I Too Have Some Dreams: N.M. Rashed and Modernism in Urdu Poetry

I Too Have Some Dreams: N.M. Rashed and Modernism in Urdu Poetry

by A. Sean Pue


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I Too Have Some Dreams explores the work of N. M. Rashed, Urdu's renowned modernist poet, whose career spans the last years of British
India and the early decades of postcolonial South Asia. A. Sean Pue argues that Rashed’s poetry carved out a distinct role for literature in the maintenance of doubt, providing a platform for challenging the certainty of collective ideologies and opposing the evolving forms of empire and domination. This finely crafted study offers a timely contribution to global modernist studies and to modern South Asian literary history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283107
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/08/2014
Series: South Asia Across the Disciplines Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

A. Sean Pue is Associate Professor of Hindi Language and South Asian Literature and Culture at Michigan State University.

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I Too Have Some Dreams

N. M. Rashed and Modernism in Urdu Poetry

By A. Sean Pue


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95893-7



IN 1941, N. M. Rashed published Mavara (The Beyond), a work celebrated as the first volume of free verse, or azad nazm, in Urdu. The poetry, which vividly describes the subjective experiences of a narrator whose life resembled that of both the author and his readers, solidified Rashed's reputation. The formal experimentation that was the hallmark of this volume remained important throughout the poet's body of work. His association with free verse also led him to be classified as a modernist poet by Urdu critics, and the reception of his poetry remains tied to the category of modernism itself.

For Rashed, to be a modern (jadid) poet was to respond to contemporary experience and to explore changing ideas of the self. The poet understood his social reality, and particularly the political domination of colonialism, through its psychological effects. Rashed adopted a loosely Freudian view of the self that led him to focus directly on sexuality. The need to engage with sexuality, he argued, necessitated a decisive break with traditional poetic forms, which could not accommodate lust. It required the poetry to focus on embodiment rather than transcendence, on material life rather than a spiritual "Beyond." The title of his volume is clearly ironic.

In this chapter I examine what led Rashed to articulate this relationship between experience, psychology, poetic content, and form. I argue that the significance of Rashed's break with form is dependent on both the history of the association of language with political community and the emergence across North Indian languages of romantic forms of poetry that privileged a new kind of lyrical subjectivity. By the late 1930s, when Rashed began to compose the poems included in Mavara, Urdu and Hindi had become mapped upon Muslim and Hindu religious communities. Advocates for Hindi, in particular, had extended their claim to representation to aspire to the status of a national language. Literary reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had associated literature with the moral fitness of these linguistic communities. And while each of these language movements advocated linguistic purification, there were obvious commonalities across languages. As I will describe in this chapter, the literary histories of Hindi and Urdu were both heavily influenced by that of Bengali.

Because of the linguistic diversity of South Asia and the tendency of both language movements and academics/critics to view literatures in isolation from one another, it has been difficult to account for the emergence of these movements across languages. The tendency to focus on individual literatures has been particularly pronounced in scholarship on modernism. In the case of Urdu, this has led authors to ignore the significance of romanticism in the development of modernism, and to focus more squarely on the continuing importance of literary and social reform. This ignores the influence of Bengali, in which romanticism allowed for the articulation of a new form of poetic subjectivity, and Hindi, in which lyrical subjectivity was tied to formal innovation.

This is unfortunate, for as I argue in this chapter, romanticism was the immediate touchstone for the formal experimentation that led to azad nazm. Romantic poetry in Urdu, with its articulation of a new form of subjectivity, was as important a target of critique for Rashed's poetry as the moral reform movements and community-based address popularized by earlier literary reformers. This chapter therefore begins with a discussion of the politics of literature and language as well as an overview of the key role of romanticism in the emergence of modernism in Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali literatures.

By emphasizing romanticism and the emergence of a new poetic subjectivity, I argue that Rashed's modernist Urdu poetry was less of a reaction to "progressivism," or taraqqi pasand adab, than it later appeared to be. Between the time the poems were written and when they were published, modernism and progressivism gradually came to be opposed categories of literary analysis. Because the reception of Rashed's poetry—and with it, modernism in general—has been so closely tied to this distinction, this chapter concludes with an account of slightly later "progressive" condemnations of Rashed's poetry. The focus of those critics is the poetry's imagination of psychology, which was dismissed as inimical to the realism prized by progressive literature. However wooden and wrongheaded these critical texts, this reception of his poetry is significant because it led Rashed to articulate a critique of progressivism, or more accurately "socialist" (ishtiraki) writing, in his later poems and criticism.


