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Feb 23, 2014

P.W.A. Movement


Writers For Change:
BY: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

A symposium to mark the 75th anniversary of the Progressive Writers' Association discusses purposeful writing in India.

“IF you are not familiar with the age in which we live, read my stories. If you cannot endure my stories, it means that this age is unbearable.” The statement by the prolific writer Saadat Hasan Manto was not just an expression of his individual feeling but a signifier of the mood of most progressive writers of pre-Independence India. Prominent regional writers such as Manto, Munshi Premchand, Kishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Bhisham Sahni and Firaq Gorakhpuri grappled with themes that were never taken seriously in Indian literature until then. These themes were part of human lives and what people from the colonial era related to. These themes spoke of emotional realities and were not intended merely to entertain readers.

The writers created characters out of the imperialist order of the day and people who engaged with the colonial-capitalist set-up. They had to live a life that threw them into moral dilemmas, sometimes leading to self-damage, sometimes to decadence and depravity, and yet, they were the protagonists of these stories. They were never the fairy-tale heroes, and yet the sympathies of the readers lay with them. These writers became cults in Indian literature because they also put considerable attention to their craft or form while telling these real stories. This moved readers, unsettled them, and cultivated their thought processes. The stories let them know that their problems were not just their own but the results of structural issues. These novelists and poets wrote not just to make personal gains but also to contribute to Indian intellectualism and political activism. This was a significant departure from the Indian literary traditions of the 1930s.

Indian literature was populated mostly by travelogues of foreigners or stuff that received royal patronage. However, some writers started the trend of independent writing and dealt with contemporary themes, and gradually all of them associated themselves directly or indirectly with the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA), which peaked from 1936 until the late 1940s. Known for its revolutionary thoughts and belief in socialist practices, the PWA got unflinching support from the then Communist Party of India, especially from its first general secretary P.C. Joshi, who was also instrumental in forming the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and was responsible for finding many promising artists and writers from the grass roots.

The year 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the PWA, and writers, activists and academics have been celebrating the year to push a progressive agenda in contemporary literature. While doing so, they also offer a critique on what they call the “soulless” literature of the post-globalisation era. According to many literary critics, the growth of the publishing industry in India in recent times is coupled with a decline in thoughtful literature where writers are happy to narrate their individual experiences without caring to write about caste discrimination, exploitation of the poor, superstitions, or callous administrations. The current trend, many believe, is solely towards making stories marketable and the thrust is, consequently, only to entertain. In this context, leading artists and academics gathered for a symposium, organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), in New Delhi to discuss ways to push relevant topics in Indian writing.

The symposium reminded its audience of the writers of the PWA and the artists of the IPTA and also the philosophy that guided them. It recalled how, with the patronage of the Communist Party of India, the PWA grew in strength and what was primarily a Hindustani cult spread to Malayalam, Assamese, Tamil, Telugu and other languages of India. The growth of progressive writing in the regional languages coincided with the growth of the united Communist Party, which believed that the cultural awakening of people towards communist practices should coincide and sometimes precede political action.

The PWA was formed in April 1936 in Lucknow under the leadership of Munshi Premchand. But the seeds of it had been laid in London. Mulk Raj Anand, in one of the first volumes of the PWA journal, writes thus while recollecting the dark days of a depression-hit London in 1935: “…[A]fter the disillusionment and disintegration of years of suffering in India and conscious of the destruction of most of our values through the capitalist crisis of 1931, a few of us emerged from the slough of despondency of the cafes and garrets of Bloomsbury and formed the nucleus of the Progressive Writers' Associations.

“For, since the historic meeting in the Nanking restaurant in Denmark Street where the original manifesto was read, through the eager, well-attended fortnightly meetings of the London branch where essays, stories and poems were read and lectures delivered (and through less eager, ill-attended meetings), through the first All-India Progressive Writers' Conference held in Lucknow in April 1936, and the opening of branches or committees in the various linguistic zones through the provincial conference and the opening of more branches, our organisation has today gathered into it or around it, the most significant writers in India and commands membership so large that it forms, quantitatively, one of the largest blocs for the defence of culture in the world.” ( Marxist Cultural Movement in India; edited by Sudhi Pradhan.)

