For nearly three centuries the Urdu ghazal has been beloved of connoisseur and layman alike. Its
hypnotic rhythmic qualities, its exquisite interweaving of human and divine love, its joy in the
good things of life as well as its mystic austerity, and, finally, its irresistible wit, have made
it equally popular whether recited at formal gatherings, or spontaneously quoted, or only read.
This translation attempts to capture the best qualities of the ghazal in a contemporary voice.
Many of the enduring names of the ghazal are to be found here – from the early mystic Siraj
Aurangabadi, whose language had a touch of the Deccan, through the great Ghalib to modern poets
like Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. Urduand Devangri renderings of the poems ensure that the originals
are also accessible to many readers, retaining the essence of ghazals.
Shama Futehally was born in Bombay in 1952 and studied English at the universities of Bombay and
Leeds. She taught English in Ruia College, Bombay University, and Western Cultural History at the
School of Architecture in Ahmedabad, and was Reader in Western Drama at the National School of
Drama, New Delhi from 1987-2004. Her translation of Meera’s bhajans, In the Dark of the Heart:
Songs of Meera was published in San Francisco. Other publications include two novels published in
New Delhi – Tara Lane and Reaching Bombay Central. Her short stories, reviews and essays have
appeared in various journals. Shama Futehally died in December 2004 before the publication of this
URDU POETRY, or shairi as it is called, is one of those skeins in Indian culture which seems to
create greater fellow—feeling by its mere existence. In this it is a little like the early
black-and-white Hindi cinema, humane and sentimental, which created a world so passionately shared
by all of its generation. Like that cinema, Urdu verse has penetrated popular life as poetry
rarely does. The commonest and most important form of shairi is the ghazal, or love lyric, and
that is the form of which this collection is composed. The ghazal is often put to music, and has
become a cherished form of musical entertainment. Indeed, the evergreen Hindi film song owes much
to the tradition of the ghazal. At another level, verses from ghazals are frequently quoted on
appropriate occasions—and usually evoke a vociferous response. The ability to recite shairi in
this way marks out the reciter as being well—read and cultivated, and as sharing, with the poetry
itself, a quality of benign understanding. Even now, there is a half-humorous tradition in the
Indian Parliament where the Finance Minister ends his Budget Speech with such a verse, thus
ensuring a delighted response no matter what his budget contains.
Understanding this popularity will require a look at the history of the ghazal, which this essay
will attempt to do. But one or two broad observations may be in place to begin with. The first is
that the (ghazal is oral poetry par excellence (since it came into being before printing had
acquired a widespread importance in India) and was traditionally recited to appreciative
gatherings that included poets. For this reason it has almost hypnotic qualities of rhyme and
The second fact is that, with the ghazal, a verse is always a couplet, which makes an eminently
accessible unit. Indeed the word for couplet, ‘sher’, is the root for the word ‘shairi’ itself.
Third, as far as subject goes, each couplet is quite independent of the other, so that it can be
enjoyed on its own. However and this is crucial the couplets are linked by elaborate end—rhymes,
so that, as one follows the other, the audience is united in guessing which rhyme will cap the new
couplet, and usually anticipating it with a triumphant shout.
The quality of poetic enjoyment to be gained in this way is obviously very different from that
which a western reader commonly expects. Here there is no slow build—up of emotion or mood, nor is
there any narrative development (except in forms other than the ghazal, which we shall briefly
consider later). There is, instead, the chance to see in each couplet a flash of words brilliantly
combined and weighted with meaning, much as one might see in a couple of splendid lines in
Shakespeare. Subsequently, the intellectual pleasure of hearing these lines is complemented by the
sensual pleasure of the thundering connections made by the end—rhymes and the metre. This
structure proved both firm and flexible enough for poets to use it at a range of levels. The
greatest poets have used it to touch heights of philosophical reflection, mystical longing or
erotic despair. The lesser ones create a gentler melancholy or speak of everyday ironies; a modern
poet like Faiz has used it to express revolutionary fervour. To understand the peculiar narrowness
and the peculiar breadth of this tradition, we need now look at its history in detail.
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