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UMRAO SINGH SHER GIL: The Value of Iqbal’s work

Photograph of Iqbal taken by
Umrao Singh Sher Gil
in Paris in 1933
has become iconic since then

The following is a foreword written by Umrao Singh Sher Gil for A Voice from the East (1922) by Sir Zulfiqar Ali Khan. Umrao Singh also translated Iqbal’s Urdu poems for the volume. A close friend of Iqbal, he was also the father of the renowned Indian painter Amrita Sher Gil.

Sir Zulfiqar Ali Khan has tried in this paper to throw some light on the springs of Iqbal's genius as a poet and a thinker, who through his powerful expression draws the attention of the world to those constructive principles which underlie religion – Islam in this case particularly. To try to fathom the depths of genius is a profitable task for the individual, but as hopeless as fathoming nature. Unlike the platitudes of the common mind it does not yield to anyone, but presents a vista of vision which unfolds with the progress of the race. The poet writes not for the past or even for the present, but for the coming age, and therein lies the possibility of his partial or fuller achievement. We skim the surface of the deep and take our fill.

To speak of the real value of Iqbal’s poetry would be to scandalize the current notions. To do this with some restraint of enthusiasm is difficult but necessary. So far as his aesthetic value is concerned, for those who are endowed with some redefined feeling for the charm for real beauty and harmony of words which have at the same time something to convey, touch with Iqbal’s verse can be likened to one thing only, the feeling of sublimated and purified love. It is akin to reading the highest masters of Persian verse. Besides, his verse contains the concentrated mass of thought which characterizes other masters of Persian verse who do not possess the aesthetic charm developed to that degree was we find for example in Hafiz. He combines idea with beauty of expression which one hardly finds in his precursors who represent either one or other quality in its excellence but who lack necessarily that something modern which preeminently belongs to him.

As to the constructive idea which he has tried to represent in his longer Persian poems, it is an attempt, and a very legitimate one, to prevent the premature broadening of the mystic sense of religious feeling which leads to seeming toleration but hides indifference towards duty, and neutralizes and destroys the function of religion by trying to pour into unworthy vessels the elixir of experience which they cannot possibly contain. Men talk and profess things which they do not understand, and thus misinterpret, leading to chaos and decay and absence of that strength which characterizes real faith and belief based on living experience, and thus help the disintegration of the social organism which religious feeling alone can hold together and help forward to progress. In this, his work is akin to that which the Bhagwad Gita essayed to accomplish for Brahmanism, and which consisted in the application of the religio-philosophical idea to the maintenance and progress of human society from which it had been divorced and the neglect of which resulted in its disintegration. What looks like a narrowing tendency in these later poems is nothing but an attempt at wedding together of these two and bringing about a union between them. The poet had seen long ago the chaos which materialism has engendered in Europe and the world, but which at first seemed to be the forerunner of progress. He aims at eliminating the weakness of undefined mysticism on the one hand and the still worse disintegrating tendency of materialism on the other. Read in this sense, as it seems to me these poems are meant, they are of universal application, though apparently addressed merely to the Islamic world.

Another famous photograph of Iqbal
taken by Umrao Singh Sher Gil
in Paris in 1933
While reading one of these poems with the poet, I have been struck with the wealth and terseness of constructive ideas which escape one in a cursory reading due to the association of the words with their older significance. He is enriching the content of idea in the words which his poetical genius has so appropriately selected for their phonetic harmony, in a manner which reveals the truly creative nature of his work. The future ages will read more sense into these words and expressions as we find in other languages which have not remained stationary, and the future generations will understand them better than we do now. In this consists the value of his work as a man who has ploughed up the soil of race ideas in their language, adding fresher significance to words, as we find in the works of F. W. Bain who has enriched the content of word and phrase in English language by adding to them the significance of classic India which they hitherto lacked. With the same grace and absence of awkwardness Iqbal has been handling the Persian and Urdu tongues.

The word-harmony and beauty of Hafiz is wedded to the wealth and terseness of a Rumi, which had a happy combination in Saadi, but this is more for the fact of its modernism. And yet Saadi does not touch Hafiz aesthetically, which Iqbal seems surely to do in the ode; and though in the more serious style of the longer poems the aesthetic level cannot be naturally kept up to his odes, in Iqbal you find a Rumi soaring above the halting and laboured style of the latter in which beauty does not keep pace with ideas, and where a certain amount of word-padding is to be found which one so happily misses in Iqbal. This is a thing which no translation can show in the case of Iqbal or any real poet – while the translations from the mediocre poets will sometimes sound better than the original – for, as has become a truism, only a poet can translate a poet, and that is hardly ever necessary.

Often at the house of my friend Sir Zulfiqar have I seen Iqbal enveloped in that blue haze which has become the accompaniment of the genial and magnetic atmosphere thrilling with subtle poetic vibrations which require no stretch of imagination to feel. Converse at such times has ceased through the touch of that spirit which precedes his song. There must be some dull spirits who would remain unaffected, but I find it hard to imagine any existing at such times. The pure and sparkling ambrosia of the gods flows and is demanded again and again, and one feels a wish to share it with other kindred spirits. Partly from these impulses and partly from a desire to light up, though momentarily, an edifice which seldom sees unconventional lights, arose the impulse to write this paper in the breast of my friend, and it may be hoped that though some windows may be closed still, this glow might get in through different chinks, “and steal in through another way,” as Hafiz says. The other day I found one of his verses inscribed in a most unexpected place, and no mean street wall too. I could not help smiling at the ways of life, and I hope I have not smiled for the last time in this matter. All credit to my friend. In the present instance the labor has been strenuous and prolonged, though no burden, I am sure. “The inebriate camel carries lightly,” as Saadi says, and still more so on the way to Hijaz, as in this instance. And this to my mind symbolizes the work, with its poetical wine and the direction to which the caravan happens to be moving.

Umrao Singh Sher Gil
Simla: 15 May 1922
Umrao Singh (left) with Iqbal (right) in Paris, 1933
(Pictures are from my book Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006) and have been reproduced here with the courtesy of Iqbal Academy Pakistan)

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