by: Dr Afzal Mirza
The Sunday News: 04, Feb, 2007
I first read some Urdu poems of Sharif Kunjahi in one of the magazines of the progressive writers movement which was at its peak during the first few years after partition. The movement which was initiated just before World War II was inspired by the rise of communism in Soviet Russia and the sensitive young men of that period saw in it the emancipation of the wretched of the earth. The economic depression of that period had its effect on India and famines, unemployment and poverty loomed large throughout the country. The younger generation that had experienced hardships during the period saw the panacea to their economic problems in implementation of the socialistic order in their newly independent countries.
In Pakistan therefore the young writers joined the movement in large numbers and soon Progressive Writers Association (PWA) became the most active literary organization of the country. Sharif Kunjahi who had already started writing poetry on themes related to the predicament of common man also joined the movement after the partition and wrote prolifically in Urdu. But soon the government which had decided to support the anti-communism forces in conjunction with American agenda of the cold war period came down with a heavy hand on PWA and not only was the association banned but its main office-bearers were arrested. Sharif Kunjahi who was away from the main center of activity however continued with his literary work silently now concentrating on his Punjabi writing for which he had already made a name in pre-partition Punjab.
I remember having met Kunjahi sahib for the first time in early 1950s when our Government College teacher and famous leftist writer Safdar Mir tried to revive the Punjabi Cultural Society. It is a pity that in many write-ups on Punjabi movement in Pakistani Punjab the contribution of Safdar Mir is totally ignored. I have a feeling that had he not revived the Society and mobilized the young writers like Asif Khan, Raja Rasaloo, Akmal Aleemi and the undersigned and started holding weekly meetings the Punjabi movement would not have made strides as it made during the later period. At its meetings he would invite people like Abdul Majid Salik, Sharif Kunjahi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ustad Daman, Ahmad Rahi and others and Board Room of YMCA would bustle with activity when a meeting of Society was called. Here in one of the meetings I met Kunjahi sahib. He came out to be a modestly dressed person totally unpretentious and a typical Gujrati with a short trimmed black beard. In that meeting he presented a paper on Punjabi linguistics. I think early recognition did not come Kunjahi's way because though he started writing in 1930s, like Majid Amjad he published his poetic anthologies much later after partition. Secondly he chose to remain away from Lahore for a long time. In his memoirs Kartar Singh Duggal has mentioned a lot about Prof Mohan Singh a contemporary of Kunjahi who is considered as a pioneer of modern Punjabi poetry but Kunjahi is missing. In his paper entitled West Punjabi poetry: From Ustad Daman to Najm Hosain Syed published in the Journal of Punjab Studies University of California well known Punjabi activist Safir Rammah has aptly highlighted the contribution of Kunjahi in these words,
"Until Partition, Sharif Kunjahi was the only Muslim poet who can be classified as a modern poet. Sharif Kunjahi started writing poetry in 1930s at about the same time when Prof. Mohan Singh introduced secular themes and a new style in Punjabi poetry. Most West Punjabi critics rightfully credit him as the pioneer of modern Punjabi poetry along with Mohan Singh. While Mohan Singh is acclaimed by East Punjabi critics as the poet who ushered Punjabi poetry in the modern era, Sharif Kunjahi's role as one of the pioneers of modern Punjabi poetry is not widely recognized in East Punjab. One reason could be that Sharif Kunjahi is not a prolific poet and has published only two anthologies of his poetry, both long after partition. He started writing poetry in early 30s but his first collection of Punjabi poetry Jagraate (sleepless nights) was first published in Gurmukhi in East Punjab in 1958, and wasn't published in Shahmukhi in West Punjab until 1965. It contained only 37 poems. His second anthology Orak Hondi Lou (dimming light) was published in 1995. Mohan Singh's first anthology of poetry Sawe Patter (green leaves) on the other hand was published in 1936 and was immediately recognized as a ground breaking book, and it is still among the most well known poetry books by East Punjabi writers in West Punjab."
As pointed out by Rammah the variation in scripts of Punjabi language practiced in the two Punjabs has been a big handicap in the introduction of the writings of both the Punjabs in the respective intelligentsias.
As is evident from his name Kunjahi was born in 1914 in a small town of District Gujrat known as Kunjah. His father Ghulam Mohyuddin who was a teacher and poet himself named his son as Mohammad Sharif. Sharif's grandfather was also a poet therefore poetry was in his genes. For me, introduction to Kunjahi came from late Prof. Ali Abbas Jalalpuri who taught philosophy in Government College Lahore. Shah sahib (as Jalalpuri was generally called) had an amazing memory and would narrate old anecdotes combining quotes of great philosophers. Incidentally Jalalpuri and Sharif Kunjahi were classfellows who attended school at Jalalpur Jattan.
Sharif Kunjahi had once disclosed to his friends why he joined progressive movement. Actually both the friends (Jalalpuri and Sharif) had a common interest in philosophy and psychology and Sharif's leanings towards progressive writers movement were due to his study of Karl Marks and Bertrand Russell. Actually he was a great admirer of the latter. Besides this he had also studied Freud, Adler and Jung with great interest. That had an effect on his thinking as a young writer. He was drawn away from old dogmatic schisms and started thinking in terms of secularism.
Though an Urdu poet to begin with, Kunjahi soon realized that best sentiments could only be conveyed in the mother tongue so he gradually switched to Punjabi altogether. Explaining why he switched over to Punjabi he once said, "Gradually I came to feel that the fragrance of this region is present in me but not in my Urdu poetry. With this feeling I distanced myself from Urdu gradually. Every language has its own emotional and intellectual ambience which influences the writer and overtakes him completely. The emotional ambience of Urdu poetry is different from from Punjabi poetry. Not only is Punjabi poetry different from Urdu, but also Persian poetry and even Punjabi mystical poetry is a different experience from Persian mystical poetry."
After his wife's death in 1980 he gave up writing poetry and devoted himself to research and translation work. His translation of Holy Quran in two volumes and translation of Iqbal's poetry were widely acclaimed. His research in Punjabi linguistics tracing the foreign influences, similarities and parallels is also of very high standard. Commenting on his poetry Safir Rammah rightly remarked, "Kunjahi's poetry is a complete break from the qissa and Sufi traditions. Even his earliest poems have all the elements of modern poetry: secularism, expression of individualist experience, awareness of social and political changes around him. Without being overburdened by excessive symbolism or extreme emotions, Kunjahi's poetry is a realistic and balanced expression of his social consciousness in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. He played a crucial role in setting new directions for Punjabi poetry and opened the doors for post-Partition poets to move away from the traditional style of writing poetry.