(downloaded July 2004)

DAWN, July 11, 2004


AUTHOR: Shamsur Rehman Faruqi - The master critic

By Dr Muhammad Reza Kazimi

 He took the city by storm. He was mobbed by fans who wouldn't stop asking him questions. They wanted to catch his attention. That was Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, the well-known Indian writer, who was lately in Karachi. He has not just made his mark as a poet or a novelist; he is also a literary critic who has made a valuable contribution in this dormant area of literature. He has published poetry and has also written a fictional account of the 18th century literary scene; the first chapter of his novel is also in the process of being published. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi's acumen as a literary critic deserves accolades as this area has also earned him thousands of fans.

When Shamsur Rehman Faruqi began writing in the early 1960s, many of his essays were rejected by editors. Today he is held in the same esteem as Hali. Faruqi has emerged as one of the leading Urdu critics of the region.

Recognition also came from an unexpected quarter. The iconoclast, anglophile literary critic, Kalimuddin Ahmad, hails Shamsur Rehman Faruqi as the T.S. Eliot of Urdu criticism. How does Faruqi himself view the role of a critic? In a recent article by him, paradoxically but characteristically, he determined a focused role of a critic, narrower than any such writer would allow.

Citing Baudelaire and Mallarme, Faruqi contended that only poets had the right to criticize poets. He quoted Hazlitt to the effect that only a good poet could become a good critic, otherwise one will favour the kind of poetry one composes. (All these dicta actually go back to Ben Johnson). Faruqi bemoans the fact that criticism has occupied the centrestage. He raises the question whether criticism has done its duty towards literature during the last fifty years.

The critic's ascendancy and his being the leader of the caravan should now cease. "We critics have a great appetite for having our opinions accepted." Finally he quotes Aal-i-Ahmad Suroor to the effect that: "A great critic is not one whose opinion is always accepted; a great critic is one whose opinion leads others to form a better and more comprehensive opinion on any topic."

Faruqi thoroughly ponders, quoting from both western and eastern sources and also making valuable insights, until he finally leads the reader to a conclusion. Though this style of his has persisted, it can hardly be said that he does not hold personal or individual opinions. One of his personal opinions has raised a bitter controversy.

For instance, some fellow writers who hold him in esteem disagree with Faruqi's opinion that Ahmad Mushtaq and Nasir Kazimi are better poets than Firaq Gorakhpuri. Now there are two sides to this evaluation which need to be considered. Firstly Faruqi does not cite a single verse of either Ahmad Mushtaq or Nasir Kazimi. Had he made use of comparative analysis, an area that he usually excels in, such controversy would not have surfaced. On the other hand Faruqi has provided a corrective. When Muhammad Hasan Askari, Saleem Ahmad and Muhammad Tufail placed Firaq on the same level as Mir and Ghalib, when Nazeer Siddiqui was presenting Firaq as a rival to Anis, there was no hue and cry from any quarter. That Firaq has been over rated was confirmed by Jagan Nath Azad and Mohib Arifi.

The aesthetic principles of Faruqi are contained in his essay: "Poetry-non-poetry prose". In this essay he attempts to define the essence of poetry, and to show how poetry is distinguished from unpoetical verse. He lays down conditions and is careful to mention that the first condition is rhyme and metre. How to grade such rhymed verse is another matter. The grading should not be subjective, as simply taste, even that of a great critic, cannot take the place of what he calls indication and identification.

The second condition is that it should be compact; it should not have details. The third condition is the use of the dialectical words. By dialectical words he means the words containing similes, metaphors or images, which he greatly emphasizes. He insists that dialectical expressions are self-contained, and do not need any external allusion, and since it is not bound by any external allusion, there is no limit to its meaning. He says, "If compactness and dialectical words combine, it is an objective and special quality of poetry."

About the ingredients of the dialectical word, Faruqi makes three striking observations. One, the simile which is struck between the most disparate objects is the best; two,in the case of the metaphor, exaggeration is a type of metaphor; and three, as for the image, the fewer the words the more manifest is the image. Faruqi also points out that there should be clarity of the image, and not the clarity of meaning. Compactness and dialectical words have a transforming effect on poetry. The last objective criterion is ambiguity. He quotes Thomas Hardy according to whom ambiguity is part of communication. Faruqi asserts that ambiguity can be independent of the poet's intention. If ambiguity is in the text, it does not matter what the poet sought to convey.

