The word ‘ghazal’ means something like ‘conversations with women’; like the genre itself, it originated in sixth-century Arabic verse. Early Arabic ghazal revolved around two broad themes: the rakish celebration of wine, women, and song; and the elegiac lament over lost love. By the time the ghazal passed into Persian from the early eleventh century onward, this second theme had come to have mystical overtones: separation and suffering were at the heart of love, while the faithful, longing lover was even a kind of martyr. (For discussion, see the latter part of ‘Convention in the Classical Urdu Ghazal’ [site].) The overarching centuries-long history of Persian ghazal is described in detail in E. G. Browne’s four-volume A Literary History of Persia (1906; [site]). Through widespread popularity in the 'Persian cosmopolis', the early modern ghazal also came to develop major traditions in Turkish and Urdu. Early Urdu, cultivated in the Deccan during the Mughal period, included a substantial body of ghazal poetry (on Dakani or 'early Urdu' literature: [site]). The northward migration of Urdu poetry around the beginning of the 1700's was a complex and contested process (see Chapter Six in Early Urdu Literary Culture and History [site]). The rest of this discussion will focus on the 'classical' (i.e., 18th/19th-century) North Indian Urdu ghazal; the two greatest poets of this tradition were Mir Muhammad Taqi 'Mir' (1723-1810) and Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib' (1797-1869).

Formally speaking, a ghazal is a set of two-line verses (they aren't technically 'couplets', since in most of them the two lines don’t rhyme). Ideally there are to be an odd number of them, and ideally the number is to be something like five or seven. They share a strictly-defined Arabic-derived meter; for a pragmatic account see A Practical Handbook of Urdu Meter [site], and for more details of Arabic metrical theory see Pybus 1924, Part One [site]. At the end of each verse they also share one or more rhyme syllables, and after that, usually (but not always) a repeated refrain word (or words) as well. Within a poet's written divan, ghazals were alphabetized by the last letter of the refrain, but within each such last letter their order was only that assigned by the first authoritative editor.

Beyond rhyme, refrain, and meter, the verses of a ghazal normally share only the larger ghazal universe of stylized characters, scenes, actions, and images that exists in the reader's head. A ghazal, in short, is a series of semantically independent two-line mini-poems that have a strong formal unity— but usually no particular unity beyond that, though sometimes small groups of verses can be marked as a connected 'verse-set'. (On the quest for unity, see ‘Orient Pearls Unstrung’ [site].) Thus in performance, oral reciters and singers freely reorder the verses of a ghazal, and almost always omit some of them.

The first verse of a ghazal commonly incorporates the rhyme and refrain at the end of both lines, rather than only at the end of the second line. If it does this, it's called an 'opening-verse'. Under oral performance conditions, this repetition enables the listeners to perceive the formal structure of the ghazal more quickly. The last verse commonly includes the poet's chosen pen-name; if it does this, it's called a 'closing-verse'. Both these features reflect the ghazal's expectation of oral performance.

The traditional venue for oral performance was the mushairah, which consisted of a smallish group of (male) patrons, connoisseurs, master-poets ('Ustads'), and pupils. Most mushairahs were based on a well-known 'pattern' line (or verse) announced in advance, so that everybody's ghazals composed in this pattern were formally identical (sharing meter, rhyme, and refrain). This formal identity made them extremely comparable, so that individual achievement stood out strikingly. Poets could recite in a plain style (taht ul-lafz), or sing in a popular style called tarannum (as in this very early filmi mushairah from 'Pak Daman' (1957), which features several prominent poets). In either case, the first line of a verse was generally followed by a pause full of obligatory praise and exclamatory comment from the audience, after which the poet repeated the first line and only then followed it with the second line. Mushairahs were thus lively and participatory; this modern example (Ghalib Academy, Delhi, 2013) shows how they sometimes still are. This style of oral presentation created an interval of time when the audience had access to the first line but not the second-- with possibilities for generating suspense, misdirection, anticipation, etc., that became major factors (along with complex wordplay and semantic multivalence) in the development of the ghazal's poetics.

Poets recited in an order of increasing seniority; because of the emphasis on apprenticeship over time and the required mastery of technical skills, the senior-most poets were politely assumed to be the finest. Everybody had a small notebook in which he (women rarely attended mushairahs) quickly jotted down verses that struck his fancy, for later discussion with friends. Famous poets were often the rock stars of their day; bands of their pupils were even known to riot when they encountered each other in the streets of Lucknow. Although the majority of ghazal poets were upper- or middle-class Muslim men, ghazals by women, by people of other religions (including Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians), and by people of working-class backgrounds, are amply documented. For details of this literary culture, and its self-documentation in anthologies called 'tazkirahs', see 'A Long History' ([site]).

