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The English Ghazal

You?ve heard it in Urdu. Now hear it again.

india Updated: Aug 13, 2006 04:17 IST

A few days ago in a hall at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi, poet Jeet Thayil stood up to read one of his new works. It was a Ghazal — in English. Almost a decade after the form achieved some popularity in the US, the city of Amir Khusrau and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib is beginning to hear the rhyme and refrain of that ancient art in the language of globalised India.

That day, Jeet read a “Ghazal for Agha Shahid Ali,” the man most often credited with popularising the English ghazal. “I’d say Shahid invented it,” says Jeet. “What he did was put the actual soul of the Ghazal back in the English Ghazal.” There were translations from Urdu and Persian before that, he says, but those just took the joy out of the form.

The joy — or perhaps, the beautiful melancholy — of the Ghazal rarely survives translation. However, the Ghazal that is born in English has a life of its own. It has the shape of its Eastern ancestor, but its sensibilities are modern and Western.

In 2000, Shahid’s book of ‘Real Ghazals in English,’ Ravishing DisUnities, was published in the US. It was an anthology of Ghazals by 107 poets, including some of the best known names in contemporary poetry. Paul Muldoon (“He’ll win the Nobel some day,” says poet and linguist Rukmini Bhaya Nair) was one of the contributors.

These are the first three couplets from the Ghazal he wrote. It was titled Little Black Book

“It was Aisling who first soft-talked my penis-tip between her legs while teasing open that velcro-strip between her legs Cliona, then.
A skinny country girl
The small stream, in which I would skinny-dip,
between her legs
Born and bred in Londinium,
the standoffish Etain,
Who kept a stiff upper lip between her legs.”

Shahid had noted that the outstanding mood of the Ghazal in Urdu and Persian has always been “melancholic and amorous”. “Most of the poets who have contributed to this anthology have not been particularly in tune with this emotional aspect of the Ghazal,” he wrote in his introduction. Not Muldoon, certainly — his Ghazal would have Ghalib doing a few RPMs in his grave.

Rukmini wonders what will become of the cultural content of the Ghazal in English. Jeet doesn’t voice any such worries. He seems convinced it’s a good thing. “In New York right now, you’ll find poets reading Ghazals to audiences. It would be great if the same were to happen here,” he says. “It should be read out, sung out...I’ve always associated it with the Blues.”

Rukmini, who is just back from a teaching assignment at Stanford University, USA, says the Ghazal isn’t anywhere near as popular as the haiku. Jeet, who moved to New Delhi from New York last year, agrees.

One Eminem ghazal could change all that.

First Published: Aug 13, 2006 04:17 IST