping stone to modernity as we know it today.

I went through the introduction of your book on Progressive Writers’ Movement. The movement began in the Urdu language, and soon other Indian language writers joined in….

From the very beginning it went very strongly because it was not an ‘Urdu movement’, it was an All-India movement. In 1936 is when the first All-India Progressive Writers’ meeting happens in Lucknow. Writers from all the major bhashas attend it. And those who’ve helped draft the Manifesto include Bengali writers and others.

So while the Urdu writers are the engine that are driving the movement, but from the earliest days it is very active in Bengali, in Bangla, in Hindi it is very active. Premchand gave the first inaugural address, and he brings with him a lot of liberal Hindi writers. It goes into Telugu, it goes into Gujarati, and all the other languages. So, it flowers very dramatically in Urdu. But it is not confined to Urdu.

So what was the main ideology behind the Movement?


Change in the socialist sense, you mean?

Change in the socialist sense, yes. And for literature to be socially driven. And Premchand outlines the vision. He says, we have to change the standard of beauty. We have to change the definition, the way of looking at beauty. Hamien khoobsurati ka mayaar badalna hoga. Khet me kaam karne wali aurat jiske maathe pe paseena hai, she also can be a subject of writing.

They wrote a lot about poverty, social change, feminism, land reform, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism – all the big -isms of the time. Nationalism. So all of those issues were fodder for them.

The times were such that the winds of change…it fed the nationalist movement in very significant ways. Many of the Progressive Writers were working in the film industry – so the kind of songs they were writing, the kind of lyrics they were writing. The fact that…now we have our rockstars, but back then we had our poets. So when you had mushairas, whether they were in campus towns like Allahabad or Aligarh or Lucknow, the Urdu poet, or the poet lets us say, was like a rockstar! I mean, people flocked to him, girls fainted, they got their autographs, all of those things happened! Ismat Chugtai has written this in her autobiography, that girls in the hostel in the Aligarh University, slept with a copy of Majaz’s poetry under the pillow! So there was a mass hysteria for these people. And this isn’t just in the university towns, but also in other towns, like Bombay or Delhi or others. So the poet had a reach that we cannot today imagine.

Yes, it has diminished, quite a lot….

It has diminished. Because we have other medias that have taken over.

But now we’re coming back to that. I was at the Khusro festival and there was this Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaj, who is a poet, re-gigs Ghalib and other poets as well, he tweaks that, but he is writing his own poetry. So we are going back to the time when we have composer singers. People are composing their own poetry.

And we can also talk about the ghazal lyrics in film music…which is basically what people characterize as Urdu literature.

Could you give information on Angaarey, the short story collection which created a furor when it was published in 1932.

Sajjad Zaheer studied abroad and he has just come back, meets his friends and asks them to give their writings. So you have three men and one woman, and you have ten pieces in all, nine short stories and one play. It caused a furor everywhere because people that it was too subversive, but particularly in the Muslim community because they thought it was making fun of Islam.

And the four writers were Muslim, and they were from ‘sharif’ families. Two were extremely well-born – one’s father was a judge, he was extremely wealthy. The others’ father was a principal of a medical college but he was from a royalty family. The other two were also extremely well-to do. The idea that people from ‘good’ families (that has always been an Indian thing), how can people from ‘good’ families do such things or say such things. It was a rather immature book in some ways, because there is no literary finesse, there is not much of the stylistic skill…it’s more of the energy, it’s more of the fact that things are being said for the first time, in a certain way, with a certain directness. And Sajjad Zaheer who has just come from abroad is influenced by the stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, so he is introducing something very new to Urdu. We haven’t had stream-of-consciousness before, we
haven’t had fragmented bits adding upto something or nothing. So that whole T.S. Eliot thing that it ends with a whimper – so that modernistic bent and that nihilism being talked about in the West, in Europe between the two world wars, the kind of English literature that is coming out, there is a sense of nihilism, a sense of existentialism, angst. So all of these things are kind of new for Urdu because in Urdu till then fiction has been escapist, it has been about fantasies, about dasstan, kissa-kahani. There is realism there, which Premchand has already got, influenced by the Russian masters. But Premchand’s realism, and the content of Angaarey are very different. So it is a very experimental sort of a book.

