The Hamlets Hum in Punjabi

Feb 2016

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1 Woman's day

A performance of Chog Kusumbay Di at the Awami Workers Party (AWP) Women’s Day function in Lahore. | Photographer: Hashim bin Rashid.

“… A majority of our progressively inclined intelligentsia, in spite of its revolutionary sentiment was too deeply entrenched in the cultural mores of its own class to understand the inner requirements of a revolutionary movement. For them revolution consisted only in the propagation of a certain textbook formula of public ownership of means of production. They could not or did not wish to understand that the collective ownership and management of the means of production by the people implied a profound cultural reorientation and language was a central factor in such a reorientation.”1

The excerpt above is taken from “Hamlets Will Hum Again,” a paper published anonymously in 1970 in English as a collective document representing the ideas circulating in the Punjabi literary circle at this point. Academic studies of the Punjabi language movement in Pakistan have mostly accounted for it in terms of identity politics and ethno-nationalism, a paradigm which ignores the radical Marxist stream within this milieu. Alyssa Ayers for instance, has written about the Punjabi movement as a quest of “symbolic capital” by the provincial elite, furthered by the cultivation of a well-respected and sophisticated literary sphere2). Similarly, Chris Shackle has linked3 its emergence to the “shadowy political movements of the period” for regional autonomy. Ayers has been readily cited in recent newspaper articles on Punjabi, including one quite widely shared written by Nadeem Farooq Paracha.4 These popular articles continue to identify the Punjabi writing movement as one that seeks ethnic assertion and regional influence within a dominant province under the wider umbrella term ‘Punjabiyat’.

However, recent work by Kalra and Butt has highlighted the complete absence of an account of the role of the Left in mobilising around the language issue.5) For them, redressing this requires highlighting the connections between party activists and Punjabi literary figures, and re-reading existing material on the movement during the 1960s and ‘70s with an emphasis on “a literary method rooted in Marxist methodologies that [these] language activists deployed.”As close associates of the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) in Punjab, these writers, intellectuals, poets and theatre activists saw their work as an alternative model of cultural politics within the Left, critiquing progressive writing in Urdu for failing to recognise the centrality of linguistic form to radical art and literature.

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Ishaque Muhammad, the head of the MKP himself wrote two plays in Punjabi, Quqnus and Mussali. ((Muhammad, Ishaque, Ishaque Muhammad De Dramay (Lahore: Saanjh Publications, 2008).)) Quqnus was based on the historical figure of Dullah Bhatti, who is said to have been hanged in Lahore in 1599 by Akbar for rebelling against the Mughal state. The play makes heavy use of folk songs and popular Punjabi poetry by the likes of Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain and Waris Shah, grounding an invitation to revolutionary struggle in the historical, cultural and linguistic context of the Punjab. This “instrumental” use of Punjabi as a “mobilisational tool” was an important aspect of the MKP’s line, which sought that its “philosophy, strategy and tactics may be communicated to people… in a simplified and easy to understand manner.”6 This communicative and mobilisational approach of the party coupled with its emphasis on the countryside where Urdu was almost non-existent necessitated a new perspective on regional languages. Ishaque Muhammad wrote in the preface to his play: “As part of living in a village and interacting with musallis… Firstly, I thought that they were always speaking in a free poetic form, but when needed they could play with words to maintain the flow. Waves of words flowed whatever the topic, ranging from the plough to love affairs. Secondly, the range of this language surprised me, these people who had been kept away from pathshalas, madrassas and schools, and for whom words were kept out of reach. They had a full command of their own language. Sitting in their school I became convinced about the importance of Punjabi.”7 

The MKP’s linguistic and cultural politics and the literary activities of the Punjabi intelligentsia were mutually constitutive. Active since the 50s, the largely progressive and Left-leaning Punjabi literati, mostly members of the Punjabi Writers’ Guild received fresh invigoration and impetus by the strengthening of workers’ and peasants’ movements in the province. Leading individuals in the movement developed sophisticated analyses of language’s intimate relationship with class.

