Dastaan, Shairi and Afsana at the festival
Syeda Shehrbano Kazim
ISLAMABAD: The second day of the Islamabad Literature Festival saw more sessions on Urdu literature with Zehra Nigah speaking on poetry and Intizar Hussain on prose.
While both literary giants read excerpts from their own works, they also referred to and shared with the audience choice selections of other literary geniuses.
Zehra Nigah is one of the first two women poets to have achieved prominence in the 1950s in what was then a predominantly male realm.
She narrated that when she started, her family felt poetry was associated with women of the street rather than with women of good homes.
Ghazal in particular had negative associations.
Times, however, had changed, and as she said, “There are now many acclaimed poetesses.” Otherwise, respectable women used to be deleted from the annals of poetry.
When she started participating in mushairas, she was made a uniform – a white shalwar-kameez and white dupatta – to wear on such occasions.
“In a mushaira in Multan,” she said, “I stole the show and the male poets all walked out of the gathering because I, a woman, had received such accolades.
The organiser and I were concerned about how the mushaira would go on when I saw that a gentleman in the corner had not walked out. It was Habib Jalib. He said you read a few pieces and I’ll read a few, and the mushaira would thus proceed. We started, and when the poets who had walked out realised the gathering was carrying on without them, they returned.”
She went on to say that the tradition of mushairas was unique to the subcontinent, providing direct interaction between poets and their audience.
“The immediacy of praise and the interaction amongst the literary and talented is immensely important for the growth and development of a poet,” Zehra said, adding that, “If I had not participated in mushairas, how would I have met such wonderful group of artists and poets?”
Along with the exquisite tradition of mushairas, the subcontinent also has the fascinating tradition of the dastaan or epic.
Intizar Hussain said one such acclaimed epic was the Lucknow epic of Amir Hamza, but there were many tales from this region which were unique.
He said in the nineteenth century, critics and theorists had attempted to yoke literature to social reform and emphasise purity of thought and simplicity of style.
Desirous of mirroring Western, more particularly Victorian, literary values, they praised moralistic and realistic fiction and long narrative poems.
Dastaans became an object of religious censure as they were deemed immoral and absurd flights of imagination. The only permissible fiction in prose became the novel while the dastaan was a completely different beast.
Zehra Nigar said T. S. Eliot wrote that a great writer looks a hundred years ahead of himself, and quoted a couplet by Momin:
Karta hai qatl apno ko aghyar ke liye
Dus bees roz marte hain do char ke liye
She said, “I live in Karachi and I wonder if Momin wrote this in Sohrabgot or Katti-Pahari where 10 or 20 people die daily and we see it on TV.”
In another session, Intizar Hussain commented on the state of the afsana today.
The panel felt it was not that there were no writers of short stories; rather there was no literary critique of the quality of work being produced in Urdu.
Intizar Hussain said much of our historical focus was on poetry and not on fiction and prose.
Critics had philosophies and ideologies, and they limited their interest in literary works to those perspectives.
There must, he said, be a copious amount of average work to set the stage for the few great works.
Vast quantity of literary works was necessary to lead up to the creation of form, refinement of ideas and so on, and these would result in some brilliant pieces which would be acclaimed in each generation.
With his dialogue peppered with similes and metaphors, he said, “mein to mahaware ka maara hua hoon” (I am a victim of idioms), showing why he was so amazing in the linguistic twists and turns of his stories.