Facebook Twitter insta


Volume 7

Outside: Looking In - January 2011


Written by
Moazam Rauf

Moazam Rauf is based in Lahore. He studied computer science and management. Apart from writing, He is interested in philosophy (he didn't add 'studying' since he believes that philosophy is more of an activity), photography and computer networks.


Read more by this writer
Read more from this section

Drink a Few Verses Today: A Ghazal Now, A Nazam Later


Munir Niazi, one of Pakistan’s landmark poets, defined poetry as: “a cat that, on facing the wrath of the jungle, becomes a lion.”

Anyone who truly desires to understand the subtleties and complexities of Pakistani society must try to seek answers within the country’s rich vein of literature. Pakistani poetry is known not only for the sheer beauty of its lyricism but also for ardently addressing the political, economic and spiritual concerns of a dynamic society. As a matter of fact, poetry has played a vital role in nurturing the ideological conception of the nation.

Pakistan’s turbulent political history has been marred with arid periods of oppressive dictatorship (with and without mainstream democratic forces) and trends of internal colonialism. Urdu, spoken by only 7% of the population, enjoys the status of Pakistan’s national language. English, reminiscent of the country’s colonial past, is accepted as an important indicator of sophisticated, urbane upbringing and remains the official ‘working’ language of the country. Proficiency in these two languages ensures numerous social and economical advantages. Consequently, there is a sharp decline in the progress of regional languages.

Pakistan’s regional poets, along with their counterparts in mainstream languages, have always been at the forefront of an on-going war against social injustice and political oppression. If a poets’ account of Pakistan’s history were to be compiled, then, the true challenge would be to give all the (major) regional languages fair representation. This important task has been undertaken by renowned Urdu poet Iftikhar Arif, in collaboration with educationist and writer Waqas Khwaja, in an anthology titled Modern Poetry of Pakistan (Dalkey Archive Press; January 2011).

The collection includes a wide variety of contemporary poems from Urdu and regional languages, all translated into English for the benefit of a global audience. Selected works of the following regional language poets appear in this publication:

Sheikh Ayaz, Janbaz Jatoi, Tanveer Abbasi, Sehar Imdad and Pushpa Vallabh (Sindhi); Hasina Gul, Ghani Khan, Gul Khan Naseer, Amir Hamza Khan Shinwari and Samandar Khan Samandar (Pushto); Taos Binhali (Kashmiri); Ata Shad (Balochi), and Ustad Daman, Sharif Kunjahi, and Ahmed Rahi (Punjabi) and Janbaz Jatoi (Siraiki).

The anthology boasts a complete plethora of varying themes and styles; however, an observant reader would identify that all poems essentially spring from a unified and resonant stream of experience and tradition. Despite differences in cultural and ethnic practices, the poets seem united in their experience of the divine and mundane. Even greater similarities appear in terms of form and style: partly because all languages of Pakistan draw significant influence from Persian, Turkish and Arabic poetic traditions.

Most poems in the anthology are in nazam form, although ghazals (odes or sonnets) have their fair share of representation too. The nazam, written mostly in free-verse or blank-verse form, has a greater significance in modern Pakistani poetry primarily because it is more conducive to experimentation. In modern poetry, almost all the anti-imperialistic, non-capitalist, humanitarian, revolutionary and existentialist sentiments are expressed in this form. Such poetry takes a departure from the traditional, subjective themes concerning beauty and love and implies greater focus on objective philosophical musings, serving both satirical and didactic purposes. The nazam selection in the anthology reverberates with a singularity of experience that is representative of the general concerns and frustrations associated with Pakistan’s socio-religio-political dilemmas.

Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan always desired Pakistan to be a secular state. In spite of many political debacles, Pakistan remained a relatively secular country until General Zia ul-Haq seized power in 1977. Zia, in order to strengthen his illegitimate regime, joined hands with the religious right and created his own brand of an Islamized state.  It was an arduous and unnatural transition for the people of Pakistan, because their religious education had come from a completely different tradition: a tradition of mystics and poets.

