Ismat Chughtai

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Ismat Chughtai
عصمت چُغتائی
Born(1915-08-21)21 August 1915
Badayun, United Province, Uttar Pradesh, India
Died24 October 1991(1991-10-24) (aged 76)
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
OccupationWriter, director
Alma materAligarh Muslim University
GenreShort stories and Novel
Literary movementProgressive Writers Movement
Notable worksWorks of Ismat Chughtai
Notable awardsPadma Shri (1976)
Ghalib Award (1984)
SpouseShahid Latif (1941–1967)[1]
ChildrenSeema Sawhny
Sabrina Lateef

Ismat Chughtai (21 August 1915 – 24 October 1991) was an Indian Urdu language writer. Beginning in the 1930s, she wrote extensively on themes including female sexuality and femininity, middle-class gentility, and class conflict, often from a Marxist perspective. With a style characterised by literary realism, Chughtai established herself as a significant voice in the Urdu literature of the twentieth century, and in 1976 was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India.


Early life and career beginnings (1915–41)[edit]

Ismat Chughtai was born on 21 August 1915 in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh to Nusrat Khanam and Mirza Qaseem Baig Chughtai;[2] she was ninth of ten children–six brothers, four sisters. The family shifted homes frequently as Chughtai's father was a civil servant; she spent her childhood in cities including Jodhpur, Agra, and Aligarh, mostly in the company of her brothers as her sisters had all got married while she was still very young. Chughtai described the influence of her brothers as an important factor which influenced her personality in her formative years. She thought of her second-eldest brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai, a novelist, as a mentor. The family eventually settled in Agra, after Chughtai's father retired from the Indian Civil Services.[3]

Chughtai received her primary education at the Women's College at the Aligarh Muslim University and graduated from Isabella Thoburn College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940.[4] Despite strong resistance from her family, she completed her Bachelor of Education degree from the Aligarh Muslim University the following year.[3] It was during this period that Chughtai became associated with the Progressive Writers' Association, having attended her first meeting in 1936 where she met Rashid Jahan, one of the leading female writers involved with the movement, who was later credited for inspiring Chughtai to write "realistic, challenging female characters".[5][6] Chughtai began writing in private around the same time, but did not seek publication for her work until much later.[6]

Chughtai wrote a drama entitled Fasādī فسادی (The Troublemaker) for the Urdu magazine Saqi ساقّی in 1939, which was her first published work. Upon publication, readers mistook it as a play by Chughtai's brother Azeem Beg, written using a pseudonym.[7] Following that, she started writing for other publications and newspapers. Some of her early works included Bachpan بچپن (Childhood), an autobiographical piece, Kafirکافر, her first short-story, and Dheet ڈھیٹ (Stubborn), her only soliloquy, among others.[8] In response to a story that she wrote for a magazine, Chughtai was told that her work was blasphemous and insulted the Quran.[9] She, nonetheless, continued writing about "things she would hear of".[9] Her continued association with the Progressive Writers' Movement had significant bearings on her writing style; she was particularly intrigued by Angaray انگارے, a compilation of short-stories by the progressive writers. Other early influences included such writers as William Sydney Porter, George Bernard Shaw, and Anton Chekhov.[9] Kalyān (Buds) and Cōtēn (Wounds), two of Chughtai's earliest collections of short stories, were published in 1941 and 1942 respectively.[8] Her first novella Ziddi, which was first published in 1941 was later translated into English as Wild at Heart.[2]

Niche appreciation and transitions to film (1942–60)[edit]

