AskDefine | Define ghazal

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غزل, from غزل.


/'gæzæl/, foreign /ɣazal/


  1. A poetic form mostly used for love poetry in Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, and Persian.
    • 2001, Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, tr. Erdağ M. Göknar:
      Indeed, this is a realm where colors harmoniously recite magnificent ghazals to each other, where time stops, where the Devil never appears.
    • 2005, Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown, Vintage 2006, p. 100:
      A poet could explain him to himself but he was a soldier and had no place to go for ghazals or odes.

Extensive Definition

In poetry, the ghazal (Arabic/Persian/Urdu: غزل; Hindi: ग़ज़ल, Turkish gazel) is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Each line must share the same meter. The Arabic word "ghazal" is pronounced roughly like the English word "guzzle", but with the first, g-like consonant further back in the throat. A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The form is ancient, originating in 6th century pre-Islamic Arabic verse. It is derived from the Arabian panegyric qasida. The structural requirements of the ghazal are similar in stringency to those of the Petrarcan sonnet. In its style and content it is a genre which has proved capable of an extraordinary variety of expression around its central themes of love and separation. It is one of the principal poetic forms the Indo-Perso-Arabic civilization offered to the eastern Islamic world.
The ghazal spread into South Asia in the 12th century under the influence of the new Islamic Sultanate courts and Sufi mystics. Exotic to the region, as is indicated by the very sounds of the name itself when properly pronounced as ġazal, with its very un-Indian initial voiced velar fricative g. Although the ghazal is most prominently a form of Urdu poetry, today, it is found in the poetry of many languages.
Ghazals were written by the Persian mystics and poets Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (13th century) and Hafez (14th century), the Turkish poet Fuzuli (16th century), as well as Mirza Ghalib (17971869) and Muhammad Iqbal (18771938), who both wrote Ghazals in Persian and Urdu. Through the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), the ghazal became very popular in Germany in the 19th century, and the form was used extensively by Friedrich Rückert (17881866) and August von Platen (17961835). The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was a proponent of the form, both in English and in other languages; he edited a volume of "real ghazals in English."
In some modernized ghazals the poet's name is featured somewhere in the last verse.

Details of the form

  • A ghazal is composed of couplets, five or more.
  • The second line of each couplet (or sher) in a ghazal ends with the repetition of a refrain of one or a few words, known as a radif (although the radif is in fact an optional feature), preceded by a rhyme known as the qaafiyaa. In the first couplet, which introduces the theme, both lines end in the rhyme and refrain so that the ghazal's rhyme scheme is AA BA CA etc
  • There can be no enjambement across the couplets in a strict ghazal; each couplet must be a complete sentence (or several sentences) in itself.
  • All the couplets, and each line of each couplet, must share the same meter.
  • Ghazal is simply the name of a form, and is not language-specific. Ghazals also exist, for example in the Pashtu, Kashmiri, and Marathi languages.
  • In South Asian languages some ghazals do not have any radif. This is, however, rare. Such ghazals are called "ġair-muraddaf" ghazal. The pre-Islamic Arabian qasida was in monorrhyme; like the rest of the qasida the ghazal itself did not have a radif.
  • Although every sher may be an independent poem in itself, it is possible for all the shers to be on the same theme or even have continuity of thought. This is called a musalsal ghazal, or "continuous ghazal". The ghazal "chupke chupke raat din aasUU bahaanaa yaad hai" is a famous example of a musalsal ghazal.
  • In modern Urdu poetry, there are a few ghazals which do not follow the restriction that the same beher must be used in both the lines of a sher. But even in these ghazals, qaafiyaa and, usually, radif are present.
  • By placing his or her takhallus in the final sher or maqtaa the poet traditionally attempted to secure credit for his or her work. Poets often made elegant use of their takhallus in the maqta. However, some modern ghazals do not have a maqtaa. The name of the poet shaayar is sometimes placed unnaturally in the last sher of the Ghazal.


