Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 4, 1984 p. 37.


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Frances W. Pritchett

'THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN' Sahr-ASob AS A GENRE

In last year's Annual of Urdu studies, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and I collaborated on a translation of a muxammas-e Sahr-a^ob by Jur'at which we called in English "In the Presence of the Nightingale."! Faruqi also provided, in "Jur'at's Sahr-Asob: An Afterword," a discussion of the poem in its literary and cultural context.2 Hardly any sahr-asobs have been translated into English, so our work was a kind of experiment. Of course in principle it is impossible to translate poetry; but there are all the best reasons for making the attempt. And some poems are more translatable (or at least less untranslatable) than others. Jur'at's poem has a feature quite rare in its genre: the final misra1 of every hand is identical (rather than merely rhyming). Repetition is perhaps the most translatable of all verbal devices, and we of course took advantage of the chance to preserve as much formal unity as possible in English. While a great deal of wordplay was lost in translation, some of it could be preserved or at least suggested; we tried to convey the poem's vigor and its sarcastic wit.

When we decided to try another sahr^asob, it was Nazeer Akbarabadi's "Duniya-e DuN ke Tamase", chosen out of Dr. Naeem Ahmad's Sahr-AsoJb.3 it was selected partly for its formal translatability: an identical final misra' at the end of each .band. Although not as great a poem as Jur'at's, it has an imaginative wildness and verve that are most effective. We did our best with it, and the results appear in the preceding pages of this issue of the Annual.

Before working with these two poems by Jur'at and Nazeer, I had a fairly clear notion about the Sahr-asoh genre. Although its Persian antecedents were a bit murky to me, I knew that in Urdu it was a genre of poems devoted to describing the lamentable condition of some "ruined city." Sanr-as5jbs were defined not by form, but by content: they were "pessimistic, backward-looking assertions of the decadent state of the poet's present society," as Fritz Lehman has written; they were "extremely localized," with each poet lamenting the past greatness and present decline of his own particular city.4 This was the first account of sahr-asoJb I ever read; the most recent one I've seen is in agree"-ment. In his book on poetic genres, Shameem Ahmad writes that the name sahr-alsQb points directly to the subject matter: it is the genre "in which the ruined condition of some city is examined." The successful ^ahr-aSob poet must have not only wide human sympathies, but also "an extremely close relationship to his own society, atmosphere and life."5 Both Lehman and Ahmad give very satisfactory examples of ^sahr-aSbbs of this kind: poignant, indignant, or bitter, but very detailed, depictions of social decay and injustice, so closely observed that they constitute a form of sociological description or even a political critique. (Thus

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