The primacy of language for these intellectuals flowed from an understanding which saw it as a receptacle of collective consciousness:

“The Punjabi language was not merely a medium of popular communication, it was a vast and rich repository of the memory of the people’s existence through centuries. It represented their consciousness, their knowledge, their intuitions, their love, hatred, anger, compassion and will to struggle against falsehood and oppression… it had been the means of essential relatedness with our surroundings, with our past and ourselves.”8

It was thus much more than simply a medium of communication or a form which could be harnessed uncritically by the Left merely by adding “progressive” content. Shafqat Tanveer Mirza, another leading exponent of the Punjabi movement in this period critiques the progressive writers on precisely this count:

“…the more prominent [among the progressive writers] did pay lip service to the importance of Punjabi, but never wrote anything in it… You need to de-class yourself to be part of a politics which seeks to create a classless society… This applies to language and literature as well. If you want to talk about literature for the people and language for the people, then you need to de-class yourself on a linguistic basis as well.” (my translation)9 

A linguistic revolution was thus integral to a cultural revolution, which was central to the revolutionary struggle as a whole:

“The cultural reorientation cannot be brought about by some smoothly conceived post-revolutionary legislation. It is a product of revolutionary struggle. And it is a product which is used by the revolutionary struggle for augmenting itself. A profound cultural reorientation is thus both the end and the means of a revolutionary struggle.”10

Maqsood Saqib. Editor for Pancham magazine. | Photographer: Akram Varraich.

Maqsood Saqib. Editor for Pancham magazine. | Photographer: Akram Varraich.

This point is crucial to the Marxist approach to language politics within the Punjabi movement, developed most consistently in the writings of Maqsood Saqib ((Hear Maqsood Saqib read up his short story, Sucha Tila, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-XHaBJOYSY)) . Linguistic oppression is inseparable from economic and social oppression, thus, a true workers’ revolution is constantly engaged in transforming, inverting and creating alternatives to existent society, economy and language. Language as an object, as “Punjabi” can only lead to the “peddled lie” and “mockery” that is “Punjabiyat” or ethnic nationalism.11 As editor of the MKP’s Punjabi publication, Ruth Lekha, a magazine started during the 1970s, as well as later publications such as Maa Boli and Pancham, Saqib prefers to use the term “lok boli” (people’s language) to disassociate language from ethnic identity, clarifying that “by Punjab we do not mean any Turkish, Mughal, British or national geographical space, instead we are referring to the rich and intensely varied collectivity shared by the people.”12 This collectivity is seen as the locus of cultural politics by the Punjabi movement, renewed constantly through revolutionary practice. Language and culture are thus de-objectified in Saqib’s theorisation, placed instead in a state of ‘becoming,’ creatively shaped by being part of the revolutionary process itself.

According to the article, “the creative writer of today in order to fulfill his [or her] responsibility… has to continue to learn his [or her] language from the working people and to give it back to them after selecting, synthesising and consolidating [it].” ((“Hamlets Will Hum Again,” 7.)) From this perspective, “rescuing literature from the conservative classes,”  one of the avowed claims of the All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association (APWA) in its constitution, cannot happen simply by blending Marxism with the traditional styles of Urdu poetry.13 For this reason, the essay articulates a stinging indictment of progressive writing in Urdu: “writing in Urdu in the Punjab is inherently a conscious or unconscious romantic indulgence in self-effacement and acquisition of a pseudo personality.”14 

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The All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA) was founded in 1936 as a front for the Communist movement in the subcontinent by a group of Marxist intellectuals foremost amongst whom was Sajjad Zaheer. However, despite the encouragement of vernacular writing and publishing at the level of resolutions passed by the organisation, Urdu remained firmly entrenched as the language in which the AIPWA operated. Kamran Asdar Ali, for instance, has written about how despite stated support for indigenous and vernacular cultures, and a denigration of “culture from above,” the cultural discourse within the Left broadly took an elitist approach towards the masses, looking to “tame and harness particularistic identities of various ethnic and linguistic groups.”15 Despite their avowed intellectual and literary rebellion against the suppression of radical thought by the elite, this revolutionary rethinking of South Asian culture did not involve any perspective on language and questioning the use of Urdu as a language of communication between communists. And this legacy was inherited by the APWA as well.

