Originally published in Delos 3,3-4 (Winter 1991), pp. 7-12. Slightly edited for this online version.

Lyric Poetry in Urdu: the Ghazal

by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Frances W. Pritchett

        People are always tempted to compare the ghazal to the sonnet. Poems in the two genres are usually about the same length, and they share a basically romantic and introspective sensibility. A Western scholar, Robert Oppenheimer, has recently called the sonnet “the oldest poetic form still in wide popular use,” and has proudly traced it back through a number of European languages to its origins in Italy in the early thirteenth century. He has failed to do his cross-cultural homework, however, for the ghazal antedates the sonnet by about six hundred years: it traces its origins back to seventh-century Arabic poetry. From Arabic it spread into a number of languages, most notably Persian, Turkish, and then Urdu-- where it is thriving today not only as a sophisticated genre of modern poetry, but also in the popular media: “filmi” ghazals, and “filmi” singers of classical ghazals, have made themselves at home in the movie industry, and on radio, television, and cassette.

        Throughout the ghazal’s reign, which has extended over thirteen centuries of time and immense amounts of space, ghazal poets have cherished their genre and consciously maintained its coherence. Learning their art from a master-poet and passing it on in their turn to students, ghazal poets have been proud to refer to and build on the work of their predecessors. Within the ghazal, the poet almost always adopts the stance of a romantic hero of one kind or another: a desperate lover intoxicated with passion, a rapt visionary absorbed in mystic illumination, an iconoclastic drunkard celebrating the omnipotence of wine. He presents himself as a solitary sufferer, sustained by brief flashes of ecstasy, defined by his desperate longing for some transcendant object of desire. This object of desire may be human (female or male), divine, abstract, or ambiguous; its defining trait is its inaccessibility. But if the worldview of the ghazal is romantic, its structure is classically precise. The following ghazal has been translated in a technically careful way, retaining as many formal features of the Urdu as possible. All translations here presented are our own.

/8/ To hell with all hindering walls and doors!
Love’s eye sees as feather and wing, walls and doors.

My flooded eyes blur the house
Doors and walls becoming walls and doors.

There is no shelter: my love is on her way,
They’ve gone ahead in greeting, walls and doors.

The wine of your splendor floods
Your street, intoxicating walls and doors.

If you’re mad for waiting, come to me--
My house is a store of gazing, walls and doors.

I never called down a flood of tears
For fear of my falling, pleading walls and doors.

She came to live next door--
Doors and walls adoring walls and doors.

A lively house stings my eyes
To tears, without you, seeing walls and doors.

They greet the flood with rapture
From end to end all dancing, walls and doors.

Don’t tell love-secrets, Ghalib
Except to those worthy of hearing: walls and doors.

        As can readily be seen, each of the ten two-line shi`rs, or verses, ends in “walls and doors.” This identically repeated end-refrain is called the radif, and is present in most ghazals, though it is not compulsory. And in each verse the word before the radif ends in “-ing”; the rhyme here is called the qafiyah, and is compulsory. The first verse, to set the pattern in a genre designed to be heard rather than read, repeats the rhyming elements at the end of each line, so that the hearer can at once tell how much is radif and how much is qafiyah. A verse of this special introductory form is called a matla`, and most ghazals have one--though some may have more than /9/ one, and some may not have any. The last verse incorporates, by way of signature, the poet’s pen-name or takhallus (which in this case is “Ghalib”), and thus earns the special name of maqta`. The maqta` is optional: it is usually present in classical ghazal, but is no longer so popular today. What we could not show in English is the meter: every line of the ghazal is in the same rigorously defined Perso-Arabic quantitative meter.

        The ghazal presents a blend of unity and autonomy that often seems paradoxical to Westerners. Formally speaking, the ghazal can be said to be unified: since its verses share meter, rhyme, and usually end-refrain as well, it has a powerful symmetry and cohesion. In terms of content, however, each two-line verse is an independent, free-standing poem, making its own effect with its own internal resources. Except for rare and special cases, there is no narrative or logical “flow” from one verse to the next; if the verses were rearranged, or one or two removed, usually the action would not even be detectable. While such treatment would fatally damage a sonnet, it would have little or no effect on most ghazals. Even today, lovers of Urdu poetry know hundreds and hundreds of two-line ghazal verses by heart, and can (and do) recite them for many conversational purposes; but no one can (or does) recite whole ghazals with all their verses in correct order. The pleasure of the ghazal dwells in each verse itself, and taking a verse “out of context” raises none of the problems that would be raised by so treating a verse from a sonnet. The ghazal acts largely as a kind of frame and showcase for its individual verses.

        Yet the small two-line verse is not left entirely to its own devices, for it inhabits the long-established, well-developed ghazal universe. The ghazal universe is founded on the figure of the passionate lover, and faithfully mirrors his consciousness. The lover, while longing for his inaccessible (human) beloved or (divine) Beloved, reflects on the world as it appears to him in his altered emotional state. To him its highs are infinite heavens, its lows abysmal depths, its every scene and every moment charged with intense and complex meanings--meanings to which non-lovers, the ordinary “people of the /10/ world,” are appallingly blind. The ghazal universe exists in the consciousness of ghazal poets and their audiences, who construct it by knowing verses, and constantly refine it by making, hearing or reading, accepting or rejecting, yet more verses.

