Origin. Ghazal originated in Iran in the 10th century A.D. It grew from the Arab qasida, which was a panegyric written in praise of the emperor or his noblemen. The part of the qasida called tashbib got detached and developed in due course of time into the ghazal. Whereas the qasida sometimes ran into as many as 100 couplets or more in monorhyme, the ghazal seldom exceeded twelve, and settled down to an average of seven.
Urdu Ghazal.The ghazal came to India along with its Mughal conquerors who brought Iranian culture and civilization, including Iranian poetry and literature. Because of its comparative brevity and concentration, its thematic variety and rich suggestiveness, it soon became the foremost vehicle of expression of a new language – Urdu; which was evolving out of the conflux of Persian and Arabic with local languages. Urdu ghazal is said to have begun with Amir Khusro (1253-1325) in Northern India, but Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) also known as the Chaucer of Urdu became (and remains to date) it’s foremost exponent.
In its original form the ghazal dealt with themes of love both spiritual and temporal, longing and aubade (Ghazal in Arabic means flirting ) . With time it expanded, and the modern ghazal can have any theme .It can be an ardent longing , a wishful prayer, a witty and precise observation ,a galvanizing call for action- and even all these rolled into one poem! Fervent poet philosophers like Iqbal and romantic-realists like Faiz entrenched it indelibly in the consciousness of the Indian sub-continent.
The Essence of a Good Ghazal. The Western mind accustomed to logic, works on a simple principle: keep searching till you find the verifiable answer. Then supply it to all. This applies to their poetry also. Western poetry attempts to intellectualize or quantify poetic experience through logically developed and narrated poems. Is this really the best way to shape a poem?
What does a sunset mean? Or love? Or despair? Isn’t the beauty of experience that it doesn’t really mean anything at all — except to the person experiencing it? It’s not that our emotional experiences here have no meaning; it’s that they have no objective, quantifiable meaning common to all. Our experiences mean something, if not everything individually, but can we ever hope to quantify in words the meaning of a beautiful sunset, love or despair?
The ghazal form attempts to move the listener away from logical towards individual emotional experience. The weird twists and turns that the ghazal takes us on do not mean anything objectively. But they do mean a lot subjectively to each listener or reader. Your experience of the emotions aroused by the twists and turns in the ghazal is the meaning of the ghazal!
A ghazal follows a very strict classical structure both in form as well as rhythm and rhyme. Yet a good ghazal is never really a poem; only a collection of many mini- poems strung together in the form of its apparently non-unified but self contained couplets. This lack of unity between its self-contained lyrical couplets defines the ghazal.
There never really is a subject matter to a ghazal; and – perhaps reflecting this- no title! There are themes; but even here it is a better ghazal when the stanzas don’t add up to an obvious theme, yet retain an ardent emotional and rhythmic unity. Flirting with the theme, as divergent thoughts unveil in successive couplet- it can be recited, it can be sung. It can move masses through free flight of thought evoked by the brevity and simplicity of its expression.
Thus it becomes one of the most exotic forms of poetry. Steeped in oriental traditions and imagery, it stands unique in being a major non-narrative lyrical form of poetry in world literature. No other form follows the classical rules of rhyme and meter, and yet, gives a complete leeway to the poet to vary subject matter at will with each stanza in such a lyrical manner.
The challenge of the poet remains to evoke the most emotive thoughts with the fewest words; the central aim being to touch varied chords of the personal emotive experiences of the listener through interplay of free thought with a balance of free and rhymed lyrical verse.
English Ghazal. English poets were most intrigued by the free flow of thought that the ghazal powerfully stimulates in the heart and the mind; yet found it most difficult to adhere to its precise and rigid rhyme, rhythm and etiquette!
Another difficulty English poet’s faced with their ghazal was the lack of logical development which makes it so strange. Even English audiences have become so used to logically developed and narrated poems that the couplets of the ghazal appear an anomaly to them. Yet ironically this is the very thing which draws ever increasing readers and poets to the form when they do start comprehending it — there being nothing like it in English poetry or indeed in the poetry of any of the other world languages!
