Hyder on Coppola, 'Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode'

Carlo Coppola
S. Akbar Hyder

Carlo Coppola. Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 702 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-940349-3.

Reviewed by S. Akbar Hyder (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Asia (July, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51213

Progressive Urdu Poetry

Carlo Coppola’s 1975 dissertation submitted to the University of Chicago’s Committee on Comparative Studies in Literature under the supervision of C. M. Naim was no ordinary thesis: it was a meticulously researched and thoughtfully crafted work of modern South Asian literary history, with a focus on the first four decades of the Urdu Progressive movement (the taraqqī pasañd tahrīk). This movement, especially during its formative years in the 1930s and the 1940s, nudged writers and other artists out of their world of conformity, especially in terms of class consciousness, religious and national allegiances, and gender roles. When Coppola submitted his dissertation, there was simply no work, in Urdu or in English, that could compare to this dissertation’s sweeping and balanced coverage of a movement that resonated not just in written literature but also in films, political assemblies, mass rallies, and calls for justice throughout South Asia.

For the last four decades, the contents of Coppola’s work, especially the references, freely circulated among students and scholars seeking to understand the literary networks that brought Russian, English, and French worlds into contact with Urdu, and to some extent, Hindi. Coppola’s effective translations of Progressive poetry set the standards of translating modern Urdu literature into English. It is not surprising, then, that many of us implored Coppola to publish his dissertation as a book; the result is Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode. Der āyad durast āyad (a Perso-Urdu saying that suggests better late than never).

The book comprises twelve chapters, two appendices, a chronology, and a glossary. The first chapter provides a concise historical overview of nineteenth-century colonial-inflected socioreligious reform movements and their impact on the literary sensibilities of the twentieth century. The second chapter treats the fiery collection of Urdu prose, Añgāre (Embers), the sensational impact of which far outpaced its aesthetic merits. The third and fourth chapters are a diligent documentation and narrative of the Progressive Writers’ Association, the literary movement—with its calls to justice and accountability—that is at the crux of this study. The fifth chapter accounts for the movement’s most triumphant years, after it emerged from the fierce and protracted debates in the Kremlin, London, Lucknow, and Hyderabad. The sixth chapter narrates the “decline” of the movement in the wake of the Partition of 1947. In chapters 7 through 11, Coppola parses the life stories and the verses of five iconic Progressives: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Asrarul Haq Majaz, Makhdum Mohiuddin, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Sahir Ludhianvi. Finally, the conclusion and the ancillary material bring closure to the work and further display the author’s dedication.

Coppola’s painstaking research is readily apparent in his documentation of the interviews and meetings he had with the towering figures of this movement. He documents the letters he exchanged with Amrita Pritam, Ahmed Ali, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Qurratulain Hyder, Ali Sardar Jafri, Mohan Rakesh, N. M. Rashed, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zaheer, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Sibte Hasan, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, and others. Our author’s personal engagements with these literary figures paint his perspectives as those of an inside observer. Yet his deft analysis of history and politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and his skill in telling stories through poetry lend this work an aura of scholarship and artistry that is rare in South Asian literary histories written in English. Coppola is uniquely adept at relaying the cultural debates that run the gamut of beauty, justice, loyalty, obscenity, and disillusion. He lucidly draws our attention to the questions that lurked behind nationalism of various stripes. He does not forget those who bucked the Progressive trend yet remained progressive. We learn how the progressive agenda during the 1946 Telangana uprising, and under Jawaharlal Nehru and various governments of Pakistan, was often circumvented by well-meaning actors; how ideals of communal harmony confronted the reality of 1947; and how drawn-out Urdu-Hindi debates painted pluralistic languages with exclusivist colors. His citations of primary sources, including the minutes of meetings of those who labored to face the pressures of emerging nation-states and their wavering ideologues, are particularly welcome. By encountering multiple flashpoints in the Progressive trajectory, the book gives readers a sense of how the aesthetics and ideological priorities in Urdu were maneuvered by censorship and market forces, and how this diminished the movement’s prospects of lifting up the oppressed—an objective to which all the Progressives in this study at least paid lip service.

While admiring Coppola’s sharp eye for compelling historical analysis, students of literature might very well disagree with the author’s approach to hermeneutics, the way he takes certain categories for granted, and the manner in which he overlooks sources that would have added further depth to this work. In the study at hand, the author implies that to be a good Progressive, one had to bear the brunt of injustice directly. The ill effects of colonialism and capitalism on the larger society do not count for much, they do not even leave artists room for complaints against the reigning order. For instance, when speaking of Sahir, Coppola suggests that the poet held an elitist vantage point by virtue of the class into which he was born and by demanding a salary higher than that of other film lyricists. Sahir’s background should thus discourage us from profitably reading him as a true Progressive, even if it does not immediately repudiate his right to speak for subalterns: “If family background and subsequent lifestyles are any indications of a person’s inner feelings and beliefs, then one can only conclude that, on such bases, Sahir Ludhianvi was not a progressive at all, or that he was, with his fast, flashy cars, expensive booze, and sartorial elegance, at best, a ‘parlour’ or ‘armchair’ progressive. While it is true that most progressives had come from middle-class rather than lower-class backgrounds, Sahir was upper middle-class, perhaps ever upper-class. Therefore, it is not surprising that the quality of his interpretation of and commitment to progressivism were different from those of other poets of humbler origins” (p. 532). Coppola implies that the best Progressive writing has an inverse correlation with the author’s economic standing in his society. More importantly, many of the details he provides about the poets’ lives do not offer any significant insights into their creative processes.