        The human inhabitants of the ghazal universe are stylized, and exist chiefly to fulfill certain necessary functions: the lover’s friends, his confidant, his rivals, his messenger, the beloved’s cruel doorkeeper, the Shaikh full of reproachful and ostentatious piety, the Advisor with his unheeded words of caution, etc. The geography of the ghazal universe includes settings for the lover’s every mood: the garden for dialogue between nature and man, the social gathering for human relationships, the wine-house for intoxication and mystic revelation, the mosque for ostentatious impiety, the desert for solitary wandering, the madhouse or prison cell for intransigence and frenzy, the grave and its aftermath for ultimate triumph or defeat. The ghazal universe is thus filled with beings and objects so “pre-poeticized” that they bear only the most incidental relationship to their natural counterparts.

        While romantic and mystical themes may predominate in the ghazal, it is important to note that they do not confine it. Since each two-line verse (shi`r) is semantically independent, most ghazals contain verses in various moods and on various topics. Different individual verses of a single ghazal may contain abstract reflection, social commentary, pious exhortation, elegy, the poet’s self-praise or self-deprecation, humor, or satire, as well as punning and other, more complex forms of wordplay. While simplicity and melancholy have been very popular, metaphoric subtlety and verbal intricacy have also been cultivated. In theory, ghazal poets can say anything--and in practice, at one time or another, they have.

        The theoretical approach of the classical Urdu ghazal was twofold: it consisted of the pursuit of “mazmun” and “ma`ni.” The former can roughly be translated as “theme.” “Theme” is what one gets in answer to the question, ‘What’s the poem about?’ “Ma`ni” can be translated as “meaning.” Meaning is what one gets in answer to the question, ‘What does the poem /11/ say?’ The poet’s effort was to introduce new slants on old themes--and, if possible, even to invent new themes. His second goal was to pack as much “ma`ni” into the poem as possible. All the resources of the language were his territory: the great poets never hesitated to use them. All kinds of wordplay, allusion, effects of assonance, devices suited to oral delivery, complexity of metaphor, simple, everyday speech-rhythms--nothing was barred. The poem was seen more as a verbal artifact than a spontaneous, Wordsworthian “overflow of the powerful feelings of the heart.” Poems were not treated as autobiography. Autobiography wasn’t forbidden; it would, however, be frowned upon unless mediated to the audience through poetic devices.

        Given the fact that the ghazal is basically a love poem, and its main theme is unrequited love, the poet has full liberty to deal with matters relating to love in the widest possible context. And since the ghazal is at its best when it implies or conveys more than it apparently says, any utterance in a ghazal can theoretically be interpreted in more ways than one, or on more levels than one. As the great poet Mir (1722-1810) says, “A single utterance has any number of aspects, Mir / What a variety of things I constantly say with the tongue of the pen!” He finds another image as well: “Every verse is curled and twisted like a lock of hair / Mir’s speech is of an extraordinary kind.”

        Love consumes like fire--this is a fundamental, often-used theme for the ghazal. How this familiarity is made new, how it is turned into richness and variety, may be seen in the verses of the great masters. Of them all, Mir was perhaps the greatest. Here are some of his shi`rs, drawn from a number of different ghazals, on the subject of burning and flame:

The fire of love burnt Rizvan to death,
Although that demon had his home in Lanka, surrounded by water.

Mir, the sadness of a burnt-out heart never goes away,
Faced with her beautiful face, the candle-flame dies.

/12/ The rose has taken on her color
just as one candle is lighted from another.

Fire eats away all that it encounters, wet or dry,
But I, like the candle’s flame, only consumed myself.

Mir, do not shed tears when the heart is on fire--
It’s no use sprinkling water on a conflagration!

Bones shiver and burn away--
What a fire has love lighted here!

A splinter of lightning must still be lurking
somewhere in my house.

Today Mir’s house was an ash-heap; he had been smouldering for years,
Perhaps last night he burnt himself away.

Mir, the scar of my ravaged heart is bright in the night--
Love has lit a lamp even in such a wilderness.

        With the advent of western ideas and education, the poetics of the classical ghazal lost much of their prestige, and fell into what Ghalib would call the “niche of forgetfulness.” Yet the conceptual underpinnings of the ghazal remain unchanged. It is still basically a poem of unhappy love, or at least of unhappiness, and of dissatisfaction with life. Many of the more sophisticated traditional images are now used only by a few. Yet the ghazal still has a polyvalence which makes it piquant and effective. Today it is often used variously for political expression, modernist experimentation, or personal reflection; it is also used by women poets to explore their own situation. For as Vali Dakani said several centuries ago, “The road to fresh mazmuns is never closed / Till Doomsday the gate of poetry stands open."

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