A majority of APWA’s members were drawn from the middle and upper classes, and thus were comfortable with speaking, writing and reading in Urdu. However, it was hardly spoken and understood among the working classes and peasantry, its artistic and poetic traditions alien to their cultural landscape. In spite of that, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the most visible and iconic figure during this period, emphasised that such distances between the writers and the workers could be circumvented through the power of artistic imagination, literary expression and a writer’s natural sensitivity. For him, the APWA’s emphasis on Urdu and modern literary forms could play an important role in radicalising the urban, educated sections of Pakistani society: “If the message of the progressive writers does not reach the uneducated workers at least it reaches the middle classes… Are not we a part of society?”16 However, as Kamran Asdar Ali has pointed out, this perspective shows how a specific North Indian ashraf elite shared a consensus over the centrality of Urdu and its associated cultural norms, despite being on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.17

For the Marxist intellectuals in discussion in this piece, an overhauling of the conservative content of literary traditions is futile without changing the language, the cultural forms themselves. “Hamlets Will Hum Again” calls for extensive research on the language, music, literature, folklore and culture of Punjab, which flourished precisely due to their autonomy from the colonial state. Their location outside the domains of power constituted the essential grounds for their relevance to radical cultural politics in the contemporary period.

Najam Hosain Syed. Playwright and poet. | Photographer: Akram Varraich.

Najm Hosain Syed. Playwright and poet. | Photographer: Akram Varraich.

One of the central figures produced by this synthesis of the Punjabi literary and the Marxist political tradition in Pakistan was Najm Hosain Syed. A prolific playwright and poet, he has also written various books of literary criticism which analyse the classic Punjab qissas from a historical materialist perspective. Syed has also remained a close associate of Ishaque Muhammad. Many of his poems written during the 1960s and 1970s were sung and recited at rallies and functions organised by the party, mostly in rural Punjab. His plays were first staged by Lok Rehas in the 1980s, and continue to be performed today by a group of activist musicians, singers and actors, directed primarily by Huma Safdar. The Sangat theatre, as it is informally referred to, takes its name from the weekly reading circle that takes place on Jail Road in Lahore since the 1960s, a space were classical Punjabi poetry and literature is read and discussed collectively. 

Most popular among Syed’s plays is Takht Lahore, which is built around the character of Dullah Bhatti, who was allegedly hanged in Lahore by Emperor Akbar for rebellion against the Mughal throne. In Takht Lahore, functionaries of the Mughal empire, factory owners, merchants and spiritual leaders join forces to oppose “Dullah,” himself absent in the play but represented through a servant, Ramja, of “unknown parentage, unknown tribe,”18 a group of low caste workers on strike, and Madho Lal Hussain, the most popular 16th century Punjabi poet who also belonged to the low weaver (jolaha) caste. Thus, the main opposition is between the state, capital and religion nexus and subaltern rebellion, as evidenced by the accusation against Dullah in the trial scene:

“Your honour, Dullah’s rebellion is no ordinary rebellion. When a rich governor revolts against the Mughal king to spread his own power, it is a household matter for us. It is a babe to mother kingship… Dullah’s revolt is different. He doesn’t desire kingship, he desires to shake the very foundations of kingship. He doesn’t want the throne, he wants to invert the throne, once and for all. He wants to deliver the reins of rule into the hands of the people. Into the hands of the workers, the peasants, the servants… He has snatched the rights of ownership from the masters. He has told people that the land belongs to them all… Your honour, the foundation of kingship stands on the promise that every individual, according to his mental and physical strengths, has the right to own exclusively, a piece of land on God’s earth… Dullah is bent on erasing all divisions upheld by Nature…”19

Syed’s work has frequently been read as an attempt to recover Punjab’s “lost self” and restore its “historical valor.” 20 However, the deliberate obscuring of geography in Takht Lahore, with “Punjab” being invoked only once, and that too, by opponents of Dullah, indicates that he is not concerned with the ethnic question of Punjab vis a vis the other provinces. His use of historical fiction, folk forms and marginalised figures from society as protagonists is related instead to a radical cultural politics and Marxist approach to art, drawing on the historical stratification of Punjabi society along linguistic lines to fashion a new self, a radical political subject embedded in the collective history and culture of the region.

