Expression of the Indo-Muslim Mind in Urdu Ghazal
by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
. . . in the rhyme of yearsThe object of this paper is to make a beginning towards showing that, contrary to the often politically motivated observations of some of its critics, Urdu ghazal is an expression of the Indian mind and a part of the poetic tradition of the Indian heartland. Had it not been authentic, the voice of Urdu poetry would not have stood plain over the years, but would have been silenced long ago -- as were silenced the voices of the numerous Indo-Anglians who turned out yards of sentimental or patronizingly superior verse in English about darkening mango groves, the murderous heat of dusty plains, the dirty but frolicsome children, the respectful bearers and ayahs, the faithful Ganga Dins and proud Nabobs. I mention the mango groves and Ganga Din advisedly. Because for all his forty years of life and death in India, Bishop Heber remained as truly British as the day he was born; and for all his marvellous insights and almost miraculous evocation of atmosphere, Kipling was not an Indian, but a colonial Englishman. To take another and yet more disparate example -- Thomas Moore, because he wrote about a girl called Lalla Rokh, the Princess of Hindustan, could no more claim to be an Indian poet than Shakespeare could pretend to be a Greek or Roman because he wrote about Greeks and Romans.
The voice of poetry stands plain.--Iosef Brodsky, trans. G. Kline
I have no sympathy for those apologists of Urdu ghazal who painstakingly assemble evidence of its Indianness by poring over long and arid Diwans of obscure poets, triumphantly annotating all the so-called Indian allusions -- the koel, the mango tree, the rainy season, Hindu festivals and customs, and so on. No doubt such references are quite frequent in Urdu ghazal, but they are much more frequent in Kipling. Yet if these things do not make Kipling an Indian poet, then neither can Urdu Ghazal lay claim to Indianness merely by virtue of such allusions. It is not the subject that matters, but the mind that works on it. It is the mind of the poet which gives its true character to poetry. Beckmann's remark that "it is not the subject which matters but the translation of the subject into the abstraction of the surface by means of painting," applies equally to poetry.
On similar grounds, Jorge Luis Borges defends the European alignments of contemporary Latin American literature, and asserts that it cannot be truly national without these alignments. The Muslims, particularly Iranians and Turks, who came to India and effected a powerful cross-pollination of two cultures at the highest literary level, were the first true internationals -- or "extra-territorials," a term used by Steiner for such internationals as Becket and Borges. The Urdu poetry which sprang up in India under the influence of Persian-speaking Iranians, Turks, Arabs, and Pathans naturally made use of the vast and accessible body of imagery and convention which was AraboIranian. The poets who wrote this poetry were almost always bilingual in Persian and Urdu, if not trilingual in Persian, Urdu, and at least one other local language or dialect. Quli Qutb Shah of the Deccan, for example, used an early form of Urdu which may have travelled south along with Persian-speaking Muslim saints and their followers who had come from the far-off Middle East, and whose outward culture was Arabo-Iranian. Quli Qutb Shah uses foreign forms and conventions -- yet he does not write like an Iranian, much less an Arabo-Iranian.
Indeed, no great poetry is truly national. It borrows consciously, assimilates unconsciously, modifies and improvises upon received knowledge and inherited tradition almost by reflex action. Yet it retains and often heightens its native characteristics by virtue of such interaction. Truly national (in the narrowest sense) poetry can only be written in primitive speech communities which have not been exposed to extra-local influences, and have not gained from the commerce of thought and action. Great poetry is not strictly national; not because it can speak to us from across time and space, but because it embraces delightfully and naturally even those modes of thought and expression which are alien, and even occasionally antithetical, to it. Its greatness lies in its capacity to absorb alien elements, while yet permitting them to retain their natural power. The Arab influence on Provencal poetry, and particularly on its allegorical imagery, is a case in point. The poetic mind feels tremors of thought even from far-away places; one can discern many tendencies common in a general way among contemporaneous poets in distant countries. By this I do not mean the kind of parallelisms, real or fancied, which some people delight in discovering between English and Indian poets. I refer rather to similarities in the way of looking at things, or of describing abstract concepts like love or fear.
Urdu ghazal, both as a body of poetry and as the expression of individual minds, is extra-territorial. Yet its innate Indianness can be judged from the fact that its immediate predecessor and model (which also continued to exist contemporaneously with it), the Persian poetry written in the Indian Style or Sabk-i Hindi, has never been acknowledged by Iranians. Sabk-i Hindi's greatest exponent, Mirza Bedil, is even today practically unknown in Iran; its exponents of Iranian origin who lived and worked in India (Sa'ib, Urfi, Naziri, Abu Talib Kalim, etc.) still do not form part of the classical canon of Persian poetry. It is only recently that Iranian-born poets of the Indian Style have gained some respectability (but not currency) in Iran. In spite of the identity of language and general unity of theme, the two poetries (Iranian Persian and Indian Persian) are so different in flavour and atmosphere that a reasonably good student of Persian literature can almost always distinguish an Iranian from an Indian ghazal.