After completing her Bachelor's of Education degree, Chughtai successfully applied for the post of headmistress of an Aligarh-based Girls school. She met Shahid Latif, who was pursuing his master's degree at the time and the two developed a close friendship.[7] Chughtai continued to write for various publications during her stay at Aligarh; she garnered widespread attention for her short-story Lihaaf (The Quilt), which appeared in a 1942 issue of Adab-i-Latif, a Lahore-based literary journal.[3] Inspired by the rumoured affair of a begum and her masseuse in Aligarh, the story chronicles the sexual awakening of Begum Jan following her unhappy marriage with a nawab.[5] Upon release, Lihaaf attracted criticism for its suggestion of female homosexuality and a subsequent trial, with Chughtai being summoned to the court to defend herself against the charges of "obscenity". In the intervening years, Lihaaf has attached a greater significance; it was noted for its portrayal of the insulated life of a neglected wife in the feudal society and became a landmark for its early depiction of sex, still a taboo in modern Indian literature.[10] Lihaaf has been widely anthologised over the years, and following the critical reappraisals, has become one of Chughtai's best known works.[2]

Chughtai moved to Bombay in 1942 and began working as an Inspectress of schools.[7] She married Latif later that year in a private ceremony with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas serving as a witness.[2] She became increasingly involved in writing and found success with such short-stories as Gainda and Khidmatgaar and the play Intikhab, all of which were published during the period. Latif, who himself worked as dialogue writer in Bollywood introduced Chughtai to the Hindi film industry.[11] Chughtai's quasi-autobiographical novel Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) was released in 1943; the book chronicles the lives of marginalised women in the backdrop of the waning British Raj.[8] Chughtai's exploration of the "inner realms of women’s lives" was well received by critics who variously described her work in Terhi Lakeer as "probing and pertinent"[12] and "empowering".[13] The novel was translated into English by Tahira Naqvi, who compared Chughtai's writing style to that of French writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, based on the duo's existentialist and humanist affiliations.[8]

Chughtai faced a court trial for alleged obscenity in her writings, Lihaaf in particular, and was summoned by the Lahore court in 1944.[14] Fellow writer and member of the Progressive Writers' Movement Sadat Hassan Manto was also charged with similar allegations for his short-story Bu (Odour) and accompanied Chughtai to Lahore.[15] The charges notwithstanding, both Chughtai and Manto were exonerated.[16] The trial itself drew much media and public attention and brought notoriety to the duo. Although Chughtai fared better in the public eye, having garnered support from fellow members of the Progressive Writers' Movement, she detested the media attention, which in her view weighted heavily upon her subsequent work: "[Lihaaf] brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight."[15] Critical reappraisals for her works have noted otherwise; in a 1993 retrospective piece, Naqvi remarked that Chughtai's writing was "neither confined to nor exhausted" by the themes central to Lihaaf: "she had much, much more to offer".[7]

Chughtai made her debut as a screenwriter for Latif's 1948 commercially successful drama film Ziddi. Starring Kamini Kaushal, Pran, and Dev Anand in his first major film role, Ziddi was based on a short-story by Chughtai; she rewrote the narrative in form of a screenplay for the production.[17][18] She wrote the dialogue and screenplay for the 1950 romance drama film Arzoo, starring Kaushal and Dilip Kumar. Chughtai expanded her career into directing with the 1953 film Faraib, which featured an ensemble cast of Amar, Maya Daas, Kishore Kumar, Lalita Pawar, and Zohra Sehgal. Having again written the screenplay based on one of her short stories, Chughtai co-directed the film with Latif.[18] Upon release, both Arzoo and Faraib garnered positive response from the audience and performed well at the box-office.[19]

Chughtai's association with film solidified when she and Latif co-founded the production company Filmina.[8] Her first project as a filmmaker was the 1958 drama film Sone Ki Chidiya, which she wrote and co-produced. Starring Nutan and Talat Mahmood in lead roles, it told the story of a child actor, who was abused and exploited over the course of her career. The film was well received by audiences and the success translated directly into a rise in Chughtai's popularity, as noted by writer and critic Shams Kanwal.[20] Sone Ki Chidiya has been described as a significant production for "[chronicling] a heady time in Indian cinema" and showcasing the "grime behind the glamour" of the film industry.[21] Nutan, who garnered a good response for her performance in the film, herself described it as one of her favorite projects.[22] Also in 1958, Chughtai produced the Mahmood-Shyama starrer romance drama Lala Rukh.[23]

