Thursday, December 20, 2012

Forms of Urdu Poetry

A beginner's guide to the different Urdu Poetry forms. Here you will find brief descriptions of each form. The most well known and popular form is the Ghazal. For a more detailed description, please keep in touch some commonly used terms in Urdu poetry are defined in the glossary. If you have any suggestions about this page, please e-mail them to me at
Introduction to Various Forms of Urdu Poetry
Ghazal (pronounced as "ghuzzle")
Ghazal is a collection of couplets (shers or ashaar) which follow the rules of 'matla', 'maqta', 'bahar', 'qafiya' and 'radeef'. The couplets are complete in themselves. All the couplets of a ghazal must be of the same bahar, end in the same words (radeef) and have the same rhyming pattern (qaafiyaa). Every ghazal MUST have a matla. A ghazal may or may not have a maqta but if it does, it has to be the last sher of the ghazal.
Ghazals which do not have a radeef are called Gair-muraddaf ghazals. In such cases, the rule of qafiya is strictly followed. These type of ghazals are very rare. Ghazals with the same radeef are called ham-radeef ghazals.
A composition consisting of only one sher.
Poem written in praise of God.
Humourous poetry, also known as 'mazaahiyaa' or 'mazaakiyaa' shaayari. Some examples of humourous Urdu poetry can be viewed here.
A satirical poem written to condemn or abuse a person. This type of poetry is considered inferior and generally avoided by reputed poets. The opposite of a hijv is a madah which is written in praise of patrons.
Poem written in praise of royalty, patrons, etc.
A poem written in praise of members of the family of the holy Prophet.
Marsiya (muhr-see-yaa)
An elegy written to mourn the death of a great man or a dearly loved person. In its stricter sense, traditionally accepted in Urdu, a marsiya is an elegy written specifically in honour of the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Husain and his comrades at Karbala. It describes the battle fought on the plains of Karbala by Hazrat Imam Husain against the army of Yazid. The most well known writers of Marsiya in Urdu are Mir baber Ali Anees and Salamat Ali Dabir. Sub-parts of the marsiya are called Nauha and Soz.
Masnavi (pronounced "mus-na-vee")
A long narrative poem - much longer than the ghazal - embodying religious, romantic or didatic stories. It is written in rhyming couplets, with each couplet having a different rhyme and radeef. The most famous masnavis are Masnavi-e-Rumi in Persian, Shah Namah of Firdausi, and Zehar-e-Ishq in Urdu.
A lyrical poem written as a prayer to God.
A poem in which each unit consists of 6 lines. The most well known poet of this style of writing was Maulana Altaf Husain Hali.
A poem written in praise of the holy Prophet.
In a broad sense, nazm is a term used to define all kinds of Urdu poetry which do not fall into any other category. However, in a literary sense, a nazm is a well organized, logically evolving poem where each individual verse serves the need of the central concept or theme of the poem. Though a nazm is traditionally written in rhymed verse, there are many examples of nazms written in unrhymed verse, or even in free verse.
Qasida (pronounced "quh-see-daa")
A panygeric, or poem written in praise of a king or a nobleman, or a benefactor. As in a ghazal, the opening couplet of a qasida, is a rhyming couplet, and its rhyme is repeated in the second line of each succeeding verse. The opening part of the qasida, where the poet may talk in general about love and beauty, man or nature, life or death, is called the 'tashbib' or 'tamheed'.
Interestingly, the ghazal has evolved from the qasida. Over time, the tashbib got detached and developed into what we today know as Gazal. A qasida is usually quite long, sometimes running into mor than a 100 couplets. A Gazal is seldom more than 12 couplets long, averaging about 7 couplets.
A poem consisting of four lines, in the form of two shers. However, unlike shers in a ghazal, the subject of the two shers is the same. It is believed that the qataa was invented for occasions when poets felt that they were unable to express their thoughts completely and satisfactorily in a single sher.
Traditionally a devotional song expressing love and oneness with God sung by a group of people to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Nowadays, qawaallis cover popular topics like love and wine.
Rubayi (pronounced "ru-baa-ee")
A self-sufficient quartrain, rhyming (a, a, b, a) and dealing generally with a single idea, which is customarily introduced and developed with the aid of similes in the first three lines, and concluded, with concentrated effort and impact, in the fourth line.The most well known rubaayis in Persian were written by Omar Khayyam. In Urdu, some of the most well known practitioners of this form were Firaq, Josh and Yagna Yaas Changezi.
A salutory poem written in praise of the holy Prophet. It can also be a poem describing the incidents of Karbala. It is recited standing up.
A song sung at the time of tying the seharaa during the wedding ceremony. It is usually in praise of the bride/groom and their relatives.
A poem describing the displeasure and carelessness of a lover.
History of Ghazal
