Poetic Traditions of Urdu, Anand Foundation

Poetic Traditions of Urdu

Professor Shahzad Anjum elaborates on the various literary traditions in Urdu language. Though familiar to all Urdu lovers, it might yet shed light on how colonisation of the country (and the world) by European powers, especially by the English, had an immense, all-consuming and powerful impact on not just the socio-political landscape of the colonised nations, but also on their languages, and through the languages, on their cultural mores and traditions.

Yet, despite the cultural domination, the subaltern managed to talk back. They molded the foreign European literary and cultural strands with their own unique indigenous reality and traditions. This mixture of influences and cultural appropriation is the specialty of all languages, and forms an essential part in the histories of language evolution.

No language can remain isolated. It is through inspiration and incorporation from other languages that a language can grow and evolve; otherwise, it can stagnate and become impotent.

Ghazals and Urdu poetry in general, developed in the Persian and Arabic languages. What all has Urdu inherited from the literature of these languages?

When Urdu is taught in class, many genres are taught – such as novels, daastan, short-stories (afsaana), drama, autobiography, travelogue – all which are prose works. What all in poetry? There is qasida, marsiya, rubai, masnavi, ghazal, nazm.

What is daastan? Where did Urdu get the daastan genre from? It is from Arabic, and from Arabic to Persian, and then to Urdu?

Daastan is a taveel kissa, a story-within-story. It is that prose in which most of the stories are recited in continuum. They are fantastical, and have jinns, dyog, pari – creative mythology and fantasy. But it is all fiction. It goes like – there was once a jinn, and it had twelve heads and fifty hands, and one day he captured an innocent boy. This is called daastangoi, and they are enacted or recited. All the kings used to call these story-tellers to their court to have them recite it. In Persian, it is called guftaan, which means to recite, to say. It has no relation to reality, and is completely fantastical. They were quite entertaining. For example, the famous khul-ja-sim-sim.
This stems from daastan.

The novel, short-story, drama, autobiography, these genres are all from the English language. Thus, most of the prose genres in Urdu, leaving daastan, are from English only. They have not been taken from Arabic or Persian.

And then there are some genres which came from Arabic to Persian and then from Persian to Urdu. For example, qasida. Qasida genre is not of the Persian language, but it came from Arabic. Since Persian is closer to Urdu (the script is the same, many of the words and sounds are similar), that’s how it came into Urdu as well. This is also the case with the ghazal.

Qasida is a separate genre altogether from the ghazal. It’s format is of four parts – tashbib/naseeb, gurez, mada and dua. If any king needed to be sung his praises, then the poet would begin with the praise of the king’s beauty, grace, nature, the weather etc. That world and nature has made the king as the most beautiful thing etc.

This is the tashbib, in which any kind of sher can be inserted. And then, slowly-slowly the poet introduces the gurez, after beating around the bush, and then he comes to the point or to the mada. And then he starts wishing the king a thousand lives and all the prosperity in the world. This is the dua. For example, this is a sher I will read to you (by Ghalib) –

‘Tum salaamat raho hazaar baras,
Har baras ke din ho pachas hazaar.’

These shers of the tashbib are a powerful lot. And this tashbib part of the qasida evolved into the ghazal, and from Persian it later came into Urdu. The ghazal form is that which developed in the Persian language. And to ask why or how – wherein there is a possibility, things evolve.

How did the marsiya come into being? One Arab poet was travelling and he saw a woman beating her chest in agony over her dead son’s body. And she had such pain in her then, saying things like – oh lord, my son is dead, where have you gone? who do I have left now? This Arab poet was stunned to realise that her speech was like lines of a poem. Such lines are there even today. That pain is universal. Marsiya poetry began thus, and it stems from Arabic.

Qasida has always been in existence, till today. Whenever any wazir, or an MLA or a politician comes into power, everyone around them begins their praises – he is excellent, very knowledgable, good etc. All this is nothing but the content of the qasida in simpler form, because it is all praises. This genre after various developments developed into the ghazal form by the Persians, not the Arabs. The Persians saw in the ghazal some latent magic.

I, personally, once upon a time, did not favour the ghazal form – this was due to my upbringing. One cannot talk directly about any topic with the ghazal form. Each sher of a ghazal is different from the other ones. This is one sher by Jan Nisar Akhtar (Javed Akhtar’s father) –

‘Har ek rooh me ek gam chupa lage hai mujhe,
Ye zindagi toh koi bad-dua lage hai mujhe’

If you see, in each line, a certain degree of restlessness of the poet is revealed.

Shahryar also said –

‘Seene me jalan, aankhon me toofan sa kyun hai
Is sheher me har shaks pareshan sa kyun hai.’

And another by Firaq Gorakhpuri –

‘Is daur me zindagi bashar ki,
Beemar ki raat si ho gayi hai’

In this again he says that it seems everyone is living the darkness of his life, there
are no smiles, no joy.

‘Har ek rooh me ek gam chupa lage hai mujhe,
Ye zindagi toh koi bad-dua lage hai mujhe.