Perhaps one reason was their unfamiliarity with the form was their being first introduced to it in translations by English orientalists.Because of the difficulty of translating both the thought(style)as well as the form(rhyme and rhythm) they concentrated on conveying the thought through well known English verse forms. Even we ‘natives’ who are well versed in both English as well as Urdu find it extremely difficult to translate an Urdu ghazal retaining both the thought process as well as form .
So what is Pure Ghazal Form? Ghazal is a collection of Sher’s/Couplets which follow the rules of ‘Matla’/Opening Couplet, ‘Maqta’/Closing couplet, ‘Beher’/Meter, ‘Kaafiyaa’/Mono-rhyme word and ‘Radif’/Refrain. So to understand what Ghazal form means we must understand these terms. Let’s understand these with the help of a ghazal –which I wrote for the purpose-given below: Ghazal # 3 -Note a ghazal has no title; it may however be numbered. Also no author name.
Oh come and just note here what a delight is the Ghazal,
A many faceted diamond ever so bright is the Ghazal.
-This is the Matla / Opening couplet. ‘delight’ is the Quafia/
Rhyme word, this rhyme will be used ten in times in this 9 couplet ghazal i.e. in both lines of the Matla and every alternate line thereafter.Note the matla sets the mood and rhyme scheme of the ghazal i.e. it gives an idea of what the ghazal is about, and also lays down the rhyme word and the refrain.
The Gordian knot of poesy’s limit with free verse why cut,
In bright English hands a scimitar just right is the Ghazal.
‘is the Ghazal’ is the Radif/Refrain; it too will be used after the rhyme every time the rhyme word is used.
The tiger leaps on earth bound prey, the falcon soars higher,
A ship for an aspiring modern Chaucer to alight is the Ghazal
The opening couplet asking you to spread the table cloth,
Then like a wonderful picnic to so delight is the Ghazal.
The chicken it laid the egg while the camel brought the milk,
Each morsel bit by bit to relish as you bite is the Ghazal.
The planets dance around the sun as the stars wink standing by,
Each couplet a mini-world, poetry’s height is the ghazal.
A peacock prancing in the wilderness what fun can it be,
To an appreciative audience proudly to recite is the Ghazal.
You too may sing like a ‘Bulbul’ as you master this lovely form,
You too may find what a twirling mental kite is the Ghazal.
– All shers/couplets are independent thoughts; with even the two lines of each sher having a degree of independence. The rhyme word as well as refrain is repeated in second line of each couplet.
– Each ghazal can have from 5 to 15 shers/couplets.
-Beher/Meter. For now only note all lines of each sher are of length equal
Saiyed such wonderful flight, and to the form clinging tight,
A pure delight as you now ensure a copy write is the Ghazal!
-This is the Makta /Closing /Signature couplet;it contains the poet name and makes an appropriate Personal statement (traditionally a subtle tongue in cheek self praise by the poet)-in this case the poet’s pride at writing such a fine ghazal and sticking to pure form too!
This is all that is there to learn about pure ghazal form!
Seems easy. But as we shall see later, writing a really good ghazal is an entirely different matter. For the form only helps to bind the couplets; it’s an individual poets style and skills which gives each couplet the luster of jewels or leaves them as mediocre poetry-apparently in ghazal style there is no place for those lying in between!
English Ghazal.Even though they started writing ghazal in English almost two hundred years back, yet the form may be considered new as many early English writers who claimed to have written ghazal did nothing of the sort. It was only after immigrant Pakistanis and Indians started writing original English ghazal in pure form in recent times that the process of education of English poets on this poetry form really started .In fact what they presented as ghazal before this was only creative free verse in couplets! As an example let us study John Thompson’s Stilt Jack which he terms a ghazal?
Now you have burned your books: you’ll go
with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.
On the hook, big trout lie like stone:
terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved.
Kitchens, women and fire: can you
do without these, your blood in your mouth?
Rough wool, oil-tanned leather, prime northern goose down,
a hard, hard eye.