It is interesting to note that the last important Iranian poet of the Indian Style, Shaikh Ali Hazin, who lies buried in Varanasi in North India, was rather contemptuous of Indian Persian and Urdu poets. Undoubtedly some of his contempt grew out of the natural linguistic arrogance of the native speaker. But he also must have despised the fact that Urdu Ghazal had by that time become more Indian in tone and temper than the Indian Style Persian Ghazal ever was. Hazin pronounced the work of the Indo-Persian writers Bedil and Nasir Ali Sirhindi to be devoid of meaning; he claimed that the former's verse and the latter's prose would be wonderful gifts for the satirical merriment of Iranians. There is a famous (though not entirely authenticated) story that Hazin told the great eighteenth-century Urdu poet Sauda that he was "not bad among the trash merchants of India." Such anecdotes should not be taken to mean that Iranians held Urdu Ghazal in contempt as a bloodless imitation of the Iranian original. This view is proved false by the fact that the Iranian classical canon even now largely excludes Persian poets of the Indian Style-even those of Iranian origin. For the mind and the sensibility that speak through the Indian Style are more Indian than Iranian.
Thus the secret of the Indianness of Urdu ghazal is to be found in Sabk-i Hindi, the Indian Style of Persian poetry, because Urdu ghazal was the natural successor to this style. The Muslims and Hindus and others who wrote this ghazal may have been different, as individuals of widely differing religious persuasions are bound to be. But in their poetry they revealed a mind which was basically Indian in temperament, in attitude to life and the universe -- what was in short an Indian world-view. This poetic personality worked within certain pre-existing Iranian poetic conventions and forms, and adapted or enlarged Indian poetic conventions and forms as well, to suit the Iranian mask it had adopted. This mask I have called the Indian Style. It is therefore necessary to have a brief look at this style.
Now that the Indian Style has become somewhat respectable -- and the reasons for this are perhaps not entirely literary -- attempts have been made to trace its origins in Iran itself. The contributors to Karl Jehan's history place its origin in Herat, but also, somewhat curiously, credit Khusrau with its invention. The latest contender perhaps is Khaqani, for whom the Iranian critic Ali Dashti has argued at length in his book on that poet. At any rate, everybody agrees that the style found its full flowering in seventeenth-century India. Jehan's contributors have made a feeble attempt to relate its growth to socio-economic factors. But I am not here concerned with investigating the historical and political antecedents of this style. What I am trying to emphasize is that the basic stylistic features of the Sabk-i Hindi are closely related to the Indian world-view and Indian conventions.
The essence of the Indian Style has been described as a love for the baroque, ambiguity, a close verbal texture with much word-play, and a marked inclination to divide the sher into two parts, one containing an argument or proposition and the other providing the proof. (This latter tendency is often found in the doha, or distich, of Braj Bhasha.) Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi has quoted an Iranian critic, Ali Akbar Shahabi Khorasani, who describes the Indian Style as "weaving of thought into thought, fine themes, labyrinthine ideas, far-fetched thoughts . . . extreme hyperbole, exercise in futility, and unadmirable conceits." These characteristics strongly resemble tbose of the English Metaphysical poets; thus the main imaginative device of the Indian Style poets would be what Ransom calls "miraculism," that is, a power of transforming ordinary experiences into new and complex experiences. Selden Rodman says that great painters have "the capacity to draw convincingly, to compose memorably, and to make images not only never before imagined but instantly recognized as their own." Some such mechanism would appear to be at work in both the Metapbysicals and the Indian Style Persian and Urdu poets.
Most of the above-quoted descriptive terms used for the Indian Style are of course either disapproving or at best doubleedged. The Iranian mind, which loves simplification, and which is at its best when creating telling effects of clarification, does not feel at home with the complexities and verbal conceits so dear to the Indian. Even Ali Dashti, who is much more sympathetic than Ali Akbar Shahabi or the Karl Jehan authors, finds the Indian Style laden with "metaphor and metaphorical constructions" of things. He sees the hallmarks of the style as "fine and rare thinking, going in search for new themes, howsoever unfamiliar, not resting content with stating the totality of a theme, but taking aid from fine details, observations, habits, avoidance of clarity and simplicity in utterances, joining up with metaphors and symbols, using cognate or metaphorical constructions, and having so much regard to word-play and verbal homogeneity that meaning is lost in it. . ."
I do not mind saying that being an Indian, I like most if not all of these things. I exclaim with pleasure -- but can well imagine the chagrin of an Iranian -- when confronted with such shers as these of Sa'ib:
Do not feel safe with your lower hand [with him who is down]
when there is the upper hand [when you have the upper hand]
Because the bowl slowly drinks away the lifeblood of the glass [wine].
Happy is his time who like lightning, from the neckline of Existence,
Showed his head, laughed at the way of the world, and went.
The point of the second sher is that lightning, as it courses through a cloud (which is equivalent to chaos and hence to existence, because chaos is the source of all existence), appears to rip open the cloud's neckline. Because of its brightness, lightning appears to laugh. (Bright is one of the adjectives often used in Persian for laughter.)
