Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals
Selected, Edited and Translated
by Anisur Rahman
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729486
456pp.

As much as an expression of emotions and ideas, poetry is also a manifestation of the culture, tradition and socio-political conditions of a society.

Language, the cloak of poetry, is itself deeply interwoven with culture and society, which makes translating poetry a very complicated task — a translator has to jump through hoops to convey the sense, as well as the original aesthetics, in the target language.

Owing to their structure, translating ghazals can be especially arduous. For several centuries, the ghazal remained the primary and dominant mode of poetic expression in Urdu. This rich form is an album of Subcontinental culture, tradition and history — it reveals our individuality as well as our society’s collective consciousness, all the while documenting Urdu’s development as a literary language.

For Urdu poetry to mark its due impression on world literature, translating ghazals into a global lingua franca is critically important. In Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi [A Thousand Desires]: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals, Anisur Rahman — formerly a professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, and senior adviser at Rekhta Foundation, which runs the largest website on Urdu literature — translates into English 130 ghazals, composed by 65 poets from the mid-16th century to the present times.

A scholarly work conveys the poeticism and richness of imagination, thought and emotion constituting the Urdu ghazal, along with a systematic and analytical historicising of this great tradition

Nearly five phenomenal centuries of Urdu ghazal are divided into seven different periods, each representing a unique literary phase, specific poetic mode, prevailing culture and the era’s significant historical turn.

Rahman gives each period a title, which couldn’t have been easy, as it would have had to resonate the overall poetic theme and spirit of that era. Each period gets its own chapter, which includes critical discussion on that literary era, biographical sketches of its prominent poets and Romanised text with English translations of two ghazals for each poet.

The first chapter, ‘Metaphysical Beginnings’, shows the ghazal’s emergence in the Subcontinent through three pioneering poets: Quli Qutub Shah, Vali Deccani and Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Janan. The journey into this wonderful world of poetry then begins with the classical Deccani version of Quli Qutub Shah’s verses:

Piyaa baaj pyaala piyaa jaaey na
Piyaa baaj yek til jiyaa jaey na
Rahman translates this as:
“I can’t ever drink my drink without my love
I can’t ever breathe; I sink without my love”

Rahman approximates the ghazal’s structure by using rhymes, refrains and uniform line-lengths. Retaining the structural form while translating poetry is important, but one must also preserve the beauty of expression through delicate choice of words, appropriate transformation of figurative language and conveying the thought with glimpses of the original feeling.

Rahman maintains the translative equivalence remarkably well, as can be seen from the above couplet’s second line — what could have otherwise been rendered flatly as ‘I can’t live a moment without my love’, is improvised to instil some aesthetics in the target language.

He also maintains the form’s musicality, one way or the other — through rhyming with or without refrains, sometimes only through refrains, or by using different rhyming schemes for every couplet, mirroring the technique employed by masnavis. Let’s have a look at these patterns:

Aah ko chahiye ek umr asar hotay tak
Kaun jeeta hai tiri zulf ke sar hotay tak
Partaw-i-khur se hai shabnam ko fanaa ki taaleem
Main bhi hoon ek inaayat ki nazar hotay tak
“My wails need a lifetime to reach the heart, wait, O wait
But who can live that long to see it reach, wait, O wait
The dew has learnt of dying only from the sunrays
I too will live till I get a kind look, wait, O wait”
— Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

Aaey kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaey
Uss ke baad aaey jo azaab aaey
Kar raha tha gham-i-jahaan ka hisaab
Aaj tum yaad behisaab aaey

“Let some clouds gather, let some wine flow
Then come what may when I’m all aglow
I sat to count all life’s loss and gain
Your memories came, all in a row”
— Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Galay mila na kabhi chaand bakht aisa tha
Hara bhara badan apna darakht aisa tha
Kahaan ki sair na ki tausan-i-takhayyul par
Hamein to yeh bhi Sulaiman ke takht aisa tha
“The moon didn’t embrace me ever, I had no luck
My body was a lush tree, but not moonstruck
I roamed on the wings of imagination
That was Solomon’s throne of high station”
— Shakeb Jalali

Very tactfully, Rahman encompasses the salient aspects of style and absorbs the poet’s thought. Sometimes, he translates the same Urdu refrain into different English phrases, which not only allows him to remain closer to the essence of the original thought, but also beautifies the translation.

