Story of ghazal

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Amir Khusrau.

Mirza Ghalib.

Mir Taqi Mir.

Ali Sardar Jafri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Firaq Gorakhpuri.

Fiaz Ahmed Faiz. Photo: the hindu archives

Firaq Gorakhpuri. Photo: The hindu archives


Javed Akhtar. Photo: THE HINDU archives

A comprehensive tribute to Urdu ghazals and the cross-cultural roots of the enthralling poetic form.

“The ghazal is a marvel of the magnetic dynamism of husn o i’shq (beauty and love) in highly charged metaphoric idiom. It is a celebration of love and freedom in an ambience of pure ecstasy and unremitting joy as well as profound capacity for enduring pain and suffering. The ghazal is the soul of Urdu poetry and the play of creativity at its peak.” This is how the author Gopi Chand Narang opens the preface to his monumental work, The Urdu Ghazal: A Gift of India’s Composite Culture. 

The book is not a mere monograph on the Urdu ghazal, but a detailed inquiry into the beginnings of the form in Persian, the dawn of Sufism and its spread to India, the composite culture which developed in India through the marriage of Sufi mysticism and the Bhakti movement towards the end of thefirst millennium C.E. that nourished it, and its journey through the second millennium C.E. and its position now in the third. 

Although there are many books dwelling technically on the ghazal form, from the scholarly Hazaron Khawaishen Aisi: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals by Anisur Rahman to the handbook, The Art and Science of Urdu Ghazal, by Elizabeth Kurian ‘Mona”, the scope of Professor Narang’s volume far exceeds them. His deep erudition and life-long passion for the Urdu language and its literature shine through the work.

The Urdu Ghazal is a timely contribution to our era when language and literature are marked and tracked by religious and communal identities, losing sight of the underlying humanity of Urdu ghazals.

Amir Khusrau

The book primarily concentrates on the “cross-cultural roots of the Urdu ghazal”. 

From the 11th century C.E., Islamic culture and Hindu culture commingled in the Indian territories, and the resulting composite culture captivated millions of people down the centuries. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), disciple of the Chisti Sufi saint of Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, was a poet and musician who wrote in Persian and then in the hybrid proto-model of Hindustani, his mother tongue, which he called Hindavi. (His father was a Turkish courtier and his mother was a Rajput). When he mixed Persian to the ghazals that he wrote in Hindavi and sang them in Sufi gatherings, this language became known as Rekhta. 

The Muslim rulers who extended their reign to Gujarat and the Deccan took this hybrid language along, which was called Gujari in Gujarat and Dakhani in Deccan. 

This is the same language that was called Hindavi, Hindustani, Urdu, Urdu-e Mualla and Hindi. 

Amir Khusrau was the first poet who pioneered folk genres such as doha, paheli, geet, qaul, quallaba, and invented the passionate, soulful song form qawwali, in which he sang his ghazals in the Persian-Rekhta mix form.

The ghazal form became quickly accepted in the languages allied to Urdu such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Baluchi and a neighbouring language like Kashmiri, a form in which many modern-day poets such as Sunita Raina Pandit are speciliasing; it has greatly influenced several Indian languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Odia, Telugu and Kannada. H.S. Shivaprakash and a few other Kannada poets are known for their ghazals in that language. 

Poets writing ghazals in the English language—ranging from stalwarts such as Aga Shahid Ali, to young ones such as Maaz Bin Bilal and Asiya Zahoor—have enriched the genre. Nepali and Sinhalese languages also boast of the ghazal form in their poetry.

The ghazal has conquered the popular imagination through films for almost a century now. Narang points out that “besides the wonder-world of metaphorical meaning and beauty, reality and non-reality, it has its magical innate musicality.” This quality makes the genre exclusively suitable for singing. Begum Akhtar, Kamla Jhariya, K.L. Saigal, Mehdi Hassan, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Farida Khanum, Jagjit Singh and others have made astute use of the ghazal form to hold millions in successive generations in thrall, observes Narang.

Strands of Hindavi

Three main strands of the Urdu language, past its stage as Hindavi, determined by geographical and demographical factors at its earliest stage of development, can be observed: Dakhani (of the Deccan), Dehlavi (of Delhi) and Lakhnavi (of Lucknow), not necessarily in a linear development, but with inevitable overlaps in time.

