Universally, there is a love-hate relationship between literary criticism and creative writing. On the one hand, neither can do without the other; on the other, there is a constant tension between the work and its assessment. In the case of our own languages, it becomes even more complicated because, as in other academic disciplines, our categories of analysis in literature are also borrowed largely from the Western tradition. Literary criticism per se came much later with the arrival of the colonialists while we had a plethora of high quality poetry and little, but significant, prose produced and available to us for centuries. For instance, nobody would define Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib as an ‘existential’ poet, as it were, before the advent of the 20th century.
Therefore, even today, the tools used by critics are understood with difficulty by someone writing in conventional genres of verse. At times, the mismatch gets too obvious, particularly in appreciating poetry, as prose is somewhat easier to handle by the standards of contemporary global criticism. That has had an impact on canonisation as well. Although someone as outstanding as Majeed Amjad will find his way up and get recognised as a major poet with time, other poets of merit wait to be discovered and appreciated properly. Aziz Hamid Madni, for instance, is one such name.
Muhammad Hussain Azad’s Aab-i-Hayat [Elixir of Life] published in 1880 offered the possibility of a connection between the traditional tazkira navisi [biographical note writing] of poets and a critique of their work. Along with Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali’s Muqaddima-i-Shair-o-Shairi [Treatise on Poetry] — which remains controversial because of its emphasis on utilitarianism — Azad made an attempt to define how we should understand verse.
The last century saw criticism gaining ground and from Akhtar Husain Raipuri and Ehtesham Hussain to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Waris Alvi, to Wazir Agha and Shamim Hanafi, Mumtaz Shireen and Muhammad Hasan Askari to Aslam Farrukhi, Gopi Chand Narang and Fateh Muhammad Malik to Mazhar Jameel, there are numerous critics of varying points of view, many of whom were and remain creative writers themselves. However, we also remember Kalimuddin Ahmed saying in his Urdu Tanqeed Par Aik Nazar [A Review of Urdu Criticism] that literary criticism in Urdu is non-existent. He provides a critical commentary on the literary criticism of some leading practitioners. He spares no one to prove his hypothesis. Ahmed is challenged by Asif Farrukhi, a noted fiction writer and critic of our times, who says that Ahmed’s work is useful in the identification of the excess colonial baggage which needs to be shed.
However, as far as the current state of criticism is concerned, the truth lies in between what Ahmed asserted and what we see being written and published. Literary criticism in Urdu is finding its own feet. The categories of analysis that we borrowed have been indigenised to an extent, but there is a need to create original categories and tools that are able to fully appreciate creative output keeping in full view what is happening internationally but also how our own tradition contributes to the shaping of the contemporary voice.
Among contemporary critics in Pakistan, Dr Nasir Abbas Nayyar has always been serious in his content, but is becoming more accessible in expressing complex ideas as he continues to write more and finds a permanent audience. With 16 books behind him, he has also proved to be a fiction writer of considerable merit. But what stands out is his critical exploration of classical, modern and contemporary Urdu writing. His interest in post-colonial Urdu literature, poets such as Majeed Amjad and Meeraji, how to appreciate the genre of nazm, cultural identity formation, textual analysis and post-modernism has enriched us with some insightful works.
Dr Ziaul Hasan, Salahuddin Darvesh, Ravish Nadeem, Mohammed Naeem, Dr Najeeba Arif, Fayyaz Nadeem and many others continue to contribute significant works of criticism. As in other academic disciplines as well as our collective approach towards dealing with economic, political, social and cultural issues, what we need is organic intellectuals and organic literary critics.