Perhaps the identification of the ghazal with Urdu and Urdu, in turn, being (wrongly) identified with a religion is so complete that few stop to wonder what the ghazal is all about and what are the predominant concerns of ghazal singers and writers. From its earliest times, the ghazal has mirrored myriad concerns and moods. Of course there is the romantic ghazal with its time-honoured tropes of the shamaparwana-bulbul, but there is also the ghazal of protest and dissent. Wali Deccani (1667-1707) may well have written the `manifesto’ for future generations of ghazal writers when he wrote: Raahe mazmoon-e taaza band nahinTa qayamat khula hai baab-e sukhan (The path of new themes is not closedThe gate of languages shall remain open till doomsday).
When Nawab Siraj-ud-daula of Awadh was killed by the British in the Battle of Plassey (1757), his friend Raja Ram Narain Maozoon expressed his anguish thus: Ghazala tum to waaqif ho kaho majnun ke marne kiDiwana mar gaya aakhir ko virane pe kya guzri (O gazelles, you know. Tell us how Majnun diedThe mad lover died, but what happened to the wilderness).
Majnun became a metaphor for Siraj-ud-Daula‘s heroic resistance. With the decline of the Mughal empire, the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah, the inva sions by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the establishment of British control over Delhi in 1803 and later Awadh in 1856, in fact, with each fresh catastrophe, the ghazal writer evolved a vocabulary to express angst. Some favourite synonyms for the beloved -sitamgar, kafir, yaar -began to be used mockingly for the British.
It wasn’t just politics; it was also life and manners in all its complexity that interested the ghazal writer. Mir professed his disdain for organized religion when he said: Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ka poonchte kya ho un nay toQashqa khaincha dair mein baitha kab ka tark Islam kiya (Why do you ask of Mir’s religion and faith; for he has long since Drawn the mark on his forehead, sat in a temple and forsaken Islam).
In modern times, the ghazal writer found common cause with the major concerns of his times: nationalism, feminism, secularism, socialism, liberalism, pluralism in the years leading up to Independence, and thereafter embraced the nation-building project with vigour. Today , Hasrat Mohani‘s Inquilab Zindabad and Faiz Ahamd Faiz’s Bol are used by people fighting oppressive regimes across South Asia.
The Urdu poet has always had his finger on the popular pulse. The late Ahmad Faraz, the Pakistani poet, once narrated this anecdote to me. I was driving him to the Delhi airport, we were stuck in traffic and I was worried he might miss his flight. Faraz sahib, in his wry manner, told me how once he was very late for a flight. The airport staff, on the verge of refusing to let him board, looked at his passport closely, and asked: `Aap wohi hain … Ranjish hi sahi wale?’ Not only did Faraz sahib catch his flight but also had his excess baggage waved through.