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The travelling ghazal

Maaz Bin Bilal | Updated on March 20, 2020 Published on March 20, 2020

Far-flung roots: The ghazal originated in Arabic and soon spread to Turkish, Persian and also African languages such as Hausa and Fulfulde   -  ISTOCK.COM

On World Poetry Day, celebrate the rich cosmopolitan history of the Urdu poetic form, which moved seamlessly across cultures, languages and politics

Mirza Ghalib (1797–1867), arguably the greatest proponent of the ghazal form, mocked this banal world, as the prowess of his poetry allowed him a sense of great superiority: Bazicha-e-atfal hai duniya mire aage/ hota hai shab-o-roz tamasha mire aage (Child’s play is the world in front of me/ Night and day the tamasha is swirled in front of me). While the English-educated poetry reader may have grown up on sonnets (derived from the Italian sonetto), or read Romantic British poetry about daffodils (flowers that few of us saw in life), or know the occasional haiku, it is time we acknowledged this great Asian heritage as a leading genre in international poetry.

The word “ghazal” derives from the cry of the ghazaal or gazelle, but primarily implies a conversation with the beloved. It is love poetry, and the universe of the ghazal — comprising the aashiq (lover), mashuq (beloved), raqib (rival), saqi (wine pourer), rind (drunk, carefree), waiz (preacher) and sheikh (saint) — has always been radical. Love brings on an intense madness for the lover, tending towards social transformation and challenging orthodoxy. In Muslim societies where drinking is taboo, ghazal poetry has ridiculed the waiz and the sheikh and valorised the rind, protesting against the status quo.

Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) was mocking the hypocritical clergy when he wrote: Sheikh jo hain masjid mein nanga, raat ko tha maikhane mein/ jubba, khurqa, kurta, topi, masti mein inam kiya  (The sheikh who stands naked at the mosque today, was at the pub last night/cloak, gown, shirt and cap — in ecstasy he gave away). He was almost socialistic when he wrote this standalone sher or couplet: Amir-zaadon se dilli ke mil na taa-maqdur/ki ham faqir hue hain inhin ki daulat se or “Meet Delhi’s rich with some reverent distance/For we have grown poor with their wealth.” Another standalone sher emphasises the common ground between religions: Us ke farogh-e-husn se jhamke hai sab men nuur/sham-e-haram ho yaa ho diyaa somnaat ka or “With the splendor of His beauty glimmers the light in all/Be it the eve of Ka’aba Sharif or the lamp of Somnath temple.”

The ghazal originated around the 6th century in Arabic, in the taghazzul  (or opening verses) of the qasidah (or ode). It soon spread northward into Turkish, eastward into Persian and southward into African languages such as Hausa and Fulfulde from central and western Africa. From the Persian ghazals of poets such as Rumi, Sadi and Hafez, it found its way into Indian languages, mainly Urdu, where perhaps it had its heyday with Mir and Ghalib in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mir was praising man in general or the poet of the ghazal in particular when he wrote, “Mat sahl hamen jaano phirtaa hai falak barson/tab khaak ke parde se insaan nikalte hain” or (Do not think us simple, the skies wander for years,/ and only then are born men from the veils of dust).

The ghazal first reached Europe in Spain. Arabic and Hebrew ghazals were written in Iberia as early as the 11th century, with Moses ibn Ezra (1058-1155) as a chief proponent. Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) wrote many gacelas (Spanish ghazals) of love, longing and death in the early 20th century, and is renowned particularly for his posthumously published collection The Tamarit Divan (1940). The German Romantics began writing ghazals inspired by the Persian antecedents, with Johann Michael Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) introducing the form in his Taschenbuch für Dasun (1821).

Goethe had also earlier published ghazals (which were so primarily in name), publishing West-östlicher Divan (The Western-Eastern Collection) in 1814 after having read a translation of Hafez. Goethe also first proposed the idea of Weltliteratur or World Literature — he spoke of world poetry as the universal possession of mankind, but was largely referring to the internal European circulation of literature from around the world. The ghazal’s wide travels and success in Asia and Africa preceded such and subsequent European experiences.

The traditional ghazal was taken most successfully to America and English through the efforts of South Asians such as Aijaz Ahmad and, most prominently, by Agha Shahid Ali. Adrienne Rich, WS Merwin, John Hollander and Paul Muldoon are only some of the poets writing in English entire collections or poems in the ghazal form.

Shahid, in particular, composed his most compelling ghazals in response to the ever-increasing political turmoil in Kashmir towards the end of his life. His last three collections of English poems, The Country Without a Post Office (1997), Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), and Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003), contained many — and, in the last book, all — ghazals. Here are a few lines from Call Me Ishmael: “What lights up the buildings? My being turned away! O, the injustice/as I step through a hoop of tears, all I can bare of fire./ Soldier: ‘The enemy can see you and that’s how you die.’/ On the world’s roof, breathless, he defends a glacier of fire./ On the last day of one September one William was born./Native of Water, Shahid’s brought the Kashmir of fire.”

The ghazal continues to hold sway today across the world and straddles many themes and subjects. Quite unique in being a non-linear-narrative form, it mostly retains its classical demands of a fixed metre, written in shers or couplets that can work as standalone poems (hence their quotability), with a qaafiya (rhyme) and radeef (refrain) in every second line and the poet’s takhallus or penname coming in the maqta, that is, the last couplet. Many have innovated on this too, such as Robert Bly writing the tercet ghazal in English, which he first developed in The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001). Lately it has been redeployed with a renewed vigour and a new vocabulary for political purposes.

Lyricist Javed Akhtar wrote an Urdu ghazal last year urging writers to record and remember these times when many scribes have abdicated their roles out of fear or greed: Jo baat kehte darte hain sab, tu woh baat likh/ Itni andheri thhi na kabhi pehle raat, likh/ Jo roznamon mein kahin paati nahin jagah/ Jo roz har jagah ki hai, woh waardaat likh (Write of that which everyone’s scared to say/ Write — never was such a dark night before today/ That story which finds no mention in dailies/ Write of those everyday events which should hold sway).

On World Poetry Day (March 21), we must heed the ghazal for its love and politics, and acknowledge the place we hold alongside it in our varied world.

Maaz Bin Bilal is the author of Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu and teaches at Jindal Global University

Published on March 20, 2020

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