All poetry is made out of other poetry, but not all poetry is glad of it; the ghazal, however, delights in its huge treasury of earlier Persian and Urdu verses. The classical training for a poet included memorizing literally thousands of verses by earlier Persian and Urdu Ustads. The very origins of Urdu ghazal included macaronic verses that alternated Persian and Urdu lines. A common early name for some styles of this poetry, and for the language of Delhi in which it was composed, was Rekhtah ('mixed').

With such brief verses in such widespread oral circulation, disputes were bound to arise. There were various technical terms for the deliberate or inadvertent use of another poet's line or idea. If deliberate, it was either a tribute or a challenge—or usually both; if inadvertent, was it creative coincidence, innovative development, or contemptible imitation? And was every expression used by the early masters authoritative, or should the modern idiom have legitimacy as well? Mushairahs also functioned as technical workshops in which issues like these could be publicly discussed.

At the most basic level, the classical ghazal is the first-person voice of a passionate lover who laments his lack of access to his beloved. This lover is always construed as masculine. In some verses the beloved is very clearly feminine (as for example when women’s clothing, veiling, henna, etc. is mentioned); she is then either a courtesan, or an inaccessible lady in pardah. In other verses the beloved is very clearly a male youth (as when the beginnings of the coquettish adolescent boy’s beard are said to appear, destroying his androgynous charm). In most verses, the gender of the beloved remains unknowable. This undecideability is partly due to the brevity of the verses, and to the emphasis on the lover’s feelings rather than descriptions of the beloved. In Persian, it’s also due to the nature of the grammar: verb endings don't vary with gender. In Urdu, by convention the beloved always treated as grammatically masculine. The notional femininity of the beloved remains powerful, however: as Owen Cornwall has pointed out, by far the most popular ghazal beloveds, Laila and Shirin, are both female.)

Ultimately, this abstractly masculine grammatical gender may also be due to the desire to keep open a mystical, Sufistic reading in which the supremely powerful and irresistibly beautiful divine Beloved is the real object of desire. Since an erotic pursuit of God by a male lover is not only wildly transgressive but also bound to end badly, the lover knows from the beginning that his passion is doomed and will destroy him. But he doesn't care, since it's so much more compelling and glorious than anything on offer in this flimsy, transitory 'real' life. Thus the great metaphors of the lover's condition are the universal mystical ones of helplessness and/or transcendence: drunkenness, sex, madness, and death. The stylized settings of the ghazal world (garden, desert, wine-house, prison, etc.) and its supporting cast of characters (the Rival, the Messenger, the Doorkeeper, the Advisor, the Ascetic, etc.) are all precisely calibrated to accompany this passion play; they have all, and only, the qualities required in the ghazal world. In the ghazal world there's no marriage, no family life, no raising of children-- nothing at all to domesticate the wildness of the lover's mad dash through mystical 'self-less' states toward death.

Some modern readers have worried over the depiction of the beloved as a beautiful boy; the possible implications of pederasty distress them. But if the beloved can be envisioned as a beautiful boy (think of Plato's 'Symposium') or a courtesan, he can also be God; plainly the ghazal lives in a world of its own, and thus is the very reverse of autobiographical. For if the beloved is a denizen of that ghazal world, so too is the lover, who can speak as a caged bird, a hunted animal, a naked madman, a drunkard, or himself after his own death (see the famous {17,8}). The point is the transgressiveness, the liminality-- the rush to break out of this flawed, doomed, limited worldly life into a larger, truer universe of mystically inflected passion.

The moth flying into the candle flame is thus one of the ghazal's emblematic images; the burning, melting, self-consuming candle itself is another; and the blossoming rose whose 'smile' is also her death-warrant is a third. In the ghazal world the paradoxical conversion of pain into joy, and joy back again into pain, is fundamental. The beloved is an ‘idol' and the lover an 'infidel', but their bond may also represent the deepest, truest kind of religious feeling. Similarly, the lover is a drunkard-- but his 'wine' may be the Sufistic presence of the divine; the lover is a madman-- but he may be crazed by the experience of mystical transcendence. The reader must often do some mental work before being able to enter this universe, and translation too is particularly difficult, as the Persianist Dick Davis (2004) [site] explains in an elegant overview.

