Ghazal – A Musical Expression of Divine Love and Nostalgia

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Ghazal – A Musical Expression of Divine Love and Nostalgia

The most popular expression of poetry in Urdu and Persian, the ghazal, is known as much as a poetic form as it is as a genre of music. The ghazal has roots in seventh century Arabia and gained prominence in the 13th and 14th century due to works of Persian poets like Rumi and Hafiz. Indian poets started writing ghazal in Urdu and Persian in the eighteenth century.

The name of the poem is based on the Arabic word, ghazal, which means ‘talking to a beautiful young lady.’ Ghazal originated in Arabia long before the birth of Islam. It is a derivative of the Arabic panegyric qaseeda, which consisted of three sections: the naseeb, the raheel and any standard form of poetry. The naseeb was the introductory portion of the qaseeda that dealt with themes of nostalgia, romance and longing. The subject of the raheel was loneliness and isolated existence in current times. The third section of the qaseeda described pride in one’s ruler, tribe and morality. The naseeb developed into the ghazal, which became the most enduring form of poetry dealing with the themes of love, longing and separation. It separated itself from the qaseeda and became an independent and important poetic form during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The development of the ghazal continued until the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), the third of four major Arab caliphates.

In its early days, ghazal had four main topics: udhari: courtly love, hissi: erotic love, mudhahakkar: homoerotic love and tamhidi: introductory couplets for other poetic forms.

The ghazal spread to Persia during the Abbasid period and started gaining popularity among the Persian speaking populace. By the 13th century, the ghazal had become the most important Persian poetic form, primarily due to the spread of Sufism. The subject of romantic love and longing was often replaced by love for the creator and a longing to be connected to the divine. At the same time, the ghazal spread to India. Ameer Khusrau became one of the first South Asian poets to write and popularize ghazal. Wali Muhammad Wali Deccani was the first established poet who composed ghazal in the Urdu language and compiled a diwan (collection) of Urdu ghazals.

In terms of form, a ghazal consists of couplets, each one of which is known as a sher. A ghazal can consist of any number of couplets, although the number is generally between five and fifteen. The couplets of the original Arabic ghazal were linked to each other. This form is rarely used today and most ghazals have couplets that are independent of each other in terms of subject and theme. A ghazal in which the couplets are not independent is known as ghazal-e-musalsal.

The primary subject of ghazal has always been and continues to be love, or Ishq. This is broadly divided into two categories: Ishq-e-Majazi, which is worldly love, and Ishq-e-Haqeeqi, which is divine love. The distinction between the two categories of love is often vague and subject to interpretation by readers.

Great Urdu Ghazals

The structure of ghazal is established by a number of factors.

The basic unit of a ghazal is the sher (plural ashar) or the couplet. Each couplet consists of two lines, each of which is known as the misra. The first line of a couplet is known as misra-e-oola and the second is known as misra-e-sani. The last word(s) of the misra-e-sani of each couplet and both misras of the first couplet of the ghazal, is the same. This known as the radeef. A rhyming word(s) precedes the radeef and is known as the qafiya. The main rhyme of the ghazal is established by the qafiya, whereas the radeef serves as the refrain. The first couplet of the ghazal is known as the matla and the last one as maqta. The takhallus, or the pen name of the poet, is often included in the maqta.

The meter of all the couplets in a ghazal is the same and is known as behar. It is a specific structural pattern that consists of combinations of meaningless words known as the rukan (plural arkan) that define the length of a couplet. The total number of arkan is eight: fa-uu-lun, faa-i-lun, ma-faa-ii-lun, mus-taf-i-lun, faa-i-laa-tun, mu-ta-faa-i-lun, ma-faa-i-la-tun, and maf-uu-laat. There is a total of 19 behars: Beher-e-Rajaz, Beher-e-Ramal, Beher-e-Baseet, Beher-e-Taweel, Beher-e-Kaamil, Beher-e-Mutadaarik, Beher-e-Hazaj, Beher-e-Mushaakil, Beher-e-Madeed, Beher-e-Mutaqaarib, Beher-e-Mujtas, Beher-e-Muzaara, Beher-e-Munsareh, Beher-e-Waafer, Beher-e-Qareeb, Beher-e-Saree, Beher-e-Khafeef, Beher-e-Jadeed, and Beher-e-Muqtazeb. These behars are broken into two hemi stiches, except in the case of Beher-e-Rajaz which is trimetric.

