A digital archive of translated Urdu poetry for lockdown


Dil ke aivan men liye gul-shuda shamon ki qatar
nur-e-Khurshid se sahme hue uktae hue
Husn-e-mahbub ke sayyal tasavvur ki Tarah
apni tariki ko bhenche hue liptae hue”

“Holding rows of snuffed candles in our hearts,
Frightened by the sun’s light, bored,
Hugging, clinging to our darkness in an embrace
As we hold the flowing thoughts of the beloved’s beauty”

The bold, emotive verse with political undertones from ‘Hum Log’ penned in the mid-20th century has a certain melancholy that perfectly articulates all our sentiments in the current times. The poem was written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Pakistani Urdu poet was a pioneering figure in the Progressive Writer’s Movement that burgeoned in the pre-partition British India. 

From a community of anti-imperialist and leftist writers and poets, Faiz, like many of his contemporaries and successors, advocated for social justice, equal rights and political freedom through his work.

The movement contributed significantly towards Urdu literature that continues to be relevant today especially, the progressive modern Urdu poetry that emerged from this time period moved away from ‘romantic idealism’ to an expression of individualism and pragmatism through metaphors.

The charm of these poems lies in their universality and timelessness be it Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ that was used last year as a tool of dissent in the anti-CAA protests in India or  N.M Rashid’s use of art and idea in poetry to inspire and mobilize the collective consciousness of people.

As the world faces an unprecedented challenge today that surpasses borders and ideologies, it is essential to think about the politics of care to find strength in the personal and the political, the lines between which seem to blur in the face of the current pandemic.

From Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem, ‘Ek Shaam’ (An Evening) that explores the loss of hope to Jan Nisar Akhtar’s enigmatic poem ‘Marhalah’ (Stages) that encourages trust delving into progressive Urdu poetry in isolation could be an interesting way to understand the links between the past and the present, the self and the state, through the complexity of human emotions. 

Photograph: india.com

SOAS’S MULOSIGE (Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies) has created a digital archive of translated progressive modern poetry comprising of about 357 poems written by 19 different poets. They cover the time period from 1930 to the early 2000s.

MULOSIGE is a SOAS initiative that takes a new approach to World Literature and ‘explores the numerous and often fractured worlds of literature from the perspective of multilingual societies.’ It acknowledges that the global circulation of literature is often underpinned by the work of translations and translators and that this labour often goes under-acknowledged.

MULOSIGE seeks to ‘re-emphasise the centrality of translation to the existing discussion on World Literature’ and propose methodologies and case studies to understand the relevance of  ‘multilingual locals’ and multiple ‘significant geographies’ in its study, the world over.

The translated digital archive of Urdu poetry is one of their many projects which is being led by Francesca Orsini, Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS and Fatima Burney, a post-doctoral research fellow at the institution’s Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). The translations have been done by Professor Carlo Coppola, Professor Emeritus of Hindi-Urdu and Linguistics at Oakland University (Michigan, USA) and the author of ‘Urdu Poetry, 1935-1970: The Progressive Episode’, which is a detailed study of the Progressive Movement and five of its major poets. The poems in the archive have been chosen by him are based on the important social and political concerns of the time and have set the base for protest poetry found in the political, feminist, and queer discourse.

Talking about the aim of the archive, Sneha Alexander, the Media Disseminator of MULOSIGE, who also holds an M.A in Postcolonial Studies from SOAS states, “I think that the main purpose of this digital archive is to offer varied resources on world literature that can be read by (and added to) by academics around the world. A lot of our work has been about bringing attention to forms of world literature that are often overlooked (magazines, poetry, oral traditions). As we focus on significant geographies and multilingual locals, we’re interested in how texts travel, how people live in many languages and the internet as we are seeing now is perhaps the most significant geography of all.”

Indeed, the Progressive Writer’s Movement too has travelled generations to remain as emotive and as significant geography, it was back then. Perhaps there’s no better way to spend the lockdown than finding refuge, comfort and power in the verses that shaped the narrative of an entire sub-continent.

To access the digital archive of Progressive and Modern Urdu poetry click here

MULOSIGE is also currently engaged in creating a complimentary digital archive to the poetry, including English translations of Urdu academic essays about world literature. To know more about their projects click here.

Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit our Covid-19 page.

Share this post