Illicit unattainable love

The ghazal not only has a specific form, but traditionally deals with just one subject: Love. And not any kind of love, but specifically, an illicit, and unattainable love. The subcontinental ghazals have an influence of Islamic Mysticism and the subject of love can usually be interpreted for a higher being or for a mortal beloved. The love is always viewed as something that will complete a human being, and if attained will lift him or her into the ranks of the wise, or will bring satisfaction to the soul of the poet. Traditional ghazal love may or may not have an explicit element of sexual desire in it, and hence the love may be spiritual.
The Persian historian Ehsan Yar-Shater notes that "As a rule, the beloved is not a woman, but a young man. In the early centuries of Islam, the raids into Central Asia produced many young slaves. Slaves were also bought or received as gifts. They were made to serve as pages at court or in the households of the affluent, or as soldiers and body-guards. Young men, slaves or not, also, served wine at banquets and receptions, and the more gifted among them could play music and maintain a cultivated conversation. It was love toward young pages, soldiers, or novices in trades and professions which was the subject of lyrical introductions to panegyrics from the beginning of Persian poetry, and of the ghazal." (Yar-Shater, Ehsan. 1986. Persian Poetry in the Timurid and Safavid Periods, Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.973-974. 1986)
The ghazal is always written from the point of view of the unrequited lover, whose beloved is portrayed as unattainable. Most often either the beloved does not return the poet's love or returns it without sincerity, or else the societal circumstances do not allow it. The lover is aware and resigned to this fate but continues loving nonetheless; the lyrical impetus of the poem derives from this tension. Representations of the lover's powerlessness to resist his feelings often include lyrically exaggerated violence. The beloved's power to captivate the speaker may be represented in extended metaphors about the "arrows of his eyes", or by referring to the beloved as an assassin or a killer. Take for example the following couplets from Amir Khusro's Persian ghazal Nami danam chi manzil buud shab:
Nami-danam chi manzil buud shab jaay ki man buudam; Baharsu raqs-e bismil buud shab jaay ki man buudam. Pari paikar nigaar-e sarw qadde laala rukhsare; Sarapa aafat-e dil buud shab jaay ki man buudam.
I wonder what was the place where I was last night, All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony. There was a nymph-like beloved with cypress-like form and tulip-like face, Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers.

In the context of Sufism

It is not possible to get a full understanding of ghazal poetry without at least being familiar with some concepts of Sufism. All the major historical post-Islamic ghazal poets were either avowed Sufis themselves (like Rumi or Hafiz), or were sympathizers with Sufi ideas. Most ghazals can be viewed in a spiritual context, with the Beloved being a metaphor for God, or the poet's spiritual master. It is the intense Divine Love of sufism that serves as a model for all the forms of love found in ghazal poetry.
Most ghazal scholars today recognize that some ghazal couplets are exclusively about Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi), others are about "earthly love" (ishq-e-majazi), but many of them can be interpreted in either context.

Important Poets of Urdu Ghazal

Classical Ghazal

Ghazal "Gayaki", the art of performing the Classical Ghazal in singing, was first introduced by Begum Akhtar and later on, Ustad Mehdi Hassan.These two artists have brought the sensuality of the ghazal and the complexity of Indian ragas to the masses. The categorization of the sung ghazal as a form of "light classical" music is a misconception. Classical Ghazals are difficult to render because of the varying moods of the "shers" or couplets in the ghazal. Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan have been hailed as the main pioneers of ghazal singing. Other emminent maestros include Pakistani ghazal artists Farida Khanum and Ustad Ghulam Ali.

Ghazal and its popularity

Because of the complexity of the words, only people of the upper class had the education to understand the ghazal. The common masses could not understand most of the lyrics and the traditional classical raagas they were rendered in were also difficult to understand. The ghazal has undergone some transformations which help it to reach a larger audience around the world. The simplification of the ghazal in terms of the words and phrases helps the masses to enjoy it. Most of the ghazals are now sung with various styles which are not limited to 'khayaal', 'thumri', 'raaga', 'taala' and other classical and light classical genres. However, these forms of the ghazal are looked down on by purists of the Indian Classical tradition. Singers like Jagjit Singh (he was the first ghazal singer to incorporate the Western guitar in ghazals), Hariharan, Pankaj Udhas and many others have been able to give a new shape to the ghazal by incorporating elements of modern music into it. Another young Canadian talent, Cassius Khan has also been hailed as the only classical ghazal singer in the world who can accompany himself on the tabla. He is also capable of singing in the recitational style of ghazal singing while playing the tabla, which is unique.

Western context: English-language ghazal

After nearly a century of "false starts" -- that is, early experiments by James Clarence Mangan, James Elroy Flecker, Adrienne Rich, Phyllis Webb., etc., many of which did not adhere wholly or in part to the traditional principles of the form, experiments dubbed as "the bastard ghazal" -- , the ghazal finally began to be recognized as a viable closed form in English-language poetry sometime in the early to mid 1990s. This came about largely as a result of serious, true-to-form examples being published by noted American poets John Hollander, W. S. Merwin and Elise Paschen, as well as by acclaimed Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (d. 2001), who had been teaching and spreading word of the ghazal at various American universities over the previous two decades. Ali, it is worth noting, had also published by this time a collection (The Rebel's Silhouette) of translations of the legendary Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (b. 1911, d. 1984), and although the selected poems were presented in English in a free verse style, their romantic and revolutionary-Marxist sociopolitical impact was not entirely lost upon Western readers.
Recognizing the growing interest, in 1996 Ali decided to compile and edit the world's first anthology of English-language ghazals. Finally published by Wesleyan University Press in 2000, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English served as material proof that the ghazal had indeed finally arrived in the English-speaking Western world. (Still fewer than one in ten of the ghazals collected in "Real Ghazals in English" observe the constraints of the form.) Sadly, succumbing to brain cancer in December 2001, Ali did not live long enough to witness the book's full impact and further evolution of the Western ghazal.
Much of the ghazal's English-language evolution in the years subsequent to Ali's death can be seen in or traced to the work of R. W. Watkins and Gene Doty (also known as Gino Peregrini). Watkins, a rather controversial enfant terrible on the fringes of avant-garde Canadian poetry, launched Contemporary Ghazals, the world's first English-language poetry journal dedicated exclusively to the ghazal, in the spring of 2003. Four years before that, Doty introduced The Ghazal Page, a website dedicated to the verse form in English. Both have done much to advance the Western ghazal, publishing many new and seasoned practitioners alike, critical essays and articles, and translations or adaptations of classic Persian and Urdu ghazals.
Other notable English-language poets currently working in the ghazal form include Marcyn Del Clements, R. L. Kennedy, Teresa M. Pfeifer, Taylor Graham, and Denver Butson. Also, vocalist and poet Paula Jeanine explores the ghazal musically in her project, American Ghazal.
A ghazal is composed of couplets, five or more. The couplets may have nothing to do with one another, except for the formal unity derived from a strict rhyme and rhythm pattern.
A ghazal in English which observes the traditional restrictions of the form:
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere--“ ”to make Me beautiful--“
“Trinket”-- to gem– “Me to adorn– How– tell”-- tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar–
All the archangels– their wings frozen– fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open– for God– the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day–
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
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.
(Agha Shahid Ali)

