ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Nazm: Locating Resistance in the Late Colonial Urdu Literary Sphere


Abrar Ayesha - Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Humanities and Social Sciences, New Delhi, India


26 – Radical Poetics in the Literary Cultures of South Asia


In the 1870s in Lahore, a series of musha’irahs (or poetic symposia) were organised by the Anjuman-i-Punjab, where the poets Altaf Hussain Hali and Mohammad Husain Azad among others, presented speeches and poetry that hailed a revolution in Urdu poetics. The style, diction, and themes introduced by Hali’s ‘Musaddas’ launched the modern free verse or ‘nazm’ in Urdu, which soon became a mouthpiece for nationalist resistance. Poetry gradually began constructing links between the nation and the literary sphere.

Though socio-literary gatherings like the musha’irah were traditional performative spaces, the flourishing print culture and proliferation of journals and magazines expanded the scope of the Urdu public sphere exponentially in the late nineteenth century. The literary exchanges between poets and their audience allowed for much covert subversion, and hence came to be closely policed by colonial authorities for ‘vulgarity’ and ‘bad’ poetic standards.

The proposed study will peruse selected articles from Urdu magazines like Makhzan and Zamindar, to highlight the subversive role of nazms. Poems and letters published by poets like Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Hasrat Mohani, and Zafar Ali Khan will shed light on new standards in modern Urdu poetics.