This history raises a host of questions for the Left in Pakistan. If culture is a seminal category in the war between the classes, then is it prudent to employ the language and artistic conventions of the elite? Are these simply transformed by being used by a party or collectivity which organizes for the working class, or do words have histories too, and relate in particular ways to power and the reproduction of elite privilege? Urdu has been the language of choice for most Left wing political parties, for both their official communications and publications, justified on account of its “practicality” as the most viable, “ethnically neutral” medium of communication. But is it really our place to uphold a language so intimately tied to the Pakistaniat project and to colonial imperative? Let us not forget that Urdu was honed to its contemporary form, as a “language of command” to quote Bernard Cohn, at Fort William College, the foremost institution of colonial knowledge which hierarchised South Asian languages into “vulgar” and “high” tongues, categories which continue to hold sway in the post colonial context. 

It is high time that those interested in Left-wing politics and art in Pakistan weave the debate on language into their political agenda.

Sara Kazmi teaches at the Department of Liberal Arts at Beaconhouse National University and has been part of the Sangat theatre troupe for the past 6 years. She is also a member of the Awami Workers Party Lahore.

  1. I am grateful to Maqsood Saqib for sharing the text with me from Pancham’s archives. For its Punjabi translation by Saqib, see Faridi Dara, “Jhokaan Theesann Abaad Wal,” Pancham, Ma Boli number (2004): 90-102. []
  2. Ayers, Alyssa, Speaking like a state: language and nationalism in Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 []
  3. Shackle, Christopher, “Punjabi in Lahore,” Modern Asian Studies  4, no.3 (1970): 239-267 []
  4. Paracha, Farooq, Nadeem, “The other Punjab,” Dawn, May 31, 2015 http://www.dawn.com/news/1184953 []
  5. Butt, Waqas and Kalra, Virinder, “In one hand a pen, in the other a gun’: Punjabi Language Radicalism in Punjab, Pakistan,” South Asian History and Culture (2013 []
  6. Muhammad, Ishaque, “Pakistan: Statement by Ishaque Muhammad, Chairman, Mazdoor Kissan Party, translated from MKP Circular No. 85,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 8,2 (1978): 303-306, 306. []
  7. Quoted in  Butt, Waqas and Kalra, Virinder 2013 []
  8. Faridi Dada, Hamlets []
  9. Interview by Maqsood Saqib, published in Pancham (2004), Maa Boli no.: 342-360, 347. []
  10. Faridi Dara, Hamlets. []
  11. Saqib, Maqsood, Lok Boli, Lok Vehaar (Lahore: Suchet Kitab Ghar, 2013). []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Malik, Hafeez, “The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan,” The Journal of Asian Studies 26, No. 4 (1967): 649-664 []
  14. “Hamlets Will Hum Again,” 8. []
  15. Ali, Asdar, Kamran, “Communists in a Muslim Land: Cultural Debates in Pakistan’s Early Years,” Modern Asian Studies 45, (2011): 501-534. []
  16. Quoted in Malik 1967. []
  17. Ali, “Communists in a Muslim land,” 506-507. []
  18. Syed, Hosain, Najam, Takht Lahore (Lahore: Suchet Kitab Ghar, 1972), 133. []
  19. Ibid p. 40. []
  20. Ayers, Alyssa, “Language, the Nation and Symbolic Capital: The Case of Punjab,” The Journal of Asian Studies 67, No.3 (2008): 917-986. []

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One Response to The Hamlets Hum in Punjabi

  1. Shan K. on Jul 2016 at 7:45 PM

    Amazing research and brilliant, thought-provoking analysis. Thank you for this, Sara! Looking forward to more of your work.

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