COLUMN: Dr Tanveer Abbasi: A profile by Amar Sindhu
Sindhi literature and art has risen from the dust of an oppressed land and epitomises the collective expression, emotions and aspiration of the common folk rather than reflecting the aesthetics of royal taste in arts. Romanticism in Sindhi literature doesn’t have the same philosophical background as European or American romanticism does. In the 18th century, the poetic heritage of Bhittai was already following the model of artistic perfections with flavours of common folks and rural life. Therefore, in Bhittai’s poetic diction, rural folk hold central positions.
In the 19th century, the words of Kishanchand Bewas focused on the same themes:
Through whose chinks the sun and the
moon are peeping,
Through which the starry rays slide
down from their spheres,
Through whose walls the whispering
wind comes rushing in,
Through whose roof the rain bursts
It is wonder of Nature, and a gift of Affection,
God, may it not be destroyed, the cottage of the poor!
It was a time when poetry, especially the Sindhi ghazal, was under the influence of Persian traditions, both in its subjects and objects, and was far from the temperament and conventions of the common people of Sindh. Bewas was the first to change this content and adopt simple and common diction in poetry. He shifted the focus of poetry from the beloved lying on a bed of roses to the downtrodden and the nobodies. Bewas is the pioneer of romanticism in Sindhi literature. Moreover, this movement was carried forward by the next generation: Ayaz, Imdad, Tanveer and Shamsheer counted as pillars of modern Sindhi poetry. They stand for humanism, modernity, romanticism and nationalism, the distinguishing elements of modern Sindhi poetry.
World War I, Russia’s socialist revolution and the independence movement against the British Raj had tremendous effects on Sindhi poetry. However, political upheavals and the subjugation of people on the one side, and a strong desire for emancipation on the other, remained constant factors in Sindhi society and overhauled the horizon of Sindhi poetry and enriched it. The new wave of novel ideas, collective hopes and dreams of individualism, which the whole world was experiencing, also inspired Dr Tanveer Abbasi.
His first association was with the literary group Bazm-i-Khalil. Traditional and conservative, it had little popular appeal. On the contrary, there was Sindhi Adbi Sangat, a literary forum ideologically associated with the progressive movements of writers and a popular voice on social and political fronts. Later, Abbasi turned from Bazm-i-Khalil to Sindhi Adbi Sangat as it was focusing on the rights of the poor and the marginalised. He also played an active role, along with other comrades, the vanguard Sangat writers and intellectuals, against the tyranny of “one unit” imposed by Ayub Khan.
That political environment forced modern poets to set aside aesthetic formalities in the realm of poetry; the struggle for emancipation and political commitment become a central subject for them. Writers, intellectuals and poets used poetry as a powerful weapon against tyrannical rule. Abbasi writes:
Blowing wind has crossed the iron bars
And adore like thee, as if
In the dark woods of sorrows
It has brought thee
What if the painful night is so long?
Moon and stars light as always
Thy love has healed all the wounds
And thy admirers smile always
He was a well-read person and deeply fascinated by western literature, especially English and French. His acquaintance with the variety of literary fashions, moods and movements in the West kept him engaged in translating the spirit of world literature, and in attempts to materialise and revolutionise Sindhi culture and society. Along with William Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads”, Abbasi introduced many French poets and critics to Sindhi readers through translations of Paul Géraldy “Dualism”, surrealist poet Robert Desnos’s “I Have Dreamed of You so Much”, symbolist Paul Verlaine’s “Like City’s Rain, My Heart” and Baudelaire’s “Correspondences”. He also beautifully translated Matsuo Bashô, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki and some other poets of Japanese haiku. Nevertheless, this attempt was bitterly opposed by his contemporary Sheikh Ayaz, who called it unsuitable for Sindhi. However, later the form did become a part of Sindhi poetry.
Moreover, modernity in Sindhi poetry was a revolt against old fashions, styles and techniques in the body of poetic thought and imagination and therefore faced a bitter struggle for acceptance into Sindhi literature. Abbasi was the first among his contemporaries to write articles in the defence of free verse as a symbol of modernism when it was being called the deterioration of the classical tradition of poetry by its detractors. His poem “Dedication”, which he wrote as a dedication to his own compilation of poetry, is the finest illustration of his free verse:
To the first flower of the spring
To the first shower of the rainy season
To the very first breath of the newborn
To the first drop of water, trickling down a glacier
Under the summer sun
To the first blush on the face of a bride
Trembling at the first touch
To the first drop of blood
Shed by the first nationalist
To the first rebellious shout which arises from a long-suppressed nation
Who have no name
But have all the names.
Tanveer Abbasi was a trendsetter and his modern sensibility and progressive slant inspired the generation following him. The spirit of renaissance is central and essential in both his creative work and his life. He firmly believes in and glorifies the dignity of man and the power of human reason while equally valuing the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of nature. He was always innovative in his poetic expression, coming up with new metaphors and symbols of revolution in his diction and style. His poem “A Sheet of Paper” is the best example of this experiment. It was written during the days of Gen Ziaul Haq, when unarmed university students on their way to a political meeting, were shot at by the army at Thori Phatak.
“A Sheet of Paper”
I am not a blank sheet of paper
I am not a blank sheet of paper
On which you can write
Whatever you may please
I am not a child’s slate
On which you can write
And then rub and rewrite
Whenever you want to
Choosing whatever you want to write
I am the script which cannot be erased
I am my own future
I am my own fate
I am the eternal writing
I have sun in my eyes.
What distinguishes Abbasi from his contemporaries is his blend of lyricism, the simplicity of his language and the spontaneity of his thoughts. Other Sindhi poetry from periods of dictatorship was, in contrast, volatile and more overtly political in content and expression. Abbasi was able to successfully balance imagination with symbols of political sensibility.
“I Am Writing a Poem”
I am writing a poem as I was catching the butterflies
Or plucking a rose
Or caressing the face of a beautiful girl
As I am holding the lightning
As I am holding the whirlwind in my clinching hands
I feel that I am a flaming torch
Whenever I burn there is light all around
Time is on fire in my flames
Turns to smoke and lost in the air
Spread in the four corners of the earth
And all around me is the light
Which makes the world glow.
If I were to burn out
It would be dark
Silence all around
With no reality
For the light
For the sake of my life.
Yet Abbasi was not cut off from the classical heritage of mystical poetry which is deep rooted in Sindh, the land of sufis and pluralistic thought. Before him, the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai defined the spiritual and the metaphysical. With a touch of modernity in his poetry, Abbasi’s scholastic quest pushed him to re-define Bhittai on the grounds of social, political and economic conditions. He produced two volumes on Bhittai. He also enthusiastically worked to discover, collect and compile the work of Sachal Sarmast, Yousaf Nanak, Khushi Khair and Muhammad Hisbani — the spiritual masters of Sindhi mystical poetry.
The poems “Dedication”, “A Sheet of Paper”, “I Am Writing a Poem” and “Light” have been translated by Asif Farrukhi