Having addressed his aesthetic criteria, we need to describe the basic principles of his literary creed. His mission of course was to bid farewell to the marxist/progressive school of literature. To this end he wrote an article on the non-literary standards of literature. By a process of elimination he dismisses all such standards, whether moral or political.

He stands firm when he takes issue with T.S. Eliot and says that we can determine what constitutes literature on purely literary grounds but to judge the comparative greatness of literary writings we have to take recourse to non-literary criteria. By this is of course he meant the theme. Faruqi prefaces his criticism of Eliot by taking the stand that it is experience, which contains value, not didactic or moralizing verse. Further down he asserts that a poet's individuality is determined by his style, not his theme.

If we accept this, we must also accept Hillaire Belloc's verdict that his greatest contemporary and the "head of his profession" was P.G. Wodehouse. And since Faruqi is rightly sensitive to religious experience in literature it should be kept in mind that the standard for poets set by the Holy Quran is non-literary:

"Save those that believe, and do righteous deeds, and mention God oft, and help after being wronged and those who do wrong shall surely know by what overturning they will be overturned."

Thus we notice that when Faruqi turns to Mir Anis, he begins his essay by citing the Quranic verse that "God is the light of the heavens and the earth".

"For a symbol or a symbolic metaphor, the quality of being unique is not as important as is the condition that it (the symbol) has a close and deep relation with our society, culture or collective subconscious. The meaning of 'Nur' we have mentioned are not conventional, but run through a particular cultural tradition."

Now whether a particular cultural tradition is extrinsic to poetic merit is a question Faruqi needs to address. His rebuke is for the opponents of modernism. Faruqi says that: "The meaning of a symbol, whether personal or social can be gauged only through the particular system which has been created by symbolic poetry." If this argument is not tautological, then it runs close to invoking an ideology. Ideology, according to Charles E. Bressler, refers to a culture's collective or social consciousness, as opposite to the material reality on which an experience is based. Bressler's definition reminds us that the whole point of the elegy is that martyrdom is an ideology. Faruqi appears not oblivious to this as he also ends his essay on Mir Anis with a verse of the Holy Quran.

These are the few points, which in the most limited space trace the contours of Faruqi's theoretical criticism. In both theoretical and political criticism we find at work what T.S. Eliot called the "lemon squeezer" method. This, we must admit, is the most valuable underpinning he provides; a detailed and comparative analysis of verse.

Literary criticism although constituting his main contribution to Urdu is not his only claim to fame. As we said at the outset, he has written poetry, a novel and fictional accounts of classical poets. In Aftab-i-Zameen the critical and creative faculties have combined. He collaborated with Frances Pritchett in the English translation of Ab-i-Hayat and no doubt he felt that while Azad's critical acumen has been questioned, his imagination has not.

The scene in which Mus'hafi is made to leave a courtesan's apartment for having composed a quatrain which offended her is one of the most evocative and dramatic in this genre. Side by side he has chosen the 'Dastaan' or uncanny romances for study. Both in his critical and in his creative writings he is climbing the ladder of fiction, we can be confident that as he climbs higher he shall retain his balance.

Shamsur Rehman Faruqi: profile

Born on January 15, 1936

Education: MA in English from Allahabad University in 1955.

Career: Worked as a civil servant in the Indian Postal Department in 1960-1968, later became Chief Postmaster-General and Member, Postal Services Board, New Delhi till 1994. At present whole-time writer and editor of his literary magazine Shabkhoon and part-time professor South Asia Regional Studies Centre, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Publications: Sher, Ghair Sher, Aur Nasr, (1973) The Secret Mirror (in English, 1981), Ghalib Afsaney Ki Himayat Mein, (1989)

Sher Shore Angez (in 3 volumes, 1991-93), Mir Taqi Mir 1722-1810 (Collected works with commentary and explanation), Urdu Ka Ibtedai Zamana (2001), Ganj-i-Sokhta (poetry), Sawar Aur Doosray Afsanay (fiction), awarded Sarswati Award, India's highest award in 1996.

-- S. R. Faruqi index page -- fwp's main page --