Women and Urdu Literature, Anand Foundation

Women and Urdu Literature

Urdu literature is coming to its own. Due to the Progressive Writers’ Movement, and the subsequent addition of European-like genres and styles into the literary tradition of Urdu, as it has been explored, it was only a matter of time before women would begin writing and enriching the largely male-dominated sphere of language. Just recently, in June 2017, in a mushaira held in Delhi, many women poets read their unique, innovative poems, which did not necessarily follow any traditional Urdu approach. And perhaps that is why, they will give new direction to Urdu poetry, and help it from becoming a stagnating literary tradition focussed solely on ghazals and shers of poets of a bygone era. In this interview, Professor Rakhshanda
Jalil gives an insight into the contribution of women to the Urdu literary canon, and of how the landscape is slowly, but surely, changing in their favour.

Women’s language in Urdu was often referred to as ‘Rekhti’. It was considered crude, obscene and filthy. Women weren’t permitted to use the standard Urdu of men. Could we get a brief history of this tradition, whether it exists today and if so, where; and if there have been any literary pieces that give us an example of it.

Not necessarily ‘crude’,’obscene’. It was considered ‘gharelu’, of the domestic realm, so that it would be more flavoursome, more idiomatic, like more pungent. Not necessarily crude, I wouldn’t use that word. But the distinction between high literature and low literature being so sharp, that ‘rekhti’ was considered closer to folk, as it were. There were established poets even in the Mughal empire – a man called Nazni, who is mentioned in this wonderful book which you must read (it is available in English translation, translated by Akhtar Khambar). It was a book written by Mirza Baig. It is called The Last Mushaira of Delhi or Dilli Ki Aakhari Kshama, and it is like a galaxy of greats. It is a fictional account of a mushaira that could well have taken place – we don’t know whether it actually did – but the who’s who’s, from Ghalib, to Mir, to
Dagh, just about everybody, is there. And this man Nazni is there. (He is a real character, not a fictional character). And Nazni writes in ‘Rekhti’.

So what I am trying to say is that the presence of rekhti poets, of men writing in women’s voices is there almost till the Mutiny times. So we have had established poets reading in mainstream mushairas in women’s rekhti idiom.

But why did they use it?

It was just a genre, it was a bonafide style. And Nazni did a bit of histrionics as well. He would ask for an ‘odhni’ to be brought, and he would put that on, and he would speak on women’s issues, women’s saas, bahu, etc. – that kind of thing. And he would use the women’s idiom, the ‘muhavare-wali zabaan’. ‘Muhavaras’ are in the realm of low ‘geet’. It never had the place in standard Urdu.

And do look out for this book, if at all you’re interested by Carla Petievich called When Men Speak as Women.

There is a tradition like this even in Hindi literature….

Of course, the baara-masa tradition. And why just Hindi, in all the bhaashas, baara-masa tradition – which is a poetry of ‘viraah’ (separation) from the beloved who is gone, which could be romantic, it could be secular, and it can be religious. So the notion of ‘viraah’ has been picked up by the baara-masa poets in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Braj, Khadi Boli, Urdu….

So do you think that they were all mutually influenced by each other?

Of course! People were not living in water-tight compartments. 21st century India actually seems to be that much more insular, that much more…I mean so many picket-fences around languages. And my sense is that there were less so in older times, far less. But even in recent times there were much less when people were being influenced by each other.

Today the Hindi and Urdu departments are like opponents, rivals, and they are like akhade-ki-pehelwan, you know do alag, alag jagayien. But, even in my growing up years, I remember a healthy interaction, people would come together and sit in seminars. Now even within the same department if it is not your area of specialisation you don’t want to come. So I think we have become that much more insular.

This is deviating from the topic, by just to go with the flow: I read many articles from Economic and Political Weekly, about how Urdu language is so connected with the politics of the time. Especially communal politics.

Yes, completely. You see, most people seem to think that Urdu is only about love and romance, kshama-parwana-bulbul. So one has to bust that theory and say that Urdu has a lot of political muscle. Urdu was part of the national movement. What is ‘inquilab zindabad’ – it is an expression coined by an Urdu poet Iqbal, and was popularised by Bhagat Singh. And it was used as a slogan for the first time by a mainstream Urdu poet Hazrat Mohani. He uses it in a trade union rally, in Calcutta in 1925. So we have instances of the Urdu poet. And why just one or two? There are dozens and dozens of instances of the Urdu poet as being a political creature, talking about political concerns which could be as varied as zamindari abolition, land reform, rights of women, all of that.