Any other writings from this movement that stand out.

Just about everything. Everything that this movement has produced … it is like a burst of energy, for twenty years, from the thirties to the fifties. The movement hasn’t gone away because there is a Progressive Writers’ Association still there, and in DU in the Urdu department there is a professor called Ali Javed who is the general secretary of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association. So you can’t say that the association is dead and gone. But the kind of force…the kind of force to reckon with that it is, that …that dissipates over time. So it’s spectacular, it’s high noon is from the thirties till the mid-fifties. And then it kin of peters off. It’s influence is felt in many different ways, but in those twenty years, I think just about everything that is written, save for, maybe, one or two, or three percent of the output, everything is of a Progressive nature. So you have Sahib Ludhianvi, you have Kaifi Aazmi, you have Faiz Ahmad Faiz, you have Maqdom Moinuddin – everybody who is writing, is writing progressive literature.

And by the way, progressives also silenced other voices. They were a hegemonic force. So they were like, a bit of a class bully. So that’s the dark underbelly of the Progressive movement. And that is also something I talk about in my book. Like all movements, they wanted everybody to be doing what they were doing and saying. And so those who didn’t…and then they were laying down laws, they were telling people – write about factories, write about peasants, write about workers. So someone like Ismat is saying – I don’t know anything about factory workers, I’m not going to write about them. Rajinder Singh Bedi is told that – no don’t write this, write this. So he chose to stop writing and he went a different direction. So there has been a silencing of people’s careers, a muffling of voices, there’s been a kind of a … marginalisation.

Manto was made to feel that he didn’t belong, that his kind of writing should be banned, that there is no place of obscenity in literature. Because they were occupying a high moral ground and they were talking about social change and they were talking about how writers can be instruments of change. So those who didn’t want to be so high-minded, those who didn’t want to talk necessarily about change in a very systematic way, or in a way laid down by Soviet Russia….Manto for example, if he wants to write about a prostitute, he is saying that this is what is wrong with society, I’m not going to give it to you in black-and-white. It’s for you to infer from my writing…I am going to continue writing in my way. So the Progressives made a huge attempt to marginalise, isolate, and kind of, push him to the sides. And they did this
with many people.

Can one say that one of the reasons the movement declined was because of this?

It was one of several reasons. Another reason could be that once independence was reached, a great many writers said that look our goal was nationalism, our goal was independence, and we’ve achieved that. Now let’s get on with the business of nation-building. And then there is Nehru who is so charismatic in the 50s, and who is such an icon for many, many Urdu writers. And Nehru is saying that, join the nation-building project, become and part of the nation building project, join forces with my government. And he is saying, let the temples of modern India be the dams, and the bridges, and the universities and the colleges. So a lot of Urdu writers, in fact a great many of them are responding to that call. And they are saying, ok let’s not put our shoulders to the wheel, and get on with the business of building the nation. So
they are saying, what is this about, what are we crying about. For the Progressives and within the Progressives a very strong, ideologically committed group, who are Communists, saying that this is a false freedom. This is not the freedom we had hoped for.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz is saying –
‘Yeh dagh, dagh ujaala
Yeh shabd gazida seher.’
(This uneven light, this patchy, night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn I hoped for.)

And he is writing about the Partition?

He is writing about Partition and saying this is not the freedom I wanted.

But what kind of freedom did they want?

They wanted…so this is the complicated part. They said that the …Communists supported the creation of Pakistan because they said that every nation has a right to self-determination. Later they regretted it and went back to say that no, we shouldn’t have gone for that.

Then a lot of people said that we’ve not got freedom from inequality, we’ve not got freedom from caste-based societies, we’ve not got the freedom that we want. The freedom that we wanted was that there will be an egalitarian society. I mean, the India that was free was still a very poor India, it was bound by chains of casteism, and exploitation, and all of that. So, it has taken us all this while, with corrective action and so on, with reservations and all of that to get the things right, and this is still a work in progress.

That’s what I wanted to ask. You said that the Progressive Writers’ Movement is alive today. It’s ideology is not dead. How is it relevant even now? What is their aim, right now?

