The ghazal evolved as a highly formalized poetic form with rhyming couplets, and a refrain.

The origins of Urdu have been well documented as first emerging as a pidgin – a negotiation between Hindi, Persian and Arabic, and evolving to establish itself as one of the most spoken languages in the world.

Historians broadly agree that the earliest linguistic influences that contributed to the development of Urdu probably began with the Muslim conquest of Sindh in 711. The language started evolving from Farsi and Arabic contacts during the invasions of the Indian subcontinent by Persian and Turkic forces from the 11th century onward.

During the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) the language started forming and by the time of Shahjehan, Urdu had evolved into a dialect employed in conversation.

By the time curtains fell on the Mughal Empire in 1858, the language had developed fully. Like with other languages, religious prose and poetry evolved with secular prose later.

Within poetry, Urdu developed a vast repertoire of genres including among others ghazal, noha, rubaayi, hamd, marsiya, qaseeda and later the nazm – both the paband or metered nazm and azaad nazm (in free verse).

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Of these ghazal and nazm have achieved widespread popularity, though each genre has produced masterpieces of its own that deserve a wider audience and commemoration.

The ghazal evolved as a highly formalized poetic form with rhyming couplets, and a refrain. The word literally means to talk with the beloved, or to talk about women, or to talk with ladies. It can be surmised that primarily the ghazal spoke of interactions between lovers.

Gradually, the ghazal came to incorporate different themes though, and it can now safely be claimed that the ghazal now permits the exploration of any theme. Perhaps this flexibility fuels the everlasting fame and popularity of ghazal.

The ghazal as a genre, originated in the Arab continent in the pre-Islamic period in the form of ‘Azree’, since this type of poetry was quite popular in the tribe of Azree. Though the form wasn’t known as ghazal, yet it possessed all the traits of a ghazal.

Like the classical ghazal, it dealt with themes of platonic love, estrangement, and sorrow of the lovers. The first couplet ended with a similar hemstitch in both lines, the hemstitch known as qaafiya and the similar hemistichs called humqaafiya.

Every couplet was the autonomous universe of meaning in itself, a trait Shahid called ‘ravishing disunities’, and could bear no resemblance to the next couplet. This posed and continues to pose a serious demand on the skill and ingenuity of the poet, and therein lies the difference between a run of the mill poet, and the master craftsman. As a poet suggested:

ġhazal meñ bandish-e-alfāz hī nahīñ sab kuchh
jigar kā ḳhuun bhī kuchh chāhiye asar ke liye

Ghazal demands more than a mere arrangement of words
The blood that drips from the heart must be used to muster the words.

Ghalib suggested that a perfect specimen of ghazal must embody ma’ani-afreeni, loosely translatable as the novelty of meaning by a unique production and arrangement of new metaphors and similes.

However, this autonomy doesn’t imply that no relationship or continuity must be found between the different couplets. Such ghazals also exist which show an interlinking and progression of thought. Such ghazals are termed Ghazal-e-musalsal. An example of such a ghazal is Nasir Kazmi’s Gayay dinon ka suraag lekar, kidhar say aaya aur kidhar gaya woh (Carrying the clues to the past, where did he come from, where did he vanish to?) that sets its base completely in describing the various aspects of the person who held the clues to the past. He is variously described as the rouser of the tavern, fragrance of flowers, the song of soul and traveller at night before being finally identified as the alter-ego of the poet – the poet in his carefree youth.



However, this is a rarer breed of ghazals as most of the ghazals are written as a set of autonomous verses. This makes ghazal a unique breed of poetics, as no such genre can be found in any language of the world that proposes such restrictions of form and yet allows such flexibility of theme.

This flexibility also translates to the number of couplets that comprise a ghazal. There’s no limitation placed upon the number of couplets that comprise a ghazal, though the average ghazal includes no less than five couplets and no more than nineteen.

It’s also worthwhile to recall here that the first couplet of a ghazal is called matlaa while the last couplet that includes the name of the poet is called the maqtaa. However, many modern poets have eschewed the mention of their name in the maqtaa.

The glorious tradition of the ghazal that spans more than four hundred years is littered with stalwarts who have produced magnificent specimens of the genre. It’s quite difficult and rather futile to attempt a linear chronology of the Urdu ghazal.

In one of his interviews, Faiz Ahmed Faiz—often identified as one of the major innovators of the ghazal—dismissed the idea of tracing any model of modern and classical ghazal suggesting that the very idiom and geography of a ghazal did not permit it.

This, however, seems a rather harsh opinion as the ghazal does indicate a change especially in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Iqbal paved the way by evolving a unique philosophical stance synthesizing diverse influences ranging from Hegel in the western philosophical tradition to Ghazali in the eastern tradition.

His unique poetic idiom harked back to the classical Persian tradition of ghazal that recycles discarded metaphors and words by imparting fresh meanings to them. For example, his rescuing of Saaqi– the cup-bearer from a beloved whose beauty inebriates to a glorious past of the Muslim civilization allowed him the flexibility to make free use of the image without deviating from his ideological stance.

The Progressive writer’s movement and the modernist movement in Urdu further amplified this modification.

I will end with two specimens of the ghazal, both translated by me. The first is a ghazal by Ghalib – the exemplar of classic poets, and the second one is a ghazal by Ather Nafees which serves as a fine example of the progression of ghazal:

Ghazal by Ghalib (Sad jalwah rubaru hai)

A thousand glories stare were the eyelashes to rise
Who can conjure the strength
To lift the favour of sight, the burden of such prize?

The warrant of honorarium for frenzied love
is engraved in stone
Thereby bear yet more the favour
Of taunting boys’ merry shies.

The wall is bent from the burden
of workman’s favour
You of desolate house learn
to refuse beneficence in every disguise.

Either spare my wound of envy
through annals of public infamy
Else lift the veil off hidden smiles.

Ghazal by Athar Nafees (woh ishq jo humsay rooth gaya)

What shall I tell you, now
of that love who is cross with me?
Neither beneficiary of mercy nor object of fury
Why expect true poetry then of me?

I am stricken with exile
why repeat it into a cliché?
Once that poison was administered into the heart
why bear its fads and fancies?

The eyes are emptied of blood again,
Evening is on the cusp of being blown out
I myself am a petitioner to somebody
Why must I believe it is an ignominy?

The sorrow of loneliness is a raging fire
that has spread through the whole body.
When the whole body is burning
why salvage the heart’s hem?

I am the composer of a few broken ghazals
Sculptor of a few muddled dreams
Drained of hope and zeal, what can I recite?
If no dreams are dreamt, what will I recite?

(This Essay appeared in December 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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