A nation’s social and intellectual history can be reconstructed by the life and work of its men of letters. Ale Ahmad Suroor (1911-2002), a major literary voice in the Indian sub-continent, was witness to the most tumultuous and most exciting part of the nation-building project. His long innings as a poet, prose stylist, literary critic and teacher bear testimony to a time when learning was not gleaned from books alone but distilled, drop by drop, from the press of life and living. His centenary, on 10 October, was marked by the inauguration of an exhibition devoted to his life and career at the National Archives of India.
Over 20,000 books, 400 original letters including those from Allama Iqbal, Maulana Azad, Dr Zakir Husain, Munshi Premchand, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, M F Husain, among others, as well as original nuskhe of ancient manuscripts from his family home in Badayun, medals, awards, artefacts, documents and rare photographs donated by his family to the country’s premier holding of archival material. Rare volumes of Tahzibul Akhlaq by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, entire volumes of Funoon, Nuqoosh, Shabkhoon, bound editions of Maulana Azad’s Al-Hilal, correspondence related to the Anjuman-e-Tarraqui-e-Urdu (Hind) which he headed for many years, make this collection a literary historian’s delight. Inaugurated by the eminent Urdu critic, Prof Gopichand Narang, the opening of the public exhibition was followed by the First Suroor Lecture, also delivered by Prof Narang. A week earlier, the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) brought out an omnibus edition of Suroor sahab’s four volumes of poetry to mark the birth centenary celebrations
Born in the historic city of Budayun (for which it has been said that if you were to stand at any crossroad and toss a pebble, it is sure to strike a poet -- or two!), he had sipped the heady wine from a very early age. His pen-name, Suroor, was appropriate yet brim-full of delicious irony for a teetotaller. Characteristically, he once wrote:
In our time there was less wine but more ecstasy
In your time you have far more to drink, but still less rapture.
Poetry, Suroor sahab maintained, is not the language of 2+2=4; nor is it necessarily the opposite of prose, but something that runs parallel. In the Epilogue to his autobiography, Khwab Baqui Hain, he wrote:
‘Good poetry should illumine the mind; it should refresh the known and familiar and familiarize that which is fresh and invigorating. With its peculiar and unique use of language, its multi-layered allusions, its play on words, its capacity to contain a river in a goblet, poetry brings us closer to life, its many-splendored, magical, sweeping, often-contradictory selves. In doing so it makes us more sensitive, more sentient … Poetry does not bring about revolutions; it creates the right environment for upheavals in the mind. It is not a sword, but a lancet.’
Suroor sahab’s own poetry had none of the wild passion and rebellion that marked much of the poetry of Urdu progressive writers – with whom he was a fellow-traveller in the early, less trenchant days -- especially the poetry written in free-verse. Like beauty, he believed, poetry too had a thousand faces. In contrast to his vastly erudite and extremely scholarly critical writings, his ghazals and nazms have a sweet simplicity and a melodious, distinctly non-cerebral quality. Where his scholarly work is written from the head and appeals to reason and good sense and learning, his poetry is written from the heart. It is insightful, instinctive, and completely inornate. However, despite early critical and popular acclaim, he left behind only three collections (the fourth, entitled Lafz was published posthumously by his daughter, Mehjabeen Jalil, who is presently putting together a collection of his gharelu nazmein comprising saalgirah, mehndi, rukhsati, sehra, etc. for his children and grandchildren), as against a pile of prose writings. Why would a man so enthralled by the magic of words, so enraptured by the ‘rhythmical creation of beauty’ be so circumspect? In his own words:
Yes, I have kept lambent the flame of my longing
Knowing full well the hopelessness of desire
Suroor sahab’s poetry enriched his criticism and his criticism nourished his poetry. Both were rooted in his vast and varied reading of Indian and Western literatures. Single-handedly, Suroor sahab took the Urdu writer as also the Urdu critic out of his self-referential web and taught him to work not in isolation but in tandem with the great literatures of the world. Among his contemporaries he was the most balanced, moderate yet far-seeing. He wanted to go forward and experiment, taking along all that was the best and brightest from his own tradition, culture and values. A critic and writer, he believed, should never be put into neat pigeonholes such as progressive, Marxist, realist, surrealist or whatever happened to be the latest critical theory or fad. In Khwab Baqui Hain, he says:
‘The use of literary terms is inevitable in literary criticism. However, a critic’s language must, at all times, be accessible and unpretentious. Criticism takes the help of science but it is not a science; it is a branch of literature. It need not be the professional pursuit of university dons, nor an industry that caters to a limited group. Nor is its purpose solely to provide mental stimulation to a distinct circle of individuals. At its best, it ought to nurture the mind and inculcate a respect for human values.’
Tanquidii Ishare, his first collection of critical writing published in 1942, was followed in quick succession by Nai Aur Purane Chiragh (1946), Tanquid Kya Hai (1947), Adab aur Nazariya (1954), Jadidiyat aur Adab (1967), Nazar aur Nazariya (1973), and Masarrat se Basirat Tak (1974), thus earning him a formidable reputation as one of the most well-regarded voices to emerge from the Urdu-speaking world. Some of his other significant writings include: Iqbal aur Unka Falsafa, Iqbal: Nazar aur Shairi, Urdu aur Hindustani Tehzeeb, Urdu Mein Danishvari ki Riwayat, Iqbal, Faiz aur Hum, Iqbal ki Ma‘naviyat, Kuch Khutbe Kuch Maqale, Danishvar Iqbal, Fikr-e-Roshan, Pehchan aur Parakh, Urdu Tehrik, and Afkar ke Diye.
His most fruitful years were as Professor and Head of the Urdu Department at Aligarh. He loved to teach, to give freely of all that he himself knew and cherished. Apart from a brief stint as Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, he worked untiringly for the Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu, the Sahitya Akademi and the government-sponsored Board for the Promotion of Urdu. This was followed by a Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, and his last office as Director, Iqbal Institute at the University of Kashmir. His most valued contribution remains in the field of Iqbaliyat. At a time when Iqbal was reviled in India as the anti-national, pro-Pakistan poet, Suroor sahab brought the focus back on Iqbal the poet through several revisionist studies on him, the poet revered by many as a visionary touched by the celestial Muse.
Awards and encomiums followed in abundant measure: the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Akademi Award, Delhi Urdu Akademi Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, a gold medal by the President of Pakistan for services to Urdu literature, Ghalib Modi Award, topped by the Padam Bhushan and the Iqbal Samman. Never one to rest on his laurels, Suroor Sahab wrote and read and reflected. On his seventy-fifth birthday he wrote:
Sitare maand hote hain to suraj bi to ugte hain
Yeh saaye mera kya lenge, qaba hi to chura lenge
In the revised edition of his autobiography, he wrote,
‘I am a Musalman and, in the words of Maulana Azad, “caretaker of the thirteen hundred years of the wealth that is Islam.” My deciphering of Islam is the key to the interpretation of my spirit. I am also an Indian and this Indianness is as much a part of my being. Islam does not deter me from believing in my Indian identity. Again, to quote Maulana Azad, if anything “it shows the way”...’
In revisiting his legacy in this year that marks his centenary, we in India would do well to pay heed to his words.
(An Abridged version of this article appeared in The Friday Times, Lahore, 28 October, 2011.)