This reminds us of Ghalib, writing in Urdu two hundred years later:
The cloud weeps [implores]: Please make ready a festive gathering.
Lightning laughs: Do we have a moment of leisure?
The cumulative effect of two hundred years of metaphorical practice and word..play, combined with GhaIib's superior imaginative power, has created a structure whose greater complexity and brilliance shine through my extremely inadequate translation. The cloud, being full of raindrops, is imagined to be weeping. But rain in India also brings relief from dry heat, and quickens the dead earth to new creativity; thus the cloud, through rain, becomes the symbol of regeneration, joyfulness, and the glory of life. The cloud weeps not in sorrow but in importunity, seeking to give its essence to the earth (make ready a festive gathering). The traditional metaphor of lightning's laughter and its ephemeral appearance is now exploited by Ghalib in a totaIly new way. Lightning laughs, but it laughs in contempt. Where is the time for me to make merry? Proud in its own ephemeralness, lightning rives the cloud apart and disappears. The cloud will no doubt burst, but the lightning's derisive laughter underscores the futility of the effort. All things are short-lived like the flash of lightning; the difference is of degree, not of kind. Ghalib uses the word dam for moment; dam also means breath, the resilience of a spring, the sharpness of a cutting instrument. Through breath, it also has the cognate meaning of life. It should be obvious that most of these connotations of tbe word dam are relevant to Ghalib's sher.
I hope I need not emphasize that although its imagery and conventions are Persian and its language highly Persianized, Ghalib's sher stands out as Indian because of the cloud-lightning symbolism. For the Iranian, the cloud means chaos or primeval existence. For the Indian, the cloud means regeneration and creative explosion. Then there is the added pleasure of cloud and lightning being masculine and feminine, respectively, in Urdu. Persian knows no genders.
Sa'ib, though a major exponent of the Indian style, was after all an Iranian from Tabriz, and could not countenance all the involutions of word and thought of which the Indian mind is capable. The Iranian is essentiaIly outward-looking, and fights shy of abstract thought in poetry. Even Rumi interspersed his monumental mystico-philosophical poem with numerous anecdotes that range from solemn to bawdy. The way he draws sufistic conclusions from, and enunciates philosophical concepts through, these anecdotes shows the working of the simplifying Iranian mind at its best. By contrast, the Indian always simplifies to make more complex. Witness the famous doctrines of the unity of body and soul, of being being equal to nothing, of all things apparently real being but shadows yet existing as real, of all things being real because they embody God, of all things being unreal because only God exists. Such ideas were weIl loved by the Urdu ghazal poet, because he inherited the Indian tendency to speculate. In his ghazal, the Maulana does not involve himself in these questions to any great extent; even in his Masnavi, he does not speculate as much as the Urdu ghazal poet. And the pages of the greatest Iranian ghazal poet, Hafiz, who has been almost always acclaimed a great Sufi, are practically empty of the kind of existential speculation which is encountered at every step in Mir, Dard, Ghalib, Atash, and a host of lesser poets.
Indeed, it was this love of subtlety and indirectness that made the Indian Style Persian poets and their Urdu foIlowers prefer intricate wrd-play and figures of speech -- both as ornamentation, and as an integral poetic element on which a good bit of the meaning depended (as we have seen above in Ghalib). I will elaborate this later. The point I want to make here is that the greatest Iranian ghazal poets have largely avoided involved processes of thought; and even their mystic knowledge is more often expressed, according to the occasion, in terms of ecstatic exaltation, apocalyptic vision, sufistic melancholy, despair at not reaching the ultimate goal, or the final triumphant identification of subject with object. There is very little play of doubt, very little metaphor in the truest sense. There is of course plenty of aIlegorical expression (which again is a simpli fying device), but one should always be wary, even with Hafiz, of seeing too much allegory and of giving fanciful interpretations to usages and images which finally boil down to convention. It is not that the Iranian ghazal poets are not great in their own way. It is only that a general absence of metaphorical and complex expressiveness leaves an inevitable impression of repetitiveness and limitation of scope. The Indians used Iranian themes, but gave them the merit of variety by an abundance of word-play and verbal conceits. They gave free rein to their own speculative genius and created something rich and strange, something expressive of the Indian mind but largely unacceptable to the Iranian.
One of the numerous examples of this development is the preoccupation of Urdu ghazal with life after death. This theme, although an important part of sufistic and Islamic doctrine, has rarely appeared in Iranian ghazaI. Even Indian Style Persian ghazal -- with the exception of Bedil and Ghalib -- hardly ever touches these typically Indian subjects. In Urdu ghazal the entire range of speculation is present: there is life after death; there is no life after death; there is no death; there is no life therefore no death either; there is rebirth after death; there is rebirth but in a different form; there is a cycle of life and death with each being an aspect of the other. A few examples:
Death is an interval of tiredness,
That is, we wiIl advance after resting. (Mir)
Mir, do you know what the interval of death is in this path?
