A Brief History of Urdu Poetry

Poetry is a personal and emotional genre making it difficult to truly explain what constitutes poetry; however, we can summarize it in the following definitions of poetry:

• The expression of the heart, human experience, feelings and thoughts.
• Expressing facts in appropriate words. 
• A description of life written with imagination and emotion.
• The most popular genre of literature.
• The fountain to civilization, constitution and different arts and crafts.
• The concoction of all knowledge and craft. q An element of surprise to us.
• An art through which a poet can excite the emotions and feelings of others. 
• Expressing an ordinary event in an effective, heart-stealing style of writing that creates a sharp reaction in the heart and mind of the reader.

Poetry is universal as every language spoken by mankind has in it some poetic elements. Interestingly, though languages differ significantly in the manner of expression, the nature of poetic expression remains common indicating that poetry is more of a human phenomenon rather than syntactical expression. From expression of love for a woman to revolt against a regime, poetry carries in it an element of subtlety and spontaneity—something created by the environs of the poet. To understand a great poet, therefore, we must first look into his mind and his awareness of the milieu exterior. Since Ghalib, undoubtedly the greatest poet of Urdu language, expressed himself mainly through his writings of love sonnets, it is imperative that we examine the art of love sonnets, the language they are written in, and the environs that prompted these writings to understand how Ghalib became a master of this genre. 

In this chapter we will examine the roots of Urdu language, Urdu poetry and particularly the genre of love sonnets, ghazals, in Urdu. The following chapter will examine the life and works of Ghalib and the third chapter will offer a broad view of Ghalib’s art of expression in love sonnets, the ghazals.

Urdu, literally meaning “camp” in Turkish, is a mixture of many tongues and languages. Muslims brought many different languages to India, and diluted India’s languages freely with words from their own. When Delhi was the seat of the Muslim Empire in the late 12th century, the languages around Delhi, mainly Brij Bhasha and Sauraseni became heavily mixed with Persian, the lingua franca of the Muslim rulers. Other languages that found their way into the languages of India were Turkish, Arabic and later English. Whereas much of the vocabulary of the original languages (Sauraseni, for example) changed, the basic grammar structure remained intact. In the 13th century, the language of India became widely known as Hindvi, Hindi, and Brij Bhasha and was written in the original devanagri script [the Sanskrit script]. The name gUrdug was given to this thriving language of the region in the period of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan (1627-1658). The language was introduced to the southern province of India, Hyderabad Deccan, by the armies and followers of the Tughlaq and Khilji kings in the 14th century. Affected by the dialects of the South, the language became known as Deccani (after Hyderabad Deccan), having adopted the Persian script and replaced Persian in offices as the official language. Since the language was written in the devanagri script for quite some time around Delhi, it had been erroneously assumed that the first Urdu poet was Amir Khusro (1253-1325) from the Deccan. The fact is many poets up in the North had already been writing Urdu poetry, namely Kabir Das, Mira Bai, Guru Nanak, Malik Mohammad Jaisi and Abdul Rahim Khan Khanan, who lived much earlier than Amir Khusro.

Urdu poetry of the Indian subcontinent as we know it today did not take its final shape until the 17th century when it was declared the official language of the court. The 18th century saw a phenomenal rise in Urdu poetry when Urdu replaced Persian as the lingua franca of the region. Urdu poetry, as it is derived from Persian, Turkish and Arabic, acquired many conventions in its poetry that came from these languages. Just as Elizabethan English is full of social and regional realities, Urdu holds a remarkable wealth of the conventions of many cultures and languages. This element got a great boost in the 18th century when there weren’t many newspapers or media of information available to the public. Urdu poetry became a more intimate form of communication regarding the social and political tribulations of the time. The commonest form of communication, in tradition with the Arabic culture, was to read poetry in gatherings, called musha’era, where poets would gather to read poems crafted in accordance with a metrical pattern, which was often prescribed beforehand. Not only did the poetry have to meet the choice of word, and the loftiness of thought but also strict metrical patterns. There were competitions like those held in ancient Greek, Roman and pre-Islamic Arabic cultures. However, the intensity and warmth of the musha’eras that developed in Delhi were indeed unique and helped popularize Urdu as the language of poetry in the Mughal Empire. A culture built around taking lessons in writing Urdu poetry became the in-thing for the royalty, and the masters of poetry were given reverence worthy of kings. In all musha’eras, the most honored of the poets would preside and the candle that was passed around to poets in the order of their rankings reached the presiding poet in the end. This impact on the tradition of respect and new cultural traits took root since the poets were held in high-esteem in those times. The royalty sought their company and poetry was sent as gift to their friends. Whereas the 18th century produced remarkable literature in Urdu, it was often lost, since only when the poets reached fame were their writings collected and published. The writings of one of the greatest poet, Nazir, were collected 80 years after his death and even the works of Zauq, the teacher of King Bahadur Shah Zafar, were destroyed during the mutiny of 1857. Some of the poems written by the King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in exile were also lost.

