English readers have loved Russian classic writers, the French naturalists, and the Latin American greats without even bothering to know the names of their English translators. The Translator’s Invisibility, the famous title of Lawrence Venuti’s 1995 book, can best represent the outstanding effort of Surinder Deol in making Gopi Chand Narang’s exposition of the history, beauty, and formal intricacies of the ghazal a memorable affair and yet remaining unsung.

A writer himself, who has written a literary biography of Sahir Ludhianvi titled Sahir: A Literary Portrait, and ably translated Gopi Chand Narang’s famous study Ghalib: Innovative Meanings and the Ingenious Mind, Deol does even better in this book in preserving not only the analytical style of Narang’s prose but also the poetic effervescence of the ghazal form.

The Urdu Ghazal is a celebration of India’s composite culture. At a time when truth is being economised, history is being rewritten, and some histories are being deleted, Narang’s book makes an important intervention in the debates over what constitutes India’s culture and what strands enrich it.

The ghazal poetry that we have enjoyed in exuberant poetic gatherings, warm family get-togethers and Hindi films is undoubtedly the most important artistic manifestation of India’s composite culture. It may have had its origin in Arabic and, more important, in Persian, where it gained some form, but it was in the liberal climate of India where the Urdu ghazal flowered, flourished and influenced ghazal writing in different Indian languages, in fact, making a beginning even inthe English language. Narang also makes the point that the ghazal is an Indian poetic form, and the most important genre of the perfectly home-grown Urdu language.

Tracing the traditions

Divided into three parts, the book offers both a historical and a thematic view of the ghazal, focusing on its cross-cultural roots. The first part, “The Cultural Landscape” traces the origin and evolution of India’s composite culture. Beginning with the influence of Persian on Indian languages after Muhammad Ghauri’s conquest of parts of India, Narang credits the new mixed language – Khusrau called it Hindavi – with the practice of the writing of ghazals, which when “mixed with Persian and sung in Sufi assemblies were called Rekhta.”

This hybrid language, the language in which Khusrau wrote his ghazals, would be variously called Dakani, Hindavi, Hindustani, Urdu and Hindi. Narang is of the view that communal harmony during the rule of early Mughal emperors paved the way for the growth of composite culture. Interestingly, as the Mughal empire met its decline during the period of the later Mughals, music, art and Urdu poetry registered their peak.

Narang also assesses the contribution of the Bhakti movement and Sufic traditions in the growth of India’s composite culture. Agreeing with Islamic scholar Shibli Nomani, he considers the role of Indian ethos and Indian traditions in shaping the course of Sufic thoughts in India. He notes how tasavvuf (mysticism) in the Indian context incorporated aspects of musicality present in Indian culture.

It was this point of interaction between Hindus and Muslims in India which explains the remarkable contribution of Muslims to Indian music. As Narang records: “Musical instruments like the sitar, sarod, tabla, and sarangi, which were the inventions of the Muslims, became an inevitable part of Indian music.” Not only these musical instruments, but even the Bhajan Kirtan and Khayal gaaiki are the contributions of Muslim musicians.

The terminology in Urdu to describe literary periods is far from settled. Whereas terms like classical, modernist and postmodernist, obviously inspired by English literary history, have become established terms, though there is no consensus about exactly what a term like postmodernism conveys in Urdu poetry, Narang’s use of the term neoclassical, which has traditionally been used to talk about the poetry of Hasrat Mohani, Asghar Gondvi, Yagana Changezi and Jigar Moradabadi, also includes, among others, Akbar Allahabadi, Muhammad Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Ram Prasad Bismil, and Brij Narayan Chakbast.

The many moods of love

Devoted to the classical foundation of the Urdu ghazal, Part II discusses at length the concepts of love, beauty and self which were the essential subjects of the ghazal during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The sensual, passionate and spiritual aspects of love signified by three common words, “pyaar”, “mohabbat” and “ishq” emerge in Urdu poetry as a result of the interaction of Indian and Islamic belief systems.

Narang argues that India’s liberal climate in regard to the expression of man-woman relationships was responsible for the variety and richness of themes in the ghazal. He discusses four different concepts of love in Urdu poetry. There are some poets who were Sufis themselves, some were influenced by Sufism, some inspired by Sufism, and some, devoted as they were to emotions of desire and lust, had no truck with Sufism.

Thus poets like Khwaja Mir Dard, Siraj Aurangabadi, Shah Niaz Barelvi and Abdul Alim Aasi address the absolute while appearing to talk about physical love. To quote Khwaja Mir Dard:

Jag mein aa kar idhar udhar dekha
tu hi aaya nazar jidhar dekha

In this wide, open world I tried to observe hither and thither
But wherever I saw, I saw it was none other than you.

