Ghazals evoke mixed reactions among music lovers now. The younger generation do not seem to be particularly enthused by the genre. However, they are still popular. A lot of credit for this popularity must be given to singers like Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hasan, Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi whose soulful and melodious renditions have brought the beauty of these lyrics to our hearts. Many of us may not even know the meaning of all the words of a ghazal, yet we know, almost instinctively, that these are poems mostly about love. It may be love for a person or even mystical love. The poets ache for a meeting with the beloved but know that their love must always remain unrequited and unconsummated. Ghazals are, therefore, poems about the pain of longing, separation and waiting. Of course, these are not the only subjects, but they are the most popular ones without any doubt.
A ghazal is a collection of two-line verses. Each verse is called a sher. Their plural is ashaar. Interestingly, the collection need not have a central idea or unity of thought as each verse is actually an independent poem in itself. This makes them eminently quotable and, therefore, popular. Each line of a sher is known as a misra.
Yeh na thi hamari kismet ki wisal-e-yaar hota
Agar aur jeete rehte, yehi intezar hota
This sher which is the first verse is called the matla. It may be noticed that both the lines(or misra) end with the same word which is known as radeef. It is also repeated as the last word of the second line of each successive couplet as in the following:-
Tere waade par jiye hum, toh yeh jaan jhoot jaana
Ki khushi se mar na jaate, agar aitbaar hota
Koi mere dil se pooche, tere teer-e-neemkash ko
Yeh Khalish kahaan se hoti, jo jigar ke paar hota
Kahun kis se main ki kya hai, shab-e-ghum buri bala hai
Mujhe kya bura tha marna, agar ek baar hota
We may also note that each sher follows the same metre or baher which refers to its length. It make its recitation so much more enjoyable. One would also notice another interesting feature that the words immediately preceding the radeef in each verse have a rhyming pattern (yaar, intezaar,aitbaar,paar, ghumgussar & baar). This is known as qafiaa. Once the listeners pick this pattern, they are able to guess the last words of the other verses. This makes them active participants of the mushaira rather than just being its spectators. The last sher is called the maqta if it contains the poet’s takhallus or nom de plume, as in the following:-
Yeh masail-e-tasawuff, yeh tera bayaan ‘Ghalib’
Tujhe hum wali samajhte, jo na badakhwaar hota.
The above ghazal is a typical example only. There are as many rules of composition as there are exceptions. For instance, there may be a ghazal even with out a radeef. The poet’s takhallus may be missing from the last verse and so on. This is because ghazal writing has evolved over a period of time. They were originally composed in Arabic and Persian from whence they came to Urdu. They are now being composed in other Indian languages also. Their subjects have also changed. They were mainly about love earlier but later poets like Iqbal and Faiz wrote about political ideas- of freedom, revolution etc. also. Their form and structure has also undergone changes. It is now acceptable to write free or azaad verses which do not follow the traditional restriction on metre. Further evolution of the ghazal is also inevitable with alteration of our social circumstances.
However, lay persons like us who enjoy reading and listening to ghazals need not be afraid of their technicalities. These may be left to the serious students to grapple with. For us, some familiarity with the basics should make the genre more intelligible and enjoyable.