The behar, qafiya and radeef establish the prosodic structure of the ghazal known as zameen. All couplets of a ghazal are written in the same zameen.

The primitive Arabic ghazal did not have all the features of contemporary ghazal. The Persian ghazal added five features to the origin poetic form: use of radeef, concept of matla, autonomy of couplets, use of takhallus in maqta and the option of not having the two misras form a sentence.

The ghazal, both structurally and thematically, lends itself very easily to singing. Individual, recorded instances of the singing of ghazal can be found as far back as the 12th century. The ghazals of Jalaluddin Rumi and Khawaja Shamsuddin Shirazi became popular with singers in the 13th and 14th centuries.

In India, the tradition of singing ghazal was established by Hazrat Amir Khusrau. A fixed, melodic composition is known as bandish in Hindustani Sangeet, the music of Pakistan and North India. It is set to a specific raag (melodic mode) and taal (rhythmic cycle). The first part of the bandish is known as asthai and the second as antara. In singing the ghazal, the matla is used as asthai and the rest of the couplets as antaras. The arrangement allows both convenience and facility to vocalists. The raags employed in singing ghazal tend to be popular ones that afford singers the latitude and ability to explore a wide range of emotions in their song. These include Bhairavi, Kafi, Khammaj, Pahari, and Pilu. Ghazals are almost always set to rhythmic cycles of six, seven or eight beats, known as Dadra, Roopak and Keherwa respectively. The use of the seven-beat time-cycles in the singing of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ghazals is so common that a variant of the Roopak taal, known as Mughlai, has come to be associated with singing ghazals similar in structure to his poems.

The first singers of ghazal in recorded history were Meher Afroze and Nusrat Khatoon. The two vocalists were celebrated singers who sang Amir Khusrau’s ghazals in the Khilji courts. They were at the height of their popularity during the 20-year reign of the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty, Sultan Allauddin Khilji. The establishment of ghazal as a major genre of Hindustani Sangeet started in the early 19th century. The popularity of ghazal as a music genre can be attributed to four factors:

The establishment of Parsi Theatre

Popularity in the courts of Lucknow

The changing landscape for courtesans

The advent of the recording companies

In the present times, music shows like Coke Studio and Nescafe Basement frequently showcase renditions of popular ghazal songs with a contemporary twist. Promoting this genre through such television programmes has also attracted the youth.

Here are some ghazal singers who have contributed significantly in the development and popularisation of Ghazal genre, and have left a mark forever.

Mehdi Hassan

Famously called the "King of Ghazal" or "Shahanshah-e-Ghazal", he was a highly influential figure in the history of ghazal, known for his deep and husky baritone voice. He is credited to have exposed ghazal singing to a wider audience with his hauntingly melodious voice. Born into a musical family, he was naturally inclined towards the art from a young age. He claimed to belong to the 16th generation of hereditary musicians hailing from the Kalawant clan of musicians. As a young boy he received his primary training in music from his father who himself was a prominent traditional Dhrupad singer; his uncle was also an important early influence. He started performing at quite an early age and seemed to be headed for a successful musical career when the partition of India happened. His hard work eventually paid off and he received the opportunity to sing on Radio Pakistan which gained him considerable fame. He went on to establish himself as one of the greatest ever ghazal singers and received much recognition for his contribution to classical music. The Government of Nepal decorated him with Gorkha Dakshina Bahu in 1983 and the Government of India bestowed upon him the K. L. Saigal Sangeet Shahenshah Award. Some of his most famous ghazals are ‘Ranjish hi Sahi’, ‘Baat karni mujhe mushkil’, ‘Ghazab kiya tere waade pe’ and ’Gulon mein rang bhare’.

Treasures: A Collection of Cherished Songs - Mehdi Hasan (Set of 5 Audio CDs)

