Like other Indian languages, Urdu literature rejected modernism fully after Emergency when smaller narratives started emerging
Partition was a huge earthquake that shook the ground of Urdu literature. First, the progressives, who had identified themselves closely with India’s freedom movement, saw their goal partially fulfilled and they had nothing more to say other than talk about the ‘red revolution’ that never materialized. The progressive movement in India since its inception was also closely aligned with the Soviet world view and geopolitical interests via the left political outfits in India. This trend lasted 20 or 25 years leading Urdu to a straight-jacketed rhetorical formalism. With the passage of time, new fissures appeared, ideological and social voids showed up, and modernism died a slow death.
In every language, new ideas and new points of view appear over time and these dialectical processes involve tensions. In this void that continued for several years, postmodernism found an opening. This change posed a dilemma for a whole generation of writers: Should they stick with the movement that had lost steam or move to a new one?Those who adapted to the new situation survived, but those who stayed stuck with one point of view lost relevance and became victims of generational change. Ale Ahmad Suroor is a good example. At one time, he was at the forefront of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, but when modernism in its half-baked form found its roots in Urdu, he stood more with the younger writers. Some other names that fall in the same category were Khaleelur Rehman Azmi, Mahmood Ayaz, Sulaiman Areeb, Waheed Akhtar, and Baqar Mahdi.
Literature evolves over time due to the clash of different viewpoints. Anglo-American poet Auden (1907–1973) had laid down a principle that no generation could claim the mantle of being called ‘modern’ unless it had rejected the work of the previous generation. This cannot be considered a defining condition. There are exceptions depending on the circumstances. Since modernism in Urdu was never a movement rooted in deep structures of thought, it was guilty of several categorical fallacies. For instance, it embraced N.M. Rashid, Miraji, and Akhtarul Iman but not Jafri and his associates. Faiz was categorized but Firaq and Yagana were not. In prose, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Bedi were included but not Krishan Chander. In all these cases, there was no rejection of the past. Auden’s rule is, therefore, inadequate in this context in putting writers into different categories.
Every new generation claims that it is different from the one which precedes it. But often these differences are not elaborated. One could locate these differences in the fact that with the passage of time, issues change, new challenges emerge, and creative thinking takes new forms. These things can be known as they are felt experiences, but if the theoretical framework lacks clarity, the resulting situation is often troubling. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan started a movement for Islamic religious reform with the emphasis on education. Its underlying principles and motives were clear. But the progressive movement was more inclusive. On the one hand, it was combating timeworn ideas and traditions, and on the other, it joined hands with the freedom movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. But in actual fact it was the mouthpiece of a left political party. As time went by, contradictions showed up and it lost steam.
Modernism in Europe was not an ideological movement. It explicitly declared itself non-political, and instead focused on complex psychological topics like existentialism, alienation, and being. These were the themes on which European thinkers made lasting contributions which influenced art and literature globally.
As we entered the last three decades of the twentieth century, Indian society showed signs of major change. India went through a shock wave with the declaration of a repressive Emergency during the regime of Indira Gandhi in 1976. It dealt a deathblow to whatever had remained of modernism. All meta-narratives collapsed one after another. The small, regional, subaltern, Dalit, folk, and tribal literary streams emerged. The all-powerful national political parties were pushed to the margins, regional and marginalized forces came to the centre, and by joining hands in a coalition, gained power. Thus, democracy in India started gaining new strength. The process of economic reforms and globalization commenced. Electronic media, especially TV, became a major force for sharing new ideas and shaping opinions. These trends became even more vibrant with the introduction of mobile phones, the Internet, and an increase in the migration of many talented Indians to the Western countries. Mention must be made specifically of the vibrancy of the commercial Indian film industry (Bollywood). The popularity of ghazal singers and the contribution of the legendary artists such as K.L. Sehgal, Begum Akhtar, Noor Jehan, Mohammad Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Abida Parveen, Tina Sani, and others depended on advancements in electronic media. The journey from vinyl records to audio tapes, compact discs, and now music streaming along with services like YouTube made it possible for anyone located in any part of the world to enjoy the work of great ghazal singers and live recordings of leading Urdu poets any time of the day and night.
While there were so many good things that happened, the rise of terrorism and fundamentalism posed a new kind of threat that continues until today. As a reaction, we have also seen an upward climb in ethno-nationalism and more frequent sectarian and communal tensions. When so many things change, literature cannot stand still. Not only in Urdu, there are new themes, new metaphors, new ways of expression in every major Indian language. There is a multiplicity of voices which were non-existent before. There are a number of good Dalit writers who are writing about the issues faced by Dalit communities. In Urdu, Ismat Chughtai was once the lone voice against suppression of women and the violation of their human rights. But now the floodgates are open. We could, therefore, say that we are living in the postmodern era. However, there is one difference we should take note of. While modernism in India was a reaction against progressivism, postmodernism is not against anything in particular. It is a reflection of the times we live in. Like a mirror, it shows the good and the bad. There is no one focal point of discourse. It is not monolithic. It has no manifesto, no establishment. There is no badge, no branding. Small narratives are galore. No one theme sucks up all the energy. It is open, socialistic, and egalitarian in general. In fact, it is against getting stuck in a single point of view. In essence, it is a post-truth age. It subverts and challenges ideas and opinions and opens up new pathways for human discourse.
[Excerpted from the chapter 'Postmodernism: Western Perspective, Indian Version']
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