Right now their aim is to continue voicing the voices of the underprivileged. So their last All-India conference for example, just a few months ago in 2016 end, was in Raigarh. So they talk about the rights of the adivasis, they talk about the rights of the downtrodden, they talk of the rights of the minorities. So, wherever they see an un-even-ness, a kind of inequality, they want to talk about that.

So it’s not explicitly Marxist, now?

Not explicitly now…

Was there a Modernism movement in Urdu?

Yes, it is called the jadidiyat. It’s still very active. And it was also a contributing factor to the decline of the, in purely literary terms, of Progressivism. It rose, which kind of eclipsed, or rather, cast a shadow on the Progressive movement. So you had poets and writers saying – me, I matter, my dukh, my sense of alienation, my angst, my being cut-off from the rest of the world, that’s what matters. And they were influenced by the French symbolists like Mellarme, and others. And they were saying that, you don’t have to be direct all the time, you can use allusion, you can use symbols, you can use personal symbols. You don’t have to call a spade a spade – you can call it something else. And that’s alright too.

Basically it was the individual vs. Society – that’s what makes it different.

Yes, absolutely.

And it still continues?

It still continues.

It rose in the very dramatic way in the 60s. Which is why in the late 50s and the 60s, Progressivism, as its curve was going down, the curve of Modernism is rising.

Any authors/poets very characteristic of Modernists?

Miraji, a poet. Miraji is very, very modernist. Shahryar is a very interesting Urdu poet who kind of, stands at the cross-section of the Progressivism and modernism. He writes about society, but he uses very personal images. ‘Kali raat ka khatam hone ko he’ – ‘kaali raat’ would mean a right-wing government force. Its imagist motifs.

Talking about contemporary Urdu – nowadays what is the trend that you see in Urdu writers? There was one book of yours – New Writings in Urdu.

Yes. And there is something on communalism that I wrote called Pigeons of the Dome. That again has contemporary Urdu writings. So essentially I have been looking at contemporary Urdu literature, and my big worry seems to be that in the guise of allusion, we are somewhere losing a certain directness that was a very vital part of the earlier, Manto-generation of writers – that they were able to be very forceful. I think the new breed of Urdu writer is little hesitant and a little politically correct…a little too politically correct. And, in the process, they are losing their verve and their bite. So in Pigeons of the Dome, they are talking about communalism, but it seems to be the vigour is not there. I would say that the sharpness is going out of the fiction, in my mind. And the reason is political correctness, wanting to not hurt sensibilities. They are talking about communalism, for example. But they are talking about in a way that is like, let’s balance it out. There is a sense of weariness. This is my reading of course.

And no big Urdu poet is emerging after Itifaaz died, after Shahryar died, we don’t have any…so we have a lot of young poets, not just Muslims, but non-Muslims also writing.

There is lots happening, there is growth in that sense. But I am not able to see a major Urdu poet. In fiction you have Sayyid Mohammad Ashraf and others writing. So in fiction you have people writing. But in poetry…after the losses that we have recently had of major Urdu poets a few years ago, I don’t see any…When you go to a mushaira in India with just Indian poets, not people from diaspora or Pakistan or anywhere else, you don’t see a major poetic voice.

Actually I had a question, since you just brought it up…I know someone who said that I don’t consider Gulzar a ghazal poet.

Yes he is not. He writes nazm, but he doesn’t write ghazals.

That’s the other thing. You’ll meet a kind of a language chauvinism in different guises, so you have to keep an open mind, of what is the impulse behind this critique? Is the impulse a language chauvinism? Because both Javed Akhtar and Gulzar…Javed Akhtar is steeped in the classical tradition. He is the nephew of Majaz, his father was also a major Urdu poet. And he is from Lucknow and Awadh and all of that area, and Urdu is his given first language, it is his mother tongue. So he is steeped in that tradition. Yet, he uses his language differently. Gulzar is not part of that tradition, but he’s innovative. So my worry with this person is that, is he taking a very purist position, because I don’t think we have a place for that kind of purism in a language like Urdu, which is evolving, must evolve if it is to grow. If it remains stagnant it will become like a rancid pool in academia.

So for it to flower outside academia, for it to get outside of the classroom, and be used by young people like you, then it will have to undergo modifications and evolutions. And if people like Gulzar, who is not young, and who has been doing this kind of modification for a very long time…so sometimes I think we are guilty of language chauvinism.