The Ghazal

Khadeeja Mushtaq

The Ghazal is increasingly becoming popular in the Western world, especially America where the assimilation of different cultures has resulted in the appreciation and adaptation of other literary forms. Ghazals appeared in American poetry en route Urdu poetry through the translations of works of prominent Urdu ghazal writers. As far back as 1969, ghazal poetry was introduced to the American literary scene by the Pakistani-American poet Aziz Ahmed with the publication of the book subtitled Ghazals of Ghalib. Inspired by the new poetic genre, several American poets experimented with the form but the metrical complexity of the ghazal offered resistance to complete mastery of the form in English language. Writers like Adrienne Rich, Judith Wright, Jim Harrison, John Thompson, D.G. Jones, Phyllis Webb, Douglas Barbour, and Max Plater among others emulated the ghazal form. However, coupled with the lack of understanding of the original form and of the native culture in which it evolved, the ghazal remained an enigma for the American ghazal writers.

The breakthrough came with the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) in 1990. Agha Shahid Ali’s greatest contribution to modern American poetry is creating a place for this oriental form in American poetry. On the ghazal’s reception in America he commented, “the form has really been utterly misunderstood in America, with these free verse ghazals. I mean, that’s just not the ghazal.” 
Ghazal has always occupied a key position in Urdu literature. Originating in Arabia in the 7th Century A.D. and arriving in India in the 12th Century A.D. from Iran, the ghazal underwent a lot of changes under local influence. Persian symbols were gradually replaced by imagery drawn from Indian culture and environment.
The subject of ghazal broadened to include variations upon the theme of love, while the form remained unchanged. Ghazal in Arabic means “to whisper words of love” or “to talk to women.” Traditionally it was a love poem with “elaborate rhetoric style, and violence of sensual passions,” harping most of the time about unrequited love and yearning for union with an earthly beloved. In the hands of Sufi poets or mystics, the ghazal in India was transformed into a dynamic literary force with greater richness of metaphors in local idiom. The Sufis used the sensuous imagery as the stepping stone to divine love; the ordinary thus became symbolic and universal transcending the boundaries of place and time.
The poetry of Amir Khusro (1253-1325) who wrote mostly in Persian reflects this fusion of the haqiqi or symbolic love and mijazi or real love:
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.

God himself was the master of ceremonies in that heavenly court,
oh Khusro, where (the face of) the Prophet too was shedding light like a candle.
                                                                        (Translation from
Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib

The ghazal is a conversation between lovers with strict form bound by rules and containing from a minimum of five to a maximum of seventeen couplets. All couplets share the same meter and follow a strict rhyme scheme, aa, ba, ca, da, etc. Thus, the unity in the ghazal is achieved by form not by content: “a ghazal is thus a series of couplets. Each couplet is a self sufficient unit, detachable and quotable, generally containing the complete expression of an idea.” The strict adherence to form is a serious challenge for modern American poets writing in free verse, but a greater test is in understanding the ambiguous nature of relationship between the lover or poet persona and the beloved in Urdu ghazal. These gaps in understanding and interpretation of Urdu ghazal arose due to the ignorance of oriental culture and its values.

Appreciation of a poem through understanding of the poet and his culture is therefore imperative, especially when it’s in another language. A few couplets from a popular ghazal of Ghalib (1797-1869 A.D) throw light on this ambiguity:


A lover needs no more than this to work his ruin utterly,          
You are his friend; what need is there for fate to be his enemy?
If this is testing, can you tell me, what would persecution be?
It was to him you gave your heart; what do you want with testing me?
                                                                (Translated by Ralph Russel)
In these couplets, Ghalib paints the traditional love triangle situation in which there is the lover, the beloved and the rival. But the beloved here, as in most ghazal poetry, is addressed as male (him). This has led many in the West to conclude that longing depicted in ghazal poetry is love for same sex and since all ghazal writers in the classical period and onwards were male, they depict their suppressed feelings and longings through their poetic language: “First as in any other society, where the sexes are strictly segregated, love found one outlet in homosexuality, and one of the ‘beloveds’ of the Urdu ghazal is a beautiful male youth”. While Russel is right about strict segregation in the society, he nevertheless fails to understand how the language works especially in the ghazal. Everything is secondary to the architecture of the ghazal and the choice for male gender here was crucial to the metrical unity of the poem. Moreover, all the characters in the ghazal are universal figures and this universality renders gender distinctions irrelevant.
Of great importance to ghazal is the metrical unity the best example of which in English is a ghazal by Agha Shahid Ali:
Agha Shahid Ali
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
The autonomous couplets of ghazal share a metrical pattern, rhyme (in bold) and refrain (italicized) which bind the poet firmly to form. The repetition of rhyme and refrain in the second line of every couplet hold the ghazal together. The refrain helps create a bond with the audience. During the ghazal recitation or mushaira, the audience takes pleasure in repeating the magical words aloud even before the poet utters them. Thus the whole body of ghazal is uniquely held together by its musical quality, which the audience anticipates and responds to. Also important in ghazal is the emotional intensity with which every couplet is rendered by the poet; this, coupled with the emotional response from the audience, creates a unity of another kind—unity of shared emotions.
Another hallmark of ghazal is its dynamism and adaptability. Faiz insists that the evolution is in the domain of meaning within a particular social or political context. Ghazal therefore is understood best when studied in the climate it is shaped in. It is a cultural and a historical construct, as this ghazal of Faiz: 
I am being accused of loving you, that is all