Urdu poetry is based on a system of measure—it is a quantitative expression and its form is very rigid. The usual measures are nine, or more commonly eighteen, but by various permutation and combinations, they number over 800. The several forms of Urdu poetry include:
• qasida or ode of praise 
• masnavi or long reflective poem and tale in verse 
• marsia or elegy 
• qit’a or fragment, a four line quatrain
• ruba’i or a quatrain with specific rhyme and topic 
• ghazal , a lyrical poem of six to 26 lines, often longer; the word gghazalg is derived from, Arabic word, “taghazzul,” or gconversation with ladiesg or expression of love for women. The word ghazal also means the agonized cry of the gazelle. The literal meaning of ghazalg is to talk to women or to talk about them or to express love to them through the description of the condition of heart.

Whereas many poets have specialized in the specific art of writing one of the above types, most have attempted ghazal, the most popular form and those whose fame reached the greatest heights have been poets of ghazal. Since each verse of a ghazal is an independent segment and a complete description of the topic (though there may be a chain of verses with the same theme), it requires a great deal of ability to express in the fewest words the most complex emotions. Also, since the topic of ghazal is not new and just about everyone in his or her lifetime experiences affection towards the opposite sex, the style of expression for the ghazal has to be unique to make any impact. As a result, it is easy to write a common verse but almost a monumental task to create a unique one. ªhazal became the most popular form of Persian and Urdu poetry while qasida was popular in Arabic poetry. ²asida finds its roots in tribal sentiments. The rise of Islam saw a decline in the tribal structure of the communities and more sophisticated, livelier expressions of society, the lover and the beloved became the accepted themes of poetry. That remains true today, though in its transition many thoughts of mysticism have also surfaced. The ghazal also maintains a rather platonic sense as well; juxtaposed to corporeal love, the spiritual love expressed in Urdu ghazal coexists with the mundane. Understanding an Urdu ghazal can be a daunting task for many, particularly those who are removed from the Indo-Persian and Arabic scene. The forces of images, the dreams and the strength of analogies combined with subtleties of the words as used colloquially, create the mood of the ghazal, making it almost impossible to translate the thoughts into another language, particularly the English language, which though extremely rich in vocabulary and thought, remains inadequate in expressing the nuances of a distant culture and language. [Converse will be true if one were to translate Shakespeare in Urdu.] All of this combined with extreme brevity, as a two line verse, makes it that much more difficult to understand and interpret. The poetry of Ghalib, the topic of this book, is a classical example. gUnderstanding Ghalibg can well be an oxymoron. A good ghazal has to be lived through allowing it to sink in and it cannot be read only once; it entails a slow imbibing process before the spirit of the thoughts expressed begin to guncompressg and an abstract becomes visual. The ghazal is made up of sh’ers (verses), which consists of two hemistiches each, and may be called couplets with the difference that the two lines rhyme only in the opening verse or where they form a qit’a or a continuous ghazal. (The word sh’er is derived from the Arabic meaning “of wisdom and hence the she’r, shae’ri and mushae’ra all representing intelligence, reasoning, knowledge, and consciousness.) A verse has q¢fi¢ and radif, the rhyming and repeating words, except in the first verse, matla, where the qafia and radif are the same. The last verse is called maqta, wherein the poet normally uses his pseudonym (takhallus), often to create a meaning out of it or to construct a clever thought. The meter is also very specific for ghazals. A difference from Western poetry arises here as the she’rs do not bear any relationship to each other and are often complete in the thought, theme or feeling they portray. Though the ghazals may often carry a theme, there are such drastic changes in expression that it often throws the Western reader totally off-guard? The measure of a ghazal remains the same and the rhyming scheme is aa, ba, ca, and so on. The popularity of Urdu ghazal comes from its varied themes. The high etiquette required in writing ghazal and the limits the themes place on the poet. The most common subjects of the ghazal are the love of the poet for his beloved, her (his, see later) indifference, the broken heart, the cruelty of fate, the difficulties in passing the night of separation; the impermanence of human glory, the instability of life, the meaning of God and so on. Many similes are used to describe the varied images and themes that form the core of Urdu ghazal. The nest is the lover’s heart, wherein the lightning (cruelty of fate) strikes, the nightingale (bulbul) loving the rose, the moth burning itself on the candle, the snare and the hunted bird, the dagger of the beloved’s eyelashes are common. Also intertwined in the varied descriptions of feelings are references to biblical prophets: Jacob’s patience and his suffering for Joseph; the beauty of Joseph; Zuleikha, the wife of Potiphar, Solomon the wise, Jesus the giver of life, Moses’ challenge to God to show Himself. Also, many anecdotal stories and themes are oft repeated: Qaroon, the rich man who was hanged for not paying taxes, the discovery and taste for good wine of the Persian Kings Jamshed, Kaikobad and Kaikhusro of Zoroastrian days, Alexander of Macedonia. Shireen and Farhad, the legendary lovers of Persia, and their Arabic counterparts, Laila and Majnoon; the warrior Sultan Mahmood Ghazni and his beloved slave, Ayaz, are some