Delhi and Lucknow have been the two major schools of Urdu poetry, though they have differed in their approach to love. Whereas Sufism was the flavour in Delhi, Lucknow poets were given more to pursuit of sensual pleasure and playful expression. Lucknow poet Insha Allah Khan’s poetry is the best example of what Narang considers explicit ghazals:

Le ke das bose gyaarhvaan n sahi
hum ko peete kare jo zyada havas

For getting ten kisses on oath she said that’s it
But I lusted for the eleventh.

Narang devotes special attention to Mir Taqi Mir and Asadullah Khan Ghalib, two major figures in Urdu poetry. Basically an eighteenth century poet, Mir has a big corpus and is considered “a poet of deep pathos and melancholy.” A writer of a very well-researched book on Ghalib, Narang describes him as “the last of the classicists and the first of the modernists.”

Narang also views the poetry of Mir and Ghalib in the light of ancient Indian philosophy, considering Mir closer to the “Indian view of sexuality in which physical union is an essential and natural part”, and lauding Ghalib for constructing “a relationship with the Indian temperament through his metaphysics and philosophy.” He continues: “Mir is closer to India’s devotional (Bhakti) movement whereas Ghalib is close to the primeval insightful (jnana) heritage.”

Stressing the Indian character of the ghazal repeatedly in the book, Narang rues that “that there is a grave misunderstanding about the Urdu ghazal that its depiction of the ‘beloved’ was borrowed as is from the Iranian or Persian model of ghazal singing.” He credits the intermingling of the Indian and the Iranian cultures and the contribution of both Hindu and Muslim poets for the evolution of this genre in India. “It is truly a unique gift of the ganga-jamani tahzib and the rich diversity of the region where it truly flowered.”

In an interesting chapter titled “The Rhetorical Aspects of the Urdu Ghazal” Narang elucidates on the metaphors, similis, symbols and imagery used in the ghazal and their typically Indian character. Thus Rama, Sita, Ravan and Hanuman frequently figure in ghazals, as do Krishna, Radha and the gopis. The sacred river Ganga, Hindu festivals like Diwali, Holi, Basant and Saavan, Hindu customs and rituals and all other aspects of Indian life have enriched the ghazal.

Evolving for modern times

Part III of the book offers a very comprehensive picture of the change in the genre of ghazal in the twentieth century. During this period many poets such as Hasrat Mohani and Mohammad Ali Jauhar wrote ghazals imbued with nationalist fervour, without compromising with its lyrical quality. The poets’ response to the colonial experience is an important feature of the poetry of this period. Among the neoclassical and the nationalist, Narang also discusses Akbar Allahabadi, Muhammad Iqbal, Shaz Azimabadi, Fani Badauni and Hafiz Jalandhari.

With the coming of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the 1930s, the Urdu ghazal entered a new phase. In the period of competing communalism and turbulence, as Narang asserts, “Urdu language and poetry played a positive role since it was a product of plurality and composite culture, and was rooted in the Sufi and Bhakti traditions of the great saints and mystics.”

He discusses a number of progressive poets such as Josh, Firaq, Faiz, Makhdoom, Sahir, Majaz, Anand Narayan Mulla, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh, Faraz, Suroor, Nadeem Qasmi, Jalib, and Zehra Nigah, singling out Faiz Ahmad Faiz as the best among all progressive poets. Progressive poetry was committed to the ideals of socialism, patriotism and secularism. Thus Majaz could write:

Tere maathe pe ye aanchal to bahut hi khuub hai lekin
tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha

The corner of your aanchal on your forehead looks beautiful, 
but it would have been much better if you had made a flag out of this material

In the chapter on “The Modernists and the Postmodernists” Narang expresses his reservations about the uncritical application of the two labels to Urdu literature. Not happy with the provenance of modernism in Urdu and looking critically at the role of some journals, particularly Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Shab Khoon in advocating the cause of modernism, he chides them for the use of “a jamboree of words like alienation, loneliness, repression, guilt, absurdity, hollowness…drawn from the writings of Sartre, Camus, Joyce, Pound, and Kafka and inventing techniques like character-less stories and poetry without any lyricism and substance and labelling it ‘modernism’ (jadiidiyat).”

Among the leading modern and postmodern poets Narang dwells on are, among others, Miraji, Nasir Kazmi, Krishna Bihari Noor, Munir Niazi, Jaun Elia, Shakeb Jalali, Parveen Shakir, Shahryar, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Jayant Parmar and Zafar Iqbal. Gopi Chand Narang is extremely optimistic about the future of the Urdu ghazal – as the ghazals’s “beauty lies in its elasticity and brevity”, and as it is being written in different languages, and as “it is unique to India it is here to stay.”

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui, is Professor in the department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.

The Urdu Ghazal: A Gift of India’s Composite Culture, Gopi Chand Narang, translated from Urdu by Surinder Deol, Oxford University Press.