Ghazal originated in Iran in the 10th century A.D. It grew from the Persian qasida, which in verse form had come to Iran from Arabia. The qasida was a panegyric written in praise of the emperor or his noblemen. The part of the qasida called tashbib got detached and developed in due course of time into the ghazal. Whereas the qasida sometimes ran into as many as 100 couplets or more in monorhyme, the ghazal seldom exceeded twelve, and settled down to an average of seven. Because of its comparative brevity and concentration, its thematic variety and rich suggestiveness, the ghazal soon eclipsed the qasida and became the most popular form of poetry in Iran.
The ghazal came to India with the advent and extension of the Muslim influence from the 12th century onwards. The Moghuls brought along with them Iranian culture and civilization, including Iranian poetry and literature. When Persian gave way to Urdu as the language of poetry and culture in India, the ghazal, the fruit of Indo-Iranian culture, found its opportunity to grow and develop. Although the ghazal is said to have begun with Amir Khusro (1253-1325) in Northern India, Deccan in the South was its real home in the early stages. It was nursed and trained in the courts of Golconda and Bijapur under the patronage of Muslim rulers. Mohd. Quli Qutab Shah, Wajhi, Hashmi, Nusrati and Wali may be counted among its pioneers. Of these, Wali Deccany (1667-1707) may be called the Chaucer of Urdu poetry. Wali's visit to Delhi made in 1700 acquires a historic significance. This visit was instrumental in synthesizing the poetic streams of the South and the North. Wali's poetry awakened the minds of the Persian-loving North to the beauty and richness of Urdu language, and introduced them to the true flavor of ghazal, thus encouraging its rapid growth and popularity.
In its form, the ghazal is a short poem rarely of more than a dozen couplets in the same metre. It always opens with a rhyming couplet called matla. The rhyme of the opening couplet is repeated at the end of second line in each succeeding verse, so that the rhyming pattern may be represented as AA, BA, CA, DA, and so on. In addition to the restriction of rhyme, the ghazal also observes the convention of radif. Radif demands that a portion of the first line -- comprising not more than two or three words -- immediately preceding the rhyme-word at the end, should rhyme with its counterpart in the second line of the opening couplet, and afterwards alternately throughout the poem. The opening couplet of the ghazal is always a representative couplet: it sets the mood and tone of the poem and prepares us for its proper appreciation. The last couplet of the ghazal called makta often includes the pen-name of the poet, and is more personal than general in its tone and intent. Here the poet may express his own state of mind, or describe his religious faith, or pray for his beloved, or indulge in poetic self-praise. The different couplets of the ghazal are not bound by the unity and consistency of thought. Each couplet is a self-sufficient unit, detachable and quotable, generally containing the complete expression of an idea.
Some poets including Hasrat, Iqbal and Josh have written ghazals in the style of a nazm, based on a single theme, properly developed and concluded. But such ghazals are an exception rather than a rule, and the traditional ghazal still holds sway. However, we do come across, off and on, even in the works of classical poets, ghazals exhibiting continuity of theme or, more often, a set of verses connected in theme and thought. Such a thematic group is called a qita, and is presumably resorted to when a poet is confronted with an elaborate thought difficult to be condensed in a single verse. Although the ghazal deals with the whole spectrum of human experience, its central concern is love. Ghazal is an Arabic word which literally means talking to women.
Progressive Movement and Urdu Poetry
The Progressive Movement widened the horizon of Urdu poetry; liberated it from the classical cliche, and added fresh modern imagery structure to the poem; used the rhyming scheme with fresh vigour and introduced and developed new forms like free verse, dramatic and allegorical poems, with experiments in meters; gave it an ideological content and used it as a weapon in the freedom struggle fo India; denounced decadence and cynicism, yet discovered in this attitude also an element of protest against existing conditions; enriched the treasury of poetic diction by using ordinary and common words which the older classical poets had banished form the realm of poetry, and thus came closer to the people.
Many progressive poets actually prticipated in the freedom struggle with their poetry on their lips, and wrote very good poetry in prison as well. They were the poets of a country where great patriots had mounted the gallows reciting poetry with proud defiance, like Ram Prasad Bismil who immortalized these lines of a poet from Bihar of the same pen name:
            sar_faroshi kii tamannaa ab hamaare dil me.n hai
            dekhanaa hai zor kitanaa baazuu-e-qaatil me.n hai
            rah_rav-e-raah-e-muhabaat rah na jaana raah me.n
            lazzat-e-saharaa_navardii duurii-e-manzil me.n hai
                                                                                     - Bismil Azimabadi

