The November 1942 issue of The Indian Listener, the programme guide of All India Radio, contains a rather curious entry. At 5.45 pm on November 16, 1942, the third transmission of the Peshawar station, it said, would feature, “Sarapa, Poem in Persian by Jigar Moradabadi, recited by Tajammul Amrohvi”.

Though this was the first time that the programme guide unambiguously identified Sarapa-e-Natamam (The Incomplete Head-to-Toe Description) by name and specified the language of the piece, it is likely that it had been performed on the radio before.

Sarapa-e-Natamam, also referred to by its opening line “Dil burd az man diruz shaame” (Last night, my heart was snatched…) appears in a number of anthologies of Persian lyrics starting from 1935, and it was frequently performed in mushairas by Jigar even before it appeared in the 1932 edition of Shola-e-Toor, a collection of Jigar’s writing, which contains a small section of his Persian work.

An extract from the November 1942 edition of the Indian Listener on the broadcast of Jigar Moradabadi’s Sarapa by the Peshawar Station of the All India Radio. Credit: The Indian Listener.

Sarapa and nakh-shikh varnan

Sarapa is a literary form that involves an elaborate description of all the various physical attributes of a person from sar (head) to pa (feet). It is driven by imagery, portraiture and description. While the term itself is a Persian term, similar stylistic equivalents exist in other Indian languages such as the “nakh-shikh varnan”, which poets from Banabhatta (c. 7th century) in the Sanskrit tradition to Surdas in Hindi (c. 16th century) have deployed.

Today, the sarapa is a rarely used, somewhat unfashionable, formulaic classical form. But Moradabadi’s decision to deploy the sarapa in a rare “eightfold overtaking meter” in the 20th century was a deliberate homage to the Persianate classical tradition and a demonstration of his technical virtuosity.

Jigar’s unusual choices

Jigar Moradabadi (1890-1961), the takhallus or pen name of Ali Sikander, had been a regular on All India Radio since the mid-1930s. A self-taught poet with little formal education, he is considered one of the masters of the 20th century Urdu ghazal. His work links the classical tradition of poets like “Rasa” Rampuri and “Dagh” Dehlvi who were his ustads, with the modern works of poets like “Majrooh” Sultanpuri, who wrote lyrics for Hindi films.

Imbued with a deep lyricism, musicality and deep understanding and knowledge of the classical tradition his poems largely deal with amatory, personal and later on, even political issues.

Jigar lived a fascinatingly unconventional, and by the standards of his time – somewhat dissolute life – he was notorious for drinking heavily, and showing up at mushairas with a disheveled appearance and a characteristic unkempt, long mane. Yet, despite a life of personal struggle, melancholy and turmoil, he attained significant prominence and recognition in his lifetime: on the radio, in performances across India and he even received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958.

Shola-e-Toor or The Flame of Toor (Toor refers to Mount Sinai where God revealed himself to Moses) is dedicated to the memory of Jigar’s mentor, the Sufi poet, Asghar Gondvi (d. 1936). Jigar had married into Gondvi’s family. Gondvi had a transformative experience on the younger man, tempering his heavy drinking and helping him channel his creative energies into his poetry.

The enduring popularity of Jigar’s Sarapa, and his inclusion in anthologies and frequent performance, particularly in religious contexts, is unusual, since as Mikko Viitamäki Autere, the Finnish scholar of South Asia points out, Jigar “was not famous for an exactly pious lifestyle…In the case of Jigar, his alleged repentance before passing away has sometimes been voiced as an argument for the mystical tone of his poetry. However, the inclusion of his Persian poems in an anthology of qawwali poetry almost thirty years prior to his demise speaks against this argument.”

The Sarapa-e-natamam itself

The short 12-verse sarapa is a masterpiece of 20th century writing in Indo-Persian that has taken on a life of its own since its first appearance on All India Radio. Its inclusion in anthologies of music meant that even in the early 1940s it was both recited and set to music and sung.

From its first appearance, each generation has rediscovered and reinterpreted the Sarapa. It appears sometimes with a Hindi poem Mere Banne ki Baat na Poocho (Don’t ask me about [the majesty] of my groom!) by the Deccani Sufi, “Kamil” Shuttari; as a qawwali in the tradition of bridal mysticism; and even recited as a na’at, or religious poem in praise of the Prophet.

