A History of Urdu Literature

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Item Code: NAB723
Author: T. Grahame Bailey, Introduction by Muhammad Reza Kazimi
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9780195475180
Pages: 135
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 inch X 5.8 inch
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From the Jacket

T. Grahame Bailey was born in Ambala, India, in 1872 into a family of missionaries. He was sent to school in Scotland at the age of nine, and returned to India in 1895 after being ordained. He served in India for 25 years before returning to Britain. He obtained his D.Litt. from the University of Edinburgh and became a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. The author retired from this position in 1940 and died two years later.


It is the destiny of Urdu to be bilingual. The early masters such as Mir and Mir Hasan wrote biographical anthologies of Urdu poets in Persian. The later masters like Shibli and Azad wrote histories of Persian literature in Urdu. When English replaced Persian as the official language, Urdu interacted with English. It did not find immediate acceptance, but beginning with Mirza Ghalib’s versified preface to Sir Syed’s edition of the Ain-i-Akbari, English was held up as the language of progress. Perhaps it was natural for Ghalib, in whom classical genius had culminated, to herald the dawn of a new era. Before 1857, exactly a hundred and fifty years ago, there were a number of Englishmen who composed poetry in Urdu, following all the conventions, and steeped in the ghazal culture. The most prominent was Alexander Heatherly Azad, Ghalib’s pupil, who along with Ghalib’s fortune, perished in the Mutiny.

Of course, since 1800, with the foundation of the Fort William College, Calcutta, the British did not remain mere spectators, and they gave a concerted impetus to Urdu prose. Their priority was language over literature, and when serious evaluation was attempted, there was a lack of synchronization between English literary criticism and Urdu literary criticism. Nawab Imdad Imam Asar stated in the nineteenth century that criticism, as a genre, did not exist in Urdu. He would be echoed, half a century later, by the Anglophile literary critic, Kalimuddin Ahmad, even though by that time, as the present author shows, ground realities had undergone a change. Whatever we may think of pre-independence Urdu criticism, it is self evident that Muhammad Husain Azad’s The Fountain Of Youth could not have been written in English.

A history of Urdu literature, written in English, would reduce to order a vast and amorphous body of literary activity. This T. Grahame Bailey proceeded to do with admirable success. It is true that his work had been preceded by Abdul Latif’s The Influence of English Literature on Urdu Literature, London, 1924; and Ram Babu Saxena’s A History of Urdu Literature, Lucknow 1927 and that Bailey never claimed to be a pioneer, yet the present book has marked, a stage in the development of literary consciousness more deeply, hence the need to return to it remains.

I Grahame Bailey was born at Ambala in 1872, into a family of missionaries. He was sent to school of Scotland at the age of nine, and returned to India in 1895 after being ordained. He served returning to Britain. He obtained his D. Litt. From the University of Edinburgh and became a professor at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Bailey retired from this position in 1940. He died, two years later, in London, on 5 April 1942. His most touching obituary was written by Shaista Ikramullah, in Urdu.

In Bailey’s native Britain, we find a contrary estimate. Ralph Russell, the doyen of Urdu scholars in Britain, expressed his bitter disappointment with both the histories of Urdu literature written in the English language. Bailey came in for more than his share of Russell’s strictures. The basic contention of Ralph Russell is that unsympathetic critics should not venture to write histories of languages they do not properly appreciate; not in English at any rate, as those ignorant of the original language would be left with a distorted view. Since Ralph Rusell is, in a sense, a successor of T. Grahame Bailey, his criticism cannot be ignored, and fortunately, can be reduced to four points. The first point contains Russell’s comment, the rest consist of Bailey’s comments which have been cited by Russell in condemnation.

My response to the above:

1. It is obvious that Russell does not believe that the severest critic is the best friend, and does not wish to allow Leopold von Ranke into the domain of literary history. Only a wistfully disdainful writer will be censured, at least as much as orientalist historians are censured in all other fields.