            (We are prepared to sacrifice our head,
             Let us see the power of the executioner's arm
             Do not linger behind, O traveller of the path of love
             The pleasure of wandering in the desert lies in it's distance)
They had identified themselves with a partiotic movement whose slogan was Inquilab Zindabad (Long live the revolution) given from the height of the gallows by another martyr, Bhagat Singh, who used to quote poetry freely in his letters that he wrote from his death cell. And this slogan Inquilab Zindabad was used by all freedom-fighters including Nehru and Gandhi. Their meetings, attended by thousands of people, at times by hundreds sof thousands, resounded with this slogan, and the word Inquilab became a household word in India.
This Progressive Movement was a spectrum of different shades of political and literary opinions with Prem Chand, a confirmed believer in Gandhism at one end, and Sajjad Zaheer, a confirmed marxist, at the other end. In between them were various other shades including non-conformists, but every one of them interested in the freedom of the country and glory of literature.
The basic and fundamental postulate of the Progressive Writers Movement is the unity of art, use and beauty. It is not a violent departure from the past or an angry revolt against tradition as such, although we did reject certain unhealthy and obscurantist trends. And that is how our path was new. What we tried to do was a reiteration of the values getting lost in modern commercial age, or distorted under the weight of the decaying social systems. It is a rediscovery with a new experience and consciousness, and new artistic additions giving fresh vigour to Urdu poetry and literature as a whole. The false notion should be discarded that a few hot-headed men can get together and launch a literary and artistic movement of such a dimension as the Progressive Movement. Poets and writers are like the seeds holding the heart; the movement provides them the good soil and the right climate to blossom.
Poetry is song as well as declamation; whispering of the breeze in a rose garden, and the rage of the storm that uproots the trees; the soft fall of dew on the freen grass, and the torrential rain with thunder and lightning; a sweet smile on a pair of lips, and the shriek of a martyr tortured in prison; the slogan of the nation breaking the chains of slavery, and the symphony of the march of history. It is wrong to presume that poetry is only this and not that. Yet a categorical statement can be made. Poetry is not absurd.
The theme of poetry is neither religion nor politics nor recording of events. It embraces all aspects of human life, because the basic and the only theme of poetry, as that of all literature and art, is Man. But the emphasis changes from age to age, and the flavour of language and the beauty and style of images accoriding to the country and its people. The people is Man and Man is people in all its aspects, colours, races, names, professions, running into millions. In the words of the great American poet, Carl Sandburg:
            The people is the great canyon of humanity
                        and many many miles across.
            The people is pandora's box, humpty dumpty, a clock of doom and an
                        avalanche when it turns loose.
            The people rest on land and weather, on time and the changing winds.
            The people have come far and can look back and say
                        "We will go farther yet".
            The people is a plucked goose and a shorn sheep of legalised fraud.
            And the people is one of those mountain slopes
                        holding a volcano of retribution.
            Slow in all things, slow in its gathered wrath,
                        slow in its onward heave.
            slow in its asking: 'Where are we now? what time is it?'
                                                             -The People, Yes; by Carl Sandburg
A terrible question that could be put to the poets also: "Where are we now? What time is it?" Poetry is an autonomous Republic of Letters within the sovereign State of Human Civillisation but not a law unto itself.
Since the dawn of civilisation the poet has been considered as some kind of a prophet as expressed in Persian: "Shairi juzwest az paighambari". And prophets as founders of religions always spoke in a poetic language and changed the course of history and destiny of Man. And we in the East are the inheritors of the great traditions of the Vedas, the Gospels and the Quran.
When mankind had just started lisping, in the so-called black Yajurveda the highest principle was manifesting itself as food(Annam). Here are three awe-inspiring stanzas from the Taittirya Brahmana:
            I am the first born of the divine essence.
            Before the Gods sprang into existince, I was.
            I am the naval(the centre and source) of immortality.
            Whoever bestows me on others-therby keeps me to himself.
            I am Food. I feed on food and on its feeder.

