Urdu Poetry and the The Masnavi Tradition

By Asad ur Rahman

Urdu is a hybrid language that is based on the spoken languages of Northern India with a generous overlay of Arabic and Persian words. ‘Urdu’ is a Turkish word, which means a camp. When Muslims from Afghanistan and Central Asia invaded India in the 12th century and made it their home, Urdu language grew out of the necessity of communication between the new comers and the indigenous people. It follows many of the conventions of form and expression of those two languages. It is written from right to left like Arabic and Persian and in the same script. By the 18th century, Urdu became a well-developed language with a body of literature that consisted mainly of poetry.

Urdu poetry has a wide range of forms. The masnavi, for example, is a long narrative romantic poem like The Roman de la Rose of medieval Europe. A marsia is an elegiac poem that grieves over the death of an important person while a qasida, on the other hand, is a panegyric in praise of a king or a patron, usually written in a highly exaggerated style and diction. A na’at is a poem expressing the poet’s devotion to the Prophet of Islam. A rubai is a four-line poem on a specific theme like The Ruba’iat of Omar Khayyam.

Humorous and satirical poetry is also plentiful in Urdu. However, the most popular and important form of poetry is undoubtedly the ghazal. The ghazal is a love poem written in stanzas, consisting of two hemistitches called a sh’er. A ghazal may have seven or nine she’rs but each of them may be independent of the other in thought. One she’r may be about the pangs of separation and next about the impermanence of the world, while the one after that may express the undying devotion to the loved one—human or divine. Thus a ghazal is a collection of verses expressing the poet’s thoughts and emotions joined together by the rhyming end words. It allows the poet the freedom to move from topic to topic at will. The love expressed in the ghazal is idealized love in which the beloved is adored and worshipped like a goddess. It is like Palamon’s love for Emily in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and it is unlike Arcite’s love which is sensual and worldly.

In the 19th century, Urdu came under Western influence because of British dominance, and the British system of education it fostered. Thoughtful and enlightened people began to question the conventions and traditions of the old order. A powerful modernistic literary movement emerged in the 1930’s that sought to change the thought as well as forms of Urdu literature. Novels and short stories became very popular in this period. The new poets started writing in blank verse and free verse in order to break away from the restricted traditional forms. Through their work poets and writers of fiction tried to reform the prevalent social and political system. Using their writings as social commentary, some talked ardently about freedom from the British rule. The ghazal, however, has survived as the most popular form of poetry in spite of these radical changes. People still gather in large numbers to listen to poets read their poems for long hours, sometimes all night.

A gathering of poets is called a mushaira and it is a small, intimate social function. Traditionally, the poets and members of the audience sit on a carpet covered floor in horse-shoe formation. The leader is usually the most distinguished poet or the most respected scholar. The reading of the poems starts with the youngest or the least known poet. An oil lamp or lighted candle is placed before the poet to indicate that it is his or her turn to read and to provide better lighting for his reading. In ascending order, the poets read their poems until the candle came to the leader. If the leader is a poet, he will read his poem. If not, he will comment on the poems read that day. Then, he will announce the misra-e-tarha or the half line of poetry on the metrical pattern by which the poets will have to write their poems for the next meeting.

After the mushaira, a discussion often ensues about poetry and finer points of literary and artistic concerns. This, sometimes, causes differences of opinion that lead to controversies for weeks and months. The mushaira can also lead to jealousies and rivalries.

Nowadays, on the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, the mushaira has changed somewhat but is still as vibrant and intellectually stimulating as ever. Mushairas are held in cities all over the world where there are concentrations of Urdu speaking populations. Recent times have seen a proliferation of mushairas in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Most of the poets at these mushairas, interestingly enough, are not professional writers or academics. Some are bankers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, computer experts or belong to other professions, but continue with the tradition of the mushairas and a love for Urdu poetry more broadly.