September 01, 2020 7 Comments

The Diverse Poetry of the Subcontinent


The subcontinent is not an ordinary land. It is a land of diversity, wonder and magic. A place of myth, tradition and superstitions. It is a civilization colored in the richness of culture that is unique to others. It’s eccentricity makes it fascinating to the rest of the world. The subcontinent’s soil has produced men of high calibre, including the sufis, dervishes, yogis, pujaris, writers, poets and musicians who have played a significant role to bring a positive change in society. 

While there are many languages and dialects native to the region, Urdu is one language that serves as a common denominator among all. The language shaped some great works of writing that evoked the collective conscience of people. 

Amir Khusro: 

The first great poet hailing from the region was Amir Khusro. Even though he lived in the 14th century, his playful riddles, melodies and folklores have a lasting imprint today and are still used in popular culture of South Asia. He reformed metaphors and similes. To him the sun, for instance, would be the galloping deer, streams of fire or darts in the sky. 

He also wrote on Hindu-Muslim unity and advocated religious and cultural pluralism. He wrote poetry in Persian as well as Bhojpuri, which came to be known as Hindi or Urdu today. The Khaliq Bari; an expression of stanza, comprising of Arabic, Persian and Hindi is often associated with him. He greatly improved the ghazal. 

Khusro wrote more on a man’s spiritual conquest and his personal devotion to Nizamuddin Auliya. The core of his poetry is that one should not run after worldly possessions but rather, spend time in introspection to nourish the soul and the divine being within. He wrote many famous couplets like chaap tilak, zihaal-e-miskeen and sakal ban phool rahi sarson. ‘Chaap tilak’ being his magnum opus. 

Chaap tilak sub cheen le ri mose naina milaiyke

(You have snatched away all traces of me with one glance of your enchanting eyes.)

Mirza Ghalib:

Ghalib used to write poems in Persian language, but he is renowned for his ghazals written in Urdu not only in India and Pakistan but also among the diaspora.. His flair in poetry flowered from an early age and his earlier ghazals carry the pain of love and separation but later he extended his vista. He used Urdu as a vehicle to express life’s pain and tragedy. 

"The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same. Before the onset of death, why should man expect to be free of grief?"

This made his poetry a masterpiece.  Urdu was ornamental during this time; he made it fascinating by making it more informal. He composed humorous prose too. The letters written to his friends are a testimony to his unique sense of humour.In fact, modern Urdu is thankful to Mirza Ghalib. He made the language attractive and added life to it.  

Ghalib placed great importance on seeking God rather than following the ceremonial religious practice. Ghalib’s best poems were written in three forms: ghazal (lyric), masnavi (moralistic and mystical parable) and qasidah (panegyric). 

In today’s world, Ghalib’s poetry is revered and used in popular music. Here’s a couplet by him that has a direct impact on the heart.

aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak
kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hone tak
(A lifetime passes before a sigh shows its effect,
who would wait so long to see you fixing the tangles in your hair)

Allama Iqbal:

While Ghalib’s poetry moves the heart, the following poet strikes the intellect. He played a huge part in inspiring the people of the subcontinent towards the liberation movement. We know him today as Allama Iqbal. 

Iqbal is often viewed as the philosopher of the East. He wrote both in Persian and Urdu and communicated with the Muslim ummah, believing in the sufi concept of wahdat ul wujood andpromoted the concept of khudi, or selfhood, which stressed on self-realization and the exploration of hidden talent with compassion and determination. Beyond that lay the stage of complete submission, which he thought, was the ultimate stage of khudi

His poetry emerged as a great station where message and art merged, as he re-configured major poetic devices like metaphor, allegory and symbol to revisit history, philosophy and Islamic faith to develop his individual vision. He left behind his collection of poems such asAsraar-e Khudi, Rumooz-e Bekhudi, Baang-e Daraa, Baal-e Jibreel.

Nahin tera nasheman qasr-e-sultani kay gumbad pe,
Tu shaheen hai basera kar paharon hi chatanon per

(Your abode is not on the dome of a royal palace,
For you are an eagle, destined to live on the hard rock’s of mountains)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz: 

The process of creative writing did not end after the partition and Pakistan can attribute some great names to the list. One great example of a post-partition poet is Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Faiz’s early writings were simple and blithe discourses on love and beauty, but later he grew interested in politics, community, and the substantive connection he felt was common in both life and poetry. Two of his poetry collections, Dast-e-Saba and Zindan Namah, focus on his life in prison, which he regarded as a chance to see the world in a new light. 

Throughout his life, Faiz continually wrote, becoming the best-selling modern Urdu poet in both India and Pakistan. While his work follows a fairly strict expression, his poems maintain a casual, conversational tone, creating tension between the rich and the poor, somewhat in the ritual of Ghalib. 

Faiz is especially famous for his poems in traditional Urdu, such as the ghazal, and his amazing skill to expand the conventional prospects to include political and social issues. In his famous poem “Mujhse pehli si mohabbat” his focus changes from traditional Urdu poetry to poetry with purpose, social conscience pursuing social causes.

aur bhī dukh haiñ zamāne meñ mohabbat ke sivā 
rāhateñ aur bhī haiñ vasl kī rāhat ke sivā

(There are many other sorrows in this world besides the sorrow of love
There are many other delights besides the delight of union.)

Saadat Hasan Manto:

The diversity of the subcontinent can be seen by the variety of poets it produced. The most eccentric of the modern poets is Manto. Manto touched on questions of belief, religion and nation and how people are often lost for answers. He laid bare the horrors human beings can unleash on one another. Manto’s poetry and writing exposed the obscenity and double standards of society. He was charged six times for obscene content. He retorted back by saying, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my writings, I only expose the truth.”

A revolutionary from the start till the very end of his life, Manto wanted the following words written on his tombstone after his death:

"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or He.”

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November 17, 2022

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Yunus Mohamed
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June 14, 2021

Fantastic article


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