“...the words – the words live on for as long as there are readers to see them, audiences to hear them. It is immortality by proxy.”
J. Michael Straczynski
‘Allama’ Mohammad Iqbal, the ‘poet of the East’ wrote:
‘Woh shere keh paigham-e hayaat-e ab-di hai
Yaa naghma-e Jibreel hai, ya baang-e Sarafeel’
‘Art, the messenger of eternal life is
Either the song of Jibreel (Gabriel) or the clarion call of Israfeel (the herald of doomsday)’
By Art (in this case poetry), Iqbal was of course referring to a negation of the notion known as ‘Art for Art’s sake’. The nineteenth century saw the rise of Romanticism in art and literature which placed a lot of emphasis on the individual and tried to counteract the influence of Reason, preferring to rely on intuition and feeling. This movement had run its course by the end of the century but influenced other literary and artistic trends in the twentieth century such as Cubism, Surrealism, Absurdism etc. Artists such as James Joyce, Proust, Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence, and WB Yeats all espoused the view that art is for art’s sake and it is not incumbent upon the artist to take any social or other external viewpoints into account in the creative process.
In the Indian subcontinent, the 19th century saw the final end of the once mighty and unimaginably rich Mughal Empire. While the empire had been in decline for decades, the 1857 uprising and its subsequent defeat was the final nail in its coffin. Sibte Hasan, in his book, ‘The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan’ describes how life under the rule of absolute monarchs dating back to the time of Asoka and even before had led to a total stultification in the ideas and attitudes that people had towards society. In a feudal, monarchical society, social relations i.e. the place and relations of people to other people in society were rigid and unchangeable. The son of a nobleman was born a nobleman, the son of a carpenter a carpenter and this station in life could never change. In ancient Egypt, the penalty for changing one’s ancestral profession was death. The only way for people to comprehend this fact was the idea of pre-destination .i.e. everything that happened to them was the will of God and they themselves were helpless to change it. The priestly class, as always, was happy to support this status quo in exchange for their own privileges. This state of affairs naturally affected the prevailing literature, poetry and art. Sibte sahib notes that the secret of the popularity of Hafiz, Bedil, Mir, Mir Dard and Ghalib was not that they taught pre-destination but that they accurately reflected the already existing realities of their time, the beliefs that people knew to be true because of their day to day experiences.
By the early twentieth century, this was beginning to change. The First World War followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and upheavals all over Europe also found reflection in India. Socialist and Communist literature, most of it banned by the government, began to circulate. The works of such Great Russian writers as Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev and Gorki were translated into Urdu and became widely popular. Young Indian writers, inspired by the changes, began to experiment with new techniques and new styles of writing. Iqbal wrote admiringly of the striving for a ‘new dawn’ saying to workers:
‘Uth kay ab bazm-jahan kaa aur hee andaaz hai
Mashriq-o-Maghrib may tere daur kaa aaghaaz hai’
‘Rise, for a new age dawns
Your era begins in East and West’
By the end of the 1920s though, the revolutionary fervor was subsiding. The Russian Revolution remained isolated in Russia, revolutions failed in Germany, England and China and were suppressed savagely. In the aftermath of the ‘War to end all Wars’, Islam’s Ottoman Empire which had ruled over large parts of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa for more than 600 years was divided amongst the victors of the war and the caliphate itself abolished by Turkish Nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal 'Ata-Turk'. Beginning in 1929, the worldwide financial crisis led to social unrest all over the world and in 1933 to the rise of the Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in Germany.
This was the backdrop which gave birth to a new movement in literature and the Arts in the Indian subcontinent. Progressive literature arose in different shapes and forms in the Indian subcontinent in Urdu literature though it was already a manifest reality by the early 1920s. The initial supporters of the PWA from the fields of literature, drama, poetry, music and cinema wrote mostly in Urdu. The genesis of the movement was the publication of a collection of ten Urdu short stories ‘Angaray’ by four young writers, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Mahmooduzzafar and Rasheed Jahan in 1932. The movement’s guiding light was undoubtedly, Sajjad Zaheer. He described his inspiration to found the movement thus: “One day, Sahibzada Mahmuduzzafar gave me a thin booklet and asked me to go through it and advised caution since it was declared unlawful. It was ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (authored by Karl Marx in 1848) and I read it in a single sitting. I felt as if someone had given me the key to the treasure trove of mystery. That’s how my interest in Socialism and Marxism was initiated. Then I read Lenin’s works. Later I read books about Soviet society by revolutionary writers. About that time, the Indian Progressive Writer’s Association came into being”
‘Angaray’ was a ‘ferocious attack on society in modern literature’, ‘a declaration of war by the youth of the middle class on the prevailing social, political and religious institutions’. Ahmad Ali, one of the authors later wrote ‘we were filled with zeal to change the social order and right the wrongs done to man by man…’ The reaction of the religious and civil establishment was one of outrage with the Urdu press especially denouncing the book and its authors vociferously. Religious decrees or ‘fatwas’ were issued against them and funds were collected for the prosecution of the authors including calls for them to be hanged or stoned to death.
