Ghazal and Agha Shahid

Poet Agha Shahid Ali (February 4, 1949 to December 8, 2001) eventually became Kashmir’s identity in the English literature.  Prof G R Malik, the former head of English department in the University of Kashmir, helps understand how the genius of Agha cultivated ghazal in modern America and the way he promoted and popularized ghazal in English keeping intact the mystical traditions from a symbolic perspective

Agha Shahid Ali

The Ghazal is oriental poetry’s mark of identification, the most prominent caption that announces it to the world of letters. In fact oriental poetry has become almost synonymous with the ghazal. Does the ghazal enjoy this preeminence simply because of our conservative adherence to convention or does it possess some peculiar uncanny power that holds us spell-bound? Has the ghazal, with the passage of time, experienced change and evolution? If yes, who has won in the course of this development-the permanence which the form represents or the change, or else is the matter too complex to be reduced to such black and white terms? Does the ghazal form a synthesizing capacity which enables it to assimilate all changes to its genius? What is the future of the ghazal as an art-form? These are some of the questions that immediately occur to my mind as I approach the subject. To find an answer these questions, we will have to look at the origin, the development and the genius of the ghazal.

The ghazal originally formed a structural component of chief Arabic poetic form, the Qasidah. In Arabic, the Qasidah had a very wide scope unlike its namesake in Persian and Urdu which got circumscribed to eulogizing eminent people. The Arabic Qasidah covered a wide spectrum of themes ranging from love and expression or personal grief to the objective description of external events. Its opening section, known as the tashbeeb, was mainly concerned with the theme of love. This section broke off to develop the independent and vibrating form of the ghazal in Persian. From Persian it travelled in one direction to Urdu and, a little later, in another direction to Kashmiri. The greatest Persian masters of the ghazal were Sadi, Rumi, Hafiz, Urfi and Bedil while in Urdu Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Aatish, Jigar and Hasrat distinguished themselves as the practitioners of the form. In Kashmiri, Rasul Mir, Mahjoor, Azad and some modern poets have placed the ghazal on a firm footing whose scope is being continuously widened and diversified by our modern poets.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz

The literal meaning of the word ghazal is to converse with women on love and wine but the form embraced, from the very inception, many other themes-ravages of time and fate, transitoriness of life, capricious nature of friends and foes and other vicissitudes and complexities of life. But this whole thematic syndrome was looked at from the standpoint determined by the over-sensitive, self-effacing, self-denying, carefree, submissive and almost masochistic attitude born of all-consuming love, and liquor (real or imaginary) and its inebriation. This basic trait of the ghazal as well as its origin made it more conducive to certain types of temperament. It, for instance, ideally suited the feudal temperament and remains, in its primary contours, a feudal art-form. Many of its formal and thematic characteristics-rigid metrical scheme, fragmentariness, jugglery of words, a certain unconcern and contumely about the surroundings and obsession (sometimes even morbid) with wine and women represent its feudal connection. A feudal lord, with lots of leisure available to him, could easily and gladly afford all this. Though this has undoubtedly narrowed down the frontiers of the ghazal, it should not mislead us to the conclusion that the form is hopelessly unchangeable and possesses no inherent flexibility. On the other hand even its narrow range of themes, and consequently its formal bounds, have experienced an expansion of sorts in the course of its development Khamriyat (winology) for instance has, with the passage of time, developed into a rich source of symbolism and may not always literally refer to the intoxicating liquid. Great poets like Sadi, Rumi and Khusraw and others like Amir Minai, Riyaz Khairabadi, Abdul Hamid Adam and a whole host of Kashmiri poets, particularly our mystical poets who, in actual life, were unacquainted with the beverage, take recourse to the symbolism of the liquor.

Hafiz’s liquor-drenched poetry has generally been interpreted in our mystical tradition from a symbolical perspective.

Besides this, some of the great practitioners of theghazal have, from time to time, continued to widen its horizons. Particularly remarkable from this point of view is the contribution of Sadi, Rumi and Urfi in the Persian tradition; Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz in the Urdu traditions Mahjoor, Azad and some of the modern ghazal- writers in the Kashmiri tradition. They have introduced a rational, analytical streak in the ghazal and acquainted it with mystical flights as well as the charms of earthliness and pleasures of the flesh without doing any harm to its essential attributes of intensity, syntheticism and a rationally of sorts.