Think of your house: as you speak, it falls,
fond, foolish man. And your wife.
They call it the thing of things, essence
of essences: great northern snowy owl; whiteness.
A beautiful poem no doubt about it! But if you’re not willing to go on the journey he is trying to take you on, it is so much trash. How does Thompson go from an opening stanza about burning books to talking about fishing in the second? There’s no connection given at all! How are you supposed to make sense of this!
Aha! There’s the rub. You’re supposed to make your own sense of it. If you’re going to sit around asking “What the hell does the poet mean by this ?” then you’ve already missed the point.
But I must point out here this beautiful poem is not a ghazal, for it has ghazal style but does not follow ghazal form! Technically as we saw in my ghazal above, to qualify as a ghazal the poem must follow a very strict scheme of internal rhyme and end repetition. The lack of these aspects invalidates most current English language ghazal forms from being really termed as ghazal.
Perhaps one reason for their unfamiliarity with the form,is that englishmen were first introduced to it in translations by English orientalists.Because of the difficulty of translating both the thought(style)as well as the form(rhyme and rhythm) they concentrated on conveying the thought through well known English verse forms.
Even we ‘natives’ who are well versed in both English as well as Urdu find it extremely difficult to translate an Urdu ghazal retaining both the thought process as well as form .
I had never come across a translation of any ghazal of even Mirza Ghalib by the leading translators and scholars, which reflected both the thought as well as form. To prove the point I give the original first stanza of one of ghalibs ghazal along with my translation followed by some leading translations.
Not all but some in the lily and the rose I see!
Of the lovely faces that in dust repose, I see?
houngien Sab kahaan kuchh laalaa-o-gul main numaayaan ho gaien
Khaak main kyaa sooratain kai pinhaan ho gaien
Now let’s see various actual translations of this same verse in English:
• Translation No 1
The Rose, with its redolent patels
The Water lily with its robe of virgin white
These have surely come to us in transmigration
Of but a few of those
Endowed with sublime beauty and grace.
Some embrace death to sprout again
But most,forever,in dust remain.
Comment: The above translation though beautiful poetry is certainly not ghazal either in style or form- as you can see it also adds the translator’s personal mental flights- resulting from the imagery of the poet’s words- to what the original ghazal couplet actually says.
• Translation No 2
Here and there in a rose or a tulip a few of the faces only a few return
but think of those that the dust keeps to itself W. S. Merwin, Ghazals of Ghalib (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 77
Comment: Free verse; not ghazal form; also subtle change from the thought the poet is trying to convey. ‘Return’ is not the same as ‘reveal/apparent’.
• Translation No 3
Not all, only a few, return as the rose or the tulip;
What faces there must be still veiled by the dust! Adrienne Rich, Ghazals of Ghalib (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 78
Comment: Free verse; not ghazal form. Once again change in the actual thought the poet is trying to convey.
• Translation No 4
Where are they all? Some raise their heads
As tulips and the rose.
What faces must have decked the earth
That under it repose? Ahmed Ali, the Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry; selected, translated, and with an introduction by Ahmed Ali (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), pp. 241-42
Comment: A fairly good translation as far as the sense the poet is trying to convey; but not ghazal form.
• Translation No 5
A few, not all, are manifested
In the rose and the tulip;
What fair faces those must have been
That now in dust are shrouded. Yusuf Husain, trans., Urdu Ghazals of Ghalib (New Delhi: Ghalib Institute, 1977), pp. 142-44
Comment: Free verse; not ghazal form.
• Translation No 6
Behold the tulip and the rose
A few fair faces thus revealed!
But hidden in the dust who knows
What other beauties lie concealed? S. Rahmatullah, Hundred Gems from Ghalib (Lahore: National Book Foundation, 1980) pp. 87-95
Comment: Rhymed verse, scheme AB: AB; not ghazal form. Also one couplet has been converted to two couplets.
• Translation No 7
Some have emerged as tulips and roses, whither are the rest?