The earliest Urdu poets who developed the ghazal were Dakhani poets such as Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah, the illustrious ruler of the Qutub Shahi dynasty of Hyderabad, Deccan (1565-1612), Mulla Wajhi (early 17th century), Mulla Nusrati, Daem Gawwasi (both 17th century), Wali Mohammad Wali (Wali Dakhani-1667-1707) and Siraj Aurangabadi (1715- 1763). 

Dakhani poetry is characterised by its absorption of local words, similes and metaphors. This was because the royal patrons of this language were really sons of the soil who loved their land. Another factor was the pervasive Mughal presence in south India during the heyday of that empire. Ideas from the south travelled north, and vice versa. Wali adopted all these into his poetry; his was a presence much awaited in Delhi poetry circles, when he made his periodical visits. Wali’s contribution is considered decisive in the development of the Urdu language as well. It was Wali’s diwans (poetry collections), circulated widely in Delhi circles, which persuaded many contemporary poets to switch over from the courtly Persian to people’s Urdu.

Although several Delhi Urdu poets continued in the line of Amir Khusrau, most of them confined their creative writing to Sabke Hindi (Indianised Persian). Wali drew them towards Urdu, which was until then primarily Dakhani. The ghazal further developed in the hands of poets of the northern plains—Dehlavi and Lakhnavi. It took at least three centuries after Khusrau to see the rise of a great poet like Sauda in Delhi (1713-1781). But Delhi being the main theatre of wars of invasion, like the repeated depredations of Ahmad Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah, most of the Urdu poets of Delhi moved to the next relatively peaceful royal haven, the court of the Nawab of Awadh, in Lucknow. Thus, most of the great Dehlavis are also Lakhnavis by default.

The best example of this phenomenon is Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) of Delhi and Lucknow. He was born in Agra, grew up and flourished in Delhi and shifted to Lucknow when Ahmed Shah Abdali attacked Delhi. Kwaja Mir Dard (1720-1785) was a Naqshbandi-Mujaddadi Sufi saint and lived in Delhi. It was Ghulam Hamdani ‘Mas’hafi’ (1751-1844) of Lucknow who coined the name “Urdu” by shortening Zaban-i-Ordu, which was the common name for the language known as Hindustani/Hindvi/Hindi/Dakhani or Rekhta and colloquially called Lashkarizaban or simply Lashkari. Momin Khan Momin (1800-1851) of Delhi was a poet, writer and hakim (physician). Mirza Ghalib (1797-1868), the last of the great classicists who actually represents all Urdu-speaking regions, though born in Agra had lived in Delhi from the age of 13, and was associated with the Mughal court. 

Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1790-1854),a contemporary of Ghalib, was appointed poet laureate at the age of 19. He was the Ustad of Bahadur Shah “Zafar” (1775-1862), the last Mughal Emperor and also an Urdu poet and ghazal writer. Daagh Dehlavi (1831-1905) and Altaf Hussain Hali (born in 1837 in Panipat and died there in 1914) were the last of the great poets of Delhi who lived through the First War of Independence of 1857, and contributed significantly to the genre of the Urdu ghazal into the early 20th century.

The 20th century saw eminent Urdu poets who used the ghazal form for socio-political and cultural themes of the times such as nationalism, independence struggle, progressivism, resistance and protest. Special mention should be made here of how the Urdu ghazal during this period contributed to the revolutionary Progressive Writers’ Movement by incorporating epistemological and ideological shifts on a global level, later progressing into modernism and postmodernism. 

The book pays tribute to the Urdu ghazal in a comprehensive fashion. It is divided into three parts: Part I is devoted to the cultural landscape, to the exploration of India’s composite culture; Part II explores the classical foundation of the Urdu ghazal in which concepts of love, beauty and the self and rhetorical aspects such as metaphors, similes, symbols and imagery are dealt with in a profound analysis; and Part III details the 20th century panorama of the development and dispersal of this graceful literary form, exploring neoclassicists, progressives, modernists and postmodernists..