Tired and defeated as we are by the wayside, we take a little rest. (Mir)
Life is but the emergence of sequential arrangement among elements,
Death is but the scattering of these very components. (Chakbast)
Not all, but only a few re-emerged as rose and poppy --
What must be the faces that lie hidden in the dust. (Ghalib)
Here, the drowned body has never resurfaced,
Never has the course of the sleep and dream river changed. (Zafar Iqbal)
Munir, when I made my way to the other shore of one,
I was to face yet another river. (Munir Niazi)
Upset and perplexed, I say I would rather die --
Where would I go if I found no peace even in death? (Zauq)
If I demanded death, I would still yearn for sleep;
If I went to drown myself, I would find the water not deep enough. (Atash)
Eternal it may be, or transient;
The moment we are not, the world is not. (Dard)
These lines, quoted offhand from memory, cover two and a half centuries of Urdu ghazal, and point up the various attitudes toward death and the wide variety of moods in which they are expressed. The consciousness revealed in such lines is grave without being pontifically solemn, occasionally lighthearted, occasionally masterful but never "masculine" -- in the sense that it is never impatient of detail and variety. It is perhaps "feminine" also in its love of the decorative and the baroque.
Indians have always relished a kind of anti-simplicity in the use of decorative elements: intricate word-play and figures of speech in poetry, complex friezes, figurettes and reliefs in architecture. A study of Hindu temples would be fruitful in this respect. Muslims, whose religion forbade representation of living beings, have made do with floral motifs, curves, circles, and various kinds of flourishes, all of which can be seen in Arabic and Persian calligraphy. Though widely divergent in detail, both kinds of decoration aim at concealing the basic design and suggesting a large number of things at the same time. The Indian Muslim benefited from both traditions, and thus created a poetry which at its best was highly complex and meaningful, and even at its poorest was often felicitous with cunning turns of speech. Particularly cultivated were the pun -- which indeed embraces almost all aspects of verbal dexterity -- and what can loosely be called the mura'at ul-nazir, that is, the use of words with similar associations and meanings. ("Meaning" is used in the Coleridgean sense.)
No doubt figures of speech and word-play were recognized in classical Iran as well, but never to the extent that they were in India. Further, in Iranian poetry word-play was largely confined to qasida or prose. The accepted opinion about lyrical (or ghazal) poetry was that it "rises from the heart and falls upon the heart," being thus a simple emotional and emotive utterance. The Aristotelian concept of metaphor must not have been unknown to the Iranians. Yet the definition of metaphor as given by the twelfth-century Iranian poet and rhetorician Rashid-i Vatvat in his Hada'iq ul-Sehr fi Daqa'iq u;-Sher ("Gardens of Magic in the Niceties of Poetry") is curiously etiolated. Even this watered-down metaphor was rather frowned upon by Iranian ghazal poets, who made greater use of imagery or tried to create a total symbolic structure. A throwback to the concept of the undesirability of metaphor in ghazal can be seen in the Kashif ul-Haqa'iq, an Urdu treatise by the nineteenth-century poet and rhetorician Imdad Imam Asar. He prescribed for the ghazal poet a careful avoidance of metaphor and of all involved processes of thought!
Needless to say, all major Urdu ghazal poets remained true to their Indian background, and derived an almost orgiastic pleasure from playing with and on words. It is true that Ghalib, in an attempt to claim respectability, once indignantly denied that he employed verbal tricks. Yet his poetry is full of the whole range of such gimmicks, including the lowliest form of mura'at, namely the zila. And Mir, although he claimed that his poetry was devoid of puns, was extremely fond of them. However, the one great difference between the Persian and the Urdu treatment of figures of speech and word-play (particularly the latter) is that the best Urdu ghazal poets always used wordplay to enhance or extend the meaning: they so wove it into the fabric of the sher that withdrawal of this element would not only mean denial of the comparatively simple pleasure of wordplay, but would also damage the meaning. Verbal conceit thus became so innate to the fabric of poetry that while minor poets used it for fun, major poets, always on the lookout for new felicities, often succeeded in creating unique word arrangements which were enjoyable in themselves as examples of the juxtapositional use of language, and often had the still greater merit of giving rise to new meanings and generating what can be called a genuine creative tension. Even Iqbal, who often averred that he was not at all bothered about the so-called beauties of poetry, but rather was concerned with delivering a message of thought and action, consciously or unconsciously imbibed -- or rather, could not to without -- this whole tradition of word-play and verbal conceit.