MULK RAJ ANAND. The first manifesto of the progressive writers' movement was drafted in London by him and the Urdu litterateur Sajjad Zaheer. The movement was formally launched in Lucknow in April 1936.

Another founding member of the PWA and its general secretary for long, Sajjad Zaheer, says in his reminiscences: “Just remember the two years preceding 1935. The political effect of the economic crisis that engulfed the world took in Germany the shape of the dictatorship of Hitler and his Nazi Party. In London and Paris, we daily came across the miserable refugees who had escaped or were exiled from Germany. Everywhere one could hear the painful stories of fascist repression….

“The painful darkness, which, spreading from the bright world of arts and learning that was Germany, was throwing its fearful shades on Europe – all these had shattered the inner tranquillity of our hearts and minds. One power could stem the tide of this modern barbarism – the organised power of the factory workers, the power that emerges from the working together, through cooperation, through ceaseless struggle against repression and exploitation of capitalist…. The experience of the continuous class struggle creates on this class a revolutionary class consciousness enabling it to frustrate the attempts of capitalism to put the clock back and to become the creators of a new civilisation.” ( Marxist Cultural Movement in India; edited by Sudhi Pradhan.)

Ideology of the PWA
The foundation conference of the PWA, or the Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind as it was called in Urdu literary circles, had the blessings of such giants of Indian literature as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Munshi Premchand. Right from the start, the inclination and ideology of the writers were clear as has been stated by Premchand in his inaugural speech: “Hitherto we had been content to discuss language and its problems; the existing critical literature of Urdu and Hindi has dealt with the construction and the structure of the language alone. This was doubtless an important and necessary work, and the pioneers of our literature have supplied this preliminary need and performed their task admirably. But language is a means, not an end; a stage, not the journey's end. Its purpose is to mould our thoughts and emotions and to give them the right direction. We have now to concern ourselves with the meaning of things and to find the means of fulfilling the purpose for which the language is constructed. This is the main purpose of this conference.”

“Our literary taste,” Premchand added, “is undergoing a rapid transformation. It is coming more and to grips with the realities of life; it interests itself with society or man as a social unit. It is not satisfied now with the singing of frustrated love, or with writing to satisfy only our sense of wonder; it concerns itself with the problems of our life and such themes as have a social value. The literature which does not arouse in us a critical spirit or satisfy our spiritual needs, which is not ‘force-giving' and dynamic, which does not awaken our sense of beauty, which does not make us face the grim realities of life in a spirit of determination, has no use for us today. It cannot even be termed as literature.”

AT THE ALL India IPTA conference, Ahmedabad, 1948, a group from West Bengal performing on a truck.

Critiquing religion, which writers of yore had shown as the chief spiritual and moral guiding principle of man, Premchand said: “Today, however, literature has undertaken a new task, and its instrument is our inherent sense of beauty; it tried to achieve its aim by arousing this sense of beauty in us. The more a writer develops this sense through his observation of nature, the more effective will his writings become. All that is ugly or detestable, all that is inhuman, becomes intolerable to such a writer. He becomes the standard-bearer of humanity, of moral uprightness, of nobility.

“It becomes his duty to help all those who are downtrodden, oppressed and exploited – individuals or groups – and to advocate their cause. And his judge is itself – it is before society that he brings his plant. He knows that the more realistic his story is, the more full of expression and movement his picture, the more intimate his observation of human nature, psychology, the greater the effect he will produce. It is not even enough that from a psychological point of view his characters resembled human beings; we must further be satisfied that they are real human beings of bone and flesh. We do not believe in an imaginary man; his acts and his thoughts do not impress us.”

Premchand's speech showed that talking and writing about the different types of oppression prevalent in India and other contemporary realities was not a Western construct but something that was rooted in the Indian soil.