Chughtai continued writing short-stories during the time despite her commitment to film projects. Her fourth collection of short-stories Chui Mui (Touch-me-not) was released in 1952 to an enthusiastic response.[24] The eponymous short-story has been noted for its "pertinent dissection of our society"[25] and contesting the venerated tradition of motherhood, especially its equation of womanhood.[8] Rafay Mahmood highlighted, in a 2014 editorial, the relevance of the story in the twenty-first century. Chui Mui was adapted for stage by Naseeruddin Shah as a part of a commemorative series Ismat Apa Kay Naam, with his daughter Heeba Shah playing the central character in the production.[25]

Critical reappraisals and subsequent acclaim (1961–91)[edit]

Following the translation of numerous of her works into English language, a renewed interest in the Urdu literature of the twentieth century, and subsequent critical reappraisals, Chughtai's status as a writer rose.[26]

Influences and writing style[edit]

Chughtai was a liberal Muslim whose daughter, nephew & niece were married to Hindus. In her own words, Chughtai came from a family of "Hindus, Muslims and Christians who all live peacefully".[27] She said she read not only the Qur’an, but also the Gita and the Bible with openness.[27]

Chughtai's short stories reflected the cultural legacy of the region in which she lived. This was well demonstrated in her story "Sacred Duty", where she dealt with social pressures in India, alluding to specific national, religious and cultural traditions.[28][29]

In Chughtai's formative years, Nazar Sajjad Hyder had established herself an independent feminist voice, and the short stories of two very different women, Hijab Imtiaz Ali and Rashid Jehan, were also a significant early influence.[30]

Many of her writings, including Angarey and Lihaaf, were banned in South Asia because their reformist and feminist content offended conservatives (for example, her view that the Niqab, the veil worn by women in Muslim societies, should be discouraged for Muslim women because it is oppressive and feudal[31]). Many of her books have been banned at various times.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Publications on Ismat Chughtai[edit]

  • Ismat: Her Life, Her Times. Sukrita Paul Kumar, Katha, New Delhi,2000. ISBN 81-85586-97-7.
  • Ismat Chughtai, A Fearless Voice. Manjulaa Negi, Rupa and Co, 2003.81-29101-53-X.
  • "Torchbearer of a literary revolution". The Hindu, Sunday, 21 May 2000.[1]
  • Kashmir Uzma Urdu weekly, Srinagar, 27 December 2004, 2 January 2005.[2]
  • "Ismat Chughtai – Pakistan-India (1915–1991)", World People, 5 May 2006.[3]
  • Eyad N. Al-Samman, "Ismat Chughtai: An Iconoclast Muslim Dame of Urdu Fiction", Yemem Times, 13 April 2009

Stage productions[edit]

Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah have presented 'Ismat Aapa Ke Naam'عصمت آپا کے نام for the past nearly twelve years.[citation needed] Her story 'Chouthi Ka Joda' چوتھی کا جوڑا is presented frequently by many theatre groupes. A Bengali adaptation of 'Chouthi Ka Joda' by Pushpal Mukherjee, entitled 'Chothurtir Jor' was staged in Kolkata in 2017 by the theatre group Bohuswar under the direction of Tulika Das.[citation needed] Danish Iqbal adapted her story 'Mughal Bachcha'مغل بچہ for stage which was presented at the Theatre Festival organised by Government of Delhi to commemorate her birth centenary.[citation needed] This play also contained biographical references about her works and early influences.[citation needed] Danish Iqbal also wrote a play, عصمت اور منٹو, highlighting the love-hate relationship between Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto.[citation needed]



Year Title Role Notes
1948 Shikayat شکایت Dialogue writer
1948 Ziddi ضدی
1950 Arzoo آرزو
1951 Buzdil بُزدل
1952 Sheesha شیشہ
1953 Fareb فریب Also co-director
1954 Darwaza دروازہ
1955 Society سوسائٹی
1958 Sone Ki Chidiya سونے کی چڑیا Also producer
1958 Lala Rukh لالہ رُخ Also co-director and producer
1966 Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi بہاریں پھر بھی آئیں گی
1973 Garam Hawa گرم ھوا Filmfare Best Story Award (shared with Kaifi Azmi)
1978 Junoon جنون Miriam Labadoor Cameo appearance

