Jawaid Danish Interviews Zahir Anwar on his Lifetime Achievement Award Presented by Rangmanch Canada.

Zahir Anwar in Toronto

Zahir Anwar interviewed by DD Urdu. Programme - SARGARMIYAN aired on DD Urdu channel. 

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Angaroo ka Shahar Saleeb Nayee mausam
ka pahla din
Masgan July2001
Spl edition on
Mr Zahir Anwar
Francise Darame
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Ek Earz-e-Taman Drama, Art & Technique Chirag e Rahguzar Black Sunday
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With Dr. Khalid Sohail
With Dr. Peter Manuel
Ghazala Zahir
Raheel Shadab, Zahir Anwar, Dr. Peter Manuel & Sharjeel Ahmer.

Zahir Anwar as I Have Known Him  -  Peter Manuel

When I first met Zahir Anwar in 1974, he was a clerk in a hotel where I happened to be staying. It did not take us long to become friends, as I was greatly attracted and impressed by his warmth and sincerity, his social consciousness, his erudition in both Western and Urdu culture, and his voracious appetite for intellectual stimulation. For me, Anwar was a friend and companion, and a fascinating window into Calcutta's intellectual life, a heady bohemian world of cinema, drama, Urdu, Bengali, and English literature, and animated discussions in tea-houses, where the conversation ranged from Shakespeare to Satyajit Ray. Anwar embodied the best of this world, especially its fusion of intellectual inquisitiveness with a concern for social justice.

Anwar and I would certainly have remained friends, even if he had never amounted to more than just another frustrated intellectual, or a once inquisitive young man who subsequently settled into a life of conservatism and mediocrity. But of course, Anwar has become much more than that, and it has been a pleasure and an inspiration for me to watch Anwar develop into a brilliant and unique literary figure - a critic, a translator, teacher, and above all, a renowned dramatist and the author of three books of plays.

                  Although I have known Anwar more as a personal friend than as a public figure, it is clear that in the realm of public culture he is best known as a dramatist, and it is the theater that has been the primary focus of his creative energies. I am neither a drama critic nor an Urdu scholar, and am not qualified to make a professional, critical assessment of Anwar's place in contemporary Indian culture. Nevertheless, his plays have certainly made their impression on me, and I am happy to share my reactions to them. Max Raphael once wrote, "Paradoxically, the work of art closest to perfection is both most profoundly determined by its time and goes furthest beyond it into timelessness." And it is this quality about Anwar's work that impresses me most deeply. On one level, his plays are firmly rooted in his own surroundings, in the intensity, the vicissitudes and the tribulations of lower- and lower-middle-class life in Calcutta. There is no attempt at escapist fantasy, no flight into medieval folklore, nor any slavish imitation of Western models.

His plays seem to me like a set of vines and bushes, with leaves, thorns, and yes, flowers, that squeeze through cracks in Beck Bagan sidewalks, and in spite of the heat and dust, finally manage to establish themselves, triumphantly affirming the value of organic life in an otherwise harsh and brutal atmosphere.

Yet while Anwar's plays are so intimately bound to their Calcutta environment, at the same time, they have a universality, which makes them potentially meaningful to much broader audiences. This universality derives, on one level, from Anwar's ongoing engagement with Western literary culture, from Shakespeare and Marlowe to Brecht and Artaud. (And although it is my profession to be well-read, in the field of Western literature I could never match Anwar's erudition). Anwar's plays, especially his later ones like "Naqaara," combine his learning in Western culture with his command of Urdu literature, in an organic, coherent synthesis. But perhaps a more significant source of his work's universality is its engagement with humanistic concerns —

social justice, the role of the artist in an unappreciative society, and the individual's confrontation with the impersonal state and, ultimately, with death.

The one play of his which I have seen performed was his "Salim Sherwani ki Shadi," a delightful adaptation of Feydeau's "Marry-Go-Wrong," which he not only translated into Urdu but restaged so convincingly to a Bengali setting that it seemed impossible to imagine it set in any other time or place. "Salim Sherwani" showed Anwar's extraordinary gift for humour, for character delineation, and for synthesizing East and West in an organically unified art work. However, humour is perhaps less prominent in most of Anwar's plays. Rather, what tends to predominate is a darker, more tragic tone, perhaps rooted more in the ranj-o-gham of Urdu poetry, the fervent social realism of Bengali art film, and ultimately, Anwar's own personal struggles for the dignity and survival of himself, his family, and all the downtrodden of Calcutta and India. Much of Anwar's work is permeated with intense pathos, frustration, alienation, and suffering. However, I think it would be a mistake to regard these features as expressions of despair and cynicism, for they represent just the opposite, namely, a sense of commitment to justice, a belief in the essential dignity of the human soul, and the idea that life is not worth living unless one is actively engaged in a struggle for dignity. From such a perspective, it is escapist entertainment that expresses nihilism and cynicism, in the idea that life can never offer more than drudgery punctuated by occasional moments of respite via cinematic fantasies or the occasional bottle of whiskey. For me, Anwar's plays express a belief that in a world full of injustice and suffering, to be fully human means to be engaged in struggle against such conditions, and thereby to transcend them - spiritually, if not materially. This is not a philosophy of renunciation, escape, or cynical exploitation, but one based on the affirmation of value and meaning in human life. To commit oneself to such an uncompromising struggle, whether on the immediate personal level or on the abstract political level, means to condemn oneself to a life of perpetual frustration. Yet this is also a profoundly humanistic worldview, asserting that human dignity lies ultimately in such an engagement and the pain it ensues. As Ghalib wrote, 

