An Introduction to Ghazal: ancient poetry, romantic couplets

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Ghazal is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets, usually in Urdu or Persian, set to music and mostly performed solo. It is probably the single most popular light classical form in South Asia as well as its huge diaspora abroad.

Although the term ghazal is an ancient form originating in Arabic verse, previously much in vogue for early mystic-poets to describe the pain of divine love, it is now viewed more as a vehicle for expressing the many nuances of human love too. Even so, the words of a ghazal may be interpreted at many levels, including both kinds of love, human and divine.

Given the rich vocabulary of the Urdu language, there is an astonishing variety of ghazals with their dominant theme of unrequited or unattainable love featuring a pining lover (usually male) and an uncaring or coquettish beloved (female).

Although related thematically, the couplets are designed to stand independently of one another. But when a ghazal is set to music, then one of the lines in the opening couplet also serves a refrain. A ghazal singer does not have to sing the poem in its entirety but can pick four (or more) couplets from a ghazal featuring perhaps dozens.

The text of a ghazal affords a composer a great deal of freedom with regard to melody – which can be based on a purely classical raag (melodic framework) or a completely contemporary tune – as well as a vast range of orchestral arrangements featuring any number of instruments, Indian or Western.

Some famous 18th and 19th century ghazals (this period being known as the golden age of Urdu poetry and featuring such immortal poets as Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib and Daagh Dehlavi) have been composed many times in dozens of different styles and tunes and performed by numerous singers.

But, because this is a genre in which words are ranked very high above the music, there is a tacit agreement that the most “classical” form of a ghazal rendition is that which involves only a solo voice, some kind of melodic accompaniment, (ideally a sarangi, but nowadays more likely to be a harmonium) and percussion provided by tabla. The role of the accompanying melodic instrument is clearly a secondary one, shadowing the vocalist as well as filling in interludes between the couplets. 

The current ghazal repertoire is a varied mix of the poetry of classical Urdu poets as well as contemporary Urdu verse, usually by poets from Pakistan. Unlike the more classical genres, for example khayal, many amateur or non-professional singers can sing ghazal as a hobby, given that a crystal-clear and correct pronunciation of the Urdu words ranks above musical ability where this genre is concerned. Even so, many of ghazal’s leading maestros (male as well as female) were also very well-versed in North Indian classical music. Many also sang other light classical genres such as thumri and dadra.

Ghazals were also a great favourite for inclusion in Indian films, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s, with many composers, notably Madan Mohan, specialising in this format. The '60s and early ‘70s saw a general decline in ghazal as popular tastes inclined more towards catchy rhythms and as Urdu language education generally waned.

One musician credited with resurrecting the ghazal to its former glory was Jagjit Singh (died 2011) who presented it in a format that not only had instant mass appeal but also led to a renewed interest in the original classical repertoire as well as a greater demand for the study of Urdu around the world.

Listen to the music | Hariharan sings a modern style of ghazal, often fusing it with other styles such as blues and filmi. Here he performs with Ustad Zakir Hussain on tabla. 

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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