The rise of the ghazal-I-musalsal was a positive development in this regard and if the ghazal has to ensure unhampered evolution, this process of expansion needs to be extended further. This is particularly required at present when a new literary sensibility is emerging as a result of the juxtaposition 0f literature and merger of cultures. Certainly the ghazal-i-musalsal is more in tune with the western temperament now when, after occasional fiddling with the ghazal in the past by poets like Thomas Moore and Goethe, the English poets, especially the American poets, are cultivating the form in a systematic way, thanks, mainly, to the pioneering role played by the late Agha Shahid Ali, whatever the literary worth of his own handling of the form in English.

A remarkable feature of the genius of the ghazal is that it represents a queer combination of the elements of subjectivity and objectivity. Content-wise it is fundamentally a subjective form of art. Generally the poet’s person, his feelings, emotions and fantasies constitute its raw material. At times, the speaking voice in a ghazal may not be that of the poet but that of a fictitious conventional lover, often ill- fated, or that of a thoughtful observer brooding on life’s vagaries, yet in all cases subjectivity and ever-changing colours remain the ghazal’s infrastructure.

These states of the subjective world often appear disjointed, even chaotic, without any causal connection or logical thread so that one verse of the same ghazal is not generally of a piece with the other.

Maulana Jalal-ud-din Rumi

It is as if subjectivity has run riot – an Oriental exemplification of what William James called stream of consciousness.

In the ghazal form, however, this essentially subjective content has to be cast in a strictly rigid objective matrix-the tight metrical scheme of the ghazal.

It opens with a matla (the opening distich) both lines of which should rhyme together in terms of the quafiah (rhyme) and the radiff (end-rhyme).

Of the remaining distiches (whose number is not defined though ideally speaking it should not be less than five, together with the matla), each second hemistich has to follow the same rhyme-scheme until the poem closes with the magta (the concluding distich ) in which the poet usually inserts his takhallus (nom de plume) in some way. This strait-jacket tends to seriously restrict the possibilities of the form. Ghalib, speaking in a different context, wrote: 

Baqadr-i-shouq nahi zarfi-i-tungna-i-ghazal
Kuch aur chahiay wusat meray bayan kay liyay

The scope of the ghazal’s narrow strait is disproportionate to my passion;
My expression craves for a freer and greater expansion

Consequently, there is an inherent contrast in the ghazal between content and form which breeds a dialectics tension. Coming to terms with this dialectical tension constitutes the acid test for the practitioner of the ghazal form. In the hands of a successful poet, the two dialectical elements produce an exquisite synthesis while a lesser artist gives in to mere artificiality and lifeless convention. Such votaries of the convention as these who took strong exception, from time to time, to the creative handling of the ghazal form by genuine poets like Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz. The creative artist’s grappling with form (as well as with language) in order to subdue theme to his purposes not, of course, confined to the area of ghazal but occurs, with the difference of degree, vis-a-vis every literary form but the ghazal because of its rigid metrical scheme is among the most problematic of the literary forms.

One comes across a more-or-less similar dialectical situation with regard to the language and diction of the ghazal also. Like its metrics, its diction too is steeped in the convention which is not to dismiss it out of hand, for it has a positive as well as a negative side. On the positive side, we take note of its haunting melody and lyrical sweetness which pervades it so that taghazzul, the verbal noun derived from the ghazal has now become synonymous with lyricism. Besides this, the ghazal diction also possesses the virtues of economy and suggestivity. It uses fewer and fewer words to suggest more and more meanings. These two characteristics combine to invest the ghazal with an extraordinary symbolic reach. The oft-repeated images gather a thickness which enables them to acquire multiple levels of meaning. At the same time, however, the mechanical and artificial adoption of the diction tends to act as a clog on free creative expression. Once again the creative potential of the poet is put to test.