This follows my initial question – the conception of a standard Urdu. Like in Hindi we have many ‘bolis’…

But they have all been assimilated by Urdu. In standard Urdu, do you not include Awadhi? You do. Because you see lots of mainstream Urdu poets have used Awadhi. So Khadi Boli, Awadhi, the dialects that feed Urdu have been used very generously. Take the case of mainstream, and well-known Pakistani poets such as Ahmad Faraz, or Faiz Ahmad Faiz or Fahmida Rehaz – they’ve used so many Hindi words! You see, so cross-fertilisation between languages, between dialects, is very healthy. And it only makes a language richer and more interesting.

And it is impossible for this not to happen…

Yes, but interestingly, Faiz Ahmad Faiz is a Pashto speaking Punjabi, living in Lahore, so it is alright if he didn’t use those words. But the fact is that he has been exposed to those words. Living in the Punjab region, being a Pakistani, he is exposed to those words. Why? They are not part of his mother tongue, not part of his spoken language, as it is for me. I come from Uttar Pradesh, so for me, geet or sangeet meta is part of my vocabulary.

But he has been exposed to them, why? Because it is available in Urdu literature. Whether he lives in Pakistan, in Punjab, or wherever, the fact is that if a person is reading Urdu literature, they will be exposed to this. Because it has been a part of that tradition. So for them to use these words is not an anomaly. My sense is that it comes naturally.

It comes naturally, and same we can say for Hindi, as Hindi itself has so many Urdu words. So it kind of like, feeds into each other.

Yes, and why just Hindi. For example, kamara actually comes from the Portuguese word ‘chamber’. So we have many number of words from other languages. Which is perfectly alright.

So I have heard that the Persian speaking people do not regard Urdu as a worthy language because of all the Hindi words in it.

Yes, yes. Because it is so hybrid, it is a mongrel language for the purists.

Same with Hindi and English, which evolved as hybrid languages….

Yes there are many English(s) – the New Zealand English, the American English, the Indian English, and so on. Many English(s). Sure. I mean, ‘eve-teasing’ is a completely Indian word, as we seem to use it all the time.

One gets the sense that being an Urdu speaking Muslim or not, that women did not participate in public life before 20th century. (This is true for all literatures)….

The notion of feminine writing, of feminine ecriture as it is called, was kind of uneven.

But women were literate as there were books and magazines for them. You had someone to teach them at home, and they were taught in order to read the Quran, which is in Arabic, so the script is kind of similar. So if from a young age a female child is being encouraged to read the Quran, it means that they are literate, that they can read Urdu. So the assumption of literacy is there, it is a given. On the basis of this assumption you have book that were written specifically for women, such as Bahishti Zewar, which is a set of homilies. And the initial impulse of men writing for women (not written by women), was to make them into good wives, good mothers, good sisters, good people, good Muslims. So they were didactic, you know. So Bahishti Zevar was given…till quite recently, till my mother’s generation, as part of your dower/jahez. One book would be the Quran, and one book would be this because it was supposed to set you up to a life as a good women/wife/mother and so on. So we assume there is literacy as large numbers of this book is being sold, and it is not being read out to the women it has been written for. For whatever reason, we may not agree with the reason now, as it is too didactic. And today the feminists would find it a very regressive book, which indeed it was, but, that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is literacy.

So there is a gap between women writing, and men writing for them. So look out for a book called When the Sun Meets the Moon by Scott Kugle (Orient Blackswan). And that has the first of its kind of commentary and analysis of a courtesan’s poetry. So there were courtesan’s writing poetry. Women from ‘sharif’ families writing poetry is a very, very recent phenomenon. Very recent.

There is also is Umrao Jan.

Yes…though Umrao Jan is written by a man Mirza…and it is a fictional account of a courtesan’s story, and the poetry that is assigned to her is therefore Mirza’s. But she’s a generic figure – there were courtesan’s like her who were very sophisticated and educated. And there was a tradition of young men from good families being sent to the courtesans in order to pick up the tehzeeb and the way of conducting themselves, and also cultivating an interest in the finer arts, such as poetry.

