Urdu Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Urdu Literature


one of the chief literatures of India and Pakistan; it is written in the Urdu language.

The earliest known works of Urdu literature, which was influenced by classical Persian literature, date from the 11th and 12th centuries. The founder of Urdu poetry was Amir Khusrau Dehlavi (1253–1325). From the 15th to the 17th century, Urdu literature developed mainly in such Muslim principalities of the Deccan as Bijapur, Golconda, and Vijayanagar. Written in Da-khini (Hindustani), early Urdu literature consisted of mystical religious poetry influenced by Sufism and the bhakti movement, as well as of secular poetry. Because of the religious toleration of the principalities’ rulers, Muslim and Hindu themes became prominent in Urdu literature. During the Deccan period, all the principal genres of Persian poetry—the mathnawi, ghazal, rubai, marsiyeh, and qasida—were represented in Urdu literature.

Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (15687–1611) wrote the first divan in Urdu, as well as works reflecting life in the Deccan. Ibrahim Adil Shah (1580–1627) wrote a collection of poems set to music, Nine Melodies. Numerous mathnawis were written in the 17th and 18th centuries. They included The Flower Bed of Love by Nusrati (died 1674), Qissa-e Saifu’l-muluk va Badi-ul-Jamal by Ghawasi, The Flower Bed by Ibn-e Nishati (late 17th to early 18th century), and Qutb and Mushtari by Mulla Vajhi (1625 to 1672 or earlier). Mulla Vajhi also wrote one of the first prose works of Urdu literature, the allegorical tale All the Senses.

The highest achievements of Deccan poetry were the works of Vali Aurangabadi (c. 1668–1744). After the Deccan principalities lost their independence, the centers of Urdu literature became the northern cities of Delhi, Lucknow, and Rampur. Prominent poets of the 18th century included Faiz of Delhi (early 18th century), Mazmun (died 1747), Shah Mubarak Abru (died 1750), Arzu (1689–1756), and Hatim (1699–1791).

In the late 18th century, prose became firmly established in Urdu literature. The dastans in the Urdu literary tradition were folktales with elements of fantasy that were mainly adaptations of Sanskrit and Persian works. With the establishment of Fort William College in Calcutta (1800) and Delhi College (1827), many literary works were translated and adapted from the languages of the East and of Western Europe. Beginning in the 1840’s, humanist publicist works were written by Ram Chandar and other authors. Humanist poets of the period included Mir Taqi Mir (1724–1810), Nazir Akbarabadi (1740–1830), and Mirza Asad Allah Ghalib (1797–1869); Ghalib’s poetry was imbued with a sense of imminent social change. After Mir Khvaja Dard (1721–85), many poets wrote works in the tradition of mystical Sufi poetry, which reflected the decline of traditional Muslim society. A group of poets writing refined, formalist erotic poetry in Lucknow included Rangin Sardat-yar (1755–1834) and Jan Sahib. Poetic technique was perfected and the new meter of the mukhammas was introduced. The marsiyeh flourished in the work of Mir Anis (1802–74) and Mirza Dabir (1803–75); the historical and religious themes in their poetry reflected Indian life.

Humanist Urdu literature became fully developed in the last third of the 19th century. The novel was the foremost genre, as seen in the didactic novels of Nazir Ahmad (1836–1912), the adventure novels of R. Sarshar (1846 or 1847 to 1903), the historical novels of Abdul-Halim Sharar (1860–1926), and the socially oriented novels of Mirza Rusva (1858–1931). Humanism and patriotism typified the poetry and literary criticism of Muhammad Husain Azad (1829–1910), Hali (1837–1914), and Muhammad Shibli Numani (1857–1914).

The most important poet writing in Urdu in the early 20th century was Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), whose philosophical poetry dealt with the most profound problems of human life. A social orientation was typical of Urdu literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s; the method of critical realism was reflected in the novels and stories of Prem Chand (1880–1936). In 1936 the Association of Progressive Writers of India was founded; its members took part in the anticolonial struggle and wrote works with a socialist orientation. These writers included the revolutionary romantic Josh Malihabadi (born 1898) and Sajjad Zaheer (1905–73), Krishan Chandar (born 1913), Khvaja Ahmad Abbas (born 1914), and Rajindar Singh Bedi (born 1915). The poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz (born 1911), Mahdum Mohiyuddin (1908–69), Ali Sardar Jafri (born 1913), and Ahmad Nadim Qasimi (born 1916) reformed traditional poetry and imbued it with a new social content. Marxist literary criticism was written by Ihtisham Husain (1912–72), Sajjad Zaheer, and Mumtaz Husain (born 1919). Formalist poets of the 1930’s included Miraji (1910–49) and Nur Muhammad Rashid (born 1910).

After India became independent and was partitioned in 1947, Urdu literature continued to develop in both India and Pakistan. At the same time, this literature acquired distinctive features in each of these countries owing to their different courses of historical development.

Modern Indian prose writers writing in Urdu include Krishan Chandar, Bedi, I. Chughtai Abbas, R. S. Zaheer (born 1918), Qurratu’l-ain Haidar (born 1927), and Jilani Bano (born 1936). Among poets writing in Urdu are Kayfi Azmi, Jafi, and the masters of the ghazal Firaq Gorakhpuri (born 1896) and Majruh Sultanpuri (born 1919). In Pakistan the major realist prose writers are Saadat Manto (1912–55), Qasmi, Ghulam Abbas (born 1909), Mirza Adib (born 1914), Shaukat Siddiqui, Hajira Masroor (born 1929), Khadija Mastoor (born 1927), and Jamila Hashmi. Poets of the older generation, including Faiz, Josh Malihabadi, Qasmi, Farigh Bokhari (born 1919), and Qateel Shifai, continue to be active. In addition, the poets Ahmad Faraz, Fahmida Riyaz, Zuhra Nigah, and Sehar Ansari, who first published in the 1950’s and 1960’s, have achieved considerable success.

The development of Urdu dramaturgy is hampered by the absence of a professional theater company. Nevertheless, plays by Imtiyaz Ali Taj, Mirza Adib, Ishrat Rahmani, and Muhammad Hasan are staged by amateur groups. One-act dramas and plays written for radio performance are popular.

Literary criticism in Urdu deals with literary theory and the history of Urdu literature. Modern literary journals include Kitab (Lucknow), Shair (Bombay), Asri adab (Delhi), Afkar and Pakistani adab (Karachi), Sang-o-mel (Peshawar), and Funoon and Nukum (Lahore).


Ikhtisham Husain, S. Istoriia literatury urdu. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from Hindi.)
Zograf, G. A. Khindustani na rubezhe XVIII i XIX vv. Moscow, 1961.
Glebov, N. V. “Natsional’nye i demokraticheskie motivy v klassicheskoi poezii urdu.” In Poeziia narodov Indii. Moscow, 1962.
Glebov, N. V., and A. S. Sukhochev. Literatura urdu. Moscow, 1967.
Sukhochev, A. S. Ot dastana k romanu. Moscow, 1971.
Aligarh tarikh-i adab-i Urdu. Aligarh, 1962.
Sadiq, M. A History of Urdu Literature. London-Karachi-Lahore-Dacca, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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