The mention of Iqbal brings me back to the Indianness of the imagery of Urdu ghazaI. Although Iqbal's poety is largely out of our zone of consideration, he, like Ghalib, is an interesting example of the Indian mind expressing itself through a highly Persianized mask. In one of his early poems Iqbal has likened the cloud careening across the sky to an elephant unchained. This is a direct borrowing from a qasida of Zauq, the contemporary of Ghalib. But the story does not end here. Ghalib, who always loved to pose as an Iranian in temperament, has written (perhaps in Qat'e-e Burhan) that an Indian once recited before an Iranian a sher to the effect that the black cloud emerged rolling from the mountainside like a black-drunk (siyah mast, which idiomatically means dead drunk). It was a slight but delightful play on siyah mast, the blackness of the cloud, its rolling movement calling to mind the walk of a drunkard, and also the slightly rolling gait of an elephant. The male elephant, moreover, has its rutting season during which it is described as mast (the English word being derived from the Persian via Urdu). Ghalib noted with approval that the Iranian smiled pityingly and asked whether it was a grizzly or a cloud that emerged from the mountainside. By his approving tone Ghalib meant to convey that the Iranian, with his better sense and judgment, had immediately spotted the inappropriate grotesqueness of the image; Ghalib implicitly advised his reader to cultivate the same poeticgood sense.
But this in fact was all a sham and fraud of Ghalib's vanity. Iran does not get her rain from monsoons striking at the top of the highest mountain range in the world, and there are no must elephants in Iran. The image is truly Indian and appropriate. So appropriate that Ghalib brazenly used it in one of his own ghazals, with the fullest emploitation of the possibilities of word-play:
O Saqi! if the black-drunk cloud emerged from the mountainside,It is almost impossible to explain -- and that too in English -- the rich complexity of the verbal conceits. It would certainly horrify an Iranian, because he would perhaps understand most of it and would be both repelled and attracted. I mention only the most striking:
I would smash the bowl of my bond of abstinence with the stone of glass.
Black-drunk: Black and drunk: dead drunk; drunk on blacknes (wine is also called black water); black and must (like an elephant); the cloud is drunk because it is full of water, and because it rolls like a drunkard; the cloud is like an elephant because elephants too have a rolling gait, because elephants are black and live on the mountainside, because elephants roar and trumpet like clouds, because a herd of elephants has a large mass like a cloud.We can see how the Indian mind unmistakably reveals itself through the Indian mask. Such poetry could only have been written by one who was absorbed in the Indo-Muslim culture. In the crucible of Urdu ghazal, Indian and Islamic elements fuse into a true Indo-Muslim consciousness.
Bowl of my bond of abstinence: The bond is not to drink, yet has been symbolized by a bowl of wine; it was common to set the seal on a bond over a bowl of wine; the bond of abstinence also was sealed over a bowl of wine; the bond of abstinence (paiman, literally "promise") through the addition of one vowel becomes paimana, "bowl"; since paimana is bigger than paiman by one vowel, it follows that the bowl of wine is greater than the vow of abstinence.
Stone of glass: Glass (shisha), as in English, also means drinking vessel, particularly a wine glass; stones are used for smashing glass; by using the glass for drinking, I will have smashed the bowl of my bond -- thus my glass is stone as well; stone is one of the elements used in making glass; the bond of abstinence sealed over a glass of wine could be unsealed only over another glass.
I have referred to the so-called "feminineness" of the Indian attitude to artistic expression. Ali Dashti stresses the "masculineness" of the Khorasani style of poetry, and maintains that the Indian Style reveals a "passiveness" of the mind. This does not mean lack of action, but rather a "feminine" receptiveness and inwardness as opposed to a "masculine" aggressiveness and outgoingness. The partiality of Urdu ghazal poets to serious as well as sentimental introspection, to giving detailed descriptions of their sorrows and disappointments in physical, even anatomical terms, while simultaneously indulging in intricate verbal architectonics, is almost totally absent in Persian. In Sanskrit, by contrast, the love of alamkara (figures of speech, incuding word-play) is evident to an almost phenomenal degree.
Certain critics of Urdu poetry, fired by the spirit of reform, have poked fun at Urdu ghazal poets for flying verbal parrots and mynahs (that is, being inordinately fond of verbal conceits) and yet spending most of their time weeping and moaning over their sad lot. Hali, the greatest of such critics, is annoyed with Ghazal poets for portraying the beloved as "unfaithful, devoid of sympathy and love, pitiless, cruel, murdering, a hunter, an executioner, hating those who are faithful and inclining toward those who are alien, disbelieving true love and believing the lustful to be true in love, given to suspicion, ill-natured, sharptongued, of loose morals" -- possessed of every conceivable defect, and of no good qualities except "beauty, coquetry, and other acts which provoke love or partake of loveliness." And Hali is equally displeased with the ghazal poet for presenting himself as "struck by sorrows and calamities wrought by the world or Heaven, infirm, sick, ill-fated, vagrant, of ill reputation, rejected by the people, a lover of vagabondage and illfame, a hater of popular acclaim, an avoider of happiness and peace, given to drinking, a drunkard, forgetful of self, faithful, hard toiler, sometimes a lover of freedom from all bondage, sometimes yearing for entrammelment, sometimes patient, sometimes pining, sometimes mad, sometimes sane, sometimes selfrespecting, sometimes totally brazen, an image of jealousy and envy, an enemy of rivals, suspicious of the whole world, complaining against Heaven, fed up with the world, harrassrd by time" -- possessed of all undesirable qualities, and of only love and faithfulness among the virtues. This summing up has carried conviction with many, because it is basically true. It has provided a convenient weapon to critics of widely differing persuasions, including those who were not basically opposed to the Urdu ghazal tradition but merely wanted to free it of what they thought was dead wood.
