Classical Period (9th – 19th centuries)
Over the centuries, writers here embraced traditions, philosophies, literary forms and even scripts from the peoples around them. From 10th to 9th centuries, for instance, transition from a Turkic script to an Arabic one opened Uzbek writers to the influence of Arabic and Persian literature. Yusuf Khass Hajib’s famous instructive poem Kutudgu bilig (Eng. trans. The Wisdom of Royal Glory) written in 1069–70 is a fine example of works based on Islamic morality. Later, the royal patronage of rulers such as Timur (1336-1405), Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India (1483-1530) and Umar Khan (1787-1822) facilitated many historical works. Samarkand and Bukhara became centres of a cultural renaissance in Central Asia. This was a period of intense literary development, and many poetic genres flourished under the Timurids, including the lyric, the elegy, and an oral epic genre, the romantic destān. Many works in prose, especially historical works, were produced, too.
Great medieval mystics and thinkers such as Alisher Nava’i (1441-1501) impacted greatly on the development of classical Uzbek literature. It was Nava’i – an outstanding poet, thinker, literary patron and also statesman – who established Chagatai as the literary language of the region, replacing Persian. A prolific and skilled writer, Nava’i’s work includes examples of almost every literary genre of his day. He was also an innovator, re-examining the concept of plot and introducing mimesis, most clearly seen in his well-loved epic poems such as the well-loved Farhad and Shirin (1484), and Leyla and Majnun (1484). Nava’i also wrote several treatises covering historical and scientific topics. Other works show clear influence of Sufism, and his lyrical poems have a rare abstract yet emotionally expressive quality. Written a few years later, the collected poems (‘Divan’) and lively autobiography of Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad Babur, the Timurid prince from Fergana who went on to found the Moghul Empire in India, are considered two of the greatest classics of Chagatai literature.
Khans and Khanates
From 17th- 19th centuries, the Khanates of Khiva, Kokand and Bukhara were the main centres for literary development in Uzbekistan. Khiva’s most famous literary son is Abu al-Ghazi Bahadur (1603-1664) who gathered many folktales, proverbs and sayings into his monumental historical works such as The Genealogical Tree of Turks. Umar Khan of Kokand (1787-1822) was a prolific poet and literary patron while his wife, Nodira, was renowned for her own outspoken verses.
While court poets naturally extolled the khans and their rulership, progressive writers have always found their place in Uzbek literature. The 17th century poet Turdi, for instance, wrote stinging satirical verses and the wandering mystic Babarakhim Mashrab (1654-1711) poked fun at the feudal lords. Another outstanding literary figure of this period is poet, translator and historian Muhammad Riza Ogakhi (1809-1894), known for his democratic ideas and progressive views.
The twentieth century heralded a period of feverish development for Uzbek literature, a time of intellectual debates and renewal as the national revival movement of Jadid reformers played an active role in shaping Uzbekistan’s future. The Jadids saw print as the media for spreading their message and used it to promote their reforms in all spheres of life. Indeed, they articulated values that still resonate throughout Central Asia today.
Open to progressive European ideas, the Jadids brought a new wave of European literature and thought to Central Asia as a whole, and this winning synthesis of national thought plus world literature soon bore its first fruits. Arguably the greatest writer of his day, Abdulla Qadiri (1894-1938) authored the first Uzbek novel, O’tgan Kunlar (Days Gone By), thereby setting the bar for Uzbek literature with his beautiful, evocative prose and unabashed look at history. At the same time, the great poet Abdulhamid Cholpan (1897-1938) revolutionised Uzbek poetry which had previously rested firmly on the Arabic ‘aruz’ meter. Around the same time, another prominent Jadid proponent of the ‘new method,’ Mahmudhodja Behbudi (1875 – 1918), wrote the first Uzbek play, Padarkush (The Patricide). In this way, then, new, modern literary genres began emerging. Through literature, the Jadids spread their ideas of national independence, justice, progress and enlightenment to people under the yoke of colonialism.
In 1917, however, the situation changed abruptly when Russian Bolsheviks came to power. By the 1920’s, proletariat ideas held sway, and in the 1930’s the Soviet authorities unleashed active repressions against the progressive Jadids and their literature promoting ideas of national independence and humanitarian principles.
The new Soviet powers took firm control of literature along with all other forms of artistic expression, seeing them as a tool for promulgating Party ideas. Socialist Realism dominated all genres, killing most creative artistic expression and the burgeoning national Uzbek movement was engulfed by the over-riding Soviet-Bolshevik literature.
The shoots put forth by the Jadids did not wither completely, however. Despite harsh repressions (Qadiri, Cholpan and many others were executed in Stalin’s Great Purge), such talented writers as Aibek (1905-1968), Abdulla Kahhar (1907-1968), and Askad Muhtar (1920-1997), while unable to completely free themselves from the shackles of Soviet realism, nevertheless created works of artistic value.
Stagnation and renewal
A period of depression and stagnation followed the Second World War, but the 1960’s marked the beginning of a new chapter in Uzbek literature. A new generation of patriotic writers emerged, proud of their national heritage and not afraid to embrace their mother tongue. Authors such as Odil Yakubov (1926-2009), Pirimqul Qodirov (1928-2010), Erkin Vahidov (1936-2016), Abdulla Oripov (1941-2016) and Rauf Parfi (1943-2005) bravely turned aside from Soviet themes to win their readers’ hearts with age-old literary themes.
Eve of Independence
Ideas of justice and patriotism are clearly seen in Uzbek literature of the 1970s and ‘80’s. The theme of national identity surfaces once more in the works of writers such as Shavkat Rahmon (1950-1996), Murod Muhammad Dust (1949- ), Usmon Azim (1950-) and Hurshid Davron (1952- ) among others. They begin to examine the notion of what it means to be Uzbek, of Uzbek identity within the Soviet Union, while in his short stories, Erkin Azam (1950- ) reflects the effects of modernisation and the erosion of the traditional way of life.
In 1991, Uzbekistan became an independent republic and this brought great changes to all areas of life, including literature. Now free from the shackles of oppressive state ideology, Uzbek literature sent out new shoots. Authors experimented with new genres, such as post-modernism and the absurd. This explorative trend continued into the 21st century, which ushered in a new era of globalisation and IT that opened new horizons and shed new light on many serious issues. For Uzbek writers, this hailed a new examination of national identity, a reappraisal of history. Themes such as the status of women in Uzbekistan, migration, traditional ways of life, spirituality and the face of modern man are popular current topics.
Today, a new generation of poets and authors are tuning into global themes, and a new generation of modern translators are not only bringing world literature to Uzbekistan but are also bringing Uzbek literature to the world.