I was in my mid-twenties when I immigrated from Pakistan to the US, landing in Manhattan. Fresh off the boat, as the saying goes, I never expected to be attending a mushaira in New York, yet there I was, in the packed, smoke-filled conference hall at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, giddy with excitement and anticipation. Among the dozen or so poets reciting was Ahmed Faraz, renowned literary figure and my teenage crush. I squeezed my way through the audience to the narrow strip of floor seating between the stage and the front row. The floor seating was a concession to tradition; it consisted of ten-foot-wide carpeting overlaid with white sheets and a few bolsters. Traditionally, one reclines, with an elbow on the bolster, taking care that one’s feet are tucked inward and away from the performer.
The Sadr, or President of the mushaira, delivered a flowery speech peppered with poetry quotes familiar to all in attendance, then announced the mushaira’s first poet, Sabiha Saba. Centuries ago, a burning candle would have been placed in front of the poet whose turn it was to recite their work. Now it was the microphone, placed on a short portable stand that was moved to where Saba was seated on a carpet along with the other poets. The audience was familiar with her work, and as soon as she recited the matla, or first line, of her ghazal’s opening couplet, the audience burst into cries of “Wah! Wah!” Saba repeated the first line, then paused for maximum effect, then recited the second line. She was reciting the ghazal in a languid style called tarannum, or “melodious recitation.” The audience once again burst into “Wah! Wah!” followed by “Muqarrar! Muqarrar!”, or “Encore! Encore!” What might seem an interruption of her reading was of vital importance. If there were to be complete silence while the poet was reading, then that reading would be considered an embarrassing failure. I may have been thousands of miles away from the land of my birth, but I was suddenly inhabiting a lush soundscape that transported me home.
1992: Dr Sabiha Saba, recites her poetry
Here is a loose translation of the first few couplets of her ghazal:
By all appearances, I’m thronged, darling of multitudes
Truth is, I’m all alone, I dwell in stark solitude
I made a palace adorned on all sides with thoughts of you
Lit up with your memories, I dwell in sparks’ beatitude
As each day ushers in new-fangled ways of thinking
I long for distant pasts, I dwell in far latitudes
It took a long time for Saba to finish her recitation. Each couplet was repeated several times at the insistence of her listeners before she could move on to the next one. The ticket price of the mushaira included tea and snacks and after the first hour there was a break for refreshments. Even though I was famished, I forwent the opportunity of chai and samosas, because I spotted my idol Faraz, quietly smoking in a corner of the stage, half hidden by heavy velvet curtains. After I blushed and gushed–and had his autograph safely tucked in my purse–we conversed briefly, and I expressed how unexpected it was to find him in a mushaira in America. He smiled and replied that he has been reading in mushairas in the US and Canada for over a decade. After New York his roster of mushairas included New Jersey, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, Fremont, Los Angeles and Houston.
Permit me to introduce those of you who attend poetry performances in the U.S. to the vastly different world of public performance of poetry in South Asia, primarily Pakistan and India and in all their diasporic communities worldwide.
In South Asian traditions, for centuries, distinct formal modes of performance have developed. Unbeknownst to many a poetry writer in English, a completely distinct parallel universe of public poetry performance exists and thrives globally throughout the South Asian diaspora. Several blocks away from the orderly poetry reading you may be sitting in quietly listening as the poet reads may be a venue of raucous poetry performance crowded by diasporic South Asian audience/participants, replete with food and song and instrumental performance.
Each traditional form of performance has its own intricate rules, constraints, and expectations for audience participation—and to complicate things further, there also exists a vast number of verse forms, in addition to the performance forms.
The verse forms themselves alone are vast in number. The following list is merely a sampling:
The ghazal (a sequence of non-narrative couplets each ending on a rhyme preceding a recurring phrase or word, usually in praise of the beloved)
The nazm (a descriptive poem)
The nasri nazm (a prose poem)
The rubai (four-line stanza poem, as in the rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam)
The qata (two-line rhyming couplets)
The doha (written in 24 matras. Each line of the doha has two identical hexameters.)
Each performance mode treats each of these poetic forms differently.
Major modes of performance I will discuss include the above-mentioned mushaira, the mehfil, the thumri, the qawwali, and the recent emergence of “song-style.”
