The queerness of the Urdu ghazal

Nighat Gandhi | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

History made, history forgotten: The imposition of Victorian morality on Indian culture led to the anti-sodomy law of 1861, which remained in place till 2018   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

On the anniversary of the decriminalisation of Section 377 in India, a look at how same-sex love was an inherent feature of pre-modern Urdu literature

September 6, 2018. A historic day for queer Indians and their allies. The Supreme Court decriminalises homosexuality. My friends and I celebrate by getting a cake with Azadi piped on it in white icing. But I’m thinking: Strange that we are celebrating freedom from a law which outlawed a way of life that was considered neither illegal nor a mental nor a moral aberration in pre-modern times.

On a summer afternoon, I braved my way through a tightly-packed lane in Allahabad’s Katra market, and made it to Rai Book Depot, a tiny bookshop, one of the few that sells Urdu books. I am looking for Firaq Gorakhpuri’s Urdu poetry in Urdu script. His poetry is easily available in Hindi but not so much in Urdu. Ironically, Firaq is considered a very important 20th century Urdu poet. Urdu ki Ishq ya Shayri (Urdu Love poetry or ghazal), penned around 1945, is Firaq’s lengthy essay (dedicated to a mysterious, unnamed lover) about the historical evolution of Urdu ghazal. It was wriiten when Firaq was a lecturer of English at Allahabad University.

The word and the man: Firaq Gorakhpuri, an important 20th century Urdu poet, said the ghazal's focus transcended labels such as gay or straight   -  Special Arrangement


Ghazal is a word of Arabic origin, and one of its meanings is to have conversations about the pain and longing of love. Firaq unveils the quintessential truth about the ghazal: It’s a celebration of love, both earthly and mystical, but more intriguingly, the ghazal is not a celebration of heterosexual love exclusively. There’s an inherent and valuable queerness to the ghazal.

I think of queerness as an anti-conformist stance, a position of resistance. People who are queer are thought to be those who refuse to, or aren’t able to assimilate into the mainstream and abide by society’s conventional values, and live on the margins of economic, social and political life either by choice or compulsion.

The pre-modern ghazal, which often expresses a male lover’s love and admiration for a male beloved, was not an anti-conformist stance prior to the 19th century, and therefore, one can’t call it queer in the context of the 19th century Muslim socio-cultural milieu. Homoerotic poetry of that era posed no challenges to the institution of heterosexual patriarchy. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage was still the norm. But men’s erotic or romantic attachments to other men was also acceptable as long as a man fulfilled his family obligations. He was then free to seek emotional fulfillment outside of marriage.

It was common for married Muslim male elites to have liaisons with courtesans and/or other males without adopting an exclusively homosexual lifestyle. Such open, permissive marital and familial arrangements shocked British educators and missionaries. This eventually resulted in the anti-sodomy law enacted in India in 1861, which remained in place until 2018.

The pre-modern ghazal embodies queerness (for us) in the sense that the gender of the lover and beloved in it is either the same, or ambiguous. The beloved’s gender isn’t a fixed identity, and neither is this lack of fixedness seen as something out of the ordinary. This ambiguity enhances the ghazal’s universality, beauty and poignancy. But why is the gender of the beloved left deliberately ambiguous at times? The ghazal’s evolution is integrally linked to spread of Sufism in the subcontinent. Mystical poetry is an expression of man’s love for God, the lover being a male seeker addressing a male God. The earthly beloved was called a shahid or witness of divine beauty. Therefore, the beloved is sometimes a male. Think of Rumi and his beloved master Shams. But since one can’t really assign a definite gender to the Divine, the beloved’s gender is also sometimes undefined.

Firaq lays great stress on the essential humanness and universality of the Urdu ghazal, a quality which makes the ghazal transcend narrow labels like gay or straight. It is this universality that the ghazal lost with the imposition of Victorian morality after the 1857 war of independence.

In a sher (couplet) such as the one below, Wali Dakhani (1667-1707), considered to be Urdu ghazal’s first poet, leaves no doubts as to the gender of the beloved:

Aaj teri bhuvan ne masjid me

Hosh khoya hai har namazi ka

Today in the mosque, your eyebrows

Made all worshippers lose their minds

Note the tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of the sacred (mosque) with the profane (beloved’s bewitching eyebrows). The mosque is a traditionally male space. Wali deliberately chooses a mosque to illustrate how desire and attraction can be a greater force than religious and social control mechanisms.

