Ghazal, the quintessential form of love poetry, has been the most popular format of literary expression over the last thirteen hundred years, in and outside the Orient. Literally, ‘ghazal’ means ‘talking to the lady love’. It is written in the form of couplets, better called shers or ash-aar (sher being the singular; not be confused with the similar sounding word for tiger, which is spelt differently in Urdu), each independent of the other, creating a distinct rhythmic design, within a given rhyme scheme.

It is supposed to have originated from naseeb, the erotic prelude to qasida (panegyric) of Arabic poetry, in the late seventh century, and developed independently, with its own contours of identification, ever since. Apart from Arabic, it found a suitable clime for itself in Persian, Turkish, and subsequently, in Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, and several other Indian languages. In spite of certain basic resemblances in different languages, ghazal developed its own features of reference during the course of its remarkable development in different tongues and ambiences.

Though the current generation has been exposed to largely populist ghazals, as sung by singing stars, ghazal has traditionally lent itself to complex themes, metaphysical concepts, mystical apprehensions, as also the mundane and the ordinary. It has favoured the language of indirection, understatement, and double entendre (in the broadest meaning of the figure of speech). On account of their ability to appeal equally well to the head and the heart, the shers of ghazal have entered the common parlance of the literati, who use them to enliven their discourse, or even to make their conversations lively.

The modern ghazal has come a long way from its early imprints, and has disengaged from the tradition-bound romantic-cum-mystical and other institutionalised concepts. It incorporates all the odds and evens of life, makes little distinction between the poetic and non-poetic, the formal and the non-formal. It is essentially secular in its make-up, and has reached a cross section of readers and audiences through dissemination of literary texts, popular press, films, and multiple modes of modern communication. Singers have developed individual schools of singing (ghazal gayaki) and helped the ghazal achieve greater popularity among the masses. 

Here are a few shers from the ghazals of some canonical poets of Persian and Urdu.

Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) Poet, philosopher, musician and courtier, Ab’ul Hasan Yamin-al-Din Khusrau, better known as Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, is one of the greatest poets of India. He was born in Patiyali, Uttar Pradesh, to a Turkish father and an Indian mother.
Khabaram raseed imshab ke nigaar khwahi aamad
Sar-e man fida-i-raahe ke sawaar khwahi aamad

My love comes here tonight, I hear she comes tonight
I proffer my head on her path, as she rides in tonight
Nami daanam che manzil bood shab jaaye ke man boodam
Baharsu raqse bismil bood, shab jaaye ke man boodam

I know not what my destination was; I know not where I was last night,
Round me danced tormented souls; I know not where I was last night

Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah (1565-1611/12; of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, who ascended the Golconda throne in 1580; founder of the city of Hyderabad)

Piyaa baaj pyaala piyaa jaaye naa
Piyaa baaj ek til jiyaa jaaye naa

I can’t ever drink my drink without my love                                 
I can’t ever breathe, I sink without my love

Kahiyaa ke bosa seti haman too jawaan karo
Kahiye ke prit ki baat taman jiu ka jaan karo

Make me young with a kiss, my love, I said
If it’s love, breathe life into breath, she said

Vali Deccani (1667-1707; Deccan refers to the region in and around Hyderabad; also known as Vali Mohammad Vali, Vali Aurangabadi and Vali Gujarati)
Ab judaayi na kar khuda soon dar
Bewafaayi na kar khuda soon dar
Don’t part with me for now, fear God
Don’t break my love your vow, fear God
Kiyaa mujh ‘ishq koon zaalim ne aab aahista aahista

Ke aatish gul koon karti hai gulaab aahista aahista

I was all aflame in love; she won my heart bit by bit

Just as the flame turns a bud to a blossom, bit by bit
Text and translation: Dr. Anisur Rahman


 Dr. Anisur Rahman, an academic with an illustrious career, is currently Senior Advisor at Rekhta Foundation. Rekhta is the only website about Urdu poetry that offers ghazals, nazms and shers in Hindi, English and Urdu scripts.










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