Art & Culture

Manto, Ghalib and Chughtai come alive at Jashn-e-Rekhta

Ursila Ali
Ursila AliFeb 14, 2016 | 22:07

Manto, Ghalib and Chughtai come alive at Jashn-e-Rekhta

In essence, the word means "to be scattered" but "Jashn-e-Rekhta" is a platform where this word contradicts itself. In this three-day festival, one witnesses the unification of Hindustani languages and the celebration of poets who carried forward the Rekhta tradition of Shayari. It then becomes impossible not to talk about Ghalib. The great poet of the 19th century became a foundation of Urdu and Farsi poetry in the subcontinent. It is safe to say that without poetry there would have been no Ghalib, and without Ghalib the tradition of Urdu poetry would have long been dead.


For those of us acquainted with the magic of the poet, it wasn’t difficult to comprehend Ghalib’s Farsi verses recited passionately by Delhi governor, Najeeb Jung. Jung was reciting to a room full of Ghalib admirers at the second edition of Jashn-e-Rekhta Festival on Sunday. The session attempted to decode Ghalib’s poetry of love and co-existence and surprised the audience with a completely new perspective altogether.

That Ghalib was a poet who wrote about love seems obvious to many. But the fact that there could be a Buddhist epistemology behind Ghalib’s work is rather strange. But such is the belief of Gopichand Narang, the prolific literary critic and scholar of Urdu, who captivated the audience with his hour-long speech on Ghalib’s understanding of the cosmos.

Born in Bihar, Ghalib was a Sufi Malang, a nomad who was a fan of Bedil Dehlavi, the mysterious Persian poet from Mughal emperor Auranzeb’s court. He became an excellent reteller of the Vedantas from an early age. His early education in matters of religion veered him towards mysticism. For young lovers, Ghalib strikes a chord, pulling at the heartstrings, his poetry always talks about a "mashooq" (lover). But little do the youngsters understand that his shayari combines Wahatudul Wajood (Oneness of being), Vedantas, Buddhism and Ishq (love) in all its forms.


Narang mentions that understanding ghazals is an art in itself as it is highly suggestive and figurative. It is an art form that delights people. There have been many who have written beautifully on romance. While Daagh Dehlvi, Ahmed Faraz and the like were trying to put the light of their lover’s eyes into their poetry, Ghalib had already achieved a depth that was beyond the realm of romance into the unknown. He transcended words, themes, motives and even poetry.

Waris Kirmani, a well-known scholar had once commented and compared Ghalib’s complex poetry with others. He said that while the others had created a path for their poetries to reach the common masses, none of the poets went through the (metaphorical) hell that Ghalib went through. They refused to create a disruption in the subconscious that had been mastered by Ghalib.

For many in the packed audience, Ghalib’s verses were touching. But did they understand them? Perhaps not. Narang explains why. Ghalib was identified as a genius in his lifetime and he was completely aware of this. He might come across as arrogant as he confessed to make his shayari complex. His shayari is problematic as it is a challenge to understand it. Perhaps the only one who could provide the meaning is Ghalib himself. It is this complexity, yet dialectical nature of his poetry that makes the shayari so beautiful. Another reason Narang gives is that Ghalib was an expert in the language of unsaying. In his multi dimensional verses, it is silence that speaks and not the words.


For a poet whose vison is the entire cosmos, the art of unsaying comes easily. Like Buddha, Ghalib too believed in the oneness of the "hasti" (existence) and "alam" (manifestation). He was oblivious to the polarisations present within the universe or words and could write on any aspect of existence. It is the metaphysical that influences his written words which in turn makes us sensitive towards humanity.

When Ismat Chughtai conformed

Virginia Woolf, Germaine Greer, Simone De Beauvoir are names synonymous with feminist movements in the West. Their names were (and are still) invoked to inspire young women in the fight against patriarchal constructs within the society. In India however, Ismat Chughtai was a name that parents meant to keep hidden from their daughters. Chughtai was a disruptor in a largely conservative society and a rebel who refused to conform to norms. She was the bad girl of Urdu literature who single-handedly created ripples in the orthodox world she was born in.

In many ways, Sunday’s session on Chughtai was a tribute to her spirit of freedom. On the panel were Jeelani Bano, an Urdu writer herself, Bano was a relative of Chughtai and recounted the days spent with her. Accompanying her was Pakistani dramatist and columnist, Zahida Hina, who gave an insight into the life of Chughtai that was oblivious to many.