It is not an insult, but a praise, that is all
My heart is pleased at the words of the accusers
O my dearest dear, they say your name, that is all
I haven’t lost hope, but just a fight, that is all
The night of suffering lengthens, but just a night, that is all
                                                                                          (Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

Faiz with wife

In this translation, Ali has beautifully captures the caesura before the refrain “that is all.” Even though most of the imagery has been lost in act of translation, when the ghazal is placed in the particular socio-political context of Faiz’ times the beloved becomes the “goddess of revolution.” The longing is not for union with a mistress or a friend but for the dawn of new social and political order. The ghazal poet thus works with a greater freedom in terms of meaning of the poem. His skillful use of conceits renders even the trite and the cliché as strange and unique colored with multiple interpretations.   
In her ghazals, Adrienne Rich also voices her resentments and deeply felt passions against the prevailing standards in society. She may not conform to traditional form but successfully captures the spirit of ghazal. She saw herself as a rebel and a ghazal poet is foremost an iconoclast:
We are the forerunners; breaking the pattern is our way of life.
Whenever the races blurred they entered the stream of reality.
A long simile captures this spirit of ghazal: a gazelle runs for her life away from the preying hounds; finally, when she is exhausted and cornered, she cries out loud in agony.  The painful cry clutches at the hearts of the dogs making them forget where they are and what they are up to.  The preying dogs in this simile represent the brutal forces of oppression and hate while the gazelle is the symbol of freedom and individual liberty. The cry of the gazelle is the ghazal and each couplet is a protest against the autocratic forces of society. This beautiful picture summarizes the mood of the ghazal which is solemn and melancholic, not of passive resignation but filled with activism and hope. In the English ghazals of Ali and Rich, that mood has been captured.
Did you think I was talking about my life?
I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall.
The field they burned over is greener than all the rest.
You have to watch it, he said, the sparks can travel the roots.
Shot back into this earth’s atmosphere
Our children’s children may photograph these stones.
Rich’s couplets are autonomous and each has a solemnity that holds the ghazal together despite the absence of qafia or rhyme and radif or refrain. Also missing are the traditional matla or the opening couplet and the maqta or the closing couplet. Typically, in a ghazal it’s the opening couplet that sets the tone, mood and the rhyme of the ghazal. It is like drawing margins outside which the poet must not venture. The closing couplet of ghazal is equally significant not thematically but technically. It includes the name of the poet or his pen name and is more personal in tone than the rest of the poem; hence Ghalib closes one of his very famous Urdu ghazals with these words:
The lightening that fell on Moses should have fallen on Ghalib  
You know we always adjust the amount of the wine to the quantity of the drinker   
                                                                                                (Translated by Ralph Russel)
Chandrani Chatterjee and Milind Malshe regard the English ghazal as a “peripheral genre” which is seeking a place for itself in the otherwise established American literary canon. They have concluded that the English ghazal does not follow the generic pattern of the canon and therefore face the threat of elimination. It is too early to say anything but the history of Urdu ghazal is a history of turbulence and it has always survived the test of time. When American poetry shifts to form and rules, ghazal will be a top contender. 
Khadeeja Mushtaq is a lecturer of English literature in Pakistan. Her area of interest is poetry, especially how poetry explores fuzzy regions between the real and the surreal so that it sets itself free of artificiality and limitations of all kinds. Her current study focuses on the reception of Urdu ghazal on American poetic scene.