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« Watching Movies - II | Main | On Patriotism »

February 20, 2007


Interesting. I never quite developed a taste for qawwalis while I was in India, but should probably try listening to them again.

A few quibbles: romantic poetry is not considered "great", at least not in a literary sense. However, in lyric form, it is quite popular in India, just as it was in much of the world until quite recently - the Beatles were singing moony yet beautiful songs like "And I love her" until 1964.

Secondly, popular art forms owe most of their longevity to ease of enjoyment. This means that they have to be somewhat familiar and easy to understand. It is devilishly difficult to introduce complex thought when working within these constraints, though someone like Sahir Ludhianvi did succeed in doing it a few times.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with paunchy middle-aged, balding men liking romantic poetry. I should like to remind you that this is a group that we might soon be unwilling members of!

The appreciation might well be for the ornamentation (Alankar) and word play, not necessarily for the theme of the poetry. That apart, even if middle-aged, balding men did work themselves up into a lather about ethereal romances, it is an act of imagination that attempts to transcend their current circumstances - an act that deserves no more contempt than does your attempt (or mine) to connect with Greek philosophy.

It’s true that in ghazals and qawwalis, just the music (or familiarity) can make them worth listening. In this they are similar to more popular music like that of Kishore Kumar or Beatles. We routinely enjoy songs whose lyrics we do not understand at all, or which are nothing much to write home about.

However, unlike other popular forms, there is a particular emphasis on the meaning and appreciation of words in ghazals and qawwalis. Live performers often deliver them like poetry readings; people do wah wahs, translate them like poetry, etc.

I simply question the quality of a class of lyrics as one would question the quality of, say, a class of movies. Calling them puerile and mawkish is no more contemptuous than calling James Bond's antics corny and silly (and seeking cultural/developmental explanations for their popularity). We express such opinions all the time. I said why their lyrics didn’t work for me. I didn’t say that the opposite reaction is wrong. Hey, I think it's far worse to be patriotic than to enjoy mawkish romantic poetry. :)

One wonders if the mawk-o-rama of misty-eyed Indian Babbitts dreaming of the fairy child -- where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth; she waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! -- might benefit a bit from the history of the fairies.

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) (From Wiki.)

Hazrat Amir Khusro adapted the Persian forms into the North Indian heartland in the 13th century. Khusro gradually formed an intense association with Nizamuddin Aulia that Wendy Doniger's children like Jeffrey Kripal would say was in its essense homoerotic. This is the Nizam of the standard Qawwali. One visualizes a despondent Khusro hanging around the edges of the 'court' of Hazrat Nizamuddin, impeded from approaching the saint by ecstatic swooning disciples:

Namidanam chi manzil bood shab jaay ki man boodam
Baharsu raqs-e bismil bood shab jaay ki man boodam
Pari paikar nigaar-e sarw qadde laala rukhsare
Sarapa aafat-e dil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.

I wonder what was the place where I was last night,
All around were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony, where I was.
There was a fairy-like beloved with cypress-form and tulip-face,
Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers, where I was.

This erudite disquisition regarding the connection between the ghazal and fairies is backed up well even by the history of the Urdu ghazal in the 18th and 19th centuries - see the essay by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in the glossy volume "The Magnificent Mughals" (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).

Nevertheless, 20th century romantic lyrics in Urdu (and Hindi) have tended to stay away from homoerotic themes, with occasional exceptions like the song Baharon phool barsao, mera mehboob aaya hai rendered by the mellifluous Mohammad Rafi.

Regarding Shunya's comment about the emphasis on meaning and appreciation of words, I would still point out that one can appreciate the alankar (ornamentation) even if the theme is hackneyed, exaggerated or ridiculous. Here is an example (from the film Arzoo, 1965, lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri):

Ay phoolon ki rani, baharon ki malika, tera muskurana ghazab ho gaya
Na dil hosh mein hai, na hum hosh mein hain, nazar ka milana ghazab ho gaya
Yeh palkon ki chilman, uthakar girana, girakar uthana ghazab ho gaya

[ My pedestrian translation:

O queen of the flowers, empress of the spring, your smile is devastating
Neither my heart nor I are conscious, the meeting of eyes is devastating
Raising and lowering, lowering and raising these venetian blind eyelashes is devastating]

The true waah-waah comes at the inspired flipping of uthakar girana and girakar uthana. The theme of the song is, of course, ridiculous.

O guzzle lovers, here is one for you (some serious venetian blind action on display.) O those who seek Divine Love to fill every orifice, here's another.

vp: Are you sure the Baharon song is homoerotic? Any source you can point me to? It appears in a mainstream movie after all. The “aaya hai” need not be literally male in the same way “aayen hain” can refer to a kid in a somewhat flowery reference.

ds: Thanks for the history and the video links. Wonder what Mian Tansen would make of his descendants. The brothers have a lot more hair here than I thought they did.

No source for the claim that Baharon phool barsao, mera mehboob aaya hai is homoerotic other than recollections of rumor back from my college days.

The picturization of the song is clearly hetero, but (1) the deliberately odd choice of words and (2) the song being sung by Rafi instead of Lata were quoted as evidence when I first heard the claim.

Those college campus interpretations of Hindi film songs are an independent literary force by themselves! I remember some to this day - after decades. But it was always the boys who came up with the gems. I wonder why.

As for homoerotica in Arab / Persian / Turkish cultures, I have always wondered how it was reconciled with the Islamic prohibition against the practice of homosexuality. Although curiously enough, the description of heaven in the Quran includes the presence of smooth cheeked boys along with comely Houris.

Emperor Babur had openly pined for a boy and even written some verses to attest to his longings.

While attraction between men and boys has been historically tolerated in Islam, the trouble, curiously, begins with penetration. The Qur’an itself seems hostile to gay sex but what matters on the ground is the school of Islamic jurisprudence. The four main schools differ widely on the punishment and specific evidence required to prove gay liaisons (the multiple eyewitnesses clause is hard to satisfy, which also made it near impossible for women in some Muslim societies, including Pakistan until recently, to contest rape in court).

The penalties vary widely from country to country. Saudi Arabia’s official punishment for it is the death penalty though lighter punishment is common. Turkey officially is not far from EU standards. Check out this overview article for more on this topic.

Occassionally I scroll through your comprehensive Website.
Earlier this year (February) I sat at Qawvali Sufi concert in New delhi by visiting group from Pakistan/
That was my first introduction to it, well accepted by locals. too.

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New