Sufism permeates the collective conscience and religious experience of Pakistani society. Classical poetry written in almost all Pakistani languages finds its roots in Sufism. A mystical tradition of Islam that is widely accepted as the epitome of spirituality, Sufism treats God as a transcendent reality and treats the annihilation of self as an end for claiming divine love. However, a Sufi also considers it his utmost duty to act as an agent of social change. Sufi poetry does not merely celebrate the pleasure of union, but also addresses existentialist concerns like the human condition, suffering, and man’s place in the universe. A true Sufi, therefore, must not only seek personal salvation but rebel against social injustice, status-quo and religious bigotry.

Zia’s era marked the birth of militant Islam in the region. Religious intolerance and violence started to tarnish the essence of Pakistan’s social fabric. Pakistan’s ethnic minorities, intellectuals and poets sensed the imminent dangers posed to the society and formed a formidable opposition against Zia’s hegemonic, ‘Islamization’ policies.

Ustad Daman, a stalwart of Punjabi poetry, was widely recognized as the people’s poet. He bitterly opposed all forms of hegemony and dictatorship. Not surprisingly, his fiery poetry was considered ‘dangerous’ and thus Ustad Daman was jailed.

Following are the verses from one of his most popular poems:

My county has two Allahs,

La ila and Martial Law!

One lives high above the skies,

The other on terra firma lies;

One is simple called Allah,

The other is named General Zia,

Three cheers for General Zia!

Bravo! Bravo! General Zia!

Gul Khan Naseer, also recognized as a popular poet of Pakistan, spent almost fifteen years of his life in prison, paying for his rebellious views. The following verses represent his concerns and disposition quite well:

I keep a close eye on predators

I uproot injustice and cruelty

I am my motherland

Free from bondage

I am a rebel, I am a rebel

Workers must remain united

The wealth of life I am willing to sacrifice

I am rebel, I am a rebel.

Pushpa Wallabh, in the following verses, represents the true teachings of Sufism, which have a greater relevance to Pakistani society than the mainstream puritans’ Islam:

Beneath all colors, hearts are the same,

In everyone, the same emotion,

The same kind of thoughts.

Wound them, and the color of their blood is the same,

In grief, the color of their tears is the same.

In every heart,

the same Allah,

the same Ram,

the same Issa.

For many observers, Pakistani society stands at the verge of disintegration. The chasm between different social classes is rapidly increasing. The modern capitalist culture doesn’t allow a fair distribution of power, wealth and meaningful education. There is a widespread impression that the increase in poverty at a national level is leading to higher crime rate, suicides, and acts of terrorism. That is a dangerous, half-truth: the real problem lies at the heart of social justice (or lack thereof).

Pakistani poets have been raising these concerns for a considerably long time. Sharif Kunjahi puts it beautifully, in the following verses:

If I say that you and I are born of the same Adam,

why then should one suffer in labor and the rest in ease?

If I say that no one should be homeless in the world

or that no one forced to drudge and grind in the old age,

if I say that we should all share whatever coarse food and salt we have,

that we should be as arms to each other to ease our burdens,

if I say that we should put away all matters of conflict and quarrel,

resolve everything through discussion and not render ourselves mad and breathless.

then I am the wicked one, the liar, my words strange –

virtue retails at your store, truth likes by your side.

Pakistani poetry indeed has the quality of a lion; it has roared against the wrath of the jungle and found a way to vanguard the aspirations of its people. It will continue to lift the spirits of the downtrodden masses of Pakistan and entice them to rise against the forces that keep them shackled in misery. More importantly, Pakistani poetry will keep reflecting the true spirit and beauty of the country it emerges from, which is imbued in its great diversity. Pakistan’s Urdu poetry has always been admired for its rich emotional content and vivid imaginative quality. Now that the regional poetry of Pakistan has (partly) been granted its due exposure in this anthology, this country of many conflicts may well be recognized as the potential ‘El Dorado’ for its rich poetic experience.



 More in this Issue: « Previous Article       Next Article »

Desi Writers Lounge Back To Top