Our Love for Ghazals

, Sher o Sukhan

In the 70s and 80s the mellifluous voice of Jagjit Singh did what many singers before him had not been able to. He brought transported ghazal from the elite drawing rooms and mehfils (gatherings) into the homes of ordinary men and women. Ghazal was no longer to be enjoyed by only those who could understand chaste Urdu. Even those who pronounced it initially as ‘gajal’ are now listening and enjoying this form of singing.

To Jagjit Singh and to Jagjit Singh alone goes the credit of popularising ghazal singing by choosing easy to understand lyrics and laying more emphasis on the meaning of words and melody evoked by them.

The nation had a collective sense of longing when he sang:

“sarakatii jaaye hai ruKh se naqaab ahista ahista

nikalataa aa rahaa hai aaftaab ahista ahista”

(The veil slips from her face slowly, slowly,

The sun emerges slowly, slowly)

Romance was once again popular in the age of the angry young man. Thanks to Jagjit Singh a populace fed on the disco music of Bollywood was introduced to Ameer Minai, Ghalib, Sudarshan Fakir and Qateel Shifayi among others.

Many more ghazal singers became popular after that both from India and Pakistan. Mehfils became the norm once again. Only this time around the crowd was different, more diverse and from every level of society.

However, though all of us love to hear ghazals and spend many an evening listening to them we don’t really know what a ghazal is.

Of course knowing or not knowing this doesn’t take away from our enjoyment but it could definitely add some more dash to it.

The word GHAZAL is pronounced “ghuzzle”. It’s an Arabic word that means “conversing with the beloved.”

It developed in Persia in the 10th century AD from the Arabic verse form qasida. A Qasida (Ballad) is a long poem in Urdu, Persian or Arabic which usually describes battles or written in praise of kings; princes or the poet’s patron.

The ghazal came to India in 12th century, courtesy the Sufi mystics and the Islamic Sultanates and it flourished here in Persian and later Urdu.

Traditionally a Ghazal contains minimum 5 couplets and goes up to15 , but typically most Ghazals have around 7.

A sher or couplet is independent of the rest of the ghazal and can be read alone, even though the poem may have a common refrain, which provides a link between the couplets.

But every poem which has independent couplets is not a ghazal as we will read.

The ghazal must have a certain structure which I will attempt to explain here.

The opening couplet of the ghazal is called a MATLA , which sets the tone of the entire poem.

In the first verse both verses of the couplet rhyme

1. “koi umeed bar nahi aati koi surat nazar nahi aati” By Ghalib

(There seems no hope in sight

Nor any face comes to light)

In technical terms this rhyming is called RADIF in this case the word, “aati”.

The second line of all the couplets (Shers) must end with the same word/s. This repeating of common words is the “Radif” of the Ghazal

1. koi umeed bar nahi aati koi surat nazar nahi aati.

2. Aage Aati Thi Haal-E-Dil Pe Hansi

Ab Kisi Baat Par Nahin Aati

(Earlier I used to laugh at my heart

But now feel no mirth on my plight)

3. hum wahan hain, jahan se humko bhi

kucch hamaari khabar nahin aati

( I am now in a place

From where there’s no news of myself in sight)

4. kaabaa kis muh se jaaoge ‘Ghalib’

sharm tumko magar nahin aati

(with what face will you go to the House of God, Ghalib

Is there no sense of shame in your sight?)

The matla must also have a KAAFIYA and it is the rhyming pattern of words that must directly precede the Ghazal’s Radif.

In this case the words, “bar” ,“par”, “nazar” and “khabar.”

Sometimes there are two matlas the second called matla e sani or second matla.

A Shayar usually has an alias ie. ‘takhallus’ eg. Mirza Asadullakhan used ‘Ghalib’ as his ‘takhallus’ and is known by that.

TAKHALLUS or pennameis usually used by the poet or SHAYER in the last verse, where he talks to himself or use his name in the third person or talk to someone else too.

4. kaabaa kis muh se jaaoge ‘Ghalib’

sharm tumko magar nahin aati

(with what face will you go to the House of God, Ghalib

Is there no sense of shame in your sight?)

The verse where the Takhallus is used is called MAQTA

“Meer in neem baaz aankhon mein

Saari masti sharaab ki see hai”

By Meer Taqi Meer

(Meer those half open eyes

Have all the intoxication of wine)

The metre of the ghazal is called BEHER and all lines of the ghazal should be of approximately the same length and meter. Brilliant examples of this are some of my favourites by Meer Taqi Meer

“Dikhai Diye Yun Ke Bekhud Kiya

hamein Aap Se Bhi Juda Kar Chale“‘

(She appeared in such a way that I lost myself

And went by taking away my ‘self’ with her)


“Ibtida-e-ishq hai rota hai kya

age age dekhiye hota hai kya

(It’s the beginning of Love, why do you wail

Just wait and watch how things unveil)

Another exampleis this beautiful Jagjit Singh ghazal and one of my favourite renditions by him.

“Sarakti jaye hai rukh se naqaab ahista-ahista

nikalta aa raha hai aftab ahista-ahista”

(The veil slips from her face slowly, slowly,

The sun emerges slowly, slowly)

Jawan hone lage jab wo to humse kar liye parda

hayaa yakalakht ayee or shabaab ahista ahista

(As she entered adolosecence, she veiled herself from my gaze

Though modesty came suddenly, youth came slowly, slowly)

Bedardi se sarka de ‘Ameer’ aur main kahoon un se. Huzoor aahista-aahista

(She beheads me ruthlessly, Ameer and I say to her,

My Dear slowly , slowly, My lady slowly , slowly)

Ameer is the takhallus of the poet Ameer Minai. “naqaab, aftaab, shabaab, janab” is the Kaafiya and “ahistaa- ahistaa” is the Radif.

In the 20th century the ghazal came to be written in English

A ghazal in English that observes the traditional restrictions of the form:

One of its most famous proponents was Agha Shahid Ali and I give one of his beautiful ghazals in English here.

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”— to gem– “Me to adorn– How– tell”— tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar–
All the archangels– their wings frozen– fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open– for God– the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day–
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love– you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee–
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

(Note : All translations have been done by myself
Research on Ghazal from books and internet)
– See more at: http://blog.tehelka.com/jagjit-singh-and-our-love-for-ghazals/#sthash.180oWVvF.dpuf

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