Begum Akhtar

Born to Mushtaribai, a famous singer of yore, Begum Akhtar’s maiden name was Akhtari Bai Faizabadi. After her marriage to Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, from the family of the Nawab of Kakori, she came to be known as Begum Akhtar. It is of historical importance that Begum Akhtar was accomplished in all forms of semiclassical music, be it thumri, chaiti, dadra, kajri, baramasa, or hori. She learnt music through and with various gharanas, the prominent amongst them being Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan (Kirana), Ustad Ramzan Khan (Lucknow), and Ustad Barkat Ali Khan (Patiala). Begum Akhtar attained unparalleled success with her lilting voice, and the unique way of singing in a fast tempo. Her voice was so imbued with pathos and rhythm that at one time the pain in her voice echoed the pain of every listener. Anyone who had suffered heartbreak and betrayal in life found refuge in Begum’s voice. Until then the ‘ghazal’ was something that was only read – Begum Akhtar gave ghazal an identity and respectability by adding the dimension of singing to it. There came a time when every poet, expert or novice, yearned for Begum Akhtar to sing his creation. And she did. It remains an example as well as a milestone in the history of music. Be it the ghazals of Shakeel Badayuni and Jigar Moradabadi or those of novice poets like Sudarshan Faakir, Begum Akhtar added value to their words with her voice. In fact, Kaifi Azmi had even confessed that he went back to reading and writing ghazals in order to get closer to Begum Akhtar. Begum Akhtar’s voice. Her voice covers a wide range of ghazals composed by poets like Mirza Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer and Momin Khan Momin. Her exposure to singing for films and experience with Indian Classical music allowed her to hone her skills as a singer.

BEGUM AKHTAR: The Story Of My Ammi

Ustad Rajkumar Rizvi

Ustad Rajkumar Rizvi is a highly acclaimed Ghazal singer and represents one of the few living legends of Raga-based classical Ghazal gayaki in India. As a Ghazal maestro, he shares his style and charismatic voice with his guru and relative Mehndi Hassan.

Ustad Rajkumar Rizvi sets the standards for the most popular form of traditional music. Listening to him in live concerts is indeed a pleasurable and ecstatic experience to the connoisseurs. His mesmerizing rendition of romantic Ghazals leave the audience spellbound.His performance and recognition has positioned him to continue to be a highly respected and a world class Ghazal singer of his own style.

Ustad Rizvi was born in Rajasthan into a musical family, and received training from his father and guru Ustad Noor Muhammad of the Kalawant Gharana. He also learnt the sitar from Ustad Jamaluddin Bharatiya, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ustad Rizvi also has the credit of being the first disciple of Mehndi Hassan, the legendary Pakistani Ghazal maestro. Ustad Rizvi also has a very distinct style of singing Rajasthani mand and folk music. The Ghazals that he sings are based on Ragas and has a unique way of connecting popular music with ancient Indian music, often drawing the attention of audiences of all ages. His pronunciation of poetry is precise, emphasizing the aesthetic implication of the Ghazal and projecting its emotional content. He also his lent his voice for “Laila Majnu Do Badan Ik Jaan The” in the unforgettable film Laila Majnu in 1976. He also directed the music as well as sang for the Rajasthani film Momal, which was enormously loved and appreciated by his fans especially in Rajasthan.

K L Sehgal

K L Sehgal was undoubtedly India's first superstar whose charisma and magic is still alive and continues to inspire budding talents. Born in Jammu on April 11th, 1904 as Kundan Lal Saigal, he inspired legends like Kishore Kumar and Mukesh to copy his style to make their mark in the industry before developing their own signature tones. His songs are evergreen and are hummed even today. Some of his earliest films were Subah Ke Sitare, Zinda Laash and Mohabbat Ke Aason. The songs that showered fame on him were Premnagar Mein Basoongi Ghar Main, Tadapat Beeti Din Rain and Prem Ki Ho Jai from the first feature film Chandidas. He was also the lead actor of the movie. More and more offers started to pour in making him one of the reigning stars of the film industry. His enigmatic voice only made him even more famous.

In the year 1935, Devdas was released, which increased his popularity manifold. His solo performances Balam Aaye Baso and Dukh Ke Ab Din were tagged as immortal. Saigal experimented with many forms of music and perfected Khayal, Bandish, Ghazals, Geets, Bhajans, Hori and Dadra in various Ragas. He also sang in many different languages like Hindi, Urdu, Pushto, Punjabi, Bengali and Tamil. Saigal always drank before recording and he fondly called a peg Kaali Paanch. The period from 1932 to 1946 is called as Saigal era. Saigal shifted to Bombay in 1940 and did unforgettable films like Bhakta Surdas, Tansen, Kurukshetra, Omar Khayyam, Tadbeer, Shahjahan and Parwana. Some of his immortal songs are Diya Jalao Jagmag Jagmag, Rumjhum Rumjhum Chaal Tihari, Baag Laga Doon Sajani, Chah Barbaad Karegi, Ai Dil-e-beqarar Jhoom, Gham Diye Mustaqil and the eternal Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya.