Narang begins Part I with a picturesque quote from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who said, as quoted in The Muslim Dilemma in India by MRA Baig (1974:52), “Hindus and Muslims are two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan”. (It is quite strange, though, the Two Nation Theory is traced back to this great man.) Even here, a more detailed description of the Urdu ghazal is attempted. “When we think of the Urdu ghazal, the following words come to mind: Elegance, mindfulness, a surreptitious mystical feeling, density of thought, a solid system of denotations and connotations, passionate imagery, innate musicality, and rich beautification of meaning. Each couplet has an imaginative story to tell, a compressed narrative of love, both existential and universal. The world of the ghazal is imaginative and metaphorical. Brevity is the soul of the structure of the ghazal…. The language is compressed to its limits: phrase upon phrase; izafat (the connector ‘é’) upon izafat; ellipsis of connectors, possessives, pronouns and auxiliaries—highly complex, almost to the point of the limits of language—or silence, which otherwise is the fountainhead of all signification. Everything is mystical, everything is the stuff of dreams….” I think I have borrowed the author’s words enough to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the Urdu ghazal by now.

After tracing the advent of Islam in India and the composite culture that was formed following this event, Narang traces the Bhakti movement that took root among the Indian masses. He then dwells on the origin and evolution of Sufism in the Arab lands and how it came in later along with the intensely spiritual followers of Islam. He considers at length the social dimension and the creative and aesthetic dimension of Sufism and how the latter and the Bhakti movement together traced a new passionate spiritual trajectory exemplified by Hazrat Nizammudin Aulia, Amir Khusrau, Kabir, Guru Nanak and others.

Hindu ghazal writers

Incidentally, Narang places on record the contribution of Hindus in the development of the common language of the composite culture, known by different names such as Hindavi, Rekhta, Braj and Khari. 

Kayasth Hindus, who served in royal courts, were excellent in writing in Persian. He quotes Syed Abid Husain from his Hindustani Qaumiyat Aur Qaumi Tahzeeb (1946) that, “Leaving aside Abul Fazl and Alamgir, there were few Muslim prose masters who could stand comparison with Munshi Har Karan, Chander Bhan Brahman (1574-16620), Munshi Madhav Ram, Munshi Lal Chand and Munshi Uday Raj.” The first Urdu ghazal was written by Chander Bhan Brahman. 

Having developed from the proto-Rekhta model of Amir Khusrau, a hybrid Urdu with the Khari Boli dialect of Hindi as its base, it had developed enough for ghazals to be written in it by the time of emperor Shahjahan. 

His son, Prince Dara Shikoh, was a champion of the composite culture, having commissioned the translation of 50 Upanishads into Persian, titled Sirr-e Akbar (The Confluence of Oceans - 1654-55) when he was the governor of Benares. 

Under his patronage, Chander Bhan Brahman had flourished. Other Hindu poets writing in Urdu during this period, as Narang notes, were Anand Ram Mukhlis, Lachhmi Narain Shafiq, Kishan Chand Ikhlas, Banvari Das Vali, Syalkoti Mal Varasta, Jaswant Rai Munshi, Shiv Ram Haiya, Tan Sukh Rai Shauq, Tek Chand Bahar and Anand Ghan.

Narang further notes that as a symbol of perfect communal harmony in ghazal writing, Hindu ghazal writers began with the Islamic invocation “Bismillahi-r-Rahmani-r-Rahim” and Muslim poets began their works with an invocation to Sri Ganesh or Ma Saraswati.

Finally, he presents the origin and development of the genre of the Urdu ghazal in great detail, describing how it began as a part of the Arabic poetic form qasida, moved over to the Persian poetic tradition and underwent a thorough transformation in the hands of Iranian poets, beginning with Firdauzi (b.935); and Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), who did not write ghazals proper, but wrote in the masnavi, or narrative mode, and rubba’ait, or quadrains, in which the ghazal form was subsumed; progressed through Khaqani (1121-1190), the first major writer of the perfect ghazal in Persian; Sa’di Shirazi (1210-1291), the author of Bostan (The Orchard) and Gulistan (The Rose Garden); Hafiz Shirazi (1325-1389); and others, including Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), and in the final stages of its evolution, ended up as an indigenously Indian form, with no connection to the Arabic beginnings.