Colonial modernity fundamentally altered South Asian literary traditions as vernacular languages were codified and literary histories became attached to linguistic communities. While some languages and literary forms were abandoned, others were invented. Some writers explicitly rejected past forms, while others forged new relationships with reconceived literary traditions. Although scholars typically trace these processes as they affect single languages, it is clear that shared movements can be seen at least across North Indian languages, if not across the entire subcontinent. The contours of these changes are fairly uniform: in the late nineteenth century, movements for morally uplifting and realistic literature emerged in Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali, which led in the first decades of the twentieth century to the emergence of counter-movements described as romanticism. In the 1930s, a deliberately crosslinguistic movement for anticolonial and sometimes socialist-realism inspired progressivism gained strength and emerged at the same time as modernism or experimentalism in Hindi and Urdu. The move for experimentalism in poetry in Bengali, however, began earlier in the 1920s in a reaction to the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). Literary histories of Urdu have overemphasized the distinction between modernism and progressivism and obscured the importance of romanticism as the ground for the emergence of modernism. A comparison between romanticism and modernism across these three languages is therefore particularly revealing of the certain lockstep in which these literatures developed that would otherwise be obscured in a single-language approach.

Among these literatures, the literary history of formal experimentation in Urdu has depended on a distinction between "progressivism" and "modernism" that obscures what these movements have in common. That is less the case in Hindi and Bengali, where the emphasis placed on the lyric poetry associated with Rabindranath Tagore has allowed for the articulation of what constitutes modern poetry. What emerged in the early twentieth century across these languages was a new idea of poetic subjectivity, one that would necessitate the development of new poetic forms. While this entire discourse is modern, in the sense of being a product of colonial modernity, the link between an emergent literary subjectivity and formal experimentation came to be defined as modernism in all three of these South Asian languages.

The history of literary innovation in the vernacular languages of South Asia must be understood as emerging from a colonial discourse of literary reform. An important aspect of British colonial hegemony was the idea that earlier South Asian literatures, understood as shaped by feudal forms of patronage, were fundamentally escapist and morally reprehensible. This escapist character was tied to descriptions of writing filled with embellishment and lacking realistic description. Colonial state patronage sought to distinguish itself from this past by encouraging movements in literature that emphasized the moral benefits of realism and the movement of language toward common speech. The Victorian novel became an important model for Indian vernacular writers, and with literature considered a means for social improvement, the writer was burdened with the project of social uplift.

As Vasudha Dalmia, Aamir Mufti, and Farina Mir have all discussed, movements for literary reform were grounded in new ideas about vernacular languages. As these scholars have argued, modern languages were established to serve social communities bounded by religion and place, and became crucial to the conduct of politics in the late colonial period. The nineteenth-century debate over Hindi and Urdu involved their codification as separate languages and their attachment to Hindu and Muslim religious communities, respectively. It was a result of the languages' emergence as a single lingua franca of the subcontinent, for "only on this geographic and linguistic terrain could the question of national language have arisen." Farina Mir's work on Punjabi shows how unique the national ambitions of Hindi and Urdu's reformers were. Although the colonial state designated Urdu as a vernacular literature in the Punjab, Mir tracks the emergence of a Punjabi literary formation spanning domains of class, caste, religion, and, after 1947, two postcolonial nations.

Mir has marked the beginning of these historical processes with the replacement of Persian with Urdu (referred to in this period by the British as Hindustani) as the language of the lower courts. Dalmia, by contrast, looks to the period of the 1860s, when Hindi nationalists moved to establish a separate Hindi language, built upon the common vernacular of Hindustani but written in the left-to-right devanagari script. Hindi, distinguished from Urdu, was promoted as a national language, depending on the association of language, religion, and territory, or, in a common slogan, "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan." As Dalmia argues, the proponents of linguistic modernization fully disavowed the composite character of literary production in order to attach the modern literature of Hindi to the "pre-Muslim" literary archive of Braj Bhasha, a "medieval" language associated with Vaishnavism, and of Avadhi, an "Eastern" form of Hindi best known for the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas.

The movement for poetry in modern Hindi is tied to the work of the Benares-based Hindi nationalist, Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850–1885). Hindi poetry only really emerged in the early twentieth century, however, after Braj Bhasha was displaced by colonial objection to its religiosity, sensuality, and courtliness. Allison Busch's account of riti literature includes an analysis of this decline. She notes how Braj conformed to an image of precolonial decadence more closely associated with Urdu and its legacy of Persian motifs. Busch indicates how strong parallels can be drawn between Mahavira Prasad Dwivedi's promotion of Hindi literature and the work of the Urdu writers Muhammad Husain Azad (1830–1910) and Khvajah Altaf Husain Hali (1837–1914). Frances Pritchett has established how these figures recast the Urdu canon in relation to a critique of Persianate forms and language and gave strong recommendations for the reform of Urdu writing.

As Pritchett details, Azad called for a new poetry in Urdu based on English models, criticizing both the mazmun (themes or symbols) of Urdu poetry as too limiting and the language of poetry as ridiculously magniloquent. Azad's "natural poetry" movement depended on the new conception of the relationship between language and community associated with figures like Harishchandra. For Azad, Urdu literature was tied to the particular conditions of a qaum (community/nation) and its rise and fall. In his account, the state of Urdu literature was as debased as that of the Indo-Muslim community, for it continued to serve the tastes of the now-disenfranchised nobility. Azad followed the contours of the colonial critique of Mughal rule in order to recommend changes to language and literature that also required changes in the structure of Indo-Muslim society. For Azad, Urdu literature was a primary site for moral self-improvement, and the goal of self-improvement was greater success in public life.