So I am going back about late 18th century – Mah Laqa Chanda is writing poetry (ghazal), and very stylised, very sophisticated poetry in the Deccan. But there is a gap of around 150 years when Mah Laqa Chanda wrote and…we have Gauhar Jan and others but their poetry you don’t take very seriously, because it is poetry to be sung. So there is a kind of lyricism to it, a sweet melodiousness. And they are all writing ghazals, which is a very sophisticated form as it has a very compact metre, and only so much has to be said, rather suggested ,in certain words.

I am trying to tell you that there is a gap of 150 years between women poets, who were the courtesans, and women from ‘sharif’ families. (A notation used by Muslim historians – by ‘sharif’ there is supposed to be a distinction between ‘shurfa’, which is a plural of ‘sharif’, and the lower classes, a tehli (oil presser), or a chamar, or a farmer, chudiwallahs, doodhwallahs, all the working classes. And the upper class would be mostly landowners, the aristocracy, or even the increasing professional classes/middle-classes.) And this has been used by various people, like Ismat Chughtai, she talks of begh-mati zabaan, which is the language of the women of the ‘sharif’ families. So the Urdu writer has used this as a tool, as different kind of languages spoken by different people. So for example, a person pulling the pankha, will speak a dialect of that region. So if it is a story located in Aligarh, the dehat, the woman who has come to the city for employment, will speak a dehat dialect, different from the Begum speaking, who will speak the begh-mati zabaan. Even though there is an interaction between them. But there will be a different tonal register, a voice register.)… families, lets say somebody like Zehra Nigah.

Who was the first woman poet in Urdu?

I don’t know about first, it is always so dodgy. But do look out for Mah Laqa Chanda, the courtesan, who is certainly the first published poet, because she had divans written out. Whether they were published for mass circulation, we don’t know. But there are copies of it. It was written down, it was not just oral. I mean, she was not like Mirabai, who was writing poetry but which was orally transmitted, and had to be left to travelling mendicants to spread. So the first woman poet whose work got transcribed, if not published as we know in the modern sense, was Mah Laqa Chanda.

So these courtesans, they wrote ghazals?

They wrote ghazals, but it is very interesting. You have to talk of the notion of patronage, which is not there in the modern poet like Fehmida Rehaz, Ishwar Naed or Zehra Nigah – they are not dependent on patronage. But the courtesans are somewhere…it is a very fine line. In Mah Laqa Chanda’s poetry, there is piety and patronage. Piety as in towards God, and in Mah Laqa’s case, she’s very, very devoted to Maula Ali, who is the grandson of the Prophet. And Ali has been venerated by the Sufis down the ages. Almost all qawwalis, to this day, sing songs dedicated to Ali. Their entire oeuvre is about Ali. So Ali is someone who resonates with the Sufis. In
Mah Laqa’s case, she is in Hyderabad, there is a dargah said to be of Maula Ali. Ali died in Arabia, so there’s no question of him having a dargah here. And yet there is a dargah which is dedicated to Maula Ali. So he’s very popular in the Hyderabad region.

And in Mah Laqa’s poetry there are two clear strands – one is to her patrons, who are her political masters, such as the kings, wazir, Nawabs etc. Or they are all in praise of Ali. And invariably the last line carries the name of Maula Ali.

That’s very interesting because the ghazal has often been misunderstood as being only about love and romance. But there is more to it.

Yeah. A flat reading, it would seem that it is just about love. But within that there is another layer, there is another context that comes through it and you have to read between the lines if you have to know that it could an allusion. A ghazal is all about allusion, there is no direct reference. It doesn’t say, for example, ‘aaj subah sooraj nikla’. It will say something else, you know.

Go to a website, for any reference that you need, and excellent commentaries, especially on Ghalib but others as well, by a woman called Francis Pritchett. She is Professor Emiritus at Columbia University. And her site is called a Desert Full of Roses. It is one of the finest sites, with excelled commentaries, incredible explanations, she’s been a teacher all her life, she’s retired, she’s a woman in her late 70s. And she has devoted her life to explaining – mostly Ghalib – but others as well, like Mir. But you’ll find it very useful for basic understanding of ghazal. Misra kya hota hai, do linon me basra, prosody…you know the nuts and bolts of the ghazal.

Rekhta.com has it but it is very sketchy. And you don’t have an academic writing. Here this is Pritchett who has been teaching this forever.

The next question is about Qurratulain Hyder, and Ismat Chughtai. They were both controversial…Ismat Chughtai definitely was very controversial. And they were both part of the Progressive Writers’ movement.

