Maulana Altaf Husain Hali who died on December 31, 1914, is one of the greatest figures of Urdu literature. Born in 1837, at Panipat, and bred in the most stormy period of Indian History. Hali was destined to play an important role in shaping modern Urdu literature. Being a high-class biographer, an eminent poet, and above all an outstanding literary critic, he was, to a great extent, responsible for preparing the ground on which the grand edifice of modern Urdu poetry was built. In fact, he was the first to strike at the roots of conventionalism in Urdu poetry. He was a literary genius who greatly contributed towards the social, cultural, and political awakening of the Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent.
The great catastrophe of 1857 had shaken the entire social and political structure of India. The tottering Muslim Kingdoms of Delhi and Oudh were uprooted forever, and the well-known literary centers of Delhi and Lucknow which were established under the patronage of their Rulers disappeared with their patrons. But it served as an essential factor to reorientate the outlook of our litterateurs. The occasional contacts with English literature gave birth to the same tendencies in Urdu literature, which the “Renaissance” in the 16th century and the urge for “Romance” in the 18th century, had brought about for English literature. The persons first to respond to this call were Muhammad Husain Azad and Altaf Husain Hali. Hali, the famous disciple of Ghalib, inspired by the lead given by his celebrated teacher in the sphere of Urdu lyric and affected by the growing influence of Western thought proved to be the greatest exponent of modern Urdu poetry.
Far from being a conservative, he was liberal enough to accept and introduce the modern trends of Western literature. He provided the turning point in Urdu literature, especially in the spheres of poetry and literary biography and the difference in the Urdu literature produced before and after Hali is very pronounced.
Urdu language flourished during the decline of Muslim power in India, hence its old literature contains germs of a decadent society. The old Urdu poetry, which, in fact, was a child of Persian poetry suffered from hackneyed ideas, sophisticated and unnatural love themes.
Before the emergence of Hali on the literary horizon of India, only halfhearted effort was made at Fort William College, Calcutta, to simplify Urdu prose and Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar was a commendable effort in this direction. Ghalib, with his originality in thought and diction, had also struck at conventionalism in Urdu literature. But, it was Hali, who proved to be the real crusader against the deep-rooted conventionalism of Urdu literature and successfully accomplished this task during his lifetime.
Literary criticism was unknown in Urdu liteature before Hali, who wrote the first book on literary criticism in which he discussed the nature and evaluation of poetry which paved the way for modern Urdu poetry.
The publication of his Introduction to Poetry stands as the greatest landmark in the annals of Urdu literary criticism which was mainly instrumental in changing the course of Urdu poetry, particularly of the lyric. Hali, himself being an eminent poet, translated into practice what he preached. He widened the field of Urdu lyric and made it the vehicle of his diverse ideas. His lyrics are distinguished for sincerity and sublimity of thought as well as simplicity of diction.
Hali introduced a natural poem into Urdu poetry which was later developed by Iqbal, Chakbast, Akbar, and Josh. His “Mosaddas Maddo Jazr-i-Islam”. (The poem relating to the Rise and Fall of Islam) is recognized as a classic of Urdu poetry and is the most widely read Urdu poem. This poem, which beautifully portrays the rise of Islam in the world and the causes of its downfall, is one of the masterpieces of Urdu poetry. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who had requested the poet to write such a poem says:
“Of course it was I who persuaded him to take up this task and I think it to be one of my good deeds so that when God would ask me, what have you brought with you, I would reply that I have got the Musaddas written”.
Being deeply influenced by his environments, Hali wails the futility and misfortunes of human life. Like Saadi, Hali too was a great moralist, but his preachings, at times, suffer from the passivity of professional missionaries.
In elegy, too, Hali has given a lead to other Urdu elegists. Till his time, elegies in Urdu were confined to the conventional theme of the tragedy of Karbala. He was the first to write a personal elegy in Urdu poetry. His elegy on the death of his well-known teacher, Ghalib, fulfills all the conditions of modern elegy. The elegies written by Milton and Gray are criticized for being devoid of the personal touch, but Hali mournfully relates the loss which he suffered from the death of his great teacher.
The Aligarh School of thought led by the celebrated Sir Syed Ahmad Khan which included such intellectual luminaries of the age as Hali, Shibli, Mohsinul Mulk, Wiqarul Mulk, Nazir Ahmad, and Maulvi Chirag Ali, proved to be the greatest modernizing force in the sphere of Urdu literature. But, of all these intellectual giants, Hali was the greatest reformer. It was he who translated into action the revolutionary ideas of his school and played a dominant role in shaping the trends of modern Urdu literature.
He introduced literary biographies in Urdu and wrote three voluminous as well as brilliant biographies, namely, ‘Hayat-e-Sadi’ (Life of Saadi), ‘Yadgar-i-Ghalib’, (The Reminiscence of Ghalib) and ‘Hayat-i-Javed’ (Life of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan).
His style in prose bristles with simplicity, spontaneity, and sincerity. He discarded the flowery and high sounding language used in Urdu prose and adopted simple, lucid, and straightforward language for expressing his ideas. He, at times, makes.use of suitable English words in his writing and has thus enriched the Urdu vocabulary. Although not well versed in English language, he had fully understood the trends of English literature and has very creditably applied them to his critical study of Urdu poetry.
As a man, Hali was the very embodiment of humility and simplicity, hospitality, and humanitarianism. In one of his interesting articles, Maulvi Abdul Haq, who was a close associate of Hali, speaks very highly of him as a man and enumerates many qualities of his head and heart. His reforms, no doubt, evoked country-wide criticism, but whoever came in contact with him was received with a smiling countenance and a magnanimous heart. His severest critics were disarmed by his affability and accommodating spirit.
Thus, Maulana Altaf Husain Hali, who, though brought up in a conservative environment, was endowed with all the qualities of a reformer and with the efficient use of his modernizing weapons brought about the greatest revolution in the History of Urdu Literature.