Ghazals are poems made up of two-line verses (bayt). Broadly speaking, they are poems about love — physical or divine, literal or metaphoric. The topic of love is transcendental, with infinite possibilities; it is both broad and deep. Ghazals have a structural unity imposed by metre that is enhanced by the rhyming word and refrain (radeef and qaafiya). A ghazal’s structure is often enclosed within an opening and closing verse (matla and maqta). Modern/ contemporary ghazals have widened the scope of traditional themes by adding twists and creating new meanings of wasl and firaq [union and separation], the archetypical relationship between lover-beloved, which forms the backbone of the ghazal.

New subjects have been absorbed into the ghazal’s ambit — the travails of climate change; feelings of loss, helplessness and isolation in the pandemic; perils of urbanisation, and so on. Poets have always had the liberty to write a musalsal [continuous] ghazal and/or include a qita (verse-set) within the ghazal itself. But is the ghazal a (whole) poem qua poem? In other words, does it have a unity of specificity as implied by theme, images or allusions?

Let us first try to come up with a working definition of unity, or the presence of unity, or even the concept of what poetic unity means in poems. T.S. Eliot called it “inner unity” — a combination or ordering of parts in a literary or artistic production such as to constitute a whole or promote an individual effect. I find it to be a principle in the ordering of verses in a ghazal, an integration of its parts.

According to Orientalist Alessandro Bausani, each verse in the classical ghazal forms a closed unit, only slightly interconnected with others; we are in the presence of a bunch of motifs only lightly tied together. Eminent scholars of the classical ghazal in Persian and Urdu have described it as a filigree work, full of finely wrought details with no strictly logical sequence of verses.

Michael Hillman’s Unity in the Ghazals of Hafez is a good place to approach the question of unity in ghazals as a genre. I am grateful to friends, particularly Max Bruce, for energising discussion on the subject, and to Aleem Zubair for pointing to a 1973 speech-essay by Faiz Ahmad Faiz in his book Mataa-i-Lauh-o-Qalam [Wealth of Pen and Tablet].

I am raking up an age-old discussion here, but only to go forward with new perspectives on the ordering of bayts in the ghazal. While working on the progression of ghazals in Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s divans, I was struck by the changes in the ordering of verses. This happened when new verses were added or verses were deleted. I was also fascinated by Ghalib’s editing process, how he cherry-picked verses from ghazals in the same metre and rhyme and made a new ghazal.

I compared the old ghazals with the newly minted one. What was going on in Ghalib’s mind as he moved verses around? Is the order of bayts crucial to the singleness of effect that is predicated of the unified object? Does the deletion of one or two bayts necessarily and significantly affect the ghazal’s unity? Is a line a constituent element of the poem, or only a metrical unit? Or did Ghalib’s concern in ordering his bayts have something to do with creating an effect that can be called an assemblage of parts within a whole? This attention to detail is evident in Ghalib’s divans. My purpose here is to show how seemingly disparate themes are connected through a skilful, deliberate process of arrangement of bayts.

Faiz draws attention to relationship between metre and mood (kaifiyat), music and theme, and melody, rhyme and refrain in a ghazal. A ghazal with a sad mood cannot be sung or recited in a bubbly tune. Certain metres are suited for specific moods. There is no doubt that ghazals constitute and evoke mood. Can this packaging of theme and sub-themes, altogether be seen as an individual effect? If so, can this individual effect be a unity?

All of us who read Ghalib know that his Divan begins with “naqsh faryadi hai kis ki shokhi-i-tahreer ka” [the portrait is a plaintiff about whose mischievousness of writing?]. It is an unorthodox hamd [poem in praise of God], comprising five verses in the Divan-i-Ghalib. This ghazal has seven verses in the 1816 and 1821 divans. Two more were added in the 1826 divan, making nine altogether. Throughout these years, Ghalib tweaked the verses and moved around a few. The most significant change was to the second verse; it was modified to become the closing verse:

Atashin paa hun gudaaz-i-vahshat-i-zindan na pooch
Mu-i-atash didah hai halqah meri zanjeer ka (verse 2)

[My imprisoned feet are aflame from the heat of restlessness,
Every link in my chain is frizzled as fire-singed hair]

Bas keh hun Ghalib asiri men bhi atash zeri-i-paa
Mu-i-atash didah hai halqah meri zanjeer ka (closing verse)

[Ghalib, even in bondage I am so aflame with restlessness;
Every link in my chain is like fire-singed hair]

Earlier, the closing verse was:

Vahshat-i-khwaab-i-adam shor-i-tamaasha hai Asad
Juz mazah jauhar nahin aainah-i-taabeer ka

[The disquiet from dreaming of death lies in the tumult of watching
The eye that doesn’t have the essence [of perception] cannot claim to offer an interpretation]

Moving and altering verse two to the end brings a proper closure, a completeness to the hamd that wasn’t happening quite as effectively earlier. Naqsh faryaadi is a protest/prayer; it concludes with an image of the captive lover whose restless feet melt chains.

Let us examine how the change wrought to this verse fits the hamd’s ambience. The opening verse’s sauciness is carried through a gamut of loneliness and tumult in the closing verse, but a tinge of suffering is added by painting a picture of the restless, rebellious poet-lover whose feet are on fire in captivity (asiri).

The world is a prison and we are prisoners of being. Asir, the captive, is bound in chains. The chains melting with the heat of fire of his feet is a moving, poignant image compared to the vahshat-i-zindan, the desolate prison where the poet-lover has fiery feet. My point, though, is that moving the verse from the second to the last position brings a sense of unity. This ghazal’s focus is existential angst, and every verse in some way or the other refers to it.

(To be continued)

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 8th, 2021

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