What beauteous forms lie concealed beneath the shroud of dust! K. C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal From the 17th to the 20th Century
Comment: Pretty close; yet not ghazal form; Opening couplet must rhyme and both lines must have qafia and radif.
Now as you can see none of the above is ghazal form, for none follows the monorhyme and refrain format. Why? Is this impossible to do and still retain the original sense. The ghazal form as we have seen is very strict and demanding, and unless the translator has the desired degree of familiarity with both languages and cultures the task becomes well neigh impossible. This is because words that rhyme in Eastern languages will not rhyme in English and rarely will Eastern phraseologies used with a refrain translate directly into English phraseologies. The requirement of having the monorhyme before the refrain makes the translators tasks even more difficult.
To prove that this could be done; I have translated this complete ghazal.Visualise the poet sitting in a grave yard and composing his thoughts (in ghazal form) on seeing some flowers sprouting alongside a grave .Notice how each couplet is a thought by itself; they don’t add up to an obvious theme; yet each stanza takes you on a roller coaster ride connected with emotions about past and present –and love. I hope my translation does some justice to the original! (Below each stanza I have given in English script the original Urdu verse for those who understand Urdu)
Not all but some in the lily and the rose I see!
Of the many faces that in dust repose, I see?
houngien Sab kahaan kuchh laalaa-o-gul main numaayaan ho gaien
Khaak main kyaa sooratain kai pinhaan ho gaien
Mine too, many memories of colorful ways and sways,
Now as fading drawings on forgotten alcoves decompose, I see.
Yaad thi ham ko bhe rangaa rang bazm aaraaiiyaan
Lekin ab naqsh-o-nigaar-e-taaq-e-nisiyaan ho gaien
[rangaa rang bazm aaraaiiyaan=decorations]
[naqsh-o-nigaar=flowery decorations; taaq-e-nisiyaan = forgotten shelf]
The seven sisters in the day lay hidden from all eyes,
Nightfall brings what whim, as nude they all expose I see?
Thien banaatun naash-e-garduun din ko parde mein nihaan
Shab ko unke jee mein kyaa aaee ki uriyaan ho gaien
[banaatunnaash-e-garduun=the stars comprising the seven sisters; uriyaan=nude]
Yaqoob ne’er a thought for Yusaf in prison you think?
But prison walls many holes to his eyes disclose I see.
Qaied mein yaaquub ne lee go na Yusuf kee Khabar
Lekin aankhaen rauzan-e-diivaar-e-zindaan ho gaien
Zulaikha may dislike rivals – but with the women of Egypt,
She’s happy! As to ‘Egypt’s Moon’ they make their bows I see.
Sab raqiiboon se hoon naakhush, par zanaan-e-misr se
hai zulaikhaa khush ke mahv-e-maah-e-kanaam ho gaien
[mahv-e-maah-e-kanaan=enraptured by the moon of Cannan (here denotes Yusuf)]
Let blood drip from my eyes for this be parting night,
As two burning candles till nights close I see.
Ju-e-Khoon aankhoon se bahane do ki hai shaam-e-firaaq
Maien ye samajhuun gaa ke shamaian ho farozaan ho gaien
[juu-e-Khuu.N=flow of blood
From these angelic faces we will get our revenge in heaven,
If there they by God’s grace into ‘Houris’ transpose, I see.
In parii zaadon se lainge Khuld main ham inteqaam
Qudarat-e-haq se yahii hooriann agar wahann ho gaien
Sleep is his, peace of mind and delightful nights are his,
Over whose arms your disheveled trestle flows, I see.
Neend uski hai, demaag uska hai, raatain uski hain
Terii zulfain jiske baazu pay paraishaan ho gaien
My entering the Orchard, as if a school of poetry opens up,
So many Ghazal my tale of woes in the birds arose I see.
Main chaman meh kyaa gayaa, goyaa dabistaan khul gayaa
Bul-bulain sun kar mere naale, Gazal_Khwan ho gaien
[dabistaa.N=school; naale=lament; Gazal_Khvaa.N=poetic]
Those lovely eyes O Lord why so piercing now they be?
My fate Alas! Two rapier blades her lids compose I see.