Sajjad Zaheer was promptly packed off to London by his concerned family where he continued to mingle with radical Indian students and intellectuals, including the soon to be famous Indian author Mulk Raj Anand. In November 1934, Zaheer wrote a final draft of the constitution for the Progressive Writer’s Association. It called for writers to break definitively with the romanticized and ‘moribund’ past of classical Indian literature and to engage with society and to rescue the arts from the ‘priestly, academic and decadent (i.e. English speaking) classes’.
We can find a glimpse of the ideology behind the PWA in the works of Indian authors written a few years before its inception. These were towering literary figures whose works had already achieved considerable renown including Prem Chand, considered the founder of ‘realist’ literature in Urdu and Hindi, Josh Malihabadi, India’s most renowned poet after Muhammad Iqbal and distinguished linguist Maulvi Abdul Haq.
The founders of the PWA considered all progressive trends in all Indian languages to be the source of their inspiration. In his book “Roshnaai” (which may be considered the ‘autobiography’ of the PWA), Sajjad Zaheer implies as much.
Once back in India Zaheer scored a major coup for the first conference in Lucknow in April 1936. He got Premchand, the doyen of Urdu and Hindi literature, to agree to give the opening address, which gave the association immediate massive credibility. The manifesto adopted at the first conference in 1936 gives a vivid picture of the movement’s aims:
‘Radical changes are taking place in Indian Society. The spirit of reaction, however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong it. Indian literature, since the breakdown of classical culture, has had the fatal tendency to escape from the actualities of life. It has tried to find a refuge from reality in baseless spiritualism and ideality…..It is the object of our Association to rescue literature and other arts from the conservative classes in whose hands they have been degenerating so long to bring arts in the closest touch with the people and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future we envisage.’
The first conference of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA) brought together writers who wanted to highlight the problems of the times through their writing while remaining true to their ideals of patriotism and nationalism. The movement spread rapidly encompassing the varied disciplines of literature, music, theater and cinema. For three decades, the PWA remained an influential social and literary movement, comparable in scope to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh reformist movement.
Two years later the second conference in Calcutta received an address from Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize winner for literature and the most prestigious Indian intellectual of the century. Then in 1938 Jawaharlal Nehru attended an Urdu conference of the association. Such endorsements demonstrate the impact that the initiative had over a wide range of literary and political opinion, and it attracted many writers and other intellectuals (3,900 by 1947).  These included some who would go on to achieve dizzying heights of popular and critical acclaim including Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Mirza Adeeb, Upendranath Ashk and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Alongside their desire to engage with the struggles of the dispossessed within their own society, many Progressive Writers’ Association members were conscious of the international context. Anti-fascism came to be as much a part of their political identity as anti-imperialism and social radicalism. Before 1939 all the evidence seemed to point to the USSR as being the only state fighting fascism, in contrast to the Western democracies’ reconciliation with fascist aggression in Abyssinia, Spain, China and Czechoslovakia.
Many members of the AIPWA were members or sympathizers of the Communist Party of India (CPI), although the charge that the PWA was simply a ‘front’ for the Communist Party has been disproven many times over. Nevertheless, this association was to have an important impact on the organization over the years. In 1939 with the outbreak of the hostilities between Nazi Germany and the Allied powers, the CPI initially refused to support the British government proclaiming World War II as an imperialist war and urging ordinary workers and supporters to refrain from supporting the British Indian government. Two years later, the CPI reversed course after the Nazi invasion of the USSR and urged its supporters, including members of the AIPWA to support the allies against Nazi aggression.
Since the raison d’être for the founding of the AIPWA was a unified, anti-imperialist struggle against the British, the independence of India into the separate dominions of India and Pakistan led to some loss of direction. A lot of progressive writers left for Pakistan and the rest in India never really got over the debacle of supporting the war. They were also saddled with some real charges of populism and propagandism.
The Indian PWA held its first post-partition conference in Lucknow. The big debate in India was language. The Hindi-Urdu debate that had been kept in abeyance by the Independence struggle and its associated Hindu-Muslim Communalism raised its ugly head. Thus essentially, questions that had been put on the back burner during the national struggle once again came on the forefront.
Today, the progressive, humanist ideas of its founders are alive and vibrant in the works of Faiz and his many contemporaries. Today, these same ideas serve as an inspiration to a new generation. All writers, poets and artists who cast a critical glance at society’s ills and long for a world free of oppression, injustice and poverty (and there is no shortage of such people), whatever their creative endeavors, can still be termed ‘progressive’.
 Reclaiming radicalism http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=624&issue=125
The author is a Psychiatrist practicing in Arkansas, USA.