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Progressive Writer’s Association
April 23, 2006
The radical muse
This book documents the rise of the Progressive Writer’s Association, its period of ascendancy, its crucial role in the struggle for independence and its unflagging spirit of resistance against injustice
Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir write about the emerging of a movement that grew into the Progressive Writer’s Association
On the evening of November 24, 1934, the atmosphere at London’s Nanking Hotel must have been electric. A group of young Indian intellectuals were engaged in an intense discussion over a draft document, that had been circulated by the convenor of the meeting, Sajjad Zaheer. The document was audacious in its scope, for it sought to articulate a manifesto for the future of Indian literature.
Some of the faces in the meeting were to become familiar personalities. Jyotirmaya Ghosh would rise to prominence as a key figure in Bengali literature. Mulk Raj Anand had already begun to gain global prominence as an English novelist. Mohammad Din Tasir was to go on to become the founder of the magazine Nairang-i-Khayaal in Lahore. The British writer Ralph Fox was attending in the capacity of an adviser. The fog of history has blurred the names of other attendees, but the institution that was emerging through this meeting was destined to majestically straddle the traditions of Indian literature in general and Urdu poetry in particular for a long time.
The fact that this meeting was being held in London was no accident. Rather, it was a curious outcome of the history of the colonial experience of India. Many among the gathering were students in England, who had been sent by their affluent parents to develop professional skills in areas such as law and medicine. Yet, their experiences with colonial servitude back home were fresh in their minds, and this smouldering energy was readily spurred by the emerging anti-fascist and socialist currents all over Europe. The formation of the United Front in France, the protest against the persecution of writers like Georgi Dimitrov, and the workers’ rebellion in Austria in the early 1930’s, had galvanised the attendees of the Nanking meeting. In their minds, the literary manifesto that was being discussed would serve to lay the framework for the emergence of a new, emancipated identity.
This gathering had its genesis in an interesting episode that had taken place in 1932 with the publication of a book in India called Angaare (Embers), a set of 10 short stories written by Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan, Mahmuduzzafar and Ahmed Ali, which had attacked a whole range of sacred cows. The stories dealt with prevailing familial and sexual mores, the decadence and hypocrisy of social and religious life in contemporary India, and took more than one potshot at religious orthodoxy, attacking it with what Ahmed Ali later referred to as “the absence of circumspection”.
Within months of its publication, the book generated an uproar within Muslim circles, and was condemned by a variety of organisations as being “obscene” and “blasphemous”. The All India Shia Conference, for example, passed a resolution in 1933 sharply condemning “the heart-rending and filthy pamphlet called Angaare ... which has wounded the feelings of the entire Muslim community by ridiculing God and His prophets and which is extremely objectionable from the standpoint of both religion and morality.” Responding to this outcry, the Police Department of the United Provinces promulgated an order on March 15, 1933 declaring “forfeited to his Majesty every copy of (the book) ... on the grounds that the said book contains matter the publication of which is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.”
The Angaare authors were unrepentant. Writing in the April 5, 1933 issue of The Leader, an Allahabad-based newspaper, Mahmuduzzafar’s article “Shall we submit to gagging?” declared:
The writers of this book do not wish to make an apology for it. They leave it to float or sink of itself. They only wish to defend the right of launching it and all other vessels like it ... They have chosen (to critique) the particular field of Islam not because they bear any “special” malice towards it, but because, being born into that particular society, they felt better qualified to speak for that alone ... Our practical purpose is the formation immediately of a league of progressive authors, which should bring forth similar collections from time to time, both in English and the various vernaculars of our country.
Undettered by the widespread criticism, Sajjad Zaheer, the leader of the Angaare group had set about trying to use the field of literature as a battering ram to break down the orthodox and conservative fortifications of Indian society. The Nanking Hotel gathering was a significant step in that direction.
By the end of the meeting, the attendees had resolved to formalise their group as an institution, which would be called the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (henceforth, the PWA). The PWA was to be based in India, and Sajjad Zaheer volunteered to give it institutional shape in the subcontinent.
Their experiences with colonial servitude back home were fresh in their minds, and this smouldering energy was readily spurred by the emerging anti-fascist and socialist currents all over Europe
By the middle of 1935, the final manifesto of the PWA was ready. Zaheer returned to India with the document and circulated it among prominent Indian literary figures. The manifesto found an immediate champion in Premchand, one of the most highly respected figures in Hindustani literature, who published its Hindi translation in the October 1935 issue of his journal Hans (Swan). Subsequently, the English version of the manifesto was published in the February 1936 issue of London’s Left Review. The text of the manifesto was as follows:
Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict a new society is emerging. The spirit of reaction however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.
It is the duty of Indian. writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist in the spirit of progress in the country. Indian literature, since the breakdown of classical literature, has had the fatal tendency to escape from the actualities of life. It has tried to find a refuge from reality in spiritualism and idealism. The result has been that it has produced a rigid formalism and a banal and perverse ideology.
Witness the mystical devotional obsession of our literature, its furtive and sentimental attitude towards sex, its emotional exhibitionism and its almost total lack of rationality. Such literature was produced particularly during the past two centuries, one of the most unfortunate periods of our history, a period of disintegrating feudalism and of acute misery and degradation for the Indian people as a whole.
It is the object of our association to rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future.
