IT was not so long ago that Ahmad Faraz, and there is no other Urdu poet of our times as massively popular among the youth as he was, expressed the longing of his eyes to see his beloved manifested in the fullness of appearance. Ah, but then he poignantly confessed his defeat: for inflicted upon this longing was an eternal suffering, the suffering of remaining forever unfulfilled. Even poetry — with all its craft, its devices, and its freedom of imagination — failed to contain the sarapa of that infinite effulgence!
Sarapa yet again? Yes, indeed, we do see how resilient, nay invincible, this classical notion has turned out to be, and how rampant we find sarapa-writing (sarapa-nigari) in the lyrical ghazal poetry, so much so that a 21st century poet, whose death anniversary we just commemorated, invokes it too, a poet the bulk of whose teeming audience belongs to a generation largely untouched by Urdu classics. But let’s pause here and note this: that here we are not only talking about a literary trope or a clever device, something to be rehearsed ad nauseam — no, here is a notion deeply rooted in the very constitution, in the very qivam, of the cultural milieu to which Persian and Urdu ghazal tradition belongs.
Literally meaning “from head-to-toe”, “totally”, “cap-à-pié”, sarapa became a whole creative genre, and in the execution of this genre the poet’s virtuosity was conventionally considered to be precariously at stake. In this venture, the poet was supposed to describe meticulously and in full glory the details, the minutiae, of the physical characteristics of the beloved — the beloved’s sarapa that is, from the locks of the hair and the fragrance trapped in its snares, all the way down to the henna in its intricate arabesque of floral designs imprinted on the sole of the beloved’s foot. Listen to Aziz Hamid Madni, again a poet of contemporary times:
In self-adornment — see, the henna of the feet betrays her taste: At last, simplicity has escaped with a thievish tread, softly!
But at the same time there is a vicious undercurrent of irony here, for the splendour of the ghazal’s beloved was so limitlessly variegated and so intensely rich that it could never be captured — the eye was doomed to failure, and poetry humbled. Let’s recall the opening of the famous novel of Mirza Hadi Rusva, Umrao Jan Ada, where the author writes at the outset a ghazalesque verse serving as the very motto of a beautiful courtesan’s tale. The verse speaks in terms of metaphors: there is this painter (denoting of course the author, Rusva himself) facing his profusely radiant subject (indeed, this subject must symbolise Umrao Jan) whose portrait is to be painted (unmistakably, a metaphor for the novel that is about to begin). Now the subject robs the painter of all his senses due to the devastating effusion of her sheer beauty; and yet in her coquetry she orders him with a ringing laughter — “my portrait must appear to the eye as I appear to the eye, precisely!”
Having lost his senses, how can the portrait-maker ever comply? No matter how numerous his attempts, and no matter how hard he tries, the portrait is doomed to tell only an unfinished and garbled story.
Then we have Ghalib who is never able to see his beloved in the universe of his ghazals. Sometimes when he stands before the glorious display of the beloved’s portrait (jalwa-i timsal), he becomes like a tiny dust particle lost in the ray of the unruly sun — the ray pouring through a narrow opening of the poet’s chamber (rauzan), and sunk in this all-pervading luminosity the particle flutters around in a dance of restless frenzy (par-afshan), now this way, now that way. At other times, when the poet tries to look at the beloved’s sarapa in its unbounded display, he is utterly overwhelmed and blinded by wonder (hairat), his wonder struggling to track down the manifestation, desperately searching for clues and swelling in the process. The mirror too in which the image of the beloved is to be reflected lies in wait perpetually; in fact the mirror bears the burden of the entire “six-dimensions of waiting” (sash-jihat-i intizar). This reflecting surface, then, encompasses the whole spatial range of the cosmos, and so the quest is inherently unending.
Indeed, the degree of abstraction in Ghalib is terrifying; he constructs a towering high-rise of metaphors: on his skyline we find metaphor resting upon metaphor in an ever-higher ascent from the ground of gross, concrete reality. So when the passion and resolve of the poet manage to undo, to open, the ties of “beauty’s veil,” what comes to pass? In a cosmic irony, the very medium of sight (nigah) now becomes a hindrance (ha’il). What a paradox: that which is supposed to convey sight, now blocks access to it:
Ardour has opened the ties of beauty’s veil: No hindrance remains now — except sight …
But the most profound and shattering abstraction is of course found when Ghalib deploys the imagery of the visual arts, as did Mirza Rusva in Umrao Jan Ada. Thus, after an infinity of longing, when the beloved does after all manifest herself (or himself or Himself), the manifestation performs the task of its own contrary — it turns into a veil that is! This contrariety is explained masterfully in terms of an actual fact of perception: the onlooker becomes so intoxicated by the sheer resplendence of the view that his vision is dispersed all over the face of the beloved, spread all across, hopelessly fragmented. So, thereby, again, the poet is denied the possibility of discernable perception beyond the luxuriance of the surface. And again, the sight suffers a telling defeat:
When we talk about the luxuriance of surface, we are in effect invoking a profound cultural fact — for this is exactly one of the defining characteristics of the visual arts in the domain of a world civilisation that flourished from Spain through the Levant and Central Asia to the Indus Valley and beyond: call it “Muslim,” “Islamic,” “Islamicate,” or, should ideological quibbles be dreaded, even “Civilization X.” And, likewise, when we talk about sarapa , we stand at the crossroads of Sufism, poetry, and the visual arts — a tricoloured phenomenon unique to this civilisation. Following the monumental Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson, we see here the meeting of a challenge faced in consequence of the iconoclastic thrust of Abrahamic monotheisms that had ferociously rejected representational myths in the visual arts. Note that “iconoclasm,” though an early-modern term, was an actual attitude in creedal history, in fact a zealous movement, that predates the rise of Islam; it was particularly severe in Judaism, taking violent forms later in Christianity too.