of the themes that must be well understood by the reader of Urdu poetry. In addition, the poet has many personalities, some figurative, to deal with; there is this pir who serves as a guide or mediator, trying to dissuade the lover from his insanity; the prayer cloth and the black string worn by religious men; the wine, the tavern, the goblet, the decanter appear all over. The more sublime topics include descriptions of monism, dialogue with God and assertion of Sufi doctrines. The Glossary section of the book describes details of these and many more topics of common occurrence in Urdu ghazal. The knowledge of the holy book of Islam, Qur’an, finds many references in Ghalib’s ghazal as do the vedantic beliefs and Hindu philosophy of life. Despite the great diversity in the topics of the ghazal, the most significant mood remains melancholy and love-sick; a heart full of sadness is the prevailing theme, and rules for this were actually laid down by Arab critics Ibn-eRasheeq and Ibn-e Quddama in the 10th and 11th century; Persian poetry, which has the greatest influence on Urdu ghazal reinforced this theme. Held in supreme regard is the beloved and no expression could belittle the beloved. (However, see below how Ghalib got away with this.) The ghazal, carries a sense of nobility, idealism, sensuousness (not necessarily a sensual aura) wherein the lover is inseparable from the loved. It is more like the 16th and 17th century English lyrical poetry, wherein metaphors play a significant role. Take for example T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Love adduced in Urdu ghazal is always one-sided, unrequited love, idolizing and idealizing at the same time. Urdu ghazal poet is not merely creating a ghazal from its many blocks (she’rs), but representing the times he or she is living in. The vision of the poet as affected by the surroundings is very much reflected in the ghazal, a concept that is closer to Shelley’s concept wherein the poet is the “unacknowledged legislator of mankind.” Ghalib’s ghazals have also been compared to the devastating couplets of Alexander Pope A rather touchy situation for the Western reader of Urdu poetry arises in how the male gender is used for the beloved. Translations, including this book, are difficult to do using this scheme. (As a result, I have addressed the beloved as female). The roots of this convention go back to the ancient Persians and Greeks; the Persians with their homosexual preference found the young Turkish boys taken in as slaves very attractive. In the 18th and the 19th century, it was fashionable to have these young companions as confidants, and cupbearers (saqi) to a point where the royalty began to profess their love for them rather openly. As a result, the poetry, which at that time was mainly for the consumption of the royalty, began to express the sentiments of the love of the male for the male. (The Western gay movement finds its beginning in the late 20th century.) Soon it became fashionable to address the beloved as male and the tradition continues. Before Amir Khusro (1253-1325), the language of poetry was primarily the vernacular Brij Bhasha. Amir Khusro interspersed it with Persian as the first school of ghazal poets emerged in the Deccan during the 15th and 16th centuries. Early ghazal was somewhat free of structure and made rather simple and blunt expressions as we see in the works of the Qutub Shahi poets of the Deccan. Vali (1668-1744) contributed much to the structure of ghazal. When the works of Vali reached Delhi in 1720, the town was in an uproar and, within a decade, Urdu became a language of poetry. The works of many minor poets like Hatim, Naji, Mazmoon and Abru actually formed the groundwork that cemented the structure of Urdu poetry in the 18th century in Northern India, particularly Delhi. Urdu ghazal became heavily Persianized and led in the golden age of Urdu ghazal beginning with Mir Taqi Mir. The simplicity of emotions expressed in earlier ghazals went through a metamorphosis, leading to the works of Ghalib, perhaps the most difficult Urdu ghazal poet. This transition from the 15th to 18th century was due not only to the maturity of technique but to changes in the social order as well. For India, the 18th century was an age of transition. The last of the strong Mughal Emperors was Aurangzeb (1707), after whom there was dismemberment of the empire. The capital was invaded and destroyed by Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, followed by others. Finally, the British crept in with their deceptive plans. All of this changed the aura of the empire, which had stifled human thought. The uncertainties of the time caused many to raise questions and a revival of the arts and literature, a sort of renaissance period, ensued for India in the 18th century. Urdu poetry benefited most from this revolution of thoughts. The doubts and the uncertainties of the 18th century continued into the 19th century, and the mutiny of 1857 against the British left many indelible marks on the social and cultural scene of Northern India, all reflected melancholically by many poets, Ghalib included. Many new constructions of language ensued using old similes. The executioner and the rival were now the British. Christ became a symbol of the ruling elite and new meaning was given to the kalisa (church). The dwindling light from the candle of the dying empire was called a candle ready to be extinguished as the weak, symbolic emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who himself was an elite poet, tried desperately to preserve the traditions of the Mughal Empire. Mourning over lost glory became an oft-repeated topic for Urdu poetry. In brief, Urdu ghazal finds its roots in the melancholic romantic era of the Mughal period. It was through the rise of Urdu ghazal as a medium of expression that Urdu language rose to the height of popularity and evolution in a very short time in its lifecycle.