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Poetry Guide: Ghazal

In poetry (and as the lyrics in songs), the ghazal (Arabic: غزل; Turkish gazel) is a poetic form consisting of couplets which share a rhyme and a refrain. (The word "ghazal" is of Arabic origins, and is pronounced roughly like the English word "guzzle", but with a different first consonant.) Ghazal in Arabic literally means "speaking with women". However, the word has a different meaning in Persian and Urdu : it is the last melancholic cry of deer cornered by hunters, perhaps symbolic of the content or theme of a ghazal. The form is ancient, originating in 10th century Persian verse. It is derived from the Persian qasida, which in turn derived from a pre-Islamic Arabian form. The ghazal spread into India in the 12th century under the influence of the Mughals. Although the ghazal is most prominently a form of Urdu poetry, today, it has influenced the poetry of many languages.

A Ghazal, in short, is a collection of couplets (called sher) which follow the rules of Matla, Maqta, Beher, Qaafiyaa, Radif, Khayaal and Wazan. The traditional complete ghazal has a matla, a maqta, and three other shers in between. The first two shers of a ghazal have the form of a qatha (a specific variation of which is a ruba'ee; most familiar to modern readers from Khayyám's Rubayyat).

Ghazals were written by the Persian mystics and poets Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (13th century) and Hafez (14th century), the Turkish poet Fuzuli (16th century), as well as Mirza Ghalib (1797–1869) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), who both wrote Ghazals in Persian and Urdu. Through the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the ghazal became very popular in Germany in the 19th century, and the form was used extensively by Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) and August von Platen (1796–1835). The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was a proponent of the form, both in English and in other languages; he edited a volume of "real ghazals in English".

The ghazal is a common song form in India and Pakistan today. Strictly speaking, it is not a musical form, but a poetic recitation. Today, however, it is commonly conceived of as an Urdu song, with prime importance given to the lyrics.

Details of the form

The theme

Illicit unattainable love

The ghazal not only has a specific form, but traditionally deals with just one subject: Love. And not any kind of love, but specifically, an illicit, and unattainable love. The subcontinental ghazals have an influence of Islamic Mysticism and the subject of love can usually be interpreted for a higher being or for a mortal beloved. The love is always viewed as something that will complete the being, and if attained will ascend the ranks of wisdom, or will bring satisfaction to the soul of the poet. Traditional ghazals' love does not have an explicit element of sexual desires in it, and hence the love is spiritual. Consequently, ghazals are not to be confused with poetry of seduction. The ghazal is always written from the point of view of the lover who is unable to attain his beloved, because either the beloved is just playing with the poet's feelings, or because the societal circumstances don't allow it. The lover is aware and resigned to this fate, but continues loving nonetheless. It is not important to the lover that the beloved does not echo the same feelings towards him. The beloved is often portrayed in exaggerated terms, with extended metaphors about the "arrows of her eyes", or referring to the beloved as an assassin or a killer. Take for example the following couplets from Amir Khusro's Persian ghazal Nami danam chi manzil bood shab:

Nami danam chi manzil bood shab jaay ki man boodam;
Baharsu raqs-e bismil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.
Pari paikar nigaar-e sarw qadde laala rukhsare;
Sarapa aafat-e dil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.

I wonder what was the place where I was last night,
All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony.
There was a nymph-like beloved with cypress-like form and tulip-like face,
Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers.

(translated by S.A.H. Abidi)

The lover for his part portrayed as a spineless individual resigned to his fate that has no choice but to continue hopelessly loving his beloved. He almost enjoys the pain and torment that the beloved puts him through, for that is better than nothing. This is illustrated in the following couplet from Ahmed Faraz's Urdu ghazal "Ranjish hi sahi":

ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa
aa phir se mujhe chod ke jaane ke liye aa

This misery is fine; come, even if it is to break my heart
Come, even if it is so that you can leave me once again

In the context of Sufism

It is not possible to get a full understanding of ghazal poetry without at least being familiar some concepts of Sufism. All ghazal poets were either avowed Sufis themselves (like Rumi or Hafiz), or were sympathizers of sufi ideas. Most ghazals can be viewed in a spiritual context, with the Beloved being a metaphor for God, or the poet's spiritual master. It is the intense Divine Love of sufism that serves as a model for all the forms of love found in ghazal poetry. An example of an overtly mystic ghazal is an existentialist Urdu couplet produced by Ghalib:

nah thā kuchh to ḳhudā thā kuchh nah hotā to ḳhudā hotā
ḍuboyā mujh ko hone ne nah hotā maiñ to kyā hotā

1a) when there was nothing, then God was; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what?

(Translation by FW Pritchett)

Most ghazal scholars today recognize that some ghazal couplets are exclusively about Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi), others are about "metaphorical love" (ishq-e-majazi), but most of them can be interpreted in either context.

Ghazal singers

Some well-known ghazal singers are:

Abida Parveen
Begum Akhtar
Ghulam Ali
Talat Aziz
Iqbal Bano
Mehdi Hassan
Farida Khanum
Master Madan
Talat Mahmood
Jagjit Singh
Chitra Singh
Habib Wali Mohammad
Pankaj Udhas
Runa Laila
Ashok Khosla
Parvez Mehdi
Ataullah Khan
Mohammad Reza Shajarian

Many Indian and Pakistani film singers are also famous for singing ghazals. These include:

Noor Jehan
Asha Bhosle
K. L. Saigal

See also


External links