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COLUMN: Breaking with broken metres

December 06, 2015

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Syed Nomanul Haq
Syed Nomanul Haq

SOME years ago, I gave a lecture at the Lahore University of Management Sciences under the same title that appears here. While the then vice-chancellor Adil Najam was presiding, my address was directed essentially to a young audience, and I figured that the word ‘breaking’ would elicit in their minds the image of what is called breakdancing, and this would intrigue them. The idea was perhaps not too far-fetched since my title operated in the conceptual environment of music. Then, one of the many meanings of the verb ‘to break’ is, indeed, ‘to swerve suddenly’.

Let this discourse of mine itself swerve suddenly at this point. Changing the direction of my discourse, I want to make a lamentation — the lamentation that we are left in South Asia with barely a handful of those who know the science of prosody, that fascinating study of rhythm and sound patterns of poetry; the word which denotes this science in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu is ‘arūz (not ‘urūz). What is somewhat ironic, there seems to be more — in fact, rather feverish — interest among the USA scholars in unlocking the sound complexes and rhythmic structures of Urdu poetry than there exists in that part of the world where Urdu is an indigenous language.

So we find, for example, the senior scholar Frances Pritchett involved in traditional ‘arūz, simplifying it and constructing new tools for it. Then, particularly promising is the fact that a younger professor at Michigan State University and a student of Pritchett, Sean Pue, too, is generating exciting fresh metrical studies of what happens to be a highly intricate play of sounds and manipulations of classical metres (buhūr; singular, bahr) in the modernist poetry of Noon Meem Rashid and Majeed Amjad. Sean has developed altogether novel ways of recasting the old-fashioned taqtī‘ (metrical scansion, known also as afā‘īl tafā‘īl). And while my evidence is anecdotal, the general attitude among the young in Pakistan is that this ‘arūz thing is an archaic preoccupation and should now be committed to the mist of the past.

I lament this loss, not only by way of a romantic indulgence, but much more so in the realisation that it has closed many windows for viewing, for example, the fuller spectacle of latter-day Urdu poetry and its groundedness in South Asian literary classics. For example, through a metrical analysis of Rashid’s verse we begin to see that despite his apparently uncompromising rebellion against what he considered a petrified tradition of Urdu poetry, he happens to circumambulate around the same standard sound structures of classical ghazal.

We also have the equally instructive case of Majeed Amjad — this Jhang-born recluse poet is practically obsessed with Hindi metres in their many reformulations espoused by Mir Taqi Mir. Embodying yet another instance of the appropriation of Hindi metres is the poetry of Azmatullah Khan, a pioneering soldier of the Progressive Writers Movement — and this gives a new meaning to the notion of progress; thus, ‘progress’ also meant returning back into the depths of the past. Much of this, which has both poetic and historical valence, falls into a blind spot if we suppress our attention to ‘arūz.

Swerving back, I proceed. Among the various metres that are used in Urdu poetry there are some in which every misra‘ (half-verse) of a given poem contains four feet (arkān, singular rukn), forming two pairs of equal quantitative value. If we call these feet x and y, then the structure of the misra‘ will be x, y/x, y. At some later time, such metres were given the appellation ‘broken’ (shikasta) or ‘geminated’ (mukarrar) metres. What is a foot? A foot is a fragment of a misra‘ whose quantitative value equals one of the standard afā‘īl; and afā‘īl are manufactured words against which the wazn (literally, ‘weight’) of a verse or a word is determined — they are, so to speak, weighing units, reckoning the various combinations of short and long syllables; this is a quantitative system.

All of this (mildly) technical explication will become easily accessible when we look at some interesting examples. But a few important observations before I go to these examples. First, note that a misra‘ or half-verse composed in a broken metre effectively contains two sub-misra‘s, or sub half-verses, given that the misra‘ divides into two identical pairs of feet — in our notation used above, we have [x, y] + [x, y]. Second, that these two sub half-verses can have internal rhyme, over and above the poem’s general rhyme. And finally, since here we have two identical pairs, we can reverse the order of these pairs without damaging or affecting the metre.

