Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ismat Chughtai (1915 - 1991)

Never heard of her huh. Well, neither did I, but we are talking about a Muslim woman whose work has heralded the birth of a revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in twentieth century Urdu literature. She explored feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility, and other evolving conflicts in the modern Muslim world. She wrote novels, short stories such as The Quilt, Chui Muee, Gharwali, Mughal Baccha, and film scripts (e.g. Junoon, 1978)

Ismat was born in Uttar Pradesh, as the ninth of ten children. Since her older sisters got married while Ismat was very young, the better part of her childhood was spent in the company of her brothers, a factor which she admits contributed greatly to the frankness in her nature and writing.

After her B.A., Ismat worked for a B.T. (a Bachelor’s in Education), thus becoming the first Indian Muslim woman to have earned both degrees. In this period she started writing in secret. While she was still in college, her first short story Fasaadi (The Troublemaker) was published in Saqi, a prestigious literary magazine.

In 1941 she wrote her short story "The Quilt" ("Lihaaf" in Urdu) which dealt with gay relations, sex abuse and the needs of a woman in cloistered household, established her as a fierce writer and a feminist. The story can be read on the website Women living under Muslim laws (Femmes sous lois musulmanes) that has permission of the late Ismat Chugtai’s family.

Lihaaf led Ismat to being charged with obscenity by then government. Though she was later acquitted when her lawyer successfully argued that the story could not be a corrupting influence because the subject would only be understood by someone who has had a lesbian experience.

Famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah is presently Amsterdam with his Motley Theatre Company to perform Ismat apa ke naam, an hommage to Ismat Chugtai. The performance consists of three monologues:
  1. - Chui Muee starring Shah's wife
  2. - Mughal Baccha starring Shah's daughter
  3. - Gharwali starring Shah himself.
The monologues are all in Urdu, but a translation is provided. As for the great Naseeruddin Shah himself, my interview with him can be read in Dagblad De Pers. Click on Friday 9 November and then scroll down to page 19 (Culture pages).

Several of Mr Shah's film can be seen at the Tropentheater until this coming Wednesday.