Hina told the audience that it was a hot afternoon when Chughtai first heard Rashid Jahan speak to a gathering of women. Wearing a sleeveless blouse, Rashid was scolding the women and asking them to come out of their pardah and do something with their lives. Sitting in the gathering was also the Begum of Bhopal who became so furious with Rashid that she told her off in front of everyone. Rashid merely laughed. This laughter had a deep impact on Chughtai who immediately made Rashid Jahan her inspiration and decided to be a woman who would refuse to conform.

A frail 80-year-old Jeelani Bano had flown from Mumbai to share her memories of Ismat Apa. Born in the same village, Badayun, Bano’s family were aware of Chughtai’s "vulgar" stories and had ordered every young girl in the house to stay away from any literature that Chughtai had written. Bano however, stubborn like Chughtai, had found ways to get hold of the magazines in which Chughtai occasionally wrote her short stories. On the eve of her wedding, Bano recounted a letter written to her by Chughtai: "Marriage cannot be the "manzil" (ultimate destiny) of a woman. You must keep writing and never leave your work," the letter read.

One may think that Chughtai may have chosen for herself a man who believed in the same progressive ideas as her. Hina revealed that this was not the case. Chughtai's husband Shahid Latif wanted a woman who would cook and was a dutiful wife. When Chughtai was charged with obscenity and summoned to the Lahore court in 1942, Latif threatened Chughtai with divorce. Such was the impact of this threat that Ismat stopped wearing heels, as she felt flats would compliment her husband’s short height better. She also started publishing her short stories under the name Ismat Latif. Her marriage to Latif was a difficult one and for a time, she did conform.

"Duniya Kya Kahegi?" (What will the people say?)is a phrase that Chughtai found highly overrated. She believed, as Hina mentions in "Naak kat ti rehti hai. Kat kar phir peecha hi nahi chorti." (Once you are infamous, you are always infamous). So she continued with her work, undettered.

Her stories of sisterhood rose above caste, creed and constructs. She realised that a woman was a prime site of crime but was also capable of deriving pleasure or reflecting sensuousness. Her writing was courageous for her time but the issues she raised are ever so relevant today as well. She remains the face of the defiant Indian woman.

If Manto was alive today

“If Manto was alive today, he wouldn’t just have cases of obscenity. They would range from warrants of sedition and blasphemy as well,” joked Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, the Pakistani director and script-writer whose film Manto recently released to much acclaim. The audience in the hall burst in loud laughter; someone jokingly mentioned that it was after all "the season for sedition".

Khoosat, who also plays Manto in the film directed by him, shared the stage with Nandita Das, who too is coming out with a film on Manto that she stresses is not a biopic like Khooosat’s. Bimal Chaddha, the nephew of actor Shyam Chaddha, who was one of the closest confidantes of Manto in his Bombay years, recounted the writer’s personal side. The session was moderated by Darain Shahidi, who gave an entertaining rendition from his play, Mantoiyat.

For many in the audience, Manto was a forbidden writer. Growing up, youngsters were told that his stories were indecent, they weren’t meant for kids. Khoosat too received this warning but continued to read Manto who spoke to him through his dialectical market language and abundant mentions of sexual encounters. But it is with Khol Do that Khoosat realised the importance of Manto to history. The director admitted that his 12 years of elementary education in Pakistani history could not teach him so much about the horrors of partition as Manto did with this short story. He argues that when Pakistan shows the glorious dreams that Iqbal promises in his verses, why can’t it show importance to the nightmares of Manto as well.

Nandita Das added that Partition influenced each story of Manto, be it Khol Do, Toba Tek Singh or Thanda Gosht. The gloom that surrounded Manto after he left Bombay for Lahore, remained till he died. Partition remained an open wound for him.

Das added that Manto was one who didn’t believe in labels. Extremely progressive and believer of liberal ideals, Manto stayed away from politics. He never wanted to be the part of the Progressive Writer’s Association as well. Yet each Manto work is a political comment on the state or society in the form of satire. He is still the face for freedom of expression, one that our artists and writers are still battling for.

Infamous and considered a mad genius, Manto was a gentle soul, revealed Bimal Chadha who played in Manto’s lap as a child. He received Manto as a legacy and recalls hearing him say, "Saadat Hasan may die, but Manto lives on forever."

When someone pointed out that Manto’s treatment of women characters always depicted them as victims, Das was quick to point out that Manto’s portrayal showed a nuanced gaze towards the gender. Chaddha responded by saying that the writer was always loyal to his wife and was fiercely feminist. Khoosat informed us that Manto would also pluck his wife’s eyebrows! Such was his devotion to her.

The session ended with a dramatic reading of Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam by Shahidi. By the end of the reading, we were left wondering whether Manto was alive somewhere writing these satirical pieces of literature. Because the words remain still as pertinent as they were 50 years ago.

Last updated: February 15, 2016 | 21:15
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