2. Strictly speaking, Grahame Bailey was commenting o the age of Hatim, and not the ghazal in the abstract, being characterized by monotony and sameness, but let us not bicker, for what Bailey says in sum total is tied up to the criticism of the ghazal as an art form. Ralph Russell is right when he says that ‘the ghazal is the greatest achievement of Urdu literature’, but surely this is to the credit of the dweller and not the dwelling. The most talented writers may be producing masterpieces from garrets but that does not mean that a garret is a better form of dwelling than a mansion. The greatest Urdu poets wrote ghazals, but the ghazal is an imperfect art form, geared to rhyme and not to reason. Discordant, unrelated themes are stringed together by metre and rhyme. The ghazal has great eloquence, yes, but this eloquence is due to an unending refinement of allusions and symbols. The ghazal has not only been labeled as semi-barbaric by Kalimuddin Ahmad, but by his ideological antagonist Josh Malihabadi as well, who has meticulously enumerated the stock themes, characters ad conceits of the ghazal.

3. Thus the advice given to Urdu poets, to follow Shakespeare and Milton, while it undoubtedly sounds pompous and gratuitous, calls on us to temper our reaction by reflecting that Urdu masters shunned Nazir Akbarabadi, while they cited Persian poets as authorities. It should, moreover, be clarified that Bailey was writing in the context of dramatic poetry, not literature generally. Then there is the odd case of Mirza Auj who gained acquaintance with English poets through the medium of his student Mirza Ruswa, and opened a new window to the marsiya.

4. As far as the marsiya is concerned, one cannot agree more with Ralph Russell. He is right in saying that the marsiya does not have to be an epic. Historical characters cannot be refashioned for poetry. Russell cannot be faulted when he berates those critics who deprecate the marsiya for ‘extravagant grief’. To the examples of Homer and Milton cited by Russell, we can also add the dictum of Goethe that: ‘The noble poets of Greece, who knew how to depict heroes, did not at all mind letting the weep when in the grip of pain.

But here enters the subtle difference between comparative and historical criticism; between criticism which is factual, and criticism which is latent. The charge of ‘extravagant grief’ has been made in Urdu as well. While it is not the proper criterion to judge the elegies of Anis or Dabir; it is this criterion invoked by Dabir’s son Mirza Auj which led to the evolution of the modern elegy of the twentieth century. It adopted revolution as a theme and became a vehicle for the freedom struggle. The leading exponents were Josh and Jameel Mazhari, both revolutionaries and both skeptics (had he covered them, Bailey would have called them twins also). Sceptic poets writing on religious themes, with the purpose of national liberation, gave a deep and universal dimension to the marsiya which could not have been imagined in the nineteenth century. T. Grahame Bailey concedes that and Ralph Russell agrees.

Yet, with all that, there is nothing as admirable in Urdu poetry as the marsiya (p. 59) This is an article of faith with me, but few critics would be inclined to agree with this praise. This is an age when the question is posed: “Who is the fourth greatest poet of Urdu; Anis or Firaq? Would lyric be deemed superior to epic? This question has even been solemnly posed to me, and shows how the ghazal has ruptured the retina of literary vision. Still, the sentiments of Ralph Russell do him credit, and his contribution to Urdu Studies far outstrips the contribution of Grahame Bailey, and doubtless, a far better critic than myself will rise to his defence, with far greater vehemence than I can command.

There is yet another aspect. A comparative study of literature involves macrocriticism, while a historical study involves micro-criticism. Macrocriticism means the range, the characteristics and the forms while microcriticism deal with particular ears, minor trend and minor writers as well which combine to make the texture of a literature. Thus, if Bailey is thought to be hypercritical with regard to the characteristics, range and form, he is unstinting of praise where individual writers, both major and minor, are concerned.

Taking a historical view, Bailey regards the formative Deccan period as most creditable, both for the natural bent of the language and the natural inclination of the poets. Bailey regards the pure indigenous Urdu as better than the Persianised Urdu. He says that literary Urdu was cultivated earlier in the Deccan, as a counterpoise to the Persian of the Mughal court (p. 11). He illustrates his point about the evolution of the language by noting Vajhi’s Qutb-i-Mushtari (1609) rather than Shah Nasir’s Urdu which belonged to the Delhi of the nineteenth century is easier to read (p. 6). About Qutb Quli Shah, Bailey says that he is more faithful to his locale:

The only later poets who compare with him in this respect are Sauda and Nazir, they are inferior to him in description of nature, while he is superior to Nazir in his sympathetic account of Hindu life, which Sauda does not touch. It is astonishing that the first poet should be so well-equipped (p. 16).

