Khwaja Ahmad Abbas: The Writer, Thinker, Dreamer

K.A. Abbas' creative oeuvre consists of over 74 books, 100 short stories, 3000 newspaper columns in Urdu, Hindi and English and 45 films... all in the life span of 73 years.

By Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Abbas' great-grandfather Maulana Altaf Husain Hali (1837/1914)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Early Life

K.A. Abbas was born on June 7, 1914 in Panipat, Haryana, in the home of the celebrated Urdu poet, social reformer and India's first feminist poet, Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali, a student of Mirza Ghalib.

Hali's rubayiKhwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Hali's Rubayi

"No one has leisure to live on and on; Whoever comes today, goes hence tomorrow; Whatever your work, complete anon; The summons come, the summons come."

- Translation by Dr. Syeda Hameed

Abbas was brought up on Maulana Hali’s poetry. As one of the notable social reformers of India, Hali had a strong influence on Abbas. The women in Abbas’s house wrote articles for the journal Tehzeeb-e-Niswan. This was his literary heritage.

Abbas's father Khwaja Ghulam-us-Sibtain, Early 20th Century, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Abbas's mother Masroora Khatoon, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Abbas's father, Ghulam-Us-Sibtain, who graduated from Aligarh Muslim University was a prosperous businessman, who modernized the preparation of Unani medicine. Abbas's mother, Masroora Khatoon, was the daughter of Khwaja Sajjad Husain, Hali’s son and the first Muslim graduate of Aligarh University. Abbas' early education was in Hali Muslim High School, Panipat, which was established by his great-grandfather, and Abbas studied there till seventh standard.

Newspaper article announcing Bhagat Singh's Execution (1931)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

On 25 March 1931, Abbas read the news about the execution of the young socialist revolutionary, Bhagat Singh. He walked out of his college campus, crossed the railway line and went to the exhibition grounds where he sat down and wept.

Young K.A. Abbas (circa 1934-1935)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Later that day, Abbas wrote an article on Bhagat Singh and what his death meant to him and his generation. Henceforth, at every tragic turn of his life, writing about it became a solace and a solution for Abbas.

Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, more popularly known as Premchand, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Book Cover: Inquilab, 1955, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Abbas' favorite American writer Upton Sinclair, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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As an avid reader, Abbas' first books were Premchand's Urdu works. By the time he was pursuing his Bachelor's degree in English Literature, he had read the works of major British and Russian writers. Amongst the American writers, he was greatly influenced by Upton Sinclair, whose writing for a cause was inspired from journalism. Abbas consciously modelled himself after Sinclair, traveling to California solely to meet him, in 1938. Sinclair’s works became a model for Abbas' novel Inquilab (1958).

Abbas's column for the Bombay Chronicle (1935-08-04)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Life as a Journalist

During the freshman year of the University, Abbas became a correspondent for the newly started  Hindustan Times and the Bombay Chronicle. The former was a paid engagement for three rupees while the latter was an honorary position and Abbas received a free copy of the paper.

Abbas' article in a FilmIndia issue of 1939 (1939)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Life as a Film Critic

 By 1938, back at the  Bombay Chronicle, K.A. Abbas became a confirmed film critic. For three years, he saw some 300 Indian and foreign films a year. He also joined Filmindia magazine around the same year.

Film Review of Gunga Din (1939) (1939-02)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

His first article for Film India, was on the film Gunga Din (1939). Abbas, along with the legendary editor of the magazine, Baburao Patel, campaigned against anti-Indian films like Gunga Din that depicted Indians as 'nothing better than sadistic barbarians'.

The Last Page column in Bombay Chronicle (1941)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

While at the Bombay Chronicle (from 1935–1947), Abbas started a weekly column, “The Last Page” (‘Azad Kalam’ in the Hindi and Urdu edition). After the closure of the newspaper, he continued the column at Blitz,  continuing to write it till his last days.

A collection of these columns was later published as two books - I Write as I Feel (1948) and Bread, Beauty and Revolution (1982).

K. A. Abbas with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Master Romi, the child star of Munna (1954)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

As a young student in Aligarh, Abbas was fascinated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. His first book called Outside India: The Adventures of a Roving Reporter (1939) was first serialized in Bombay Chronicle and National Herald.

Life as a Writer

In 1935, in Bombay Abbas wrote a story Ababeel, which became an overnight success. Abbas wrote consistently about hunger, poverty, human suffering, exploitation, drought, deluge, and the nation. In the 73 years that he lived, he wrote more than 74 books.

Book Cover: Till We Reach The Stars (in Russian), 1961, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Book Cover: Mad Mad Mad World of Indian Films, 1977, From the collection of: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust
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Abbas' work flows in three languages- Urdu, Hindi, and English. Some of his well-known works are A Report to Gandhiji: A Survey of Indian and World Events during the 21 Months of Gandhiji’s Incarceration (1944), In the Image of Mao Tse-Tung (1953), Face to Face with Khrushchev (1960), Till We Reach the Stars: The Story of Yuri Gagarin (1961), Jawaharlal Nehru: Portrait of an Integrated Indian (1974) with R K Karanjia, and Mad, Mad, Mad World of Indian Films (1977).

Book Cover: Sardarji & Other Stories (2014)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

His short stories, such as SardarjiPanchi Pinjra aur Udaan, and Bholi (a story included in Class X NCERT English textbooks), just to name a few, explore the themes of communalism, suppression of dissent, caste prejudice, and gender discrimination.

Poster of the film Naya Sansar (1941) (1941)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Life as a Screenwriter and Director

In 1936, K. A. Abbas entered films as a part-time publicist for Bombay Talkies, a production house owned by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. Thereafter, he sold his first screenplay Naya Sansar (1941) to Bombay Talkies.

Poster of the film Shehar aur Sapna (1963) (1963)Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Life as a Film Maker

In 1951, he founded his own production company, which he called Naya Sansar. He produced films that were socially relevant and engaged critically with the times. Anhonee (1952), Munna (1954), Rahi (1953), Shehar aur Sapna (1964), and Saat Hindustani (1970), are a few such films.

As a progressive writer and filmmaker, Abbas constantly engaged with social and political issues, with his films dealing with contemporary realities in the exploration of the city and its dwellers.

Abbas' restless soul was always intent on expressing his desire for a more egalitarian India, a theme that was observed across his work and life. This was his dream that pulsates across his work as a journalist, filmmaker and storyteller.

Credits: Story

Text & Curation: Sukhpreet Kahlon & Ruth Zothanpuii
Coordination & Design: Ruth Zothanpuii & Salomi Christie
Mentor: Syeda Hameed
Archival Photographs: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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