Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 1, 1981 p. 1.

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Laurel Steele


Altaf Husain Hali, the Urdu poet, author and critic, lived in a nineteenth century India composed of many worlds. One of these worlds was molded by the interaction between British rulers and Indian subjects. This world was in a time of change, of conflicting currents of ideas and of assaults on old attitudes and institutions. It is a measurable world: the meeting of the two cultures can be seen as a series of causes and effects marching forward on a time-line, from the Bengali Renaissance to the events of 1857 to the Aligarh Movement. Altaf Husain Hali dwelt in this world; he helped define and form it. But he lived in another sphere as well—that of Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar and Dagh. Their world went on along side the British presence. It ignored or reluctantly confronted that presence, but it certainly never formed a systematic response to it. In this particular world, coming to grips with and acting upon the meaning of the British occupation was irrelevent. The many worlds of the nineteenth century are underlined time and again in the lives of individuals: for example, while Sir Saiyid was visiting England and attempting at home to arouse Islamic India through essays modelled on those of Addison and Steele, the poet Dagh was reciting his verses in a wealthy court and leading a life comparable to that of a literary figure of the seventeenth century. Hali lived and worked in all these worlds. The conflict thus engendered is reflected in his writings; he tries to bridge the gulf between his sets of experiences and to find solutions to the problems of his personal experience and of his community. When he does this, he puts Urdu literature to new uses and so is forced to examine it closely.

Hali was prolific and popular, for the "new society" of the nineteenth century needed new voices, and the "old society" was willing to listen to a poet who could manipulate the traditional forms with such success. He wrote powerful political poetry and the first "modern" biographies in Urdu. He affixed a long preface to his dwan, called the Muqaddama^e-Sa'r-o-Sa'iri in which he confronts directly what he sees as the faults in Urdu literature. The influences on this work are many; in a certain sense the Muqaddamah is a reflection of the intellectual and literary confusion of the nineteenth century and a portent of the problems of the twentieth. A search for what led Hali to write it and an examination of its content provide a basis for understanding the literary and political struggles of that day and for seeing the change in the relationship of literature and politics. The importance of the Muqaddamah cannot be exaggerated,


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