Where Hali and his successors went wrong was in their failure to appreciate that Urdu ghazal was written by Indians, not by Iranians. Two strains, sometimes overt and clear, but very often occult and implicit, have always run through the Indian -- as against the Iranian -- poetic tradition.
The first of these strains is the prominent place which playacting and public performance occupies in our country. Although literary drama long ago ceased to exist in India, stylized drama in the form of dance recitals and elaborate ritual dramatic dancing like Kathakali and diverse forms of folk drama flourish to this day. It is notable that the institution of the mushaira, a poetic symposium in which poets give public recitals, was born and evolved during the time when Indian Style poets established their sway in this country. For all its sadness and sense of alienation, the: Urdu ghazal was a work of art to be performed publicly. The element of dramatic play-acting and stylization was nore noticeable in ghazal and marsiya than, for instance, in masnavi, because in the former the poet imagined himself to be in a real sense on the stage, seeking to outdo his rivals in creating exuberant and extravagant effects. A more subdued style is notable for example in Dard, who did not often attend mushairas and thus did not face such direct historionic competition.
The second strain in the Indian tradition of which the zealous Hali and his followers failed to take note, is an extremely significant one, and one which is in fact associated with many of the qualities Hali most despised. No doubt the overwhelming abjectness of the Urdu ghazal poet's artistic persona created an unpleasant contrast to the "manliness" of a Hafiz or a Rumi or a Sa'di. But as Muhammad Hasan Askari has observed (though in a different context), each people has the right to determine its own poetic conventions. And in Indian love poetry, whether sacred or profane, the protagonist very often assumes a feminine persona. This is particularly true of poetry written in folk dialects, or in languages which began as folk dialects. Even in such advanced literary languages as Sanskrit and Tamil, a sizable body of love poetry either has a feminine protagonist or has been written from a feminine point of view. Even in poems written in the local language by medieval Muslim and non-Muslim sufis like Baba Farid, Sultan Bahu, Baba Nanak, Amir Khusrau, and others, the protagonist is sometimes a woman; sometimes the soul is likened to a bride, with God or ultimate truth or knowledge as the bridegroom. The classic lover in Indian poetry is the seventeenth-century woman saint Mira, whose devotional songs, employing the language used by lovelorn women, are known and sung all over North India by both Hindus and Muslims. In Indian love poetry, it is generally the woman who suffers the rigours of love, braves ignominy and ill-fame, pines away, "grows spectre-thin and dies." In his great poem of the Krishna cult, the fourteenth-century Sanskrit poet Jayadeva describes Krishna as "crushing the breasts of gopi girls with restless hands" while he pines for Radha, his favourite. Even in separation and severance, the male often has other female admirers or lovers, but the woman remains lonely.
In Arabic poetry, the lover is invariably male. In Persian poetry, the lover is assumed to be male, though the beloved may be either a woman or a beautiful boy. Often the beloved's sexual identity is deliberately left vague. It is on account of this pederastic tendency that ambiguous or "feminine" characteristics can also be discerned in the Iranian love poet's persona. Certain tendencies often considered "feminine" became more pronounced in Persian ghazal poets of the Indian Style, and were avidly absorbed by Urdu ghazal because its poets were already inclined, by virtue of their Indian ethos, towards accepting a feminine persona as the proper mode for a poet. Thus the themes of shedding tears of blood, of eyes becoming rivers of sorrow tinged with the heart's blood, of the lover wasting away and growing pale and thin, of extreme jealousy and possessiveness -- themes which distinguish Indian Style Persian ghazal from Iranian gazal -- were embraced, intensified, and deepened by Urdu ghazal. It is not for nothing that Ghalib, that most masterful and intellectually complex of Urdu poets, whose poetry is practically free from the sentimental pulp which disfigures a good bit of mediocre Urdu ghazal, is also the most full of themes of jealousy and physical pining away due to the rigours of love. In fact, some critics have found Ghalib's forte to be the variety and novelty with which he has treated the theme of jealousy!
