Sunday, July 8, 2007

A refined poetry

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

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
Usi 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 as tightly as I can, but I've not done 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.


Anonymous said...

Tell where else would you find a court where your social standing was determined by your ability to create poetry. I think Bahadur Shah Zafar has not really been recognised for the cultural renaissance of his reign, though William Dalrymple's book does go a little way in redressing that neglect.

Since we are on poetry, I am remided of an incident i read about a long time ago:

Somebody, during the assault of Delhi is supposed to have said:

" Ab Dumdumayen mein dum nahin, Ai zafar,

Khair mango jaanki, thandi hui shamsher hindustan Ki"

The aged Emperor is said to have replied:

" Jab talak Bu rahegi Ghaziomein imanki,
Tabto london tak chalegi tegh hindustanki"

But in terms of pathos I dont think many poems can beat this Sher of the emperor:

" Umre Daraz mangkar laye the char Din,
Do kat gaye arzoo mein aur do intezar mein,
Ai Zafar kitna badnaseeb hai tu,
Do gaz zameen na mil sakee dafn ke liye kuhe yaar mein."

Truly a fitting epitaph for a figure swept away by the tides of history.
( I have written what I recollect and my reproduction may not be fully accurate)

Rohit said...

Dear ragz, "ab dum dumein mein ..." is by Zafar and the repartee "jab talak boo rahegi ghazion mein imaan ki, takht-e-landan (ie throne of the british monarch) tak chalegi tegh hindustan ki!" is supposed to be written by a youth possibly one of the "rebel" soldiers!
one beautifully cynical one from ghalib (again poor reproduction!)is: " ...hamko maalum hai jannat ki hakikat lekin (? ai ghalib) dil to behlaaney ko khayaal achcha hai...!"

Anonymous said...

Rohit, I stand corrected.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deepa ireally loved this you know whether any of his work being translated into english? or indeed of any ghazal poetry?
Loved the idea of a state of being,quite spritual since we are all infinite beings.

Anonymous said...


kaafir translated means "unfaithful" and is often used as an endearment in urdu poetry. unfortunately it has been bastardized to mean "nonbeliever" or even hindu.

urdu poetry said...

Mirza Galib was the greatest poet according to me reading his poetry deeply effects me.

Sa'ad said...

Just two corrections ppl, ghazal and ghizzal both are Arabic and kafir again is Arabic meaning ungrateful or ingrate