Asian Music and Dance

The Ghazal – A Marriage of Poetry and Music

Ken Hunt elucidates for us the rich and continuing history of this poetic and lyric form, popular through generations. 

Waqt ki qaid mein zindagi hai magar
Chand ghadiyan yehi hain jo aazad hain

Life is trapped in time’s prison but 
These are the few moments that are free 

(from Fayyaz Hashmi’s ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’)

Ghazal is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of Indian and Indo-Pakistani literature. Associated particularly but not exclusively with the north of the subcontinent, in the popular imagination this poetic form of literary ambition and attainment is often married to music. It arose from the Muslim literary traditions of Persian and Urdu and that heritage’s commingling with the Hindu world. In its Hindustani-language incarnation – once upon a time today’s Urdu and Hindi were lumped together for census purposes as Hindustani – it has proven resilient and adaptable in ways that would have delighted the music director Naushad Ali. Naushad’s post-Partition blend of musical idioms helped elevate Pakeezah (Pure of Heart), Mughal-e-Azam (Emperor of the Mughals) and Mother India to the nation’s highest cinematic pantheon. 

“…one of the brightest jewels in the crown…”

An exchange in the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the Parliament of India – illustrates how ingrained ghazal had grown immediately after Partition. During an impassioned debate in 1956 about the proposed reorganisation of Indian states on linguistic grounds, C.D. Deshmukh, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Minister of Finance, quoted Urdu verse. Nehru’s response was a ghazal couplet from the poet Akbar Allahabadi, the pen name of Syed Akbar Hussain Rizvi. “A mere sigh, and we get a bad name,” countered Nehru. “He commits murder, and no one comments.”

“…resilient and adaptable…”

Ghazal, one of the pre-eminent poetic forms in the Urdu language, was once the cornerstone of Islamicate song in the subcontinent. Arguably qawwali has since eclipsed its importance in the popular consciousness – unsurprising given the decline of Urdu comprehension in India. Nevertheless, it still remains a potent and driving force in light classical and popular song. Its name is synonymous with the vocalists Begum Akhtar, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and the husband-and-wife partnership Jagjit and Chitra Singh, whose 1977 LP The Unforgettables ushered in a New Age of ghazal.

“…intellectual heft…”

Appropriated by the Bombay and Lahore film industries, the filmi ghazal genre became hugely popular. Indicative of that, Mohd Rafi’s 1963 Gramophone Company of India LP anthology Ghazals from Films cherry-picked a dozen tracks from a dozen different flicks. 

Aside from the flim-flam, as a literary form, down the centuries ghazal irrigated the imaginations of many literary giants. The grand fabric of ghazal interweaving includes the Persian master poets Rumi and Hafez, the last great poet of the Mughal Era Ghalib, and the German Enlightenment poet and man-of-letters Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In more recent times it fed the work of the Raj-era poet Muhammad Iqbal, Bengal’s multi-talented ‘Rebel Poet’ Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Pakistan’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz who made it a vehicle for political statements. Special mention needs to go to the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali who, aside from translating Faiz Ahmed Faiz and befriending Begum Akhtar, also penned ghazals in English and wrote the contextual introduction for the 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English.

“…flits between the sacred and the profane.”

There can be no doubt that there is an intellectual heft to ghazal. Ghazal itself is a continuously replenished lyrical well. In terms of weightiness, gravitas or introspection, it might be likened to the sonnet. It is a series of self-contained couplets in an AA, BA, CA, DA (and so on) rhyme scheme, each of which delivers a succinct idea. In terms of succinctness ghazal is much like Japanese haiku but without haiku’s bondage gear of seventeen syllables. Sequentially, each couplet forges another link in a chain of discrete thoughts or ideas. Couplet by couplet, the narrative whole or sentiment advances. More recent history, however, revealed a trend for couplets to be like moons in independent orbits around a planetary body.

“…ghazal irrigated the imaginations…”

In a ghazal, what sounds textually like a tale of love is frequently open to multi-tiered or plausible deniability interpretation. ‘Love’ can be ambiguous and sheer like a silken scarf passing through a ring: it flits between the sacred and the profane. A reference to ‘the Beloved’ – a common occurrence – may well stand for the supreme entity or simply a lower-case beloved or mere lover. The explicit is rarely desirable. It represents music and poetry from a different time, from a period before the slow creep of religification. Unlike the relatively out-of-favour sonnet form, ghazal remains totally in the present thanks to its modern-day literary, popular or political manifestations. Down the path, down the years, ghazal has come to represent toleration.

The poet and lyricist Gulzar, who regularly collaborated with Jagjit Singh, made an astute distinction: “In a poem and a lyric, the major difference is that a poem is a personal expression of the poet, whereas in a lyric, the expression is primarily that of the character arising out of the situation of the film story. A poem is not necessarily singable, whereas a lyric has to be set to music – often adjusting the metre of the verse for the musical composition. In a literary poem, that would be ungrammatical.”

For an example par excellence of when it comes to blending both ghazal’s literary and popular strands, Fayyaz Hashmi’s ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’ (‘Please don’t insist on leaving today’) stands out. Like Begum Akhtar before her, Farida Khanum has been hailed Malika-e-Ghazal (‘Queen of Ghazal’) and while the song has been covered by others, Habib Wali Mohammad and Asha Bhosle included, Farida Khanum owns it. Even to someone with no or only fragmentary knowledge of Urdu, the way she pitches the longing in the song is revelatory. She returned to sing it for the finale of Coke Studio’s Season Eight. Televised in October 2015, as the footage shows, the passage of time had turned one particular ghazal into a very different piece of sung literature. 


Ghazal’s versatility as a predominantly lyric-driven form is a given. However, once Jagjit & Chitra Singh’s The Unforgettables revealed an alternative approach, the old orthodoxies about how to present ghazal musically no longer counted. Anyone who had listened to the sound and integrity of The Unforgettables knew nothing could ever be the same. That 1977 album was as before-and-after as Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief had been for English folk music in December 1969.

Ten years on from 1977, the UK-based vocalist Najma Akhtar’s Iain Scott/Bunt Stafford Clark-produced album Qareeb (closeness, nearness) brought jazz-tinged saxophone, funk bass and ghazal together in the same place. Lyrically, it included Sufi-inflected self-examination such as “Tell me, what joy is there in drinking wine? / Intoxicated by your love, I weep and pine.”

Quite the most outré and daring development in ghazal, however, is an amalgam of Welsh and Urdu song forms – the collaboration of Gwyneth Glyn and Tauseef Akhtar. Collectively Ghazalaw, the word melds ghazal and alaw, the latter the Welsh word for ‘melody’ or ‘tune’. Their self-titled debut on broadcaster and singer Cerys Matthews’ Marvels of the Universe label is as left-field as anything to cross my path in years. It works, too. Georgia Ruth Williams’ Welsh harp sonorities fit and sit so prettily. 

Naturally, only time will tell whether Ghazalaw is a one-off, a cultural cul-de-sac or a springboard to other musical places. It really doesn’t matter. Ghazalaw is history-making.



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