Digital Urdu Ghazal ReaderHomeContentsInfoSettingsHelp


About this reader

The Digital Urdu Ghazal Reader is a digital version of a semester-long Urdu course reader created and used by Frances W. Pritchett at Columbia University. It can be used as the reader for a semester-long advanced Urdu class or as supplementary material for a first or second-year class. The interactive on-line reader aids students in orthography, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and cultural and literary context. Printable versions of the ghazals is also available in order to accommodate classroom work.

All the ghazals in this reader are complete, with no verses omitted. The ghazals are presented in roughly chronological order, and have been chosen according to a number of criteria. They are designed (1) to introduce work by as many as possible of the most important poets in the classical North Indian tradition; (2) to represent the full range of the Urdu ghazal, from the simple to the extremely complex and from the sufistic to the erotic; (3) to contain many memorizable verses and to work well in classroom settings. The reader consists of eighteen ghazals by ten poets: Vali, Dard, Mir, Jur'at, Atish, Momin, Zauq, Zafar, Ghalib, and Iqbal. Iqbal was included because of his great importance, and because although he's not part of the classical tradition his ghazals resonate with it in very interesting ways.

This project was funded by a Pedagogical Materials grant 2005-6 from the South Asia Language Resource Center. The texts were edited and prepared by Frances Pritchett and A. Sean Pue. The recitations were provided by Dr. S. Nomanul Haq.

About the ghazal

The word 'ghazal' means something like 'conversations with women'; like the genre itself, it originates in Arabic. 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, and 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 splendid 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. Nowadays, the ghazal remains vigorously alive only in Urdu.

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). A two-line verse is called a shiʿr (pl. ashʿār). An individual line of this verse is called a miṣrah. The ashʿār of a ghazal all share the same meter (baḥr) and rhyme (zamīn). Ideally there are to be an odd number of them, and ideally the number is to be something like seven or nine. The meter of Urdu is quantitative, meaning it is based on a fixed number of short and long syllables in a particular pattern. Unlike the meter used in English-language poetry, the meter of Urdu does not rely on stress. For a full accounnt see see A Practical Handbook of Urdu Meter [site]. The rhyme of the ghazal contains two parts. The first is called qāfiyah, which is a syllable that is repeated at the end of every shiʿr. The other component of the meter, which is optional but quite common, is called radīf. The radīf is a word or set of words which follow the qāfiyah and is repeated at the end of each shiʿr.

Two special kinds of shiʿr are often found in the ghazal. The first is the mat̤laʿ, in which the qāfiyah and the radīf appear in the first line of the first shiʿr of the ghazal. Under oral performance conditions, this feature enables the listeners to perceive the formal structure of the ghazal more quickly. The other special shiʿr is called the maqt̤aʿ. It is the last (or sometimes next-to-last) shiʿr of the ghazal which contains the poet's pen-name, called a taḳhalluṣ.

Besides sharing the same meter, radīf, and qāfiyah, the ashʿār of a ghazal are not required to have any other relationship with each other. Each shiʿr is a self-contained unit of meaning, and as such can be memorized and recited by itself. The ashʿār of ghazal are usually not memorized in a particular order, and they do not rely on each other to transmit meaning. In performance, oral reciters and singers freely reorder the verses of a ghazal, and almost always omit a good number of them. The ashʿār are often compared to a string of pearls wherein each is a separate, beautiful object in itself.

The traditional venue for oral performance was the mushāʿirah, which consisted of a smallish group of patrons, connoisseurs, master-poets ('Ustāds'), and apprentices. Most mushāʿirahs were based on a 'pattern' line announced in advance, so that everybody's ghazals were formally identical (sharing meter, rhyme, and refrain). This made them extremely comparable, so that individual achievement stood out most strikingly. Poets recited in order of increasing seniority; because of the emphasis on apprenticeship over time and the required mastery of technical skills, the seniormost poets were politely assumed to be the finest. Everybody had a small notebook in which he (women rarely attended mushāʿirah) quickly jotted down verses that struck his fancy, for later discussion with friends. Famous poets were 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 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 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, or image. If deliberate, it was either a tribute or a challenge-- or usually both; if inadvertent, was it creative coincidence, innovative development, or vulgar imitation? And was every usage of the early masters sacred, or should modern idiom be given precedence? Mushāʿirah acted as technical workshops in which issues like these could be publically addressed.

While the ashʿār of ghazal do not bear any narrative relationship, they do share a thematic content. The world of the ghazal revolves around the relationship of a passionate and pining lover, called the ʿāshiq, and a cruel beloved, called the maʿshūq. The beloved is often rather ambiguous--male? female? human? divine?--and traditionally addressed in the masculine singular. Some modern readers have worried over the depiction of the beloved as a beautiful boy; the implications of pederasty worry them. But if the beloved can be envisioned as a beautiful boy or a courtesan, he can also be God. Similarly, the lover can speak as a caged bird, a hunted animal, a naked madman, a drunkard, or a voice from beyond the grave. The point is the transgressiveness, the liminality, the rush to break out of this flawed, doomed, restricted mortal world into a larger, truer universe. The moth flying into the candle flame is one of the ghazal's emblems; the blooming rose whose 'smile' is also her death-warrant is another.

Within the ghazal, numerous poetic themes emerge, which can be romantic, sociological, philosophical, and mystical. In the modern period, the ghazal form has been adopted for didactic and political ends, as well, and it remains a popular poetic form for poets today. Ghazals remain a favorite genre for musical performance. They also are central to the musical compositions of Hindi film, which itself incorporates much of the ghazal's conventional imagery.

Transliteration guide

Urdu Letter


alif ā
alif maqṣūrah â
be b
pe p
te t
jīm j
che ch
ḳhe ḳh
dāl d
żāl ż
re r
ze z
zhe zh
sīn s
shīn sh
ʿain ʿ
ġhain ġh
fe f
qāf q
kāf k
gāf g
lām l
mīm m
nūn n
tanvīn :n
vāʾo ū
he h
chhoṭī ye ī
baṛī ye e
hamzah ʾ
iẓāfat -e
nūn-e ġunnah ñ
do-chashmī he h
zer i
zabar a
pesh u

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].

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.