Anwar has told me that I have been a source of inspiration for him. But the vicissitudes of my middle-class life in America are trivial compared to those of the average Calcutta citizen, and especially to those of an inspired, committed, and decidedly un-commercial artist. Anwar's life and work are a genuine inspiration. Were he to retire from cultural activities now, having produced so much, his contribution would be already formidable. But it does not seem to be his nature to withdraw or relax, and I suspect we can look forward to much more from him.
My dear friend Zahir Anwer!
Today is my last day of my two weeks of inspiring and exciting trip to Europe. I wished you were traveling with me, the way we traveled in India and saw wonderful places including Taj Mahal, not only to have intellectually stimulating discussions, but also so that I could introduce you to my other dear friends, my second family, my family of the heart.

For the last few days I am staying with Abrar Hasan just outside Paris. It is so peaceful and inspiring being in this little town of Louvecienne which has a special association with Anais Nin and Henry Miller. I remember how passionate discussions we had about Nin’s diaries a few years ago. I still believe those diaries are wonderful pieces of literature with profound insights in human relationships. Abrar goes to his office during the day and I spend a lot of time with myself. I read and write and contemplate and introspect. I am gradually realizing how valuable it is for us as writers to spend time with ourselves, so that we can integrate or experiences and observations in the depths of our souls and create literature. In the evening Abrar and I go for long drives and walks and have a creative dialogue during dinner. I am also becoming aware how important our artist friends are for our intellectual growth. I wish you could meet Abrar one of these days. He is a multi-talented and multi-faceted man. Professionally he is a well-respected economist and is held in high esteem by French and Canadian governments. Creatively he plays harmonium, sings ghazals and writes wonderful philosophical poems. He is a great admirer of N.M. Rashid’s poems and his courageous and outspoken personality. For the last few days we have been walking on the streets of Paris and sitting in the cafes sipping tea or coffee or wine discussing art and literature and life and love. One evening we went to the café where Sartre and Simone used to go and discuss existentialism and feminism and took some pictures. Paris feels so vibrant and alive and creativo-genic even at midnight. I have fallen in love with Paris. I can walk in this city aimlessly for hours, strolling by the riverside, getting lost in the narrow streets and enjoy every moment of it. Those narrow streets are mysterious and mystical. I wish I could speak French and talk to charming French women. They seem so full of life. Once I asked Abrar what was the French woman on the next table saying. He translated her comments in these words, ‘Men and women are very different. Men want sex from women even if they have to offer love and women want love even if they have to offer sex’ I wonder whether you would agree with that French woman.

I told Abrar a lot about you. I shared with him that in my eyes you are the Camus and Kafka and Sartre of the East, how much I value your ideas and how much I feel proud of our friendship. Abrar told me that he had already read your translations of French plays and wanted to meet you one day. I wish Abrar can absorb some of your energy and enthusiasm and borrow some of your creative sparks. Abrar gets so overwhelmed by his work and family responsibilities that he does not have much energy left for his creative work.

During my trip to Europe I realized that some of the Eastern writers and artists living in the West have become creative islands. They are neither part of Eastern nor Western mainstream. They rarely have opportunities to discuss their creative products with other artists. That has been one reason why I always try to call them, write to them and visit them whenever I can so that their sparks of creativity can turn into flames rather than ashes. Creativity is a great gift of life. Most of us take it for granted and do no value it. Creativity is a beloved that needs to be taken care of and appreciated on a regular basis. I have met a few writers and artists and philosophers who did not water the creative plant and finally it withered away. I value creative people as they are our social conscience and torch bearers of humanity. I am developing a keen interest in the biographies of creative men and women to understand the mysteries of the relationship of creativity and insanity. While discussing that subject yesterday Abrar and I discovered a common interest in the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most fascinating artists of all times, who could creatively transform his pains into paintings. Abrar was kind enough take me to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise, similar to Louvecienne where Van Gogh spent the last few weeks of his life. In that village he created 70 paintings in 70 days. Abrar and I visited that small room where Van Gogh died in the arms of his brother after he shot himself. We had lunch in the restaurant he used to eat and saw a short film about his paintings. I still remember a line from that film, ‘It is very difficult to be simple’ a motto I tried to follow in my writings all my life. We walked on the streets Van Gogh used to walk. We saw the buildings that inspired him to paint. We saw that church which is immortalized in his painting. It was amazing for me to find out that Van Gogh wanted to become a minister before he chose to be an artist. Finally we saw that cemetery where he is buried next to his brother Theo. They were so close to each other all their lives that they seem like emotional and spiritual twins. Vincent wrote hundreds of letters to his brother Theo. Theo was so attached to his brother than he could not live more than a few months after his brother’s death. I was lucky to find the collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters in his museum.

