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The forgotten litterateur

By Nasir Abbas Nayyar

History can sometimes be callous, brushing aside the services of those considered ‘great’ in their times. But, in a few cases, it might even be blind, when it fails to record events that changed the course of time. The latter occurs where a specific personality, event or an ideology is glorified by historians in such an overwhelming manner that all other activities of the same period — and their doers too — are deemed unimportant and subsequently go unseen.
A cursory look at the histories of modern Urdu criticism will confirm the certainty of this statement. In almost every book narrating the story of the emergence of modern Urdu criticism, names of Altaf Hussain Hali, Muhammad Hussain Azad and ShibliNomani get mentioned as protagonists. Though this troika was steeped in the traditional knowledge of Persian and Arabic, what subscribed to their rise to becoming leading figures of modern Urdu criticism was the introduction of European literary ideas in their Urdu books that deal with classical Persian and Urdu poetry, or judge contemporary Urdu poetry.
None of these knew English (Azad, it is claimed, had scant knowledge of English, limited only to writing brief and typically official application/letters). They derived European literary notions from Urdu translations done by unknown people. However, in the same period, there was a litterateur — badly ignored by early historians and still continues to be overlooked — who was well-versed not only in English but in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and also knew French, Latin and Hebrew. In contrast to his contemporaries, he learnt English not as a magnificence symbol [colonial] and an inevitable way to establish contact with English rulers, but as a key to unlock Western philosophy and literature. Inspite of having enviable command over English, he never wished and tried to get some lucrative job in the English government. His name was Syed Imdad Imam Asar.
Enviable command over classical languages of East and West, quite rare during his times, provided him with the opportunity to study great works of literature ever produced in these languages and eventually to form a cosmic view of literature which offered a contrast to the nationalistic view held by his contemporaries. Undoubtedly, he was a polymath in the true sense of the word. Born on August 7, 1849, in district Patna (Bihar), Syed Imdad Imam Asar belonged to a well-off family. Though he was a Tabeeb (doctor) by profession, he taught English, Urdu and history at Patna University for some period. He died on October 15, 1934. Asar was the father of Sir Ali Imam, a close friend of Allama Iqbal’s, who dedicated Asrar e Khudi to him and wrote a poem in admiration of his services for Indian Muslims.
In late 19th century, Aligarh and Lahore had emerged as centres of new literary movements. However, Asar lived his whole life in and around Patna — 1,000 km away from Delhi and 700 km from Aligarh — staying away from the literary metropolis. He had to pay the price as the centre tends to push away what lies on margin. Yet, he kept following the whole array of ideas being disseminated by the Aligarh and Lahore-based literary and educational movements. He used to call adherents of the Aligarh movement as NaiRoshniWalay (bearers of new light) in a satirical tone. Akbar of Allahabad and Asar of Patna took a clear and firm stand against the westernised project i.e. the Aligarh movement in the 19th century.
Asar was a poet, historian, philosopher, agricultural writer and critic. MiratulHukma (Mirror of Philosophers) is considered to be one of the best books on the philosophical contributions of East and West. KitabulAsmar (Book on Fruit trees) is, perhaps, the first book on Indian fruit trees in Urdu that stresses on adopting new techniques to grow them. He also wrote the first biography of Queen Victoria titled HadiaQaisria (Homage to Qaisara e Hind; Qaisra was a title given by Indians to the queen of England) in Urdu.
In poetry, he followed the path of classical Urdu poets. But the book that gives him a permanent place in the history of Urdu criticism is KashifulHaqaiq (Unveiling the Realities) with subtitle Baharistan e Sukhan (Spring of Poetry). It was first published in 1897 — four years after Hali’s Muqadiama e Sher o Shairi (Introduction to Poetry) — in two volumes. First volume is dedicated, on one side, to the theoretical discussions of poetry and other forms of art (painting, music, etc.), along with containing detailed descriptions of the great works of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. While the second volume deals with classical poets of Persian and Urdu. The only contemporary text that Asar deemed worth mentioning is Mussaddas e Hali.
Dr Sarwarul Huda, a Delhi-based well-known young Urdu critic, has written a comprehensive book on Asar titled Imdad Imam Asar: Adbiat, Tassavorataur NauAbadiat published by Ghalib Institute, Delhi. Earlier, he edited Asar’s Deevan of Urdu poetry with a detailed introduction that has been made part of the book under review. As the title of the books suggests, the author has sought to interpret the varied contributions of Asar in a colonial perspective. Late Wahab Ashrafi, a Patna-based Urdu critic, and some others also tried to highlight the significance of Asar’s KashifulHaqaiq. But Huda’s book is the first well-researched and scholarly one on Asar’s life and all his works.
Huda seems well aware of the harrowing task of writing on writers of the early colonial period — late 19th century. They were thrown by historical forces into finding ways from and within a new, challenging and queer situation which was marked by coloniality in the garb of modernity. Desire for modernity appeared to them as the only redemption from the agonies of post-1857 war of independence. It was, and still remains, a herculean task to expurgate the baggage of coloniality from (western) modernity for South Asian writers. So, they have to succumb to ‘double conscious’ or a sort of ambivalence while embracing modernity.
From Sir Syed, Hali, Azad, Nazeer and Shibli to Asar one can trace their ambivalent attitude towards European ideas, culture, education and values, disseminated during the colonial era. As Huda describes, Asar on one side passionately adores the English system of governance in India, pays zealously homage to Queen Victoria and describes vehemently that following European knowledge can prove fatal to Eastern values, particularly those embedded in religion. His unforgiving critique of NaiRoshniWalay — Aligarh movement, seems emanating from his fear that uncritical learning of European knowledge will alienate Indian Muslims from their religious history and tradition. However, it needs to be emphasised that Asar’s notion of tradition that works in the backdrop of literature, was not quintessentially a religious one.
He is the only Urdu critic of his age who lamented over the fact that Urdu poets have kept following Persian, a foreign language, while ignoring Sanskrit, an indigenous classical language. His advocacy for Sanskrit is not just based on the fact that it is an Indian classical language — and mother of Urdu and other IndoAryan languages of South Asia — but also on his critical belief that it has a very rich literary and philosophical tradition. Between the lines, he seems to be suggesting that an indigenous alternative exists for Urdu writers to cease dependence on Persian and English — both languages of foreign rulers. It was of course an anti-colonial stance. Dr Huda doesn’t forget to remind his readers of Asar’s emphasis on keeping in view the geographical conditions and overall Tamaddun (civilisation) of the country to disentangle the denotative and connotative meanings of its poetry.
And here we can distinguish Asar’s critical position from that of his contemporaries — Hali and Shibli particularly. Hali and Shibli’s critical position were prescriptive — moral, reformative and nationalistic, while Asar’s was descriptive yet normative. Notwithstanding that Urdu poetry and criticism pursued mostly prescriptive notions of Hali and Shibli by producing Qaumishairi, a few Urdu critics took ahead the descriptive idea of Asar too. Dr Huda is the first critic who has revealed how Asar’s descriptive idea got entrenched into Meeraji’s Mashriq o Maghrib kay Naghmay (Songs of East and West) and Wazir Agha’s Urdu ShairikaMizaj (Poetics of Urdu Poetry). Interestingly both Meeraji and Wazir Agha believed in the acme of traditions of Dharti, sarcastically repudiated by their contemporaries.