Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book review: 'Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode'


Carlo Coppola. Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode.  2018
Reviewed by S. Akbar Hyder

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... read more: