Reflections from the past

Reflections from the past

Pakistani poetry is part of the nation's foundations

By Natalia Ahmed

Published: Wed 14 Aug 2019, 4:44 PM

Last updated: Wed 14 Aug 2019, 7:05 PM

Pakistan has a rich, diverse tradition of poetry that traverses across languages. Pakistani poetry does include Urdu, English, Sindhi, Pashto, and Punjabi; each poet provides meaningful contribution into the way Pakistan is viewed and understood by the common individual.
Urdu poetry in particular can be seen as Pakistani, but originated in India, as a kin-language to Hindi, affected by Persian influences. Urdu as a language arose as a way for Muslims to create their own identity during the British Raj, where common fears were that they would be subsumed under the Hindu majority into one India.
The origin of classical Urdu poetry can be traced to Quli Qutub Shah, an early poet who wrote in the 16th century in a language that would later be known as Urdu. Though he comes from the Deccan in India, his unique writing encouraged the growth of poetry in a new language. In Urdu poetry, two broad genres were introduced; the nazm and the ghazal. Nazms are integrated, rhymed poems on a particular subject, and were popularised by Nazeer Akbarabadi in the 18th century.
Nazms can also be written in prose, and have been adapted to modern poetry. The ghazal is much older, and can be traced to Arabic poetry; they were introduced to South Asia thanks to Sufi mystics and poets during the Islamic reign. The ghazal has become popular due to its deep emotional ties, and can be understood as a form of expression of loss, of separation, and of the beauty that lies behind such pain. These forms of poetry can also be recited, and are written in a lyrical manner.
Classical poetry often described metaphysical themes like love, and was highly romanticized to discuss broad concepts that affected every individual. However, Nazeer Akbarabdi was one of the first Asian poets to introduce everyday subjects into poetry, using the medium to discuss social and political concerns, bringing poetry down into the realm of the ordinary. This was further picked up by Muhammad Iqbal (also known as Allama Iqbal), who was widely considered as the first visionary to conceive the idea of a separate Muslim State in India, planting the seeds for a separate nation.
Iqbal was able to incorporate a number of Western themes into his poetry, blending Eastern concepts like mysticism and using older traditions to challenge (then) current political norms. Iqbal's poetry is deeply philosophical, and he has been branded as a Muslim philosophical thinker. He is also known as the "Thinker of Pakistan", and was named by the Pakistani government as the "National poet of Pakistan", and his birthday has been declared to be a public holiday in Pakistan.
Iqbal used his poetry to inspire the everyday Muslim to achieve greatness and revive the ideal Muslim community; he combined metaphysical ideas of justice and greatness with everyday problems and concerns - no mean feat for the 18th century, when poetry was still considered to be a classical form of literature meant for abstractions, and not for the everyday man.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz, an Urdu poet who broke away from high notions of art and poetry in order to address local economic concerns, further brought poetry back to reality. Earlier Islamic poetry was used to address the greatness of God, of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and of Islam; Faiz uses his poetry to address local exploitation, colonialism, and other forms of imperial domination. Faiz further brought used his poetry to try and right wrongs and face against injustice.
The goal was to inspire the people to create an upheaval against those who oppressed and tortured the common man. These poets used their work to bring to light various oppressions and hardships faced by the people due to British colonialism, and can be considered to be forms of freedom fighters and rebels, ones who fought for truth and freedom. These handfuls of poets have helped create a foundation for Pakistani poetry to rise up, unique from other Asian poets.
Punjabi poetry in Pakistan, however, was not as popular, and was often seen as a course language. In an effort to promote Urdu as the national language to unite the (relatively) new nation, Punjabi was stamped out, ignored in schools and public spaces, and the language became untouchable.
Sharing a border with Punjab meant that the language would always be a part of Pakistan, but efforts were taken to have one language for the entire population, which was Urdu. However, people began to realise that marginalising a language would create an alternative identity, and by the 1970's and 1980's, Punjabi was slowly accepted into the fold. By the 1990's, the language was once again a part of the mainstream.
Today, Urdu and Punjabi poetry are both seen as equally Pakistani, with other languages also being accepted into the fold of 'Pakistani' poetry. Poetry continues to be widely read across Pakistan, where popular verses can be used either as political slogans by activists, as remnants of an earlier time, or even to describe emotions that one can't normally put into words.
Poetry readings, known as mushaira, frequently take place across the city, where poetry is not merely read out, but performed.  Poetry has become part of everyday life, and is treated as such. Though most people tend to view poetry as a form of high art, in Pakistan, poetry is accepted as part of common culture, and is accessible to all. It is imbibed into the very foundations of Pakistan, and poetry continues to be relevant, even significant, in contemporary society.
Historical poets