For instance, Vali Deccani uses the refrain “aahista aahista”, literally translating to ‘slowly slowly’. However, Rahman translates it for different couplets according to their sense: “bit by bit”, “sigh by sigh”, “sip by sip”, “ray by ray”, etc.

With other improvisations, he adds delicacy, uses descriptive phrases to rhyme and, at times, even swaps lines around to make them more explicable in English:

Baat karni mujhay kabhi aisi mushkil tau na thi
Jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi tau na thi
“It was never so very hard to speak, but now
Your assembly was never so bleak, but now”
— Bahadur Shah Zafar

Khaamoshi achhi nahin inkaar hona chahiye
Yeh tamaasha ab sar-i-bazaar hona chahiye
“Silence is no good, let there be a negation
Let this show be shown in an open location”
—Zafar Iqbal

Yaad ab khud ko aa rahay hain hum
Kuchh dinon tak khuda rahay hain hum

“A god for some time now
I recall myself now”
— Bashir Badr

Rahman’s book isn’t limited to translations. By dividing the ghazal’s journey into seven different periods, he presents its evolution over time. In the preface, he notes the genre’s origins in the Arabic and Persian traditions and acquaints readers with interesting information, such as German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s and Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s renditions of ghazals in their respective languages.

Chapter 2, ‘Towards Enlightenment’, showcases Mirza Rafi Sauda, Siraj Aurangabadi, Khwaja Mir Dard and Mir Taqi Mir. Rahman explains that it was this time — the 18th century — when the ghazal refined and enriched Urdu as a language of poetry and new linguistic configurations, and metaphors and symbols conceptualised the beloved in both secular and spiritual terms.

Chapter 3 is titled ‘Romance of Realism’, which I feel is not the best caption as the epoch encompasses the eight most imaginative maestros of Urdu poetry, including Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani, Syed Inshallah Khan Insha, Haider Ali Aatish, Momin Khan Momin and Daagh Dehlvi. This was the era of the great Ghalib, who enriched the ghazal tradition with his unique improvisations, imagination and ingenuity.

The chapter ‘Advent of Modernism’ begins with a poet of modern orientation: Altaf Hussain Hali. This period — from the mid-19th century onwards — belongs to the legends Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Hasrat Mohani, Jigar Muradabadi and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Composing in an age of great socio-political transitions, they expanded the hinterlands of traditional reference and replaced the conventional penchant for sentimentality with irony, writes Rahman.

Perhaps the most direct name given to a literary period would be the title of Chapter 5, ‘Progressive Poetics’, because this was the era of Asrarul Haq Majaz, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Jan Nisar Akhtar.

In a brief analysis of the Progressive Movement, Rahman states that the decadent socio-political conditions, the struggle for independence and the turmoil at the global level provided the Progressive poets their immediate context. They gave a clarion call for reason against sentimentality, realism against romance and freedom against subjugation.

The sixth period belongs to those who came into the limelight after Partition. As many as 26 poets are grouped in the chapter ‘New Poetics’. Starting with Majeed Amjad, this era was illuminated with the stardom of Ada Jafri, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Jaun Elia, Ahmed Faraz, Zehra Nigah, Bashir Badr, Iftikhar Arif and many more. Rahman elucidates that this new generation of poets lived in an ever-shrinking world of migration and diasporas, even while inhabiting an expanding world of doubt and faith, belonging and estrangement.

The anthology closes with ‘Beyond New Poetics’ and poets from the last quarter of the 20th century — such as Sarwat Hussain, Aftab Husain, Parveen Shakir, Jamal Ehsani, Farhat Ehsas, Zeeshan Sahil and others. According to Rahman, these poets transcended the limits of the modernist ghazal, chose to engage with history and heritage, interrogated the dichotomies of modern day-to-day life and addressed the readers as their compatriots.

The choice of poets from the classical and post-classical eras is obvious, as all the names have long been tested by time, but selecting pre-contemporary and contemporary poets could not have been so straightforward. Rahman tries to discover a linear motion of the collective conscious and subconscious of the Subcontinent across time, within the boundless random space of the Urdu ghazal.

Altogether, this scholarly work conveys to the English-speaking world the poeticism and richness of imagination, thought and emotion constituting the Urdu ghazal, along with a systematic and analytical historicising of this great tradition.

The reviewer is a poet and writer.

He teaches at a university and tweets @ssalmansarwat

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2022

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