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

One name that truly epitomizes the Hindustani classical music of the 20th century is that of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Often touted as Tansen of the 20th century, this musical genius blended the best of classical music and created a unique style of his own. Khan’s voice was unique. It had a wide range, it was flexible, and it moved with ease in all tempi. Without exception, his voice gave his music an unmatched lucidity. Perhaps it could be better described by a term from Sanskrit Sahitya Shastra: Prasad. This quality enables a work to express and convey import in an unobstructed manner. Khan’s voice made his music unambiguous. There was no need to reconstruct or imagine his musical design to enjoy or assess it, because it was perceived clearly and easily. The veil of a faulty voice production was totally absent in his musical endeavours.

The Great Heritage-: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (Exclusive Archival Collection) (Set of 3 Audio CDs)

Many of his works were re-released by music companies in the late 90s. Some of his albums include:

Mehfil–This album has three recordings that span for nearly an hour. The songs are based on different ragas like ‘Todi’, ‘Piloo’ and ‘Bhairavi’.

Etched in Time– This album too has three songs and one among them is a Thumri. The other two songs are based on ragas like ‘Malkauns’ and ‘Bageshwari’.

Golden Heritage –This has songs sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan. The album has four recordings including a thumri and dadra.

Hindustani Classicals: Indian Classical Vocal Music –This album has 19 recordings, all sung by the maestro himself. This album is a treat to all music lovers as it covers many ragas including the likes of ‘Bhupali’, ‘Rageshri’, ‘Peelu’, ‘Kamod’ and ‘Paraj’ among many other ragas.

C.H. Atma

The legendary Indian singer C.H. Atma was born in 1923 in Hyderabad Sind (now called West Pakistan). He started singing as a hobby at college, one of his first jobs was a Radio Officer in an Airline, and little did he realize at the time that what started off as his hobby would one day become his career. C.H. Atma made his debut way back in 1945, with what is probably his best-known song even today "Preetam Aan Milo". The late Dalsukh Pancholi later gave him a chance to sing in his film "Nagina", it was in this film that he scored a big hit with the song "Roun Main Sagar Ke Kinare" under the music direction of Shankar and Jaikishan. After which he sang and acted in many films. He successfully developed a wide circle of admirers by his frequent performances, both India and abroad. The melodious deep and rich voice of the late C. H. Atma was ideally suited for geets, ghazals and also bhajans. C. H. Atma was the elder brother of the popular singer Chandru Atma.

The Golden Moments (C.H. Atma) – Aye Mere Dil (Audio CD)

Jagjit Singh

Jagjit Singh was an Indian classical singer, composer, and musician known during his lifetime as "The Ghazal King." After Ravi Shankar, he is considered one of post-colonial India's most important and recognizable artists, and certainly its best-selling due to his soundtracks and scores for film and television, and his musical interpretation of the works of poets. Including scores, he recorded over 60 albums during his lifetime. He is known not only for his ghazals and singing in several languages, but also for Indian light classical music, including thumri and bhajan.

Baat Niklegi Toh Phir (The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh)

He and his wife, ghazal singer Chitra Singh, came to prominence during the '70s and '80s and revived the style of traditional singing that had languished since the late '50s. Composing in the Bol-pradhan style (sung poetry and vocal improvisation over set musical arrangements), he used simple melodies and modes to accompany lyrics that were considered current and relevant to contemporary life. In 2011, before a concert with Ghulam Ali, Singh suffered a brain hemorrhage. He passed away on September 23. He was posthumously awarded the Rajasthan Ratnain 2013, the highest civilian award by the state government of Rajasthan. Google celebrated him with a home page doodle that same year. The popularity of Singh's music has only spread since his death. His recordings and compilations have been reissued numerous times throughout Europe and Asia.

Pankaj Udhas

Pankaj Udhas was introduced to ghazals and stage singing by his elder brother Manhar Udhas. He gave his maiden stage performance at the time of crisis during the Indian-Sino war. He sang the song "Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo". As a token of appreciation, somebody from the audience gave him Rs. 51. A few years later, he enrolled at the Sangeet Natya Academy, Rajkot and learned Tabla from there. After his training in Tabla was over, he began his training in classical singing under the watchful eyes of Master Navrang. After years of hard work, he finally got to sing in the film called "Kamna".

