The Ghazal - An Odd Sort of Poetry

July 08, 2007
Deepa Krishnan

"Can you take us to Mirza Ghalib's house?", we asked the rickshaw-wallah, as we cycled through the maze of streets near Jama Masjid in Delhi.

His name was Danny, and he was a savvy rickshaw-wallah, one of several who take tourists for tours through Old Delhi. "Of course, madam", he said, in the half-boasting, half-servile style that we've perfected in India. "I know every street, every corner of this area."

So we set off, past the paan-bazaar and the kite-bazaar and the bangle-bazaar and a hundred other bazaars, until we finally reached this arched doorway, home of the great Urdu poet Ghalib.

For those who are familiar with Urdu poetry, seeing Ghalib's house is almost a religious moment, like arriving at the temple at the end of a pilgrimage.

Ghalib! Worker of magic! From whose pen, immortal lines of love flowed! Whose songs are still sung, and whose couplets are among the most romantic I've heard in Urdu.

It is hard to explain ghazals - the form of poetry that Ghalib wrote - to overseas vistors. Translations into English seem too flowery, too full-blown, and often it is impossible to convey the clean classical beauty and discipline that Urdu ghazals have.

Here's an example, a couplet from one of Ghalib's many ghazals:

Mohabbat mein nahin hai farq jeenay aur marnay ka
Uski ko dekh kar jeetay hain, jis kaafir pe dam nikle

In love, there is little difference between life and death
I live to see her, for whom I am willing to die.

I've translated this fairly loosely, because I can't really do it justice. For example, in the second line, Ghalib doesn't actually refer to 'her' - he uses, instead, the word 'kaafir', non-believer, infidel. The literal translation of this ghazal would then be 'I live to see the infidel for whom I am willing to die'. I'd say he's using kaafir, infidel, as a term of endearment, a sort of intimate insult. I'm left with the image of a woman, beautiful and aloof, an unbeliever, uncaring of the poet's outpourings.

One of the major characteristics of a traditional romantic ghazal is that it never specifies who it is directed at. Ghazals may refer to a woman, or a young boy, or even God, and are therefore capable of being interpreted both at the physical as well as metaphysical level. Also, because there is no specific 'lover' to whom the ghazal is dedicated, it is freed from all need for realism. It becomes a poem about love, about being in love. It is a description of a state of being - as opposed to the Western concept of love poems, which are often dedicated to descriptions of the object of love. For example, here is one of my favourite poems of Lord Byron.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

See what I mean? If you're used to this kind of poetry, it is sometimes difficult to understand the poetry of Ghalib. When confronted with ghazals that describe, in couplet after couplet, the agonies of the poet, it's really tempting to say 'Hey get ON with it and stop mooning about yourself!'
For me though, ghazals conjure up a vanished world of refinement, of cultured evenings soirees, of gatherings of poets around wine and hookahs. Even the etymology of the word ghazal is poetic - it comes from the Persian word ghizaal, and it translates roughly as 'mortal cry of a wounded gazelle'. An odd sort of poetry, but one that defined, for many years, high culture at the Moghul courts.
There's not much of that culture left today. But Bollywood - that great entertainment machine - has not let the ghazal die. Every now and then, Bollywood produces a movie where the ghazal, set to soft music, shines again. And a new generation of ghazal lovers is born.

Deepa Krishnan has a consulting practice in banking technology. She owns Mumbai Magic and Delhi Magic, companies that offer insightful, off-beat city tours.
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July 9, 2007
01:42 PM

IMO, the 'odd' in the title could have been done away with. :)

July 9, 2007
01:59 PM

I had great expectations when I saw the title, but......

July 9, 2007
02:04 PM

Deepa: this is a lovely post! One of the reasons for the oddity of this genre is that its format has become a little quaint. There have been experiments with breaking the barriers of this form but the classicists and purists frown at such attempts...

July 11, 2007
06:15 AM

Right on...Bollywood is the one reason people know about ghazals. Ghazals are so intricate, flowery, philosophical and grounded at the same time. Like rain, they make me cry.

July 11, 2007
10:11 AM

Ghazals are intricate webs of words that address the beloved, the society, religion, you me simultaneously. Their complexity is why they can disguise rhetoric in word play at which even the enemy says Wah Wah Wah!

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