Habib Jalab (1928 - 1993):
Habib Jalab was a revolutionary poet and left-wing activist who opposed authoritarianism and state oppression. He was praised for being the poet of the masses, and using his poetry to rebel against martial law and stand up for the oppressed. Though he was against the theory of two nations, he migrated to Pakistan due to familial pressure. His language was easy to follow, but his words were powerful and filled with emotion, addressing sensitive issues with anger and conviction.
Josh Malihabadi (1898 - 1982):
Josh Malihabadi, born Shabbir Hasan Khan, was regarded as one of the finest Urdu poets in the era of British India, and was a master of the Urdu language. He too was a liberal poet who never compromised on his principles. He first worked at the Osmania University in Hyderabad, but was exiled for writing a nazm against the Nizam of Hyderabad. He then started a magazine that discussed the idea of freedom from British Rule, and was branded a revolutionary poet. Despite being an Indian citizen, he migrated to Pakistan in 1956 and became a Pakistani citizen, and continued to fight for his principles of liberty and dignity.
Parveen Shakir (1952 - 1994):
Parveen Shakir was an Urdu poet, teacher, and civil servant of the Pakistani government. Born November 24, 1952, she first started writing at a young age, and she used two forms of poetry - the ghazal, and freeverse. Most of her poetry revolved around themes like love, feminism, and social stigmas; she heavily depended on metaphors and similes in her work. One of the earliest female poets in Pakistani history, she often used feminine pronouns and emphasised the role of the woman, something rarely done in the male-dominated Urdu poetry scene.
Ahmad Faraz (1931 - 2008):
Ahmad Faraz was a lauded Pakistani poet who was highly popular among the public. He has won numerous national and international awards, and was considered to be a revolutionary poet; he has also been compared to Faiz Ahmad Faiz. He wrote politically heavy work, and was arrested for criticising military rulers in Pakistan. He then entered a self-imposed exile for six years, spending time in Canada and Europe before eventually returning home, where he was then appointed as Chairman of the Pakistan Academy of Letters.
Contemporary poets: 

Yasmeen Hameed: 
Yasmeen Hameed is a Pakistani Urdu poet, and currently works in the Social Sciences Department at Lahore University of Management Sciences. She has released five books of poetry, with her most recent book being published in 2007. Apart from this, she also works on translating contemporary Urdu poetry to English, making Pakistani poetry more accessible to all. Her poetry reflects the nuances of her observations of daily life; though she comments on the female perspective, she does not wear her femininity on her sleeve.
Khalid Irfan:
Khalid Irfan is an American-Pakistani poet who writes satirical, humorous poetry. His work is popular for being accessible to the urban public, and the language he uses is familiar to common people of Pakistan. He was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and worked towards a Master's degree in Urdu literature. He often discusses social and political issues of both Pakistan and the US, and currently works in the literary section of Urdu Times Weekly.
Bushra Farrukh:
Bushra Farrukh is a Pakistani Urdu poet, and is the artist of Khuber0-Pakhtunkhwa. She performs in four different languages (Urdu, English, Pashto, Hindko) for television and radio shows. She has published three of her collections, and has won several laurels and awards for her work, including the Hindko World Conference Award in 2005, and the Farogh Adabi Award in 2004, among others.

Akhtar Raza Saleemi:
Born as Muhammad Pervais Akhtar, he is a Pakistani poet who writes in Urdu, Hindko, and Potohari (regional dialects of northern Pakistan). He was born in a small village in Pakistan, and later migrated to Karachi. His use of ghazals in poetry is very popular, and he was awarded the 'Quaid-e-Azam' Literary gold medal in 2009 for his work. His poetry has also been critically studied in universities, and he currently works as an Editor in the Pakistan Academy of Letters. 

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