In Urdu Ghazal the beloved is occasionally represented as a woman, occasionally as a boy, but most often in ambiguous terms. Ghalib insisted that the beloved should be left indeterminate, so as to admit a variety of interpretations. The rather pronounced tendency of Lucknow poets to mention feminine items of clothing or feminine physical features when describing the beloved was frowned upon by purists (Hasrat Mohani notable among them). In the twentieth century, when poets began to use the feminine gender for the beloved, a number of eyebrows were raised, and continue to be raised even now. Faiz, who clothed the faintly political content of his ghazal in conventional imagery and thus became more readily acceptable to oldfashioned critics, continues to talk of hair, lips, eyes, occasionally even breasts -- while carefully avoiding the use of the feminine gender for the beloved (through he has no such scruples in his nazms). Denigrators of Urdu ghazal used this vagueness to attack ghazal poets as pederasts. In reply, academics again undertook the tedious exercise of picking out isolated shers in Momin, Dagh. and other major but conventional ghazal poets, in which the beloved was unmistakably female. Other defenders argued that the beloved's sex had been advisedly left vague because ambiguity as well as decorum was the soul of poetry. Critics retorted that many ghazal poets wrote as though the beloved were a prostitute or courtesan, because he (she?) was usually seen by the poet in public situations, surrounded by a host of rival admirers. To this the defenders failed to find a convincing reply.
Both critics and defenders in such controversies were so blinded by the Iranian heresy that they could not see the answer which was staring them in the face. Though Iranian in form, Urdu ghazal was Indian in spirit: though its protagonist spoke in masculine voice (even women poets did so), the attitudes and responses were "feminine." It is true that courtesans played an important part in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urban North Indian society, and that pederasty as well was quite common. But the deeper truth is that the "woman" who sits amidst rival lovers and the "man" who pines for her are in fact sexually reversed masks for a masculine beloved and a feminine lover. A boy beloved can of course be explained even more convincingly in this context. No doubt the Urdu ghazal poet does not have an exclusively "feminine" persona. He could not, by sheer virtue of the advanced state which urban civilization, exposed to foreign sophistications, had attained. But the main thrust remained Indian, and "feminine" in the Indian sense.
Grammar also was of great help. For although Urdu has distinct genders, and all verbs and adjectives agree with the noun or pronoun which they govern or qualify, the second person and third person plural forms do not always make this distinction. In the colloquial speech of Delhi, for instance, the second and third person masculine plural verb forms can also be used as feminine. And not only can un ("their," third person plural oblique) be used for groups of either sex, but it can also refer to either a man or woman in the singular, since plural forms are used as a sign of respect or love. Since many nouns in Urdu do not have specific masculine or feminine forms, this ambiguity of reference becomes eminently suitable, as in this sher of Dagh's:
Eye is not lightning, face is not sun,Here "they are human" actually means "that respected person is human," and the person in question may be woman or man. Similarly, in colloquial speech a woman may use the first person plural, with masculine plural verb forms, to refer to herself. Thus grammatical ambiguity helps to keep open the question of sexual identity of lover as well as beloved in Urdu ghazal.
They are human, but there is not [in me] the daring to see.
Historically speaking as well, a case can be made for a "feminine" protagonist in Urdu ghazal. The first major Urdu poet Quli Qutb Shah (1580-1612) and his contemporaries often wrote as if the poetic protagonist were a woman. Even in cases of grammatical ambiguity, the epithets and images used for the beloved occasionally indicated that the lover was female and the beloved male. Earlier, during Bahmani times, the practice was no different. Even in the age of Vali, far into the seventeenth century, we occasionally find a graammtically female protagonist; though grammatical ambiguity is on the increase, "feminine" emotions and experiences are unmistakable. Although the lover's peregrinations and his clandestine trips to the beloved's house or street are themes not unknown in Iranian poetry, the nightly trips to the beloved mentioned in Urdu ghazal assume a different significance when we recall that Indian poetry abounds in accounts of the female lover going out secretly to keep a nightly tryst. In the following sher of Vali's, the beloved is female but the context is clear:
So that I may not lose my way in this dark night,The girl has obviously come out to keep the tryst. The man is also on his way to her and wishes to hear the reassuring faint silvery tinkle of her ankle bracelets. She is clearly not the pursued, but rather the dominant partner, since it is the man who is afraid of the dark and unfamiliar place of rendezvous.
Let me hear occasionally the tinkle of thy ankle-bracelets.
By the nineteenth century, ambiguity of expression has increased, but descriptions of the female body (not the whole body but some physical features), dress, and behaviour have also come into prominence. As a general rule, wherever the female body or dress or manners are described in specifically female terms and not merely the traditional hair, eyes, lips, etc., the level of poetry is low and the tone is devoid of the true tension of experience. Yet where the experience of love is described, the tone is ambiguous and the content almost always becomes more alive when seen as the expression of a "feminine" point of view. Consider these random shers from Siraj Aurangabadi, who comes after Vali but rather before the late-eighteenthcentury masters of Delhi:
Alas, I uselessly burnt away my being in the harsh sun of sorrow,The word for "the loved one," piu, is commonly used by women to refer to a male beloved; moreover, the emotion expressed by Siraj is -- in the traditional Indian context -- more appropriate to a woman than to a man.
I did not know there was peace and safety in the shadow of the loved one.
Thy dress has prints of nargis,The word for "dress," qaba, refers to a kind of apparel used by men as well as women. The nargis flower is shaped like an eye, and the use of this word suggests a female rather than a male eye contemplating the beauty of the beloved in silent wonder.
As if a nargis flower were freshly plucked.