Qurratulain Hyder was not part of the Movement, she didn’t belong to any school of thought as such. But she in her later years said who is a progressive, what is a progressive, she questioned the notion. But the Progressives certainly didn’t think she was one. In fact Ismat Chugtai made very sharp and critical comments about her, because her world is a very feudal world, decaying world, very leisurely. Again, of the ‘sharif’ households. So, by the textbook definition of Progressivism, as the Progressives understood it, they certainly did not own up to Hyder.

And Qurratulain Hyder wrote about women’s issues?

All the time! But you know, as a feminist, of the 21st century, reading Hyder can be slightly problematic. And I don’t mean orthodox. I mean, she has written with great empathy about women. Take one particular example called the Sound of Falling Leaves. It’s about 1940s Delhi. There’s a girl from Meerut, who lost her mother, and her father works in Meerut. And she’s been sent to Delhi to study. And she’s studying at – we don’t know, it seems like it, we are assuming, judging by the location – IP college in DU. Because that’s where Hyder studied. And she’s a girl from a conservative family. And then she gets into trouble, as it were, and she starts going out with men. Because she’s from a small town and she’s very enamored by the good life
that she sees. And she’s going out with men, who take her out to coffee, movies and all of that.

And then there is an authorial voice saying that this is actually not very good. She becomes a mistress of one man, who, sort of, uses her, dumps her, then she becomes a mistress of another man. And then with Partition she moves to Pakistan. There’s constantly an authorial voice and a subtext which is telling you – this is how educated girls can go wrong.

And then she becomes someone who has just let herself go, she married somebody who is a dance teacher or something. So it’s how a girl with so much promise, who’s studying science, who is doing BSc, and how she just falls by the wayside, because she has allowed herself to be used. So you could interpret it as feminist. I personally don’t see it…

It could also be cautionary.

It’s cautionary. So a cautionary tale is not always a very progressive tale, because there is too much didacticism, right? If she had given the same story in Ismat’s hands, it would’ve got a tweak somewhere. That that woman asserts herself in someway. Here is a woman who has surrendered.

But it is realistic.

It is very realistic. But that is the problem of what new understandings of feminism has done. Feminism is also a work in progress, is it not? So another story by Ismat which is called Gharwali, which has been performed by daastangois, people have staged plays on it. I find it a very regressive story. To me it seems like a woman as a sex object, which is regressive. But back then she was considered a feminist.

So then it just proves the point that there are so many layers to the movement itself.

Yes, yes. There are no black and white definitions to this, but sometimes, with time, our own understanding of a certain idea changes. So 70-80 years ago when Gharwali was published possibly it was considered a story way ahead of its times.

So it is a work in progress, like you said. I was just talking about ghazals. This is before I knew that courtesans wrote ghazals. So, only men wrote ghazals…. So in that, the lover beseeches in the ghazal that she is so cruel, she doesn’t love me…

These were standard tropes.

Yes, and this is very reminiscent to the Petrarchan sonnets….

Yes, very much so.

So I am just kind of paralleling the Petrarchan sonnet analysis here.
It’s like the women did not play a role, did not have a voice….

They were passive yes. I mean, they were either objects to be sought. Or elusive.

Exactly, they were like an ideal, which the poets drew upon. So does this reflect the reality? Because the love that the poets talk about in the ghazals was illicit. It was not marital love, it was beyond that. So obviously in society this was condemned. And yet, the poets write of it. Was there a reality to it, or was it just a poetic device?

I think it was a poetic device.

‘Tum mere paas hote ho goya
Jab koi doosra nahin hota.’

Now this is one of the most famous poems by Momin. And Ghalib has said that for this one sher I am willing to sacrifice my entire divan, my entire oeuvre. Why? Because look at the compactness. Now the ‘tum’ could be a beloved. But it could be God. ‘Goya’ is where the poem is resting.

That’s beautiful.

It’s beautiful. Because of its haiku-like compactness. So a very simplistic reading is that it is about love and romance. But that is a very monochromatic view of the ghazal. It is about the world, it is about people. Yes, the geet and the nazm allowed the poet to express himself about a range of concerns. Within the ghazals, you had to talk about that range, but with allusion, not with directness. So there themes are there, but they are alluded to, not directly referred to, like a nazm allows you to do so.

Currently, your favourite woman poet.