Hanuman Chalisa: Includes a Taveez Containing the Hanuman Chalisa (Audio CD)

Since his interest was in singing ghazals, he learned Urdu and spent a lot of time in the US and Canada and did various Ghazal concerts. His confidence was sky high when he returned. Upon his return, his debut Ghazal album called Aahat released in the year 1980. After which, he has released over 50 ghazal albums and all of them are well received. It is difficult though to pinpoint one but his album Mehak was arguably the biggest hit album of his career. This album’s songs Chupke Chupke Sakhiyo Se Wo, Mekhane Se Sharab Se and Yu Mere Khat Ka became a smash hit. His ghazals Na Kajre Ki Dhar, Jiye to Jiye and Mahia Teri Kasam are some notable mentions. As a ghazal singer, he himself appeared in films such as Saajan, Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi and Yeh Dillagi.

Abida Parveen

Abida Parveen is a Pakistani singer counted amongst the world's greatest mystic singers and one of the foremost exponents of Sufi music (Sufiana kalaam). The versatile singer is primarily a singer of ghazals and sings in several languages including Urdu, Sindhi, Saraiki, and Punjabi. Born into a family that boasts of a rich musical legacy, she was introduced to the world of Sufism and music at a young age. Her father recognized the potential his daughter possessed and personally trained her in music when she was young. She started singing when she was three and displayed such a deep love for music that her father decided to defy tradition and chose her as his musical heir over his two sons. She went on to receive her higher musical training from the music school which her father had founded and was also trained by the great Ustad Salamat Ali Khan of the ‘Sham Chorasia’ gharana. Initially she performed at Dargahs and Urs before embarking on a professional career with Radio Pakistan. She brought Sufi music to a new level and proceeded to become one of the best-known mystic singers not just in her native Pakistan, but throughout the world because of which she has been dubbed as the Uncrowned Empress of Sufi Music and Undisputed Sufi Queen. Her most famous songs are ‘Yaar ko Humne’ from the album ‘Raqs-e-Bismil’ and ‘Tere Ishq Nachaya’ which is a rendition of Bulleh Shah's poetry.

Sufi Queen (4 CD Pack)

Mukhtiyar Ali

Mukhtiyar Ali is a folk singer from Bikaner in Rajasthan. He was born in a small village called Pugal on the North West frontier of India and belongs to the semi-nomadic community of Mirasis, who have been the traditional carriers of the oral tradition of Sufiana Qalam in India. Mukhtiar blends the Rajasthani folk idiom with refined classicism to sing the poetry of Kabir, Mira and Sufi poets such as Bulleh Shah. Through the Kabir project, Mukhtiyar was spotted by world music circuits and made his international debut in July 2007. Since then, he has performed in Belgium, Sweden, China, Canada, Germany and France. He has also lent his voice to a few films including Tashan (2008), Bombay Summer (2008), Kathai (2010) and Delhi in a Day (2011).

Songs of Sufis: Live in Concert (MP3 Audio CD)


In the years before Partition the more realistic ghazals of the Progressive poets were enormously influential, and there have also been many 'filmi' ghazals composed for Bollywood movies. Nowadays most ghazals are either obscure and elite, printed in small poetry journals, or else simple, widely accessible, and often very popular. Prior to Ghalib’s unique intervention, Urdu Ghazal’s scope was a bit limited mainly concerned with love and hatred but Ghalib added an array of new dimensions of daily lives, though love still being the most important phenomenon.

Ghazal “Gayaki”, the art of singing or performing the ghazal in the Indian classical tradition, is very old. Singers like Ustad Barkat Ali and many other singers in the past used to practice it, but the lack of historical records make many names anonymous. It was with Begum Akhtar and later on Ustad Mehdi Hassan that classical rendering of Ghazals became popular in the masses. The categorization of ghazal singing as a form of “light classical” music is a misconception.

Modern mushairahs too are greatly changed: they tend to be publicly advertised performances, like concerts, held in large halls and presided over by popular emcees who adjust the recitations according to the mood of the audience. Women poets are also very popular nowadays, and fully participate; poems in newer genres are often recited as well. Modern mushairahs form a venue for the ghazal that mediates somewhat between the elite and the popular. And now, of course, 'ghazal' has also become the name of a genre of modern English poetry; a web search will readily turn up many sites. The classic 'Ghazal on Ghazals' by John Hollander is an enjoyable introduction; Peter Hook Sahib 'Alone' composes English ghazals that preserve the formal qualities and mood of the traditional genre unusually well.

References and Further Readings

A Treasury of Urdu Poetry by Faiz

‘'Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics by Frances W. Pritchett

‘Ghazal as World Literature I: Transformations of a Literary Genre’, by Geert Jan van Gelder

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