Vo nigaahain kyuun huie jaatii hain yaa rab dil ke paar
Jo merii kotaahee-e-qismat se mizshgaan ho gaien
[kotaahii-e-qismat=lack for fortune; mizshgaa.N=eyelids]
I stifle but alas in my breast upheavals one after another,
Far from weaving my garment tatters this stitch of woes I see!
Bas kai rokaa main ne aur seene mein ubhraien pai ba pai
Meri aahaine bakhiyaa-e-chaak-e-girhain baan ho gaien
[bakhiyaa=a stitching pattern]
Should I venture near, it’s her curses that I now must fear,
All my prayers since expended on her guardians brows I see.
Wahaan gayaa bhe maien to unke gaaliyon kaa kyaa javaab
Yaad thii jitni duaayen, sarf-e-darbaan ho gaien
So life-giving is wine for a hand which lifts the cup,
All lines of the palm start ‘loves’ psalms to compose I see.
Jaan fizaa hai baadaa, jisake haath mein jaam aa gayaa
Sab lakirein haath kii goyaa rag-e-jaan ho gaien
[jaan fizaa=life-giving; baadaa=liquor]
We Unitarians our religion is abolitions of all tradition, Societies when reeling turn to religious vows, I see!
ham muvahihad hain, hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e-ruusuum
Millatein jab mit gaien, aj zaa-e-imaan ho gaien
[muvahihad=believer in one God; kesh=religion]
[tark-e-ruusuum=departure from traditional practices]
[millateen=community; ajzaa-e-imaan=part of religion]
Overwhelming grief in man destroys all sense of grief,
My mounting sorrow now into comfort grows, I see.
Ranj se Khuugar huaa insaan to mit jaa taa hai ranj
mushkilein mujh par parhieni itni ke aasaan ho gaien
If Ghalib continues lamenting thus good souls,
Your halls will soon lifeless repose I see!
Yuun hii gar rotaa rahaa ‘Ghalib’, to ae ahl-e-jahan
Dekh naa in bastiyon ko tum ki viiraan ho gaien
Agha Shahid Ali and English Ghazal.It wasn’t until the late Agha Shahid Ali introduced the actual form, that the ghazal began receiving the respect it deserved from English audiences and poets. With a growing awareness about the ghazal form and possibilities, its popularity is now surging by leaps and bounds.
English being a global language can have a tremendous effect on ghazal form of poetry. In fact because of the limited variations possible in the existing English poetry forms, most felt that the maximum possible had already been done –and the leading poets therefore shifted to free verse. Now with ghazal form many are reverting to formalized poetry. I am certain that the English poets the world over possess the diversity as well as the capability to take this form to even higher pedestals. But it will take some experimenting which is being done presently.
Here is a good example from one of my favorite English ghazal writers:
My Love (ghazal #125)
…. for Bonnie ….
In all my days of love and loss, I never once have pined, my love,
As here I pine beneath the night, longing to know your mind, my love.
Of all the ways these feet have trod, in places bleak and bright, my love,
The way I favor most to go is where we walk in kind, my love.
In all the airy lands abroad, I never once have found, my love,
A peace that permeates my soul, as when we rest entwined, my love.
Of all the treasures I have found, of jasper and of jade, my love,
You are by far the fairest gem, by far my greatest find, and my love.
In any clime upon the earth, wherever you may go, my love,
If you will have me, I will join, however trails may wind, my love.
Of all the pain this heart has known, the thought of losing you, my love,
Promotes a deeper terror, still, than thoughts of going blind, my love.
Zahhar can only love your heart, that shines like polished gold, my love,
So patience in this love for you can never fall behind, my love.
You see here Zahhar(poet or pen name) has complied with all the requirements of qafia and radif ,and only then experimented with additional elements like ‘my love’ refrain in both lines.Regretably this turns all stanzas into couplets; and strictly speaking the ghazal form is violated. In my eyes therefore this remains at best a free form ghazal – yet perhaps an ultimately acceptable form for English ghazal? Only time will tell!