Mai so bhi jaaon toh kya meri band aankhon me, 

Tamaam raat koi jhankta lage hai mujhe.

Ab ek aadh kadam ka hisaab kya rakhiye,
abhī talak to vahī fāsla lage hai mujhe.

Bikhar gayā hai kuchh is tarah aadmī kā vajūd,
Har ek fard koī sāneha lage hai mujhe.

Maiñ jab bhī us ke ḳhayāloñ meñ kho sā jaatā huuñ
Vo ḳhud bhī baat kare to burā lage hai mujhe.’

I want to say to you – can you not say that each sher of the ghazal is different? There is no unity between the ghazals in the sher. Which is why a ghazal has no topic, like a poem/nazm. Which is why I used to think, that to relay any particular message, to say a particular story, a poem/nazm is best. It starts and ends with a definite purpose. Which is why many poets chose the nazm – like Iqbal. But the thing with the ghazal is that a minimum of five shers makes a ghazal. It is the easiest form and genre. You add the kaafiya, the radif, and the ghazal is ready.

But the ghazal caught on with people, it became extremely popular. The word ghazal itself means talking to women, and the amount of ghazals that were written of beauty and love! Though nowadays, things have changed for the ghazal form….

In a ghazal, a matla is required. A matla is the first sher of the ghazal. This will set the kaafiya and the radif for the entire ghazal. In this sher that I just said, the phrase ‘lage hai mujhe’ is repeated in the line of every sher, and this is the radif, or the refrain. The kaafiya is the rhyme, which comes before the radif – for example in this ghazal it is ‘jhankta/takta’ etc. The meter of both the lines of the sher and all the shers must be the same.

So you said that the ghazal form evolved in the Persian language and was later interpolated into Urdu. Are there many differences between the Persian and the Urdu ghazal forms?

Yes, there are differences. The difference is that the landscape and the topics are different. The landscapes that the Persian ghazal had are not of the Urdu, not mine. We have taken the form and the technique from the Persian ghazal. But in Iran, there is no Hindu-Muslim disunity. Even today if you see, in Iran on the streets no one beats the other up. The problems that we have here, those problems come into the ghazals in here. The minority-majority issues etc. They have their own kind of problems there.

But do these things come into the ghazal too?

Yes, all! There is not a single topic that is not alluded to in the ghazal. All aspects and sorrows of life – it’s all there. I urge you again – learn Urdu, and read some ghazals, go online on rekhta.com. Search for any topic, and you’ll find a ghazal written on it.

I am a writer. I think, what do I write? I will only write of what happens around me, in my environment and home and family, and surroundings and community/society – all of it becomes a part of me. Our problems reflect in our poetry.

People say that even so, some aspects of Persian ghazals, like the allusion to deserts for example, does also come into Urdu ghazals?

Some things are mere terminology, and we take them from everywhere.

For example –

‘Mirī namāz-e-janāza paḌhī hai ġhairoñ ne,
mare the jin ke liye vo rahe vazū karte.’

(Janaaze – a namaaz read after the death of someone; Vuzu – the washing of
hands and feet before the namaaz)

This vazu, and namaaz – these are part of the tradition in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. This is our tradition.

‘Bāġhbāñ ne aag dī jab āshiyāne ko mire,
Jin pe takiya thā vahī patte havā dene lage.’– (Saqib Lakhnavi)

This is terminology, this desert, and this term is not just theirs. It has just been
transferred to Urdu as well, as a term.

Now –

‘Kitne dinon ke baad, O saathi, aaye ho aaj mere daware,
Dekho mere angana-more naach gaye hain chaand sitare.’

This is an Urdu sher. We have the sounds such as – bha, pa, tha, etc., which is part of Hindi. Without these we cannot even write a single line in Urdu. But we can write without Persian and Arabic. This is there.

Now if you use any word from Urdu, it is not a sin. The dictionary is developing. We now use the words burger and chowmein, which are foreign words. Or the word for chair in Hindi and Urdu – kursi – is actually from the Portuguese language. The words such as laptop, computer….we don’t have another word for these in either Hindi or Urdu. We need to just own these things, as there is nothing wrong in it.

Is there a Sufi influence on the ghazal form?

Yes there is! Sufi thought is there. And one can’t help it also. The world of the ghazal is such, that all its windows are open for fresh breezes and newer ideas. The poet Dard, was a Sufi poet…another is Asif Puri…many poets have done it. But according to me overall only 0.5% (very minute percent) of the poets are of this type.

This is because the ghazal has nothing to do with religion as such. Yes, the poets often call to God or Allah or make allusions to religion. This is one by Ghalib –

‘Kaaba kis muh se jaaoge Ghalib,
Sharm tumko nahin aati.’

This is merely an allusion to Kaaba. The main theme of the ghazal remains
beauty and love. And even more, a lot of topics of the world, which are also topics of
the nazm/poem.

There was a ghazal poet, a courtesan, called Mah Laqa Chanda in the 18-19th centuries in Hyderabad, who is considered to be the first woman ghazal poet to have published a divan. How did the ghazal become part of a courtesan’s musical and poetic oeuvre?