While claiming to be the inheritors of the best traditions of Indian civilisation, we shall criticise ruthlessly, in its political, economic and cultural aspects, the spirit of reaction in our country and we shall foster through interpretive and creative work (with both native and foreign resources) everything that will lead our country to the new life for which it is striving. We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today — the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjugation, so that it may help us to understand these problems and through such understanding help us to act.
With the above aims in view. the following resolutions have been adopted:
• The establishment of organisations of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India; the coordinations of these organisations by holding conferences, publishing of magazines, pamphlets, etc.
• To cooperate with those literary organisations whose aims do not conflict with the basic aims of the association.
• To produce and translate literature of a progressive nature and of a high technical standard; to fight cultural reaction; and in this way, to further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration.
• To strive for the acceptance of a common language (Hindustani) and a common script (Indo-Roman) for India.
• To protect the interests of authors; to help authors who require and deserve assistance for the publication of their works.
• To fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion.
The manifesto was unabashedly modernist and anti-religious in its tenor, and utilised a left-liberal vocabulary that was popular at that time. It sought to play an integrative role in the Indian literary landscape through the acceptance of a common language and script. It made a case for building international solidarities. Importantly, it emphasised realism, with its insistence that literature be used as a tool to display the “actualities of life”. Finally, despite the stridency of its tone, it sought to leave the door open for coalitions with other literary groups “whose aims did not conflict with the basic aims of the association.” The manifesto was an astute political document, and a highly ambitious one that sought to position the PWA as the harbinger of revolutionary changes in the literary landscape of India.
The publication of this manifesto had a huge impact, especially in Urdu literary circles. The ideas it espoused were, however, not entirely new. Just a year earlier, a young literary critic named Akhtar Husain Raipuri had published an essay called “Adab our Zindagi” (Literature and life), in which he had attempted to analyse the entire corpus of Urdu literature, and had denounced all works of fiction and poetry that did not directly link themselves to the material conditions of the society in which they were produced. Raipuri’s essay in some measure made the manifesto easier to sell to Urdu literary figures, just as Premchand’s support (and subsequent endorsements by the Hindi poets Sumitranandan Pant, Maithilisharan Gupt and Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’) succeeded in broadening the horizon of the PWA’s influence.
Stalwarts of Indian literature like Mohammad Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore also provided legitimacy to the PWA through their approval, and eventually Urdu poets like Hasrat Mohani, Josh Malihabadi, and Firaq Gorakhpuri also joined it, as did the Telugu poet Sri Sri, the Gujarati poet Umashankar Joshi, the Punjabi writer Gurbaksh Singh and the Marathi writer Anna Bhau Sathe. The PWA’s anti-colonialist reputation was enhanced and its credentials endorsed by the fact that the British government expressed its deep suspicion of the group. On September 7, 1936, the Home Secretary of India sent a private circular to relevant authorities, which read:
I am directed to address you in connection with an organisation known as the Progressive Writers’ Association ... The proclaimed aims of the association are comparatively innocent and suggest that it concerns itself solely with the organisation of journalists and writers and the promotion of interest in literature of a progressive nature. The inspiration however comes from ... organisations and individuals who are ... advocating policies akin to those of the communists ... I am desired to suggest therefore, that suitable opportunities may be taken to convey, preferably in conversations, friendly warnings about this association to journalists, educationists and others who may be attracted by its ostensible programmes.
It appeared that the PWA had perceptively tapped into the groundswell of a great upheaval in Indian society. The first all-India meeting of the PWA was held at Lucknow in 1936, and was presided over by Premchand, whose inaugural address “Sahitya ka uddeshya” (The purpose of literature) remains one of the most important documents of the movement. The manifesto of the association was reworked to make it more inclusive of those whose politics were not avowedly socialist. Further the demand for a common language and script for Indian literature was dropped, reflecting the political realities of the country’s multilingual structure.
The Hindi version of the manifesto also attempted to articulate a definition of “Progressive” which could accommodate a wide spectrum of views and attract as many people as possible, and included the following additional paragraph:
All those things which take us toward confusion, dissension, and blind imitation are conservative; also, all that which engenders in us a critical capacity, which induces us to test our dear traditions on the touchstone of our reason and perception, which makes us healthy and produces among us the strength of unity and integration, that is what we call Progressive.
From its very inception, the PWA had a group of committed socialists at its core but its larger membership was not limited to writers of any particular political persuasion. In fact, it was consciously opened out to include all writers who shared the manifesto’s basic commitments. The PWA thus functioned as an umbrella under which progressive writers of all stripes could find a place. The PWA understood its mission to be that of constructing a “united front” of writers against imperialism and reactionary social tendencies, and for a life-affirming art. For the longest time then, taraqqi-pasandi or “progressivism” in Urdu literature was justifiably identified with the PWA. Never before had writers across India been mobilised around a single platform so effectively, and in no previous movements had a literary school so redefined the terms of its creative output and its engagement with its society and times.
Excerpted with permission from A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry: Anthems of Resistance By Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir India Ink/Roli Books Pvt. Available with Liberty Books, Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi. Tel: 021-5832525 (Ext: 111) Website: www.libertybooks.com ISBN 81-86939-26-1 248pp. Indian Rs395
Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir are university professors. They grew up in Hyderabad, India, on a steady diet of progressive Urdu poetry. They divide their time between India and the US