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 Persian, the medieval 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 at 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' (1722-1810) 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 seven or nine. They share a strictly-defined Arabic-derived quantitative meter; for a pragmatic account see A Practical Handbook of Urdu Meter [site], and for more details of Arabic metrical theory see Pybus 1924 [site]. At the end of each verse they also share a common rhyme syllable, and after it usually (but not always) a common repeated refrain word (or words) as well. Beyond this, the verses of a ghazal share only the larger ghazal universe of stylized characters, scenes, actions, and images. 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 apprentices. 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. Recitation-- or chanting in a popular style called tarannum (an example: Jigar Moradabadi, 1957)-- of the first line of a verse was followed by a longish 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 creating suspense, misdirection, surprise, etc., that became major factors (along with complex wordplay) 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 apprentices 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 very origins of Urdu poetry included macaronic (mixed) Persian/Urdu lines and verses; the classical training for a poet included memorizing literally thousands of verses by earlier Persian and Urdu Ustads. 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 usage of 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 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, 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 two most popular archetypal ghazal beloveds, Laila and Shirin, are 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. 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. 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 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 conversion of pain into joy, and joy back again into pain, is fundamental-- just as the beloved is an ‘idol' and the lover an 'idolater', but their bond may also represent the deepest, truest kind of mystical religious feeling. The Western reader must 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, 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 also often recited. Modern mushairahs form a venue for the ghazal that mediates between the elite and the popular.
And now, of course, 'ghazal' has become the name of a
genre of modern English poetry as well; 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
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].
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