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Sketches in literature

Shamim Hanafi writes definitive profiles of writers, evaluating their contribution

Sketches in literature

Widely respected and well-known literary critic Shamim Hanafi completed his masters and then his doctorate from Allahabad University in Urdu. He taught for six years at the Aligarh Muslim University and then moved on to Jamia Millia Islamia till he retired in 2003. He is now a Professor Emeritus there.

A prolific writer he has written Khayal Ki Musaafat, Tarikh Tahzib Aur Takhliqi Tajarba, Jadeediyat Ki Falsafiyana Asaas, Ghalib ki Takhleeqi Hissiyat, Kahani Ke Panch Rang, Nai Sheri Riwayat, Iqbal Aur Asr-e-Hazir Ka Kharaba besides sketches, plays and newspaper columns.

When a sketch is written about a person who may be known to the writer, or about a person for whom the writer holds an intellectual affinity of sorts, the basis for evaluation or assessment, even a stray remark or opinion is sufficient to expose the writer. When a writer evaluates another person’s contributions, the writer is actually holding a mirror to himself and his own understanding.

There are certain values that Hanafi holds dear, certain ideals that are of ultimate concern to him. One of these is the understanding that literature or the arts is not based on any one, single ideology or a certain line of systematic thinking. That the creative effort is only to be an aside, an extension or an explanation of what one holds to be of importance. Therefore, arts and literature cannot be made-to-order.

Even an orthodox Marxist critic like Ehtisham Husain — whom Hanafi holds very highly — did not want to limit himself to the establishment of a canon that was just based on the ideology that he may otherwise hold dear like an article of faith. Hanafi admits that although Ehtisham Husain was not able to liberate himself from the paradigm, he made honest attempts at understanding others point of views. This effort may have been seen as heretical by his fellow compatriots. Similarly, Hanafi has much praise for Dr Mujeeb Ahmad whom he also knew personally due to Hanafi’s father being the shagird of Irfan Habib, a highly regarded humanistic historian and a sculptor. However, Hanafi does not hold Mujeeb’s contribution as a playwright with any degree of satisfaction because the plays were didactic in intent.

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Literature or the arts is not based on any one ideology or a certain line of systematic thinking. That the creative effort is only to be an aside, an extension or an explanation of what one holds to be of importance. Therefore, arts and literature cannot be made-to-order.

Mujeeb’s purpose may have been very sincere and honest, holding the view that literature or the performing arts should make better human beings out of us, but this makes him, at best, a reductionist in approach. If the plays had not been didactic and instructional, they could have been more exploratory in understanding the dynamics of human nature and hence could have been better pieces of art. Dr Mujeeb was a great historian and his work was able to lay out a synthesis that Indian society had evolved over a period of time. This pluralism that he promoted, upheld, and cherished saddened him in the end because the fruits of that pluralism were neither being tasted nor valued as they should have been.

Hanafi also had a critical view of Allama Iqbal and held him responsible for creating hype about the emotional loss of our values. As an informed critic of our artistic and intellectual heritage, Iqbal initially made a great contribution by critically and intellectually analysing the issue and problem of our civilisation and culture. By writing The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam he showed a way forward for others. He allowed them to look ahead by placing themselves on a critical understanding of their past. But it seems that later he abandoned that approach and pursuit to hide behind the emotionally charged rhetoric that held great deal of appeal for the masses but intellectually led to a blind alley.

Of course, Hanafi also values hugely the pursuit of intellect and art for its own sake, and not for the purpose of either public acclaim or reward. He seemed to be disgusted with those who in their honest pursuit somehow fall prey to an endorsement from influential circles and then compromise their positions and hence taint their intellectual integrity. Khawaja Ahmed Abbas and Devandarnath Sidharti were chosen as two examples that he personally knew and they both worked not for personal profit but for the discovery of what was right.

Literature or the arts is not based on any one ideology or a certain line of systematic thinking. That the creative effort is only to be an aside, an extension or an explanation of what one holds to be of importance. Therefore, arts and literature cannot be made-to-order.

Hanafi visited Abbas when he was launching his film Naxalite. Despite a small audience and no pubic acclaim, he insisted on screening the film for it was about truth and discriminations that violated human values and civilised norms. Hanafi compared and contrasted Abbas to the Abbas of decades ago when his following was bigger. But Abbas never worked towards that end and barely survived despite being acknowledged internationally.

Hanafi has also written about Pakistani writers and poets including Intizar Husain, Ahmad Faraz, Zahid Dar, Ahmed Mushtaq and Zafar Iqbal.

Intizar Husain’s intuitive interaction with time has been an enigma. Many critics have been intrigued by Intizar Husain’s treatment of the past and have labelled him as being in love with it and accused him of being backward looking. But Hanafi is not facile with his pinning down of the past and its relationship with the present and its projections into the making of the future. For him, the division of time is a construct and there may be a more truthful understanding of time if it is taken as an indivisible flow. Time may be what informs us and helps us make our values. It is the intensity of experience which matters to Intizar Husain as it should be to every creative person, rather than to treat time as something that exists independent of human experience.

Ahmed Mushtaq is described with Nasir Kazmi as the exponent of the new ghazal and Hanafi evaluates Zafar Iqbal’s ghazal as the most distinguished since Iqbal because it gave new meaning to known words and expressions.

Hanafi is intrigued by the dominance of the Post-Modernist understanding of the arts, he does not endorse it fully nor reject it outright. He wants to place this understanding in the context of its dynamics of development across the world and has openness about it — such traits are rare to find among his tribe.

Hum Nafason Ki Bazm Main
Author: Shamim Hanafi
Publisher: Alqa Publishers (Pakistani edition)
Year: 2017
Pages: 270
Price: Rs695

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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