Sarapa-e-natamam is a reflection of Jigar’s early, libertine writing – lyrical, full of striking images and metaphors. This is also, as the title makes clear, unfinished, or deliberately left incomplete – natamam. Unlike traditional compositions in the traditional sarapa genre which describe up to 19 different parts of the beloved’s body in detail – from head to toe – Jigar restricts himself to the forehead, hair, lips, eyes, stature and gait.

The poem is very much in the classical form, using stock imagery that might seem even formulaic:

Eyebrows like a dagger, eyelashes like arrows
Coming to slaughter each one.

These descriptions, as the 19th century British scholar of Persian, Edward G Browne points out in his four-volume A Literary History of Persia, are conventional metaphors drawn from manuals of rhetoric and style like the late-14th-century Anis-ul-‘Ushshaq (Lover’s Companion), which Browne notes spell out in meticulous detail appropriate terms for each body part.

“Thus the eyebrows…. are spoken of by the Persian poets by thirteen metaphors or metaphorical adjectives…they may be compared to the crescent moon, bows, rainbows, arches,” he writes. “In the case of the hair, the number of metaphors and metaphorical adjectives of which use is sanctioned is much greater…these are conventionally, sixty…it will now be apparent how intensely conventional and artificial much Persian poetry is.”

Yet, while steeped in both the Indian and Persian Classical tradition, the images Jigar conjures up, dancing peacocks, prancing gazelles, fragrant sumbul grass, bend traditional conventions. His innovation and playfulness within the confines of a highly formulaic genre – particularly how he describes the coquetry involved – make this an unusual sarapa. It is one that some critics have described as unattainably simple, but impossible to reproduce. Consider for instance, this line:

In revelry, a dancing peacock,
In petulance, a prancing gazelle

This is an image only a writer like Jigar could have conjured.

A ‘remix’ of the Sarapa, Mere banne ki baat…

Syed Shah Shaikhan Ahmed Quadri al-Shuttari, better known as “Kamil” Shuttari (d. 1976), was a Sufi writer, poet and sometime-politician from Hyderabad whose Urdu and Hindi qawwalis remain popular in the Deccan. These songs were published in a 1963 collection titled Varidat-e-Kamil.

A Sufi of the Shuttari lineage, he composed a variety of lyrics, but the one that is most widely remembered is his Mere Banne ki Baat…, which was popularised by Aziz Ahmed Warsi from Hyderabad. It is a multi-faceted song, which, depending on your interpretation can be a simple, traditional bridal song or take on a mystical flavor.

It was probably Munshi Raziuddin who first sang Sarapa-e-Natamam in conjunction with Mere Banne ki Baat…, seamlessly merging two different genres and songs together to create a kind of remix that retained Jigar’s Persian language, yet, melded it with the earthy Hindi of Kamil’s composition.

A 2016 version of Sarapa sung together with Mere Banne ki Baat na Poocho by Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammed Qawwal for a YouTube channel has notched up over 1.5 million views.

Mere Banne ki Baat na Poochho, by Ustad Farid Ayaz and Ustad Abu Muhammad

Other versions, such as the one by Ustad Manzoor Niazi and Abdullah Niazi, have over 100,000 views. Even older, poor quality and grainy live performances such as by Munshi Raziuddin – Farid Ayaz’s father – had several thousands of views.

Both pieces have been sung together almost continuously by generations of performers in shrines across the subcontinent from Golra Sharif in Pakistan to Astana-e-Shuttaria in the Indian city of Hyderabad.

Dil Burd Az Mun Deeroz Shaamae, by Ustad Abdullah Manzoor Niazi and Waqas Niazi Qawwal.

For all the voluptuous, descriptive imagery that Jigar deploys to great effect, the beauty of the sarapa lies in its ibham (deliberate ambiguity) and subtle allusion. It is only towards the very end, that we get a sense that this is not a conventional description of any mortal, but alludes to a more powerful, mystic Beloved. The unfinished sarapa contents itself with a description of the face, and gait – not bothering, or rather daring to venture any further.

Instead, it ends with the lines:

guftam che juyi gufta dil-o-jan
guftam che khvahi gofta ghulame!

I said, “What are you searching for?” They replied, “Your Heart and soul”
I said, “What do you want?” They replied, “To enslave you!”

With an ending as dramatic as that, there really was no need for Jigar to finish the unfinished sarapa.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a writer who grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood has a PhD in Persian Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India-in film, music, books, religion and culture. Views expressed are personal. Read the other parts here.