Awards and honours[edit]

Year Work Award Category Result Ref.
1974 Terhi Lakeer Ghalib Award Best Urdu Drama Won [32]
1974/75 Garam Hawa National Film Awards Best Story Won
Filmfare Award Best Story Won
Government of India State Award Won
1976 Indian civilian awards Padma Shri Won [33]
1979 Andhra Pradesh Urdu Akademi Award Makhdoom Literary Award Won
1982 Soviet Land Nehru Award Won [34]
1990 Rajasthan Urdu Akademi Iqbal Samman Won [34]


  1. ^ Kumar, Kuldeep (20 January 2017). "Remembering a trailblazer". The Hindu. Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Gopal, Priyamvada (2012). Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence. Routledge Press. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1-134-33253-3.
  3. ^ a b c Parekh, Rauf (30 August 2015). "Essay: Ismat Chughtai: her life, thought and art". Dawn. Archived from the original on 6 December 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  4. ^ Bhandare, Namita (11 November 2014). "The fine print of the AMU Library row". Mint. Archived from the original on 12 October 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
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  9. ^ a b c Patel, Aakar (14 August 2015). "Ismat Chughtai's fearless pen". Livemint. Archived from the original on 26 April 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  10. ^ Kumar Das, Sisir (1 January 1995). History of Indian Literature: 1911-1956, struggle for freedom : triumph and tragedy. Sahitya Akademi. p. 348. ISBN 978-81-7201-798-9.
  11. ^ Gupta, Neeta. "The Short Stories". School of Open Learning. Archived from the original on 6 May 2018. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  12. ^ Zakaria, Rafia (26 October 2013). "Ismat Chughtai: The inner worlds of educated women". Dawn. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  13. ^ Gautam, Nishtha (22 August 2015). "Ismat Chughtai, thank you for being our Tedhi Lakeer". DailyO. Archived from the original on 6 May 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  14. ^ Mitra, Ipshita (28 September 2012). "The same-sex appeal in literature". The Times of India. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
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  16. ^ Shamsie, Muneeza (27 November 2016). "The feminist voice of Ismat Chughtai". Dawn. Archived from the original on 7 May 2018. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  17. ^ Kumar, Kuldeep (20 January 2017). "Remembering a trailblazer". The Hindu. Archived from the original on 14 May 2018. Retrieved 8 May 2018.
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  19. ^ Hyder, Qurratulain (25 August 2017). "Ismat Chughtai dared to raise the veil of hypocrisies in Indian society". DailyO. Archived from the original on 12 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
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  21. ^ Gahlot, Deepa (2015). Take-2: 50 Films That Deserve a New Audience. Hay House, Inc. ISBN 9789384544850. Archived from the original on 12 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  22. ^ "Forever Nutan". Archived from the original on 12 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  23. ^ Somaaya, Bhawana (2016). Once Upon a Time in India: A Century of Indian Cinema. Random House India. ISBN 9789385990403. Archived from the original on 12 May 2018.
  24. ^ Tharu, Susie J.; Lalita, Ke (1991). Women Writing in India: The twentieth century. The Feminist Press. p. 128. ISBN 9781558610293.
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  27. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 January 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2007.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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  29. ^ "How Ismat Chughtai Stood Up for Freedom of Speech". The Wire. Archived from the original on 25 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  30. ^ "Ismat Chughtai". Archived from the original on 7 January 2012. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  31. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 20 August 2014. Retrieved 9 September 2017.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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  33. ^ "Previous Awardees". Padma Awards. Archived from the original on 23 April 2018. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  34. ^ a b Khan, Hafiza Nilofar (2008). Treatment of a Wife's Body in the Fiction of Indian Sub-Continental Muslim Women Writers. (The University of Southern Mississippi, PhD dissertation). p. 11. OCLC 420600128.

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