Hali focused more squarely on remaking the canon of Urdu poetry, targeting in particular the form of the ghazal. Hali shared Azad's objections to the falseness of figurative language, but he also objected to the depiction of love in the ghazal, finding it immoral, damaging to the community, and in need of reform. Hali objected to the ghazal's overt eroticism as a paradoxical sign of a lack of virility. He argued that sexual desire—the "hidden secret"—must be restricted from literary expression in the ser vice of the collective good of the community. But even as he condemned the content of the ghazal, Hali recommended the continued use of its form because of its popularity and ease of transmission. Formal experimentation, he asserted, would estrange readers and interfere with natural poetry's moral project. Hali's influence may be one reason for the relatively late emergence of formal experimentation in Urdu poetry. Though Hali and Azad both condemned "Persian" influences on Urdu, there were still fewer moves in Urdu toward linguistic purification than in Hindi.

Formal experimentation in Hindi poetry came earlier, in the early 1920s movement called the Chhayavad yug, or era of romanticism (literally "shadowy age"). Formally experimental poets like Nirala, Mahadevi Varma, and Pant all countered the poetry supported by social reformist Dwivedi. Karine Schomer argues that, unlike the overt social messages advocated by Dwivedi, "Chhayavad quietly reflected on the cultural heritage of the nation and strove to make it meaningful." Lucy Rosenstein describes the poetry as preoccupied with "a cosmic realm, an idealized world of intense beauty, mystical love and profound harmony." She also has argued that this poetry translates the "desire for political independence" into "a quest for individual freedom," in which "tradition was reclaimed not as a public patriotic statement, but in a personally meaningful way." These accounts prize the emergence of lyric poetry that projects a literary subjectivity as a marker of the poetry's modern character.

It is possible to trace the emergence of this lyrical subjectivity in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that while Rabindranath Tagore's prose fiction became a site for a critical eye, for reform and improvement, Tagore's Bengali poetry depicted a world outside historical time. It provided a space of unreality, which allowed the poet to explore the beautiful and the sublime. This space of love allowed for what Tagore called "piercing the veil" of the objectively real. Chakrabarty explains that, for Tagore, "the poetic then was that which, in the middle of the everyday, helped to transport one to the level of the transcendental" while "the prosaic, in contrast, pertained to the realm of needs and utilities." The poetic self for Chakrabarty represents an indigenous subjectivity that "helped transcend the mere thingness of things by letting us see beyond the real or bastab," and that contrasted with the subjectivity of prose, which is public and focused on the objectively real, as in Tagore's novels. Tagore's advocacy of this poetic subjectivity was fiercely debated by Dwivedi-era Hindi critics, who saw Tagore's influence in the poetry of the Chhayavad, which they condemned.

Romanticism emerged in Urdu in the work of Akhtar Shairani in the early 1930s, even while he was seemingly writing in isolation from these movements in Hindi and Bengali. Shairani's poetry was Rashed's immediate object of critique in Mavara, though he also tied his poetry to the larger genealogy of literary reform in Urdu described above. Rashed's poetry shared the preoccupations with literary subjectivity of his immediate contemporaries, including Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose poetry is one focus of Aamir Mufti's work. But while Faiz continued to accept Hali's advocacy of the popular form of the ghazal, Rashed insisted that an aesthetic intervention in Urdu poetry must involve both form and content. In his critical writings and introductions, Rashed stresses that the new sort of lyrical subject he is describing, who has a very obvious heterosexually oriented libido, can only be made manifest in a new form of poetry. It is to this material then that I now turn.


In the introduction to Mavara, Rashed describes azad nazm as an attempt to find from within the qualities of the Urdu language a new form of poetic expression capable of engaging with the new demands of the modern condition. The traditional forms of Urdu poetry, such as the ghazal, appear to him as too limiting. Moreover, the lyrical poetry written in the style of Tagore, such as the git (song), also appeared insufficient in the modern era. The centrality of Rashed's volume in the Urdu literary canon can perhaps be accounted for by the fact that his formal experimentation is so obviously recognizable as Urdu rather than as Bengali, English, or Hindi. Yet Rashed describes his central concern as finding a poetic form allowing for the conveyance of feeling, which includes sexuality, not just the chaste emotions of the social reformers or the romantic experiences of "piercing the veil of the real" as in Tagore.


Excerpted from I Too Have Some Dreams by A. Sean Pue. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Note on Transliteration


1. Embodiment

2. Position Without Identity

3. Allegory and Collectivity

4. Temporality

Conclusion: Hasan the Potter

Appendix: Poems in Transliteration and Translation




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