Dear Zahir! If you have not read Van Gogh’s letters, I would strongly suggest you to read them. In those letters I feel that sadness and melancholy that I sometimes find in your letters. You can touch that pain and sorrow that reside in the depths of human soul. I am fascinated by those intellectuals who can give birth to masterpieces from the womb of their painful experiences. Lucky are the artists who can transform their breakdowns into breakthroughs.

After visiting Van Gogh’s grave Abrar took me to another small town called Rouen where Joan of Arc was kept in jail and later on burnt alive at the age of 19. Joan of Arc was condemned for sharing her spiritual experiences that was a catalyst of a political revolution. It is amazing how religious institutions can be heartless and punitive. She was persecuted for sharing her personal TRUTH. Centuries later the church realized its mistake and apologized.

Dear Zahir! Whenever I go on these trips there is so much I see and experience and learn and I get inspired and then create. Traveling has always stimulated my creative thoughts.

This time before I went to France, I also visited Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany and met my dear friends. In Sweden I met Sain Sucha who has published a number of books already. It was exciting to see his poems and stories in Swedish anthologies. He seemed to be well connected with the writers’ community in Sweden. I also met my dear friend Ahmed Faqih. He is a wonderful poet but unfortunately has socially withdrawn over the years. We had a passionate dialogue about Secular Humanism.

In Denmark I met Nasar Malik, a well known journalist and Sohun Qadri, a well respected artist, who took me to a special community called Christiana where thousands of those men and women live who do not want to be part of the mainstream society. In that town no Danish laws are implemented. All those artists and writers and intellectuals live the way they want to live. They can drink and smoke as much as they want. They can sell drugs. They can walk naked. They can build their own houses. They can create whatever they wish. I am fascinated to find out that Sohun Qadri was one of the pioneers of that community in early seventies. He lived there for a few months. Even now many people greeted him while we were walking on the streets.

In Germany I met Naeema and her husband Zia. It was unfortunate that Naeema who is an excellent short story and travelogue writer had been sick for a while, Zia and I had engaging discussion how the institution of religion stunts the growth of critical thinking in people. I had never had such an open dialogue with him before. I was impressed by his liberal attitude. Naeema felt bad that she could not be part of our discussions. I am fascinated to see how my book From Islam to Secular Humanism is encouraging people to verbalize their doubts about the institution of religion and share their intellectual, spiritual and philosophical journey.

In Norway I spent some time with Masood Munawar and his friends. He took me to the annual meeting of Norwegian Rotary Club where he was the only Asian member. They welcomed me with open arms and I learnt about Norwegian initiatives about world peace movement. Masood Munawar, a prolific writer has suffered in his life because of his ideas. At one time because of his political ideology and criticism of army dictatorship in Pakistan he was persecuted and had to spend some time in exile. Later on he was chosen as the prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and adopted by Norway. He has a great command of Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, English and Norwegian. I was pleasantly surprised when another Pakistani political activist Khalid Salimi asked him to review my book in Norwegian for his magazine.

In Norway I also felt sad because I missed our dear friend Saeed Anjum. Oslo felt so incomplete, empty and barren without him. On his death I remembered what Simone had said on her final separation from Sartre.

Your death separated us
My death will not bring us together
What a powerful statement about an atheist loving relationship! It is a sad thought that all loving relationships are temporary. For the same reason they are so precious and worthwhile.

Dear Zahir! I feel fortunate to have such dear friends who shower me with their love and affection and respect. We bring out the best in each other, which in my eyes is the final test of creative friendship. There were many times you were in my thoughts. This letter is to acknowledge some of those moments.

I will look forward to your next letter as your letters are always intellectually stimulating and inspiring. They are full of that spark that keeps the candle of life and creativity burning.
Your alter-ego,
Taken from Dr. K. Sohail's Website -







Letters, are the reflections of one's mind. From Anwar's letters in "Lasting Impressions", where thought flow like a cascade, the reader can study the growth & development of Anwar's mind & the inner history of his being.
In a rapidly changing world of consumerism, the value of human relationship is more than often undermined. Anwar's "Lasting Impressions" is like a zephyr ushering in glad tidings amidst a moribund atmosphere of self-promotion, erosion of values and the negation of real fellow-ship. Anwar is ever willing to walk the extra mile to forge new relationships, transcending the barriers of religion, caste, creed & language.
To sum up, "Lasting Impressions" is a celebration of friendship, camaraderie and all the good things of life which are fast becoming extinct.

Kudos to him for taking the path less trodden.
Shakil Ahmed

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