Ghazals composed in English by Western poets

  • Agha Shahid Ali, "Ghazal ('...exiles')"
  • Douglas Barbour, Breath Takes (Wolsak and Wynn), 2001.
  • Denver Butson, "Drowning Ghazals (1, 2 & 3)", "Four Drowning Ghazals"
  • Robert Bly, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars and My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy
  • Gabrielle Calvocoressi, "Backdrop"
  • Marcyn del Clements, "Night"
  • William Dennis, "Lunar Ruin", "Brim-Full Again",
  • Gene Doty (also known as Gino Peregrini), "Ghazal Spirit", "...silence"
  • Taylor Graham, "A Ghazal of Gardens", "Almost Every Day Now"
  • Thomas Hardy, "The Mother Mourns"
  • Jim Harrison, Outlyer and Ghazals (Touchstone), 1971
  • John Hollander, "Ghazal On Ghazals"
  • R. L. Kennedy, "Memphis Jazz"
  • Maxine Kumin, "On the Table"
  • Marilyn Krysl, "Ghazals for the Turn of the Century"
  • W. S. Merwin, "The Causeway"
  • William Matthews, "Guzzle", "Drizzle"
  • Elise Paschen, "Sam's Ghazal"
  • Teresa M. Pfeifer, "In Open Meadow"
  • Robert Pinsky, "The Hall"
  • Spencer Reece, "Florida Ghazals"
  • Adrienne Rich, "Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib"
  • John Thompson, Stilt Jack (Anansi), 1978.
  • R. W. Watkins, "That Nice, Clean, Filthy Lucre", "Ghazal For Shahid"
  • Phyllis Webb, Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals (Coach House), 1984.
  • Bill West, "Daybreak"
  • Bruce Williams, "End Without World"
  • John Edgar Wideman, "Lost Letter"
  • Suzanne Gardinier, "Today: 101 Ghazals" (2008)

Ghazal singers

Some well-known ghazal singers are:



  • Agha Shahid Ali (ed.). Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. ISBN 0-8195-6437-0.
  • Agha Shahid Ali. Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. ISBN 0-393-05195-1.
  • Bailey, J. O. The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A handbook and Commentary. ISBN 0-8078-1135-1
  • Doty, Gene (ed./sitemaster). The Ghazal Page; various postings, 1999--2006.
  • Faiz, Faiz Ahmed. The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems. Translated by Agha Shahid Ali. University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
  • Kanda, K.C., editor. Masterpieces of the Urdu Ghazal: From the 17th to the 20th Century. Sterling Pub Private Ltd., 1991.
  • Mufti, Aamir. "Towards a Lyric History of India." boundary 2, 31: 2, 2004
  • Reichhold, Jane (ed.). Lynx; various issues, 1996--2000.
  • Watkins, R. W. (ed.). Contemporary Ghazals; Nos. 1 and 2, 2003--2004.

External links

ghazal in Arabic: غزل
ghazal in Bosnian: Gazel
ghazal in German: Ghasel
ghazal in Spanish: Gazal
ghazal in Esperanto: Gazalo
ghazal in Persian: غزل
ghazal in French: Ghazal
ghazal in Italian: Ghazal
ghazal in Hindi: ग़ज़ल
ghazal in Malayalam: ഗസല്‍
ghazal in Marathi: गझल
ghazal in Malay (macrolanguage): Ghazal
ghazal in Norwegian: Gasel
ghazal in Pushto: غزل
ghazal in Polish: Gazel
ghazal in Romanian: Gazel
ghazal in Russian: Газель (строфа)
ghazal in Swedish: Ghasel
ghazal in Turkish: Gazel
ghazal in Ukrainian: Газель (жанр)
ghazal in Urdu: غزل
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