The ghazal when it came to Urdu from Persian, it used to be sung, and read by everybody. And when Mir, Sauda and all came, it was the golden age of Urdu poetry and the ghazal too.

These tawaifs also used to sing the ghazals. So much so, that the children of the royal families of the Nawabs used to be sent to them to learn the art of music and singing and poetry. One example is that of Mirza Ruswa’s Umrao Jan. The ghazals were so popular that they used to be sung everywhere, and sometimes, were even sent with gifts.

Did the ghazal form travel to other languages in India, such as Bengali, Gujarati etc.?

Absolutely. Persian is a very rich language. It has some great poetry and ghazals. So much so that even today, I feel that, if you know both the languages Urdu and Persian, then even you will say that Persian poetry is way ahead of that of Urdu. This is because their thoughts, their techniques, their manner of crafting the poem, is way ahead in comparison to Urdu.

There is ghazal even in Hindi, but I do not like calling it a ghazal. They are writing ghazals for sure, but the thoughts are not the same. There is this thing called the tradition or the rivayaat, of how to write, the techniques, the idioms and phrases – to understand these specific things is difficult. For example, secularism – one cannot understand this by reading about it in a day. It has to be kept alive for years for its meaning to have an effect.

One sher by Ghalib goes –
‘Jikr us parivash ka, aur phir baayan hona
Ban gaya raqib aakhir, tha jo raazdaan hona.’

Firstly, what is the meaning of the words. Then there is the terminology, one has to understand even that. Then the various poetic devices such as metaphors and similes. One cannot make a ghazal without understanding these things. Then there are some words that are specific to a tradition.

For example, in this sher is the word ‘raqib’, which would roughly translate to an enemy. But that is not the exact meaning at all. ‘Raqib’ is that relation between the two lovers fighting for the love of one woman; the relation of rivalry and animosity between those two men is that of ‘raqib’. One needs to know this as well. Another by Ghalib –

‘Kitne shīrīñ haiñ tere lab ki raqīb,
gāliyāñ khā ke be-mazā na huā.’

There is also a bittersweet quality to this animosity. If someone doesn’t know of these things, then how is he or she expected to comprehend the sher completely. It is these things that are part of a tradition. One has to understand these things.

And that poetry, that is too direct, that sher has no magic in it. I have this one criticism regarding Hindi poetry, that they try to fit the two lines exactly, try to make them equal only in frame. That special something to make it stand out and awe is missing. By using conventions alone one cannot make a good ghazal. There are many other things involved, such as the thought, the traditions and techniques, etc – these things must also be there.

This is a sher by Mir –

‘Patta-patta, boota-boota, haal hamara jaane hai,
Jaane-na-jaane, gul hi na jaane, bagh toh saara jaane hai.’

The fact of the poet’s love, the entire city knows. But the beloved herself doesn’t. This is what Mir alludes to in this ghazal by using the metaphoric conventions of a garden and a rose etc. But one needs to understand this puzzle. This sher can even fit for say, a minister who is oblivious of the water crisis in Delhi, though everyone in the city knows. It can fit in anywhere. Just joining lines is not called poetry, just following conventions of kaafiya and radif is not enough.

Don’t you think you are being a bit biased here?

See, when one gets a taste of something, we like that only. It’s natural to like things in which we are comfortable. Which is why I have a standard to what is good poetry.

Do you have any idea of the anti-ghazal or the azaad ghazal?

The ghazal has been critiqued a lot, as many people have problems with it. Even I said I did not like it. If one had to write of the love for one’s country, one would have to use the nazm form, not the ghazal. It is regarding this that the ghazal has been critiqued. This ghazal form cannot be used for all purposes. The critics say, how can one only talk of beauty and love, aren’t there more topics of the world that need addressing? If one keeps this up, the poetry form will devolve, they say. But slowly-slowly, other topics of the world began to be alluded to in the ghazal. But this was very difficult at the start. Things have changed considerably especially since the Progressive Writer’s Movement.

For example, this is a sher by Insha –

‘Na gore Sikandar, na hai kabr daara
Mite namiyon ke nishaan kaise-kaise.’

This is a sher about mortality, not love. In that age, such poetry came up. ‘Kabr’ too, is a Persian word, and one needs to know that as well, this I have already stressed.

However, yes, these words have become a part of Urdu and Hindi language too. You read any newspaper, see any film or listen to any music – in that around 50% of words will be from Urdu. And that too good Urdu, not bad type.

And this anti-ghazal or azaad ghazals – these forms did develop, though they were not very successful. Some tried to break the kaafiya, some the radif. The traditional ghazal remains most popular. These other techniques thus failed.

Who is your favourite ghazal poet as of now?

It is difficult to choose… – whosoever’s sher I like, that becomes my favourite. But Ghalib, and though he did not write many ghazals, whatever he wrote – Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Even Parveen Shah of Bihar. And alive … my friend Azhar Nehti –

‘Mai dekhna bhi tujhe chhod doon, wafa ki kasam,
Nazar ka lafz tujhpar gira guzre.’