I would also criticize Coppola’s comparisons, as these do not do justice to the breadth of the oeuvres of the Progressive poets. Coppola uncritically accepts the literary critic Ale Ahmad Suroor’s classification of Makhdum’s poetry as “loud” (p. 444), without questioning whether there was, in fact, anyone in the pantheon of the Progressives who was not loud. Certainly, Makhdum’s poetry is no louder than “Bol” (Speak up), the poem penned by Makhdum’s dear friend Faiz. And in the interest of locating loudness, he neglects to delve into the works of the most bombastic of all the Progressives, Josh Malihabadi. In fact, the ever-expanding mushaira (poetry readings) forum of public recitation in which many of these poets spoke, and which brought about the rise of many of these poets, applauded loudness. In addition, the throb in Makhdum’s poetry, whether it was generated by substance (ideas, words) or form (meter and rhyme), represents an important long-standing debate in Urdu, one that is nicely captured by Sikandar Ahmad in “Makhdūm Mohiuddīn kā she’rī āhang.”[1] A correction is in order: Makhdum’s last poem was not written in 1966 as Coppola states (p. 462); in fact, he wrote a beautiful ode to the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., after King’s assassination in April 1968.

This book would have been further strengthened by an engagement with the satirists in the movement: the witty Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor and Sulaiman Khateeb, among others. By including the verses of these satirists, Coppola could have shed light on the regional animus marring Urdu literature. These were the Progressive voices that kept Progressivism in check by broadcasting the hierarchies and sense of entitlement in the very movement that was aspiring to rise above them.

When engaging a project as ambitious as that of Coppola’s, we might also quibble with categories and translation choices: Nigār (the renowned Urdu journal) should have been translated as “painting” or “picture” rather than “writer” (p. 214); notwithstanding the fact that Sardar Jafri hailed from a Shii family and several of his verses make reference to Karbala, he should not be placed under the category of “orthodox.” There is no such category in Shii Islam and one would be hard-pressed to express this adjective in Urdu. In an instance of over-reading: Coppola translates Jafri as “purest gold” (p. 466). In the scheme of Islamic names, Jafri represents the category of people who claim descent from the Prophet of Islam, through the sixth Shii Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. Sardar Jafri certainly would not have wanted anyone to translate his surname as a precious metal. Jafri was also not the only pen name used by the poet: he also used Sardar many times and like his comrades, even omitted his pen name in an effort to be unobtrusive, to cast his poetry as the voice of the masses and not one of a privileged individual. How can his devout readers forget his lines from Merā Safar (My journey): “har ‘āshiq hai sardār yahāñ har ma’shūqah sultana hai” (every lover is supreme here and every beloved the sovereign)? Sultana was also the name of Jafri’s life companion.

In his conclusion to this study, readers would have benefited from an analysis of the significant influence of the Progressive movement on Urdu resistance poetry in general, and in the decades to come, on specific resistance poetry, that which represented the anti-status quo, the feminist, and the queer. The legacy of this movement survives through the Habib Jalibs, Kishwar Naheeds, and Ifti Nasims—those who entered the progressive fray without fussing over the semantics of categorization and proudly embraced the legacies of Faiz and Makhdum.

My criticism of this work, which fully deserves the appreciation of scholars with vastly different approaches to literature (as is evident from the blurbs) is presented in the spirit of generating further discussion of the themes that Coppola so meticulously lays out for us. His book speaks to the magnitude of the project that will undoubtedly continue to stimulate fresh approaches to the history of Progressivism and South Asian literature. This work not only is a core text of modern Urdu literary history but also serves as a reminder that the clarion calls for justice that first rose from the poetry of the Urdu Progressive movement are more relevant today than ever. As Makhdum would say, “hayāt le ke chalo kaināt le ke chalo, chalo to sāre zamāne ko sāth le ke chalo” (Carry with you life, carry the cosmos; when you move, move with the entire universe [in your embrace]). Coppola’s work should be praised for helping us to glimpse the grand dreams, aspirations, and promises in the most affectionate words.


[1]. Sikandar Ahmad, “Makhdūm Mohiuddīn kā she’rī āhang,” Fikr o Tahqīq (April-June 2008): 79-88.

Citation: S. Akbar Hyder. Review of Coppola, Carlo, Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51213

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