We will track one poetic form, the ghazal, the form most likely to be familiar to Western readers, through these various modes of performance. Thus, we should carefully consider all the rules required in the ghazal verse form in order to follow how each performance mode utilizes the ghazal’s particular constraints in its own distinct way—-involving audience interaction, music, and improvisation. The ghazal is one of the most popular and versatile genres among the many different modes of South Asian public presentations of poetry.
The classic verse form of ghazal must abide by the following guidelines:
1 All the couplets in the ghazal need to follow the same zameen, or meter.
2 A refrain (a repeated word or phrase) appears at the end of both lines of the first couplet.
3 The refrain also appears at the end of the second line in each succeeding couplet.
4 One or more words before the refrain are rhymes or partial rhymes.
5 Each couplet is autonomous, meaning there is no narrative in the ghazal.
6. Generally speaking a ghazal should have at least 5 couplets.
7. The last couplet usually contains the poet’s nom de plume.
To illustrate the rhyme scheme and refrain, I refer you to Indian American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal, “Tonight.” You can read the poem in full with an accompanying guide here.
Here is an excerpt:
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
In a ghazal, at the end of each couplet, a rhyme precedes a repeated word or phrase. In the last stanza, the poet usually adds his poetic name in an ingenious way. In Shahid’s case, his name means “witness,” which adds a deeply poignant meaning to the last couplet.
I had first encountered the poetry of Faraz–the poet whose autograph I obtained in New York–not at a mushaira but on a television broadcast of a mehfil, when the silky sultry voice of the chanteuse Iqbal Bano sang his ghazal with the poet himself looking on:
Here’s a loose translation of two couplets from a few verses which Iqbal Bano sings:
You’re silent, why don’t you praise your beloved’s torment?
Dagger smitten, why not pray for the assassin’s advent?
The cause of my madness are not the days spent in prison
Why don’t you extinguish the moon and stars in the firmament?
(The “assassin” often refers to the beloved in Urdu poetry when used in the context of a romantic ghazal.)
We are seeing in the video a mehfil é ghazal in which the audience is a who’s who of poets, writers and singers, all of whom are making requests of the singer as they would in any mehfil.
The versatility of the ghazal allows it to be adapted to various genres, including thumri and qawwali, which are all themselves based on classical raga and folk forms. The ghazal in its written form is a poem with a fixed metrical structure but when it is put to music, the musical structure supersedes the metrical structure. Over the last seventy-five years, innovators like Begum Akhtar have changed the form of the performed ghazal and made its presentation much more open to improvisation and fluidity.
Here is a ghazal written in the thirteenth century by “The Songbird of India:” the poet, singer historian, composer, creator of multiple instruments and inventor of many musical forms including the qawwali. Amir Khusrau is credited for introducing ghazal singing to India. Khusrau’s father was Muslim of Turkish origin. His mother was a Hindu Rajput. He is an emblem of the syncretic culture of the subcontinent. Historians have likened the blending of the ghazal with the folk forms of India to sugar dissolving in milk, giving rise to an expression of indescribable sweetness and longing.
In the video that follows is a ghazal sung in the thumri style. It is a jugalbandi or duet between two famous musicians, Ustad Rashid Khan and Hariharan. The term “thumri” is derived from the Hindi verb thumakna, which means “to walk with dancing steps so as to make the ankle-bells tinkle.” The form is thus intrinsically feminine, although it can be sung by all genders and is connected with dance, dramatic gestures, eroticism, evocative love poetry and folk songs especially from North India.
Yaad piya ki aaye
Yeh dukh saha na jaye
Consumed by thoughts of my lover
I can bear this pain no longer
Bali umariya, sooni sajariya
Joban beeta jaye
I am so young and my bed is deserted
Youth slips through my fingers
Both singers spend a considerable amount of time on the key words such as lover, “piya,” and bear, “saha,” and I am missing my lover, “yaad” in this opening couplet. This emphasis on certain words in the text is a hallmark of the thumri. Typically, although the text performed in a thumri may be brief, each couplet is sung again and again with subtle variations.
The qawwali is always a group performance, and is always sung with musical accompaniments such as clapping, percussive instruments, the harmonium (an accordion-like instrument introduced in colonial times). The qawwali is usually devotional in nature, traditionally sung in praise of a Sufi master, at the Urs (the annual death celebration of the master onsite at his shrine). Today, the qawwali is also sung at important events, like a wedding, birth, birthday of the prophet, or in praise of his son in law Ali. (Most qawwalis are Shia and revere Ali as the rightful spiritual heir of the prophet.)
