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The true role of art and literature

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By Justice Markandey Katju

In poor countries such as India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism. The people are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about their problems, it will be popular.

India faces gigantic problems today. In some states, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots.

 

What has all this to do with art and literature?

There are broadly two schools in art and literature. The first is ‘art for art’s sake’. The second is ‘art for social purpose’.

In the firstschool, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people and artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; JigarMoradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.

The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to suffering. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and KaziNazrul Islam in Bengali, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.

Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow? Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.

Similarly, Kalidas’sMeghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. Depictions of the countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.

On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time.

Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist?The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose’.We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.

Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.

For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called ‘Khayal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being MiankaMalhar; I am more fond of MeghMalhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raagslike Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods.

There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khayal. However, there is no style or raagin North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.

Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.

Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant PlatonKaratayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.

Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.

The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticised everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions.

Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavours to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterised by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.

In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and MirzaGhalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.

Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.

Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise are examples.

‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire.

Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), is expressed in an indirect way. ‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb: much of Bhakti poetry in Hindi is in this genre.

Now, back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is not very relevant here.

In a poor country like India, it is the second path (‘art for social purpose’) alone can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.

However, today there is hardly any good art and literature. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? There seems to be an artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.

Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.

When Gorky stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed. He was so loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can a Hindi writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one will want to read them.

Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s problems, it will be popular. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.

The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in the endeavour. In poor countries like India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism.

Writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages should use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Some Hindi books are difficult to understand: they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. If what is being said or written is not comprehensible, what is the use of such literature? Great literature is in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.


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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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