            The foolish man obatins useless food.           
            I declare the truth: it will be his death.
            Because he does not feed either friend or companion.
            By keeping his food to himself, he becomes guilty when eating it.

            I the food am the cloud, thundering, and raining
            They(the beings) feed on ME -- I feed on everything
            I am the real esscence of the universe, immortal.
            By my force all the suns in heaven are aglow.

                        -from Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India

The German Orientalist, Heinrich Zimmer has called this hymn the Cosmic Communist Manifesto. Tit is not difficult to discover the echo of this humn in Mahatama Gandhi's utterance: "Even God dare not reveal Himself to the hungry except in the form of bread"
Krishan Chander's famous short story, Anna Daata(Food Giver) which influenced the fictonal trends of many Indian languages in the continuation of the same thought, as old as the Vedas and as new as the progressive fiction. The terrible experience of the Bengal famine in the wake of the Second World War gave it new poignancy. It was also the turning point in the creative life of a romantic who had started with Tilism-e-Khayaal published in 1938. Surendra Prakash's "Bajuka"(The Scarecrow), although inspired by Prem Chand's "Godan", has vauge reflections of the same thought. Both, the progressive Krishan Chander and 'jadid' Surendra Prakash, have depicted reality through symbolic images.
No great poet has ever forgotten his mission as a prophet, the denunciator of evil and upholder of virtue. Every one of them is a nightingale in a garden not yet created (andalib-e-gulshan-e-naafrida). Every one of them is the voice of today as well as the voice of coming tomorrow. His poetic mission has a message, and there is no dichotomy between the message and the word, between the content and the form. Use and beauty are not diverced from each other. Many poets have been treated as sages, and even tyrants bowed before them with reverance, and listened to them with awe. Yet there are poets who have been hounded, imprisoned, tortured and executed for speaking the Truth. They did not recant, and went on murmuring like Galileo, "But the earth does not revolve around the sun".
No poet of any worth in the past ages could have said what a modern professor at a university who is also an Urdu poet and ciritic, has written:
"Real poet does not pursue meaning and sense. He cannot become so low and stoop to this non-poetic level. He opens his inner eye and sees the unconcious happenings within his soul in a state of trance. His job is only to give words-images to these happenings...As such poetry has nothing to do with clear meaning and sense. Therefore it is not necessarily understandable" -Dr. Hamdi Kashmiri in Kargah-e-sheeshagaran
The very idea of enjoyment of meaningless poetry is the reflection of a state of mind created by the decline of civilisation and vulgarisation of culture. The situation is not new. Some fifty years afo a well-known art critic, Ananda K. Coaraswami, wrote in his Introduction to The Art of Eastern Asia:
If we are to make any approach whatever to an understanding of Asiatic Art as something made by man, and not to regard it as a mere curiosity, we must first of all abandon the whole current view of Art and Artists. We must realise and perhaps remind ourselves again and again that that condition is abnormal in which a distinciton is drawn between workmen and artists, and that this distinction has only been drawn during relatively short periods of the world's history. Of the two propositions following, each explains the other: viz, those whom we now call artists were once artisans; and objects we now preserve in museums were once the common objects of the market place.
Here I would like to add a footnote to Ananda Comaraswami's statement that even today in the villages of Bhihar, Uttar Pardesh, and Gujarat in India the most artistic things of daily use are very common, and that they are the work of ordinary peasant women who do not know that their craft can decorate the museums of the world. To come back to Comaraswami again:
"During greater parts of the worlds history, every product of human workmanship, whether icon, platter, or shirt button, as been at once beautiful and useful. This normal condition has persisted in Asia longer than anywhere else. If it no longer exists in Europe and America, this is by no means the fault of invention or machinery as such; man has always been inventive. The art of the potter was not destroyed by the invention of the potters wheel...If beauty and use are not generally seen together in household utensils and businesman's costumes, nor generally in factory made objects, this is not the fault of machinery employed by us; it is incidental to our lower conception of human dignity and consequent insensibility to real values."
Ananda Comaraswani drew this conclusion after a deep study of five thousand years of Indian sculpture and well-defined principles of Hindu iconography. Without having read this celebrated art critic Majrooh Sultanpuri also came to the same conclusion. When he came to Bombay in 1944 he was writing traditional style ghazals. But after a visit to Ajanta and Ellora he was transformed and he joined the Progressive Writers' Association. He was no more in serach of eternal themes which used to be generally traditional.
He found subjects of poetry scattered all around:
            Dehr mein Majrooh koie javidan mazmoon kahan,
            main jise chhoota gaya woh javidan banta gaya