Narang begins Part II with the concept of love, which he analyses in the context of the Urdu ghazal. The Sufi way of life, or tasavvuf, which is at the centre of the devotional act of offering unconditional love for the Absolute, was the cradle of the Urdu ghazal. 

This love was defined as entirely different from the love between two human beings. Tasavvuf was fundamentally revolutionary in that it went beyond all limits set by religious tradition. In an age when marriages were settled taking into consideration several factors regarding the two families involved, and not the love between the man and woman concerned, it became almost a societal norm for married men to visit nautch girls and courtesans and to keep mistresses. Gradually, courtesans became the custodians of music and art, and even literature in some cases. 

However, the orthodox religious structure of Islam was vehement in denouncing all this. Practical licentiousness on the one side, and rigid orthodoxy on the other, produced a hypocritical social set-up. The purdah system set married women apart from male gaze, while the men were free to go anywhere and do whatever they liked. 

However, covering the female body with purdah hiding its beauty was not in the tradition of Indian graphic and plastic arts. Also, love for the “beloved” in the Persian tradition was love for the mazhar or saqi (literally a beautiful boy who served wine in a tavern), so as to avoid reference to a female. This was abhorrent to the Indian sensibilities. The enlightened souls who became Sufis sought to break such earthly boundaries through tasavvuf taking advantage of India’s pluralistic ethos, with each Sufi order developing its own rules and practices, including singing and dancing, as against those in the monolithic cultures of Islamic kingdoms.

Love in classical ghazals

In analysing love in the classical ghazal, Narang delineates four categories. In the first, it is pure and simple love for the Absolute. Only the great Sufi masters are capable of it. He names Kwaja Mir Dard, Siraj Aurangabadi, Shah Niaz Barelvi, Abdul Alim Aasi, and perhaps Asghar Gondavi and Jigar Morabadi in this exalted league. In the second, the poets were influenced by certain aspects of Sufism. Though they have apparent mystical aspirations, in effect they are earthly and mundane in their practices. Some contemporaries of Mir Taqi Mir and Sauda qualify to be in this category. They, however, contained their expressions of human love within metaphors and similes, and reached high poetic levels, but fell short in the spiritual department. The third category is truly great poetry inspired genuinely by Sufism, but cannot be mechanically compartmentalised as worldly or other worldly, and expresses a sublime and burning agony of separation from the beloved. Ghazals of Mir Taqi Mir and Ghalib belong to this kind of exalted poetry. The last category is bereft of any Sufi influence and is downright flesh-bound and lustful, as the kind that flourished in the Lakhanvi circles.

Narang then discusses true Sufi love, which is transcendental, and cites the cases of Dard and Siraj Aurangabadi, Barelvi, Aasi, and others. In this context he discusses Dabistaan-e Delhi (Delhi School), including poets such as Shah Hatim, Sauda, Qayem Chanderpuri, Abdul Hai Taban, Inamulla Khan Yaqeen, Mir Asar, Jafar Ali Hasrat and Ahsanulla Khan Bayan and their works through excerpts quoted. In the Daabistan-e Lucknow, he lists Jurrat Lakhnavi, Insha Allah Khan Insha, Imam Baksh Nashik, Agha Hasan Lakhnavi, Tek Chand Bahar, Aftab-UddaulaLakhnavi, Rind Lakhnavi, Mir Wazir Ali Lakhnavi and Atish and their works. Revisiting Dabistaan-e Delhi, he discusses the concept of love in the works of Momin, Zafar, Hali, and ends this section, with extensive analyses and quotes from the two giants of the Urdu ghazal, Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib.

Creative imagination

The concept of beauty and elegance (husn o jamaal) in the Urdu ghazal is also a product of India’s creative imagination, which is based on the freedom of the mind. There is a misconception that the “beloved” in the Urdu ghazal was borrowed from the Persian tradition, that of mazhar or saqi so as to avoid inclusion of women which was against Islam’s tenets. 

In the Dakhani ghazal, it was the traditional Indian model that found inclusion and not a beautiful boy. 