A monumental poem in Urdu — in fact, there exists a virtual informal consensus in the air that it is the greatest Urdu poem (nazm, distinct from ghazal) ever written — is Iqbal’s Masjid-e Qurtuba (The Mosque of Cordoba). It is written masterfully in a metre that was considered unsuitable for Urdu poetry, and yet like an adept alchemist Iqbal turned it into gold. But what is particularly relevant here is that this poem is in a broken metre. Here is the opening verse appearing in juxtaposition with its rough transliteration:

Silsila-e roz-o-shab/Naqsh gar-e hadisāt

Silsila-e roz-o-shab/Asl-e hayāt-o-mamāt

Sequence of day and night/Shape-maker of events.

Sequence of day and night/Origin of life and death.

(Reformatted translation of Frances Pritchett)

We are able to recognise that the parts on either side of the slash are metrically identical, and this means that we can swap the order of these two parts without disturbing the metre — so, instead of Silsila-e roz-o-shab/Naqsh gar-e hadisāt, we can read Naqsh gar-e hadisāt/Silsila-e roz-o-shab, and the metre remains utterly unchanged.

In this poem Iqbal also demonstrates our second observation — namely, the occurrence of internal rhyme. So we have a case here of double internal rhyme, one changing (ākhir/zāhir), the other unchanging (fanā’):

First and last-oblivion/Hidden and manifest-oblivion

Whether it be an old design or new/The final destination-oblivion

(Nomanul Haq’s adaptation of Frances Pritchett’s translation)

Some of the most famous ghazals of Ghalib happen to be in broken metres too. For example, the one that has the opening verse (matla‘) is:

This was not our destiny/That union with the beloved take place—

If we had kept on living longer/There would have been this very same waiting

(Reformatted translation of Frances Pritchett)

And the one containing that well-known verse which haunts as if the entire cosmos:

Of longing where is/The second step, O Lord?

We found the desert of possibility/But a single footprint

(Reformatted translation of Frances Pritchett)

Then we have Mir Taqi Mir, the Khudā-e Sukhan, singing in a broken metre, singing in his sublime imagery, while the words dance at the height of lyricism:

The wave of the wind whirling, a little/This I see O Mir,

Perhaps spring has arrived/A chain I see …

(Syed Nomanul Haq’s translation)

I have often wondered why one of the greatest Urdu fiction writers, Qurratulain Hyder, was so moved by, so enamoured of, broken metres. Why are at least three titles of her major novels are borrowed from verses in broken metres? Mere Bhi Sanam Khāne (My Idol House Too) comes from Iqbal’s ‘broken’ (quasi) ghazal that again has internal rhymes. Likewise, Kār-e Jahān Darāz Hai (Long are the Affairs of the World) is also from another of Iqbal’s (quasi) ghazals that moves on a broken metre. Then, there is Ākhir-e Shab ke Hamsafar (Late Night Companions) that is appropriated from a ghazal of Faiz — and Faiz too is speaking in this ghazal in a metre that is broken.

Let’s finally pause and note what is perhaps the most eminent quality of broken metres: the inherent interruption by silence. Thus, when we recite the two halves of a misra‘ in such metres, we experience a hiatus, a break in sound, a quiescence, an interposition of a silent moment between two identical sound strings. The result is that broken metres, when declaimed, generate a dancing rhythm, or the rhythm of an august march-past. So there is here dynamism, a sense of glorious motion. In all probability this is the reason why broken metres are found aplenty in Rumi —

On the sky, and in the breeze/Hundred roads open up for you,

You fly in the sky/Every morning like a supplication.

(Syed Nomanul Haq’s translation)

The dancing rhythm in this verse is seductive. As I said at the outset the association of (break) dancing with broken metres is not too far-fetched after all.


SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.