            (Where can you find, Majrooh, and eternal theme in this world of flux
             Whatever has been touched by my poetry has become eternal)
And Faiz who is one of the founders of the Progressive Movement wrote from prison in the early fifties:
            Hum ne jo tarz-e-fughan ki hai qafas mein iijad,
            Aaj gulshan mein wohi terz-e-bayan therhri hai

            (The style of wailing that we have created in the cage
             Has been accepted as te style of song in the garden today)
And Majaz, a contemporary of Faiz said:
            Iss mehfi-e-kaif-o-masti mein, iss anjuman-e-irfani mein,
            sub jaam bakaf baithe hi rahe, hum pee bhi gaye chhalka bhi gaye

            (In this assembly of ecstacy and intoxication, in this gathering of
                                                 intellectual understanding.
            The revellers kept sitting with full cups in their hands, we spilled
                                                 a little and drank to the last drop)
And Jazbi, another contemporary progressive poet, sang:
            ghamon ki dunya ko raund daalen nishat-e-dil paaimaal kar lein
            naaii muhabbat naya junoon hai khudaya kya apna haal kar lein

            (we feel like trampling upon the life of sorrow
                        and the ecstacy of the heart
             Our love is new, our madness new,
                        we know not what to do with ourselves)

This was the poetry with a new temper, with a new ecstacy born out of the turmoil of the freedom struggle of India. Earlier poets had admired the cresent beauty of the curve of the sword hanging on the head; here the progressive poet also held a sword in his hand. Here matyrdom was part of the glory of the struggle. The poet deals with mental and emotional experiences reflecting the climate of mind and the seasons of heart. It is within his power to create gardens or produce deserts of the soul. That is the reason why some of the greatest and most beautiful poetry has been written in the worst periods of history. Tulips and roses have bloomed in the blood-stained landscape.
            rung pairahan ka kushboo zulf lehrane ka naam,
            mausam-e-gul hai tumhare baam par aane ka naam