I am reading a lot, and translating some of Zehra Nigah. She sort of begs the question of what is the difference between a feminist poet and a feminine poet. She’s a Pakistani writer who has been coming to India for a very long time. She lives in Karachi. And she writes in a feminine idiom, but she picks up fairly general, and I would say, ‘masculine’ themes like landmines. So she’s written a poem on landmines, which you would not think is a ‘feminine’ subject. This is about Afghanistan and its called Kissa-Gul Badshah. There is a little boy whose leg is gone, whose mother and father are dead, whose sister is maimed by the landmines. So ostensibly, it is a pathos ridden, elegiac poem. But actually it is a very political poem. Then, before the creation of Bangladesh, she has written about the civil war that broke out and the intervention of the role played by the West Pakistani army there, and how women were raped. But again, she uses a very domestic imagery, a woman’s vocabulary. There’s a woman with a pet parrot, and she’s feeding the parrot and saying bhejo nabi ji bahmatein.

And then, from a very tranquil, peaceful scene, there’s a sudden shift of people entering the house, trampling the things … destruction caused by a masculine, forceful presence. So the word rape is not used, the word assault is not used, there is no physicality, but the allusion is to an assault that has happened to a very tranquil domestic setting. Till you’re told that this is actually a poem about rape, you wouldn’t understand that it’s a poem about rape.

So she has written about female foeticide, about a child being killed before it’s

So she takes up things, which are about the world around us, which are not about
surrender, love or romance…but she clothes it in a very feminine way.

And I don’t think it makes it any less.

No it doesn’t, it doesn’t! To my mind it doesn’t. But the charge levelled against her is that she’s so feminine, that the feminism is kind of muted, or lost. My sense is that a poet need not reveal all of itself to you instantly. That’s why it is different from prose. It is meant to make you think, and to grope and to kind of look for meanings. A prose is not meant to do that, a novel is supposed to tell you in black-and-white what is happening. Of course, using allusion if it so chooses – but, it is not meant to be opaque. A poem, i am not saying, is meant to be opaque, but it is not supposed to be instantly revealing.

Yes, you have the freedom to express and interpret life in the way that you want. That doesn’t have to follow a kind of ideology, and a way of being. 

There are women in the rural areas. I think they go to madrasas and get educated there. Or they go to Urdu medium schools, perhaps. My basic question is that if there is any poetry emerging from these women.

It’s very interesting that you asked that. You know, Urdu, despite the fact that in rural areas they may be reading in Urdu medium schools…Urdu itself is a very cosmopolitan language. It has lost touch with its rural past. The bara-maasas that were written stopped being written by the 19th century. So you may have a city-based poet looking back at his life in the village, talking about that. But to my mind there aren’t very many, fictional or not, poetry about rural India. There may be allusions …but it’s stray. Increasingly the idiom of Urdu is a cosmopolitan idiom, because Urdu itself has become a cosmopolitan language. It is what is called a sheheri-zabaan. For example gori-panghat – are all old tropes that are re-visited by these film lyricists,
they aren’t there anymore. But the Urdu poet is not talking about the gori-panghat and all that. The Urdu poet is using a much more sophisticated, evolved and ‘city’ vocabulary.

But can’t the rural people, if they want to add their own, can just write on their own?

Yes! But that’s not happening. We don’t see…that’s the sad part. We don’t see any rustic poetry emerging.

You know, ‘Urdu’ mean army camp. So it was a language of the people, by the people, for the people. But, over the years it required the status of a ‘courtly’ language. And somehow, it has not been able to move out of the cities.

You’re very right in saying that there are people in rural India who are accessing the language and the script, and so on. But somehow they are not using Urdu as a language of creative expression. Why, I don’t know.

The last Urdu poet who wrote using the dialect was Muttalibi Faridabadi. He wrote a series of poems called Kisan-Rut. He died in the 1950s or 60s. And in the 1940s when he was active – he was also a bit of a Communist, so he kind of mobilised the peasants and the farmers in the Mathura and Faridabad belt. So he had a haveli in Faridabad where he would have peasant mushairas. And he was an amazing man because he invited the progressives to come and recite the poetry in the peasant mushairas. And he invited the khet-me-kaam-karne-wala kisan. So they would come with the stringed bajas and their very rustic musical instruments, and they would use that and sing the poetry that they had composed. I know that he did one in 1938. But we don’t have instances of things like that happening. There is nothing new. New writing in Urdu writing is urban writing. That seems sad, but true. Urdu has just cut itself off from its rural roots.