Mirza Hadi Ruswa's Laila Majnun

By Taj, Afroz | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Mirza Hadi Ruswa's Laila Majnun


Taj, Afroz, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (1858-1931) is best known as the originator of the novel in Urdu. His 1895 novel Umrao Jan Ada [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is the prototype of the genre. Umrao Jan Ada, the fictionalized autobiography of a courtesan as narrated to the author, was the harbinger of the realist movement that was to dominate twentieth-century Indian literature. Ruswa's lone foray into drama, Maraqqa-e Laila Majnun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Album of Laila Majnun) was published in 1885. The play is a masterpiece of Urdu poetic drama and presents an important and enlightening contrast both to Ruswa's more famous novel and to the body of contemporary Urdu poetic drama then emerging from the Parsi theater. Despite its literary excellence, the Maraqqa-e Laila Majnun was an anomaly with respect to Ruswa's other work and within the context of his time. A close reading of the text illuminates many of its delights, including the author's critical voice, while helping to explain why the work is relatively unknown.

Mirza Hadi Ruswa was born in 1858 in Lucknow but later moved to Hyderabad. His parents died when he was only fifteen or sixteen years of age, and he was raised by an indifferent maternal aunt and uncle. He was married early and his wife, who is said to have been well educated, died young (1963, 2). Ruswa was a polymath who pursued interests in astrology, astronomy, chemistry, history, music, literature, and philosophy. He spoke many languages including Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit, and purportedly Hebrew (2-3). He began as a teacher but abandoned the profession to conduct experiments in chemistry and to pursue observations in astronomy. Among his more unusual accomplishments was the invention of a shorthand writing system in Urdu. He is said to have composed over four hundred musical ragas and raginis [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], (1) and to have adapted from Western practice a system of notation for Indian music (6). He founded several magazines, translated the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers and scientists into Urdu, and established an institute for translation in Hyderabad. Ruswa translated all of his own philosophical treatises into English and sent them to an unidentified American university, for which was granted a Ph.D. (1991, 5ff).

Ruswa was a prolific writer in many literary genres; he preferred the masnavi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and ghazal [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] forms, but he wrote novels in other genres as well, including several mysteries. He began by using the pen name (takhallus [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) "Mirza," but later adopted "Ruswa." Having achieved lasting fame in the field of Urdu literature, Ruswa died in Hyderabad in October 1931.

As a young man Ruswa attended performances by traveling Parsi theater troupes in Lucknow. Given his interests in poetry and music, Ruswa was intrigued by the idea of writing musical stage-dramas based on well-known folk tales and romances. He enjoyed the Parsi theater productions but was disappointed by the quality of the Urdu stage language (1963, 9). As a native Lucknavite, he was a staunch defender of the purity of the Delhi-Lucknow brand of Urdu. He reports that one of his friends characterized the language of the Parsi dramatists as the tongue of the Bombay fish markets (1963, 5ff).

Taking up the challenge of the Parsi theater sometime in the early 1880's, Ruswa conceived the notion of writing a poetic drama in pure, literary Urdu. For this experiment, he chose the tragic romance of Laila and Majnun. Based on the fictionalized life of a "mad poet" from seventh-century Arabia, this tale was popularized by Persian writers like Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) and then made its way into South Asia. Allusions to the story and its star-crossed lovers are found in Urdu literature from its beginnings. By Ruswa's time Laila Majnun was already one of the staples of the Parsi theater. …

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