The disappearance of clearly female grammatical usages from the poetry of the nineteenth century is offset by the greater emphasis on "feminine" words and conditions. I have mentioned physical wasting away as one such condition, and jealousy as another. The former is practically unknown in Iranian ghazal, but often figures in Indian Style Persian ghazaI. Shibli Nomani notices this phenomenon, but fails to relate it to the Indian ethos. He does, however, observe that much Indian Style poetry in Persian sustains itself purely on word-play; as an example he offers the following:
My fame through the world for infirmity is not new:Shibli comments that the idiom "to fall on people's tongues" means "to become famous," and points out that the sher has force only because of this word-play. This is a far cry from the much (and rightly) maligned Urdu Ghazal poet Nasikh, whose description of physical pining away verges on the farcical:
It has been ages since through faintness I have falIen on people's tongues.
When due to excessive thinness I couldn't be seen,But perhaps the poet meant this sher to be a joke. The same subject has been handled with great finesse and subtlety by more intelligent poets, including Ghalib:
They laughingly said, "Let's brush the bed [and see if he's lost in one of the folds]."
Because of infirmity, the impression of an ant's foot is an iron ring around the neck --Apart from the extremely ingenious hyperbole in the first line, the main point is that the poet is using his alleged lack of strength as an excuse for not clearing out!
How can I have the strength to run from your street?
Description of the various transactions that pass between the lover and the beloved is calIed mu'amila bandi. Baba Fughani Shirazi, a sixteenth-century Persian poet who is considered by many to be the first Indian Style poet, is also credited with introducing this theme into poetry. In the hands of the Urdu masters, mu'amila bandi developed into a sophisticated device capable of expressing "feminine" disappointments and yearnings.
But a yet more strikingly revelatory phenomenon was the emergence in the nineteenth century of rekhti, a form of ghazal written largely in the idiom used by women. Rekhti had a female protagonist, an explicit common persona adopted by all its poets -- who were almost always men. Although it had occasional non-feminine themes, rekhti was essentially a poetry about -- and purportedly by -- women. It was never considered a serious form, and rarely produced poetry of more than passing interest or merit. But that it compensated for the loss of the overtly female protagonist appears to me quite certain -- especially when we observe that it evolved in Lucknow, whose regular poetry was more than usually full of explicitly female beloveds being celebrated by male lovers.
The twentieth century saw the decline and disappearance of overtly female physical features, apparel, etc. But this was due to the reformist zeal of Hali and the spread of English education (the strait-laced syllabi of those days being largely unaware of poets like Herrick), rather than any regression of the "feminine" tradition. Themes of faintness, jealousy, extreme sorrow and love-sick pining, the shedding of tears of blood, etc., continued to be popular -- only to recede in the last fifty years or so, victims of Iqbal and of the initial onslaughts of the Progressive Movement in Urdu literature. The Progressives began by condemning ghazal; later, however, they embraced it with redoubled vigour and wrote some good ghazals which could, but for their linguistic atmosphere, be fitted into the earlier pattern.
The great change which has come in our time is due to a general decline in the prestige commanded by love poetry. Ghazal is no longer mainly a genre of love poetry. The influence of English has also played its part, uprooting the female lover from her position even in Hindi poetry. But as far as Urdu is concerned, ghazal has maintained its vigour and popularity because -- as I have shown -- its early masters did not treat it as a limited form, but rather gave free rein to their traditional Indian sources of power: mystical and abstract speculation, complex and enriching verbal techniques, consciousness of environment, and a desire to investigate beyond obvious limits. Ghazal has these qualities still -- both in India and in Pakistan. Indeed, in the latter country the tendency to hark back to pure Iranian or Arab-Iranian traditions has failed to gain ground, despite much chauvinistic support. Urdu ghazal is a flower that can bloom only in the composite soil of the Indo-Muslim mind.
It could be argued that the poetic personality that underlies and emerges
from Urdu ghazal does not correspond to that of any individual, or even
of any representative group of individuals. Apart from the fact that no
individual or limited group can be claimed to fully represent such a vast
culture, my answer to the objection would be: yes, it does not so correspond.
But this does not really matter. It is true that Ghalib or Momin or even
Yagana would have resented the idea of standing in the Indian or Hindu
tradition. Mir and Insha might have been delighted. Dard and Sauda would
not have minded either way. But the special force aad conviction conveyed
by a creative stance is partially due to its owner's not being consciously
aware of it. In the case of Urdu ghazal, the many contradictory elements
are so obvious, yet so well adjusted and so happily co-existing, that the
totality of the picture has perhaps escaped our observation so far. There
is a famous remark of Proust's that what an author writes "is the product
of a different self from the one we display in our habits, in society,
in our vices." In this context, Roger Shattuck recalls Valery's speculation
that the author too might be the product of his work; that is, the inevitable
interaction between a work and its author may modify the personalities
of both. Some such thing must have happened to Urdu ghazal. Radically different
as it is from the Dakhini ghazal of four centuries ago, it has grown and
changed only within the confines of its native land.