Though the northern ghazal initially followed the Iranian model for some time, Wali Dakhani’s influence changed it completely. The Dakhani ghazal had contained purely Indian imagery and female verbal markers, as against the Persian model in which gender could not be indicated grammatically. The Dakhani ghazal writers “used the same themes of beauty and grace that were used in regional languages such as Telugu, Marathi and Gujarati. In later Urdu ghazals, these became the new standard.”

Narang lists here first the names of the important Dakhani ghazal writers beginning with Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah and then those of the north, and provides illustrations through excerpts from their representative ghazals. He also explains the amazing beauty of the Dakhani ghazal; Dakhani’s influence on the early Delhi ghazal; the influence of tasavvuf; the concept of beauty in Mir Taqi Mir; the pinnacle of beauty in Urdu poetry; the poets and poetry of Dabistaan-e Lucknow in the context of beauty and elegance; with the names and quotes from the works of the prominent Lakhnavi poets; revisits Dabistaan-e Delhi; and describes the nucleus of Urdu ghazal’s new achievements, charting the careers of Zauq, Zafar, Ghalib, Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta, Daagh and Hali. Finally, he discusses the Urdu ghazal as a thing of beauty in itself.

Apart from love and beauty, the most important element of an Urdu ghazal is the concept of self. Helped early on by the idea of tasavvuf, the ideal ghazal would always be concerned with the soul in total love-communion with the Absolute, the Creator. 

Along with this, deep contemplation about the place of humankind in the world, the purpose and meaning of life, the cross-cultural milieu in which the Urdu ghazal evolved—all these elements contributed to the concept of self. The Hindu concept of the creator as “Brahma”, belonging to a trinity along with Vishnu and Mahesvar (Siva) forming a Supreme Deity, then the One Supreme Godhead which the Vedantins propounded, and Allah being the One God in the Islamic theology, were in fact akin to each other. 

Therefore, the unity of existence, the unity of mankind, the self as the essence of absolute consciousness, are all discussed and examples quoted from the lines of all major Urdu ghazal writers, listing them one by one.

Next, Narang discusses the rhetorical aspects of the Urdu ghazal, such as metaphors, similes, symbols and imagery, through detailed illustrations by way of excerpts from major Urdu poets.

Lastly, the 20th century panorama is discussed, beginning with neoclassicists, singling out the leading lights among them who were also ardent nationalists—Hasrat Mohani, Akbar Allahabadi, Allama Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Shad Azimabadi, Ram Prasad Bismil, Brij Narain Chakbast, Yagana Changezi, Asghar Gondvi, Jigar Moradabadi, Fani Badauni, Hafiz Jalandhari, and Arzoo Lakhnavi. The author then discusses the prominent Urdu poets of the Progressive Writers’ Movement—Josh Malihabadi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majaz Lakhnavi, Anand Narain Mulla, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ahmed Faraz, Khatir Ghaznavi, Ale Ahmed Suroor, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Habib Jalib and Zehra Nigah—along with excerpts from their works as illustrations.

Narang discusses the modernists and postmodernists in Urdu ghazal writing. 

He lists them as Miraji, Majeed Amjad, Nasir Kazmi, Rajinder Manchanda Bani, Jameeluddin Aali, Krishan Bihari Noor, Munir Niazi, Jaun Elia, Shakeb Jalali, Shuja Khavar, Parveen Shakir, Shahryar, Nida Fazli, Mohammed Alvi, Zafar Iqbal, Ahmad Mushtaq, Gulzar, Bashir Badr, Kishwar Naheed, Iftikar Arif, Javed Akhtar, Munawwar Rana, Farhat Ehsaas, Jayant Parmar and Shakeel Azmi, with samples of their ghazals. 

The book ends with an Epilogue which is, in effect, a summing up of the contents discussed. 

The translator, Surinder Deol, has done wonderfully well in transmitting a complex and intricate discourse through an alien language. The thesis of the creative cultural transformation of a popular genre is well established, and the book stands out as a unique study of an ever-growing form:

Raah-e mazmuun-e taazaa band nahien

Taaqyaamat khula hai baab-e sukhan (Wali)

(The road to new themes and subjects is never ending

the door of creativity is ever open till the Day of Judgment (eternity).

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