Revolutionary resolution
An association of writers was a novel idea in India. And so was its revolutionary resolution adopted in the first conference in Lucknow. In the political climate of the 1930s, this was considered a highly political activity. The aims and objectives of the association were unanimously passed as follows: “To establish organisation of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India; to coordinate these organisations by holding conferences and by publishing literature; to establish a close connection between the central organisations and to cooperate with those literary organisations whose aims do not conflict with the basic aims of the Association; to form branches of the Association in all the important towns of India; to produce and to translate literatures of a progressive nature, to fight cultural reaction, and in this way to further the cause of India's freedom and social regeneration; to protect the interests of progressive authors; to fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion.”

The resolution was Left-liberal in its approach. The cultural Left and the political Left operated with relative autonomy, each complementing the other. Some of the papers presented at the SAHMAT symposium pointed out that this autonomy was necessary for a progressive cultural agenda and that to some extent the control of the Communist Party over the Left cultural groups after Independence led to their downfall. This was a point that the noted historian K.N. Panikkar and theatre personality Shamik Banerjee elaborated in their papers. Neither the PWA nor the IPTA could function well after 1955. Writers and artists from the Left broke away from the association but kept writing within its ideology.

BALRAJ AND DAMAYANTI Sahni in the IPTA's only film, `Dharti ke Lal'.
The traumas of Partition and the violence during the late 1940s left the writers of the PWA bewildered: they have narrated these in their stories. Heated debates within the Communist Party of India further weakened the PWA. Writers who were no more a part of the PWA still carried its legacy forward.

In his paper, the noted Bengali academic Mihir Bhattacharya proposed that “a political movement of the people like the PWA introduces a moment in culture which acts as something like a singularity, altering the configuration of its dynamics, and though the movement dies out, the moment stays and works often as a manifest power in the construction and reconstruction of texts, and sometimes as an immanent force which enters into relationship with other forces”. It is this heritage that many of the contemporary progressive writers tend to follow even today.

Progressive experiments
Some papers at the symposium pointed out that when progressive experiments got much attention and were subject to renewals in States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala in recent years, cultural groups in other States were lagging behind and had failed to reinvent themselves. In this context, Jana Natya Manch, founded by Safdar Hashmi, was hailed for drawing crowds and volunteers even today when most others failed to do so. Safdar Hashmi's wife, Moloyshree Hashmi, recalled how they went about writing their plays and mobilising people everywhere they went.

The function of cultural activity for a progressive agenda is to evoke a sensibility that is pro-people. This can then lead to a political awareness. Such cultural activity proved to be an instrumental tool in pre-revolution Russia or in early 20th century Europe. In India, aggressive cultural activity have made left-wing extremist political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) stronger in tribal hinterlands and have made Dalit identity politics a force to reckon with.

THE COMMUNIST PARTY of India's cultural workers Ali Sardar Jafri, Chittaprosad and Kalpana Joshi. A photograph by Sunil Janah. The growth of progressive cultural movements coincided with the growth of the Communist Party of India, which believed that the cultural awakening of people towards communist practices should coincide and sometimes precede political action.

In these times of globalisation, when inequalities between the rich and the poor are growing, what could the electoral Left parties do to reinvent their cultural wings so that their appeal increases among the people? Prabhat Patnaik's explanation in this context seems to throw some light on this. He says that the Marxist cultural movement should not just talk about class inequalities but also address permanent problems of Indian society, giving the communist movement a local flavour. Thus he departs from the universally accepted communist position of internationalism.

He writes in his paper: “The progressive cultural movement... must therefore fight, in its own terrain, not only against the exploitative order presided over by the bourgeoisie, allied with the rich landed interests, but also against the ideological perceptions and cultural practices of the old order, against caste, patriarchy, communalism and all forms of suppression of the individual by the so-called ‘traditions' of the old community. The latter struggle is a permanent struggle that stretches from the present until the establishment of the new order.” This is exactly what the PWA did in those times and this is what Left cultural groups could do in a reinvented form and understanding of an ever-changing political climate.

Many scholars at the SAHMAT conference tried to reinterpret the old subjects of cultural activism, and almost every participant, through discussions, implicitly urged contemporary writers to probe society further. As they say, to not probe is to surrender and if a writer surrenders, she/he ceases to be a writer.

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