A genuine creative artist interferes creatively in the inert diction, breaks and remakes it and bends it to yield his meaning. This creative handling of language to generate meaning is one of the prominent aspects of the achievement of poets like Rumi and Bedil in Persian; Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz in Urdu; and Mahjoor, Azad and Rahi in Kashmiri. One reason why Ghalib was booed out of the Mushaims (poetic symposiums) of the day was that like a true creative genius he was altering the ghazal in respect of contents as well as form and diction without damaging its basic structure and this was bound to sound unfamiliar to mere prisoners of convention. In contrast to this renovative handling of diction, a poet with a less or no creative potential succumbs to trite and hackneyed phraseology and imagery and ends up as a mere versifier.

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

For the last several decades the question of the unity of ghazals has remained the focus of critical attention mainly because of the impact of Western critical thought.

Critics of Urdu and Persian with Western orientation and Western litterateurs who have engaged themselves with the ghazal and its aesthetic have generally approached the problem with preconceived notions of poetic unity which is found in non-ghazal poetry-the long poem, the Western lyric in most of its forms and what is known as nazm, free or metre-bound.

To my mind this amounts to measuring liquid by the yard and not by the litre. On one hand, we have Urdu critics like Kalim-ud-Din Ahmad dubbing the ghazal ‘a savage poetic form’ (the actual phrase used is neem wahshi which can be rendered as semi-barbarous) and Ralph Russell feeling stupefied by the formal problems that the ghazal poses. On the other hand, we have a critic like Bruce Pray frantically trying to import a unity into the framework of the ghazal. Basing his argument on premises drawn from Barbara Smith’s book, Poetic Closure, Pray posits the same unity and finality of the impression for the ghazal which is found in a poem. This kind of casuistry, to find a unity which does not exist, is clearly unconvincing.

The ghazal does have a unity but it is fundamentally distinct from the one which Pray tries to trace in vain. The unity of the ghazal hinges on two of its main attributes, one of them thematic and the other formal. Thematically speaking, the items of the ghazal – states of mind and feeling – inhere in a single consciousness whether it is the consciousness of the poet or that of the speaking voice. This imparts a psychological unity to the ghazal. Thematic content is then regimented into a pattern by the ‘bahi (metre), the quafiah and the radif and this gives it a formal unity. In a literary ambience which is surcharged with phrases like the ‘music of ideas’ and ‘rich disorganisation’ and where ‘formlessness’ is hailed as ‘form’, we do not require a unity beyond this.

A passing reference is made in this essay to the pioneering role of Agha Shahid Ali in promoting and popularizing the ghazal in English in modern America.

The West has been fascinated by the form of the ghazal since the days of the German and English romantics. Among the Germans, Fredrick Schlegel, Ruckert, Von Platen and Goethe wrote ghazals and from among the English Romantics Thomas Moore’s ghazals are especially noteworthy. But the way ghazal was cultivated in modern America is unprecedented. In present-day America, creative literature is learnt and thought more-or-less like a craft. Departments of creative literature have been established in most of the major American universities. In this atmosphere, the form of the ghazal with a peculiar legacy of celebration, dexterous word-play and an inevitable inter-textuality, found a conducive breeding ground so that many poets felt naturally drawn to the ghazal and practiced the form with varying degrees of success and failure.

Agha Shahid Ali watched this development as a young and ebullient poet from the East of Hafiz and Ghalib.

Surveying the American literary output relating to the ghazal, he compiled an anthology of what he regarded as authentic ghazals entitled Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (Hanover and London: University Press: New England, 2000).

Sir Thomas Moore

It includes ghazals of 107 poets, among them some leading American poets like W.S. Merwin, William Mathews and Paul Muldoon. Some of the poets included in the anthology have successfully adopted the ghazal form and produced some remarkable pieces. John Hollander is the most outstanding of these poets. Others whose ghazals deserve close attention are Diane Ackerman, Craig Arnold, David Raphael Israel, James Jack, Heather Mctugg, Mary Jo Slater, Edgar Wideman and Bruce William.

Agha Shahid Ali’s own handling of form deserves a special treatment.

