The ghazal is a common form in Indian and Pakistan. Strictly speaking, it is not a musical form at all but a poetic recitation. However, today it is commonly conceived of as an Urdu song whose prime importance is given to the lyrics.
It is said that we must turn to Arabia to find the origins of the ghazal. The word ghazal is an Arabic word that literally means a "discourse" or more correctly a "talk to women". There was an Arabic form of poetry called qasida which came to Iran in about the 10th century. It dealt with the themes of the greatness of kings.
The qasida was at times unmanageably long. It was often 100 couplets or more. Therefore, a portion of the qasida, known as the tashib was detached and this became the ghazal. The ghazal soon became the most popular form of poetry in Iran.
Ghazal's introduction into India from the 12th century, was part of an ongoing revolution in North Indian society. India considered herself to be culturally inferior to greater Persia. Thus Persian culture became a great inspiration for India. The ghazal, along with many other cultural desiderata, were imported into India from the 12th to the 18th centuries. These forms were given a local colour by many Indian artists such as Amir Khusru, and continued to enjoy widespread popularity among Indian Muslims for many centuries.
Although the ghazal was introduced first in the north, the south is responsible for its Urdu character. The North Indian principalities were very much oriented toward Persian, but it was in the south that Urdu was beginning to be used for literary purposes. It was in the courts of Golkonda, and Bijapur that this revolution occurred. Such leaders as, Nusrati, Wajhi, Hashmi, Mohammad Quli Qutab Shah, and Wali are notable in their patronage and contributions. Northern India began to embrace Urdu as a poetic language only in about the 19th century.
The process of converting this poetic form into a musical form was a slow one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ghazal became associated the courtesan. The courtesans, known as tawaif, were considered the mavens of art, literature, dance, music, etiquette, and in short, all of the high culture. They were widely acclaimed for their musical abilities and did not hesitate to demonstrate these abilities when they performed the ghazal.
The decline in the feudal society at the end of the 19th and early 20th century brought with it a decline in the tawaif tradition. This change in culture also saw a change in the performance of ghazal. It continued to build upon its musical component, and began to be heard more and more in the concert hall.
The job of converting ghazal to a musical form was finished in the 20th century. The development of the recording and film industries created a mass media that was well suited to the musical ghazal. They also created an environment where it was convenient to treat the ghazal as though it were a mere git. All of this had tremendous economic advantages for performers and producers alike. Unfortunately, it also created economic pressures to lower the standards for the lyrical content.
The poetic structure of the ghazal is precise. It is based upon a series of couplets which are woven together by a precise rhyming structure. The overall form uses an introductory couplet, the body of couplets, and then an concluding couplet. We will look at these in greater detail.
The first couplet is always the most important, this is known as the matla. The matla is important because it establishes the overall form and mood of the entire ghazal. Occasionally there are two matlas, in which case the second one is referred to as the matla-e-sani.
Each subsequent couplet is linked to the matla in a well defined fashion. The second verse of each couplet must rhyme with this. Therefore, if the rhyming structure of the matla is AA, then the subsequent couplets have the form BA, CA, DA, etc.
There is a convention in the ghazal known as the radif. This is a characteristic way that a portion of the first line (usually just two or three words) is maintained throughout the ghazal. However, it is not always executed consistently. For instance if there is no radif, the form is said to be ghair-muraddaf, this form is very rare. If the exact same words are used in the radif, then it is said to be ham-radif.
The last couplet of the ghazal is very important, this is called the maqta. It usually contains the pen name (takhallus) of the poet. The maqta is usually a personal statement which may be very different in tone from the rest of the ghazal. Today it is becoming more common to leave off the maqta.
There are a few common themes in the ghazal. Typically they revolve around unrequited love, madness, mystical ruminations, and even social commentaries ridiculing religious orthodoxy. Certainly the most common is unrequited love. However, within each ghazal the theme of each couplet need not be consistent. Each couplet may be thought of as a thematic vignette that need not relate to it adjacent couplets.
Although the themes of each couplet in a ghazal are usually distinct, there are some occasions where there is consistency. The Nazm is an example of a style that exhibits remarkable consistency in its thematic approach. A more common type of thematic connection is known as qita. Still, the norm is for each couplet to stand alone thematically.
The musical form of the ghazal is variable. The older more traditional ghazals were very similar to other Hindustani light classical forms such as the dadra or, thumri. One often finds forms that are similar to qawwali. They are typically in a variety of light classical rags. However today, the ghazal usually has a form which is not too dissimilar to many film songs. Such forms are usually decried by the purists because they usually display a bastardisation of the lyrics and a careless disregard of the forms.
The rhythmic forms (tal) of the modern ghazal are invariably of the lighter forms. One typically finds rupak (7 beats), dadra (6 beats) and kaherava 8 beats being used to the near exclusion of everything else.
The story of the ghazal is an interesting one. It is a story that begins in Arabia and continues over to Persia and on to India. It involves an evolution from a long involved Persian poetic discourse into modern Urdu poetry. It shows how a form of poetry may be converted into a form of song. This is an extreme evolution, but one which occupies an important position in Indian music.
© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney
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