The male beloved was usually an amard, a beardless, handsome youth. Hairlessness is the most important trait of a male beloved, a trait adolescent boys shared with women. Boy-lovers were called amard-parast. The mention of beards, beardlessness, caps, and turbans in couplets makes it clear that the poet/lover is speaking of a male beloved.

Couplets devoted to the coquettish and cruel charms of male youths to whom many an Urdu poet lost his heart, including Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), the undisputed master of Urdu ghazal, are ubiquitously present in pre-modern Urdu poetry. Saleem Kidwai, in the classic anthology of the history of homoeroticism in Indian literature (Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, 2000), states that a large part of Mir’s poetry addresses other males. See, for instance, these couplets by Mir which leave no doubt about the beloved’s gender (translation by Kidwai).

Your face with the down on it, is our Quran

What if we kiss it, it is our faith.

Finding him inebriated, I pulled him into my arms last night

He said “So you too have become intoxicated tonight.”

It would be strange if an angel could hold its own

The fairy-faced boys of Delhi are far ahead of them.

The Indo-Muslim mileu of the 18th century, writes scholar CM Naim, “was not sex-positive, neither was it blatantly seems to have been quite tolerant, even licentious, in the matter of sexual tastes and habits”. A wide variety of non-normative sexual desire and practices were acceptable. These were neither despised nor pathologised.

The poet Abru (1682-1733) was well-known for his ashiq-mizaji (amorous temperament) and his untitled masnavi is a long poem with rhyming couplets giving an untutored youth advice and tips on how to adorn himself to make himself most attractive for his admirers (translated by Kidwai and Ruth Vanita):

Remember what I say—a lad like you

So uninformed, must mold himself anew

The connoisseurs of beauty, snip your curls

But no shaving, no razors, no sideburns.

Wash your hair with shampoo every morning

Never skip this—oil it, comb it, adorning

It in braids, in buns, but please don’t keep

Flaunting it to get stared at—that’s cheap

Poets such as Mir and Abru were highly regarded by their contemporaries. There are no derogatory references to them because of their homoerotic poetry. One reason for this could be that sentiments expressed in ghazal were a bridge between romance and mysticism. In the poetry of Persian Sufis, the lover was always a male seeker, and God symbolised as a beautiful youth.

Sadly, it is nearly impossible to find contemporary expressions of homoerotic love poetry by modern Urdu poets in India or Pakistan. The heterosexualisation of the ghazal took place post-1857, and was enthusiastically endorsed by Muslim reformers, who felt guilty and ashamed of what they saw astheir moral, social and educational backwardness. By the time we come to Firaq in the 20th century, the sanitisation and excising of homoerotic content from the Urdu ghazal had proceeded to such an extent, that Firaq has to beg his readers to consider scientific facts before condemning same-sex love and desire. He writes:

“Practitioners of amard-parasti (boy-love) are not criminals, nor are they villainous and contemptible beings […] We live in the scientific age where nobody should pass judgment on ethical and moral behaviour without first resorting to a thorough study of science and psychology.”

But even Firaq backs off from rocking the boat too far. Most ghazals, Firaq contends, are gender-ambiguous, partly because “before we are men or women, we are human” and therefore the gender of the beloved is not even worth worrying about.

Urdu poetry came of age in a cosmopolitan, urban Islamic culture of North India, writes Kidwai. Scholars, poets, administrators, traders etc fleeing the Mongol invasions of the 13th and 14th centuries sought refuge in the courts of the Muslim rulers of India. In the prosperous towns and bazaars, and at celebrations at shrines of saints, men from different classes and religious communities mingled freely and formed relationships, platonic and romantic. Even the ruling elite were not averse to such relationships. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni was in love with his slave, Ayaz. And emperor Jehangir was known to keep boys in his harem. The homoeroticism of the Urdu ghazal was simply a depiction of prevalent cultural norms, and not something abnormal or immoral as it later came to be seen in the colonial era.

Hysterical reactions to homoeroticism may be a thing of the past in English literature, but hysteria continues to malign and marginalise such expressions of love in modern Urdu literature. The writer Ismat Chughtai had to stand an obscenity trial for hinting at a sexual relationship between two women in her now (in)famous short story, Lihaf (The Quilt). That was in the 1940’s. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t vastly different in contemporary literary landscape in the 21st century.

Nighat Gandhi is the author of Waiting: A Collection of Short Stories

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Published on September 06, 2019
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