The qawwali is a devotional musical form which blends languages such as Braj Bhasha with Urdu and Farsi (sometimes Punjabi) as well as Hindu devotional themes with Islamic Sufi themes: the forbidden love of Radha and Krishna from Hindu Vaishanava tradition is worked together seamlessly with the Shia Islamic Sufi theme of the Lover/Beloved.
Below is one of the most famous ghazals by Amir Khusrau rendered in the qawwali style, by Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad and their sons and other family members. The families are direct descendants of the court musicians of the last Emperor of India. The beauty of this ghazal is that in each couplet the first line is in Persian and the second line in Hindavi (the precursor of Hindi – Urdu)
My loose translation of the opening:
Don’t ignore my wretched state by turning away your eyes, making excuses
This separation is unbearable! Why don’t you clasp me in your embrace?
Nights of separation long as your tresses and the day of union short as life itself
Oh girlfriend, how will I pass these dark nights without seeing my beloved’s face?
Along with the plurality of language that occurs in this iconic poem of Khusrau’s, the gender of the protagonist also keeps changing. In the first couplet they are male and in the second couplet the first line is in a man’s voice and the second line a woman’s voice. Generally speaking, the singers of a qawwali are always male, as it remains taboo for women to perform qawwali. Yet the poetry that the male qawwals sing is written in the feminine gender pronoun and while they sing in male voices they sing as women, because the intensity of a woman separated from her lover and longing for union is considered to be the most apt example of the Sufi goal for dissolution of the individual self into the Divine.
To understand this sense of loss often found in the ghazal and place it in context, we need to go back to the acknowledged master of the ghazal, Mirza Asadullah Khan, widely known by his penname, Ghalib. A master of the ghazal form and arguably its most famous exponent, Ghalib is a liminal figure, both a poet in the court of the last Mughal emperor of India and also witness to the wholesale slaughter of Indians by the British in the wake of the first unsuccessful War of Independence in 1857. After the British victory, the Emperor was exiled to Burma (Myanmar) and India was placed under colonial rule. It would take ninety years before India finally regained its independence.
The loss of royal patronage coupled with the humiliations of colonial rule was the impetus that moved the mushaira from the rarefied atmosphere of the court to the public sphere, where it played a vital role in the freedom struggle, exemplified by the firebrand Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), poet and editor of the influential journal Kaleem, and who was jailed for his revolutionary poetry. Malihabadi declared:
Kaam hai mera taghiar naam hai mera shabab
Mera naam inquilab o inquilab o inquilab
My work is change, my name is youth
I am revolution, revolution, revolution
Since 1947, the disappointments of democracy in the newly independent and horrifically partitioned nations of India and Pakistan and in particular the resurgence of successive authoritarian regimes in Pakistan has meant that the mushaira and the other performance modes continue to be a living repository of literary heritage and culture, as well as a space for personal expression and significant social and political critique.
The year 1965 saw the lifting of immigration restrictions from South Asian countries and resulted in an influx of migrants across India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh post 1971). Most of these immigrants were from the professional classes: doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like. Small informal mushairas began to be held in private homes. Eventually, in 1974, the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association held the first “official” mushaira, in which prominent South Asian poets were invited to perform. This tradition has continued to flourish ever since with various immigrant organizations hosting events. The most famous poets receive substantial fees to recite their work, and over the years a kind of “poetry circuit” has emerged.
Rahat Indori, one of the most powerful voices against the rising tide of fascism and oppression of minorities in India, sadly lost his life to the Covid-19 pandemic on August 11, 2020. Here he recites his most famous ghazal:
Jo aaj sahib é masnad hain, kal nahin houn gay
Kirayedar hain, zati makan thori hé
Those who occupy high office will be gone tomorrow
They’re just renters, not the owners of this house
All the genres I have described continue to be performed and new ones appear. Relatively recently has emerged “song style.” This is a hybrid animal that purists would shun but given the syncretic nature of the performance and poetry above should, they should know better. Here is a “pop ghazal” by Nazia Hasan; the instrumentation is completely western but the ghazal adapts seamlessly. Since the recording of this video some four decades ago there have been countless iterations of “pop” and “rock” and even “rap” ghazals.
Hasan’s performance is just one notable ripple in an ever-expanding stream.