                                                                         - Faiz

            (What is color but your garment,
                        what is fragrance but your scattered stresses
             We call it the season of spring when you appear on the balcony)

            mujhe sehl ho gaiN manzilen who hawa ke rukh bhi badal gaye
            tera haath haath mein aa gaya ke charagh raah mein jal gaye

                                                                                     - Majrooh

            (It has become easier to reach the destination now,
            the stormy winds have changeed their direction
             With your hand in my hand, the long path
            is illuminated with lighted lamps)
The asthetic sensibility of progressive poets is not constricted, it has a much wider range:
            dast-e-sayyad bhi aajiz hai, kaf-e-gulchin bhi
            boo-e-gul thehri na bulbul ki zaban thehri hai
                                                                                                  - Faiz
            Powerless is the hand of the hunter,
            helpless the hand of the plundrer of the flowers
            The fragrance of the rose cannot remain imprisoned,
            the sweet song of the nightingale cannot be stopped

            Sutoon-e-daar pe rakhte chalo saron ke charagh
            jahan talak yeh sitam ki siyah raat chale
                                                                                     - Majrooh

            go on puttin on the top of the gallows the lamps of martyred heads
            As long as this night of injustice and tyranny lasts

            koh-e-gham aur giran aur giran aur giran
            ghamzado teshe ko chamkao ke kuchh raat kate


            The mountain of sorrow becomes heaavier and heavier
             O Comrades of sorrow, take up your shining axes
                                                 to cut the rocks of the night.

            jab kashti saabit-o-salim thi, saahil ki tamanna kiso thi
            ab aisi shikasta kasti par sahil ki tamanna kaun kare
                                                                                                                          - Jazbi
            Who cared for the shore when the boat was unbroken and intact?
            Now with this broken boat why should there be any desire to reach the shore
Here I would like to point out that the progressive poets have changed the connotations of old illusions and gave them new meanings according to the temper of the times. Tesha(Axe) in Makhdoom's couplet is an example. It is no more an instrument of suicide as in the old classical poetry. Now it is the symbol of the triumphant working class. Actually this process was intiated by Iqbal. Kohkan (The Mountian Cutter) comes with Tesha (Axe)in his ahnd and demands the throne of Parvez, the King. The progressive poets inherited this tradition and carried it forward. They also created new symbols and poetic images that run into thousands, but no research work has been done on them so far.
Once in Bombay, Faiz was surprised to see in the house of a young progressive poet and journalist a picture of Lenin side by side with and image of Christ on the corss. Both are symbols of progressive poetry. Faiz has used Saleeb and Daar most effectively and beautifully. Once again Karbala is emerging as a powerful symbol of revolutionalry poetry. Two years back I wrote my epic poem Karbala and a bunch of other poems with the same symbols. The caption of the recent poems of Faiz is From Karbala-e-Beriut. A younger progressive, Iftikar Arif's poems are full of allusions of Karbala. Hindu mythology and its great epics are also part of our treasury. Kaifi Azmi has a special fascination for them. Earlier Josh Malihabadi combined the two Islamic and Hindu traditions in his revolutionalry poetry. Heralding the dawn of freeedom just a few years before 1947, the year of Indian and Pakistani independence, Josh said:
            ban raha hai sarsar-0-sailab khoone-e-Hashmi
            aaj Abu Sufian ke ghar mein charaghan hai to kya?
            jaa rahi hai aag Lanka ki taraf baDti hui
            aaj agar Ravan ka ghar Sita ka zindan hai to kya?

            (The blood of Mohammad's family,
                        the Hashmi blood is turing into hurricanes and floods
             How does it matter if the house of Abu Sufian(Yazid's Grandfather)
                        is bright with dazzling  lights?
             The flames of fire are rushing towards Lanka
             How does it matter if the courtyard of Ravan is the prison of Sita?
An endeavour of this magnitude would not have been made possible without help from a lot of people. This site would be incomplete without an acknowledgement of the support and encouragement that I have received from various sources since I started this work.

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