He Himself notes:

… Why an unrhymed ghazal would be a contradiction in terms to an Urdu and Persian speaker, I will offer some of my own ghazals. A time for confession. When I attempted my first ghazal, I totally dispensed with the qafia and settled simply for radif. That is I made matters much too easy for myself despite Hollander’s compelling example. (Introduction to Ravishing Disunities, pp.8-9).

To illustrate this, he quotes his ghazal with the radeef ‘in Arabic’, which does not compare favorably with ghazals of Hollander and some other writers of ghazal in English.

As is obvious, the greatest challenge from ghazal is posed by the straitjacket of metre, rhyme and the maintenance of qafiah and radeef.

In original compositions one may somehow come to terms with this but in translating ghazal from Persian and Urdu into English, the challenge becomes insurmountable. The best illustration of this comes from Agha Shahid’s translation of Faiz (Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991). Like a born creative artist, Agha Shahid Ali has chosen the most suitable mode of translating Faiz’s poetry – free, unhampered renderings not clogged by arbitrary and superimposed rhymes. This has worked wonders in rendering what is called the nazm. As one reads Agha Shahid’s versions of Mujh se pahli si muhabat meri mahboob na mang, Zindan ki eik Sham, Ay Roshnion ke shahr and Hum jo Tareek Rahon mai maray gaye, one forgets that one is reading translations.

Every poem has been absorbed, consumed and resurrected as if Faiz himself wrote in English.

But in the face of the inevitable ambiguities of genuine ghazal poetry, the same technique has paradoxically had a diastolic and constricting effect at once. The translator feels tempted to explain and explicate implicit, suggested and unsaid meanings. But, as is natural, such explanation captures only one layer of a multilayered verse. In comparison a more faithful (even literal) rendering, though deficient in poetic effect, would at least preserve some of the elusive ambiguities and try to enmesh between the lines that unsaid which is always best left unsaid. Agha Shahid Ali’s marvelous translations give in to the fatal temptation. At times, the effect is pleasing and aesthetically satisfying such as in the translations of shaame-firaq, ab ha phooch and Gulon main rang bhare, with the exception of two verses in the latter in which word ‘office’ has intruded to render daftar-i-junoon and ‘afterlife’ has been dragged in to  translate the Urdu idiom ‘aaqibat sanwarna’.  

 Generally, the price that has been paid for the compromise is quite heavy.

For instance in Faiz’s ghazal with the matla ‘sab qatl ho ke teray muqabil se aaye hain, there is a verse, Agha Shahid translates it as:

Whether eyes aflame
Or minds lit up by suns
Or a solitary heart in ashes Love
Each final fire
Emerged from your door
Shaped thus by your grace
Or disdain.

(The Rebel’s Silhouette, p.25)

What if the translation had ended on your door!

Similarly, the verse has been rendered as:

Each footstep meant death
And even the promise of life
For, I’ve returned from the lane
Where the executioner lives
I’ve loitered there
As if to get some air casually
I’ve strolled by his door.

(The Rebel’s Silhouette,p.27)

The last four lines could easily be spared.

This happens too with a well-known verse of a Hafiz ghazal which Faiz has used to conclude his poem, Ay Habib-i’ Anber-dest

This has been translated as:

Nothing in this world is without terrible barriers except love, but when it only begins.

(The Rebel’s Silhouette, p.29).

And finally this verse from a poem which is essentially a ghazal:

Agha Shahid renders it as:

The suspense that lasts between killers and weapons as they gamble: who will die and whose turn is next. The bet has now been placed on me.

(The Rebel’s Silhouette, P.99).

Prof G R Malik

The original verse draws its power from the idea and competition between the killer who wields the dagger and the dagger that is wielded. Each contestant wants to outdo the other in killing the selfless lover first. Finally, the combat ends on the shedding of lover’s blood. The introduction of the gamble and the bet is simultaneously explanatory and limiting. Certainly, baaziin the original verse is not a card game or the game of dice.

Things like these, however, do not dim the lustre of Agha Shahid Ali’s intensely creative renderings. In the history of the ghazal in English including the ghazal translation, his name will ever shine among the pioneers.

(The essay first appeared in Sheeraza, the English quarterly journal of culture and literature in 2012 fall.)


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