For the early Delhi school, Bailey is not deterred by the difficulty in the way of forming a judgement. For Sauda, the first poet to suffer a reversal in placement, Bailey gives out the opinion that Sauda was better as a poet of the language than the literature:

As for Mir whom he is accused of slighting, Bailey concludes: ‘his lyrics in fact, have rarely been equalled’ (p. 45) and of Dard his words mark a distinct advance.

Dard has always presented a problem. When counted, his merits are equal in type to the merits of Mir. While the poetry of Mir is held to be unequal in quality, the poetry of Dard is most even, which leaves readers wondering, why then, is Dard ranked below Mir? Bailey, while showing full enthusiasm for Dard, draws out his limitation from within his merit, that is, the evenness of his verse translates to a constriction in style. Similar in nature to his estimation of Sauda and Dard, is his estimate of Zauq. Hali’s estimate of Ghalib has stood the rest of time, Azad’s estimate of Zauq has not, but Bailey gives us the reason why he was held in high esteem during his lifetime:

Bailey is rarely dismissive of any poet, however minor. An author’s credentials as a historian of literature depend on the place he assigns to minor poets who, after all, more than the major poets make up the general fabric of literature, the major poets being too individual. Their sameness is a challenge to a discerning critic seeking precision. In this Bailey does not fail. To take an example at randon, here he is judging Muhammad Khan Rind:

Bailey replicates this quality in respect of prose as well. Of Zakaullah he writes: ‘He had a good, but not exalted style and his translations read as if they were original’ (p. 90). It is not necessary to give more examples. We may be excused for reiterating that Bailey had an eye for detail, and a great sense of where to place it. He undoubtedly has the ability to give the interested reader an insight into how Urdu literature developed.

It is also important to note at what juncture a literary history ends. Bailey ends his with a notice on Iqbal. The Progressive Writers Movement was yet to be launched, and Bailey was standing at a cusp. From this vantage points Bailey provides a useful summary of the past, and gives a context to unfolding trends in literatures. This book has never entered the mainstream as A History of Urdu Literature by Ram Babu Saxena has for the reason that unlike Ra Babu’s book, Bailey’s book, to my knowledge, has never been translated into Urdu. No literature has a single book devoted to its history. That would be possible only if a body of literature had really nothing to offer. As far as Urdu literature is concerned, it has been riddled by feuds, between Sauda and Zahik, between Insha and Mushafi, between Anis and Dabir as well as between Ghalib and Zauq. A judicious reduction of controversies was a sorely needed task, and T. Grahame Bailey has been able to achieve this, and give to them a historical perspective an Urdu-speaking critic would find daunting. For this he is worthy of our appreciation and gratitude.

Back of the Book

This book, first published in 1932, successfully managed to order a vast and amorphous body of literary activity into one volume. Even more deeply than preceding works by Abdul Latif and Ram Babu Saxena, it marked a stage in the development of literary consciousness.

Taking a historical view, the study regards the formative Deccan period as particularly important, both for the natural bent of the language and the natural inclination of the poets. The author’s view that the pure, indigenous Urdu is better than the Persianised Urdu is clearly explained. This literary ends with a notice on Mohammad Iqbal When the book was written the Progressive Writers’ Movement had not been launched, and Bailey stood at a cusp. From this vantage, he provided us with a useful summary of the past, and gave a context to unfolding trends in literature.

Another interesting, in fact important, aspect of this work is that the author is rarely dismissive of any poet, however minor. Bailey’s credentials as a historian of literature are validated by the place he assigns to minor poets who make up the general fabric of literature to a far greater extent that the major poet-the major poets being too individual-and their sameness being a challenge to a discerning critic seeking precision.

Introduction by Muhammad Reza Kazimivii
Introduction to the 1932 Edition xv
1 The History of Urdu 1
2 The Beginnings of Urdu Literature 10
3 The First Century of Urdu Poetry in Delhi (AD 1730-1830) 35
4 Urdu Poetry in Lucknow in the Nineteenth Century 58
5 The Second Delhi Period and the Four Poets of Rampur 68
6 Urdu prose 76
7 The New Age 92
8 Conclusion 98
Index of Persons106
Index of Works 111
Index of Subjects 116
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