The classical ghazal world, with its aristocratic patronage and its famous Ustads, was killed off in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1857. (For the later anti-ghazal 'natural poetry' movement, see Muhammad Husain Azad's incomparably influential Water of Life (1883) [site] and his many followers, such as Syed Abdul Latif (1924) [site].) In the years before Partition the more realistic ghazals of the Progressive poets were enormously influential (see A. and R. Mir, 2006 [site]), and there have also been many 'filmi' ghazals composed for Bollywood movies. Nowadays most ghazals are either obscure and elite, printed in small poetry journals, or else simple, widely accessible, and often very popular. Modern mushairahs too are greatly changed: they tend to be publicly advertised performances, like concerts, held in large halls and presided over by popular emcees who adjust the recitations according to the mood of the audience. Women poets are also very popular nowadays, and fully participate; poems in newer genres are often recited as well. Modern mushairahs form a venue for the ghazal that mediates somewhat between the elite and the popular.

And now, of course, 'ghazal' has also become the name of a genre of modern English poetry; a web search will readily turn up many sites. The classic 'Ghazal on Ghazals' [site] by John Hollander is an enjoyable introduction; my friend Peter Hook Sahib 'Alone' composes English ghazals [site] that preserve the formal qualities and mood of the traditional genre unusually well. (For further discussion and additional English examples see Ravishing Disunities [site] by Agha Shahid Ali.)

Further resources: S. R. Faruqi and F. W. Pritchett, ‘Lyric Poetry in Urdu: the Ghazal’ [site]; F. W. Pritchett, Nets of Awareness [site]; A Desertful of Roses, ‘Bibliography’ [site]; the work of S. R. Faruqi [site].


Some basic technical terms for reading the ghazal:

i.zaafat == (f.) A Persian-derived grammatical construction linking a noun with another noun or adjective that follows it.

afaa((iil == ( The names of the feet in traditional Perso-Arabic prosody.

ba;hr == (f.) Meter.

ta;xallu.s == (m.) The poet’s pen-name, which is used in the * maq:ta(( .

diivaan == (m.) A collection of a poet’s work. Ghazals in a diivaan are arranged in alphabetical order by the last letter of the rhyming elements.

rab:t == (m.) ‘Connection’. The relationship(s) between the two closely interlocked lines of a * shi((r .

radiif == (m.) ‘Refrain’. The repeated word(s), if any, at the end of the rhyming element.

zamiin == (f.) ‘Ground’. The rhyming elements of a ghazal ( * qaafiyah and * radiif ) specified together.

shaa((irii == (f.) Poetry.

shi((r == (m.) A couplet (or distich), two lines of verse meant to be read together as an integral unit. Every shi((r terminates in the rhyming elements of the ghazal of which it is a part.

ash((aar == ( An (optional) Arabicized plural for * shi((r .

bait == (m.) The Persian term for a shi((r . Optional Arabicized plural: abyaat .

:tar;h (also :ta-ra;h) == (f.) The rhyming elements and meter of a ghazal, specified together; all ham-:tar;h verses could in principle be part of the same ghazal.

mi.sra((-e :tar;h == (m.) A ‘set line’ defining the pattern to be used for a ghazal.

;Gazal == (f.) A genre of brief, formally structured lyric poem in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu.

;Gazal kahnaa == To compose a ghazal.

fard == (m.) A single * shi((r , presented in isolation and not as part of any ghazal.

qaafiyah == (m.) ‘Rhyme’. The rhyming syllable that begins the rhyming element(s) of every ghazal verse.

qi:t((ah == (m.) ‘Verse-set’. A series of * shi((r within a ghazal, meant to be read together as a sequential set. The beginning is marked with a q ; the end is not marked.The name can also be applied to independent, structurally ghazal-like poems.

kulliyaat == (m.) A complete collection of a poet’s work.

mushaa((irah == (m.) A traditional gathering of poets and patrons for poetic recitation and discussion.

mi.sra(( == (m.) A single line of verse, half of a * shi((r ; sometimes called a hemistich.

ma:tla(( == (m.) ‘Opening-verse’. The special first * shi((r in a ghazal, in which the rhyming elements are present at the end of both lines, not just the second line. Some ghazals omit the ma:tla(( ; others may have two or more.

maq:ta(( == (m.) ‘Closing-verse’. The special last (or sometimes next-to-last) * shi((r in a ghazal, which contains the * ta;xallu.s . Modern ghazals often admit it.



GHAZAL ON GHAZALS, by John Hollander

For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one's a refrain like a chime: "at the end."

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It's this second line only will rhyme at the end.

On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,
So that what it comes down to's all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay
To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,
Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,
But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?
A good life with a sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet's a different ascent: no great peak,
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green
Thoughts, but you're left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion's a knot which must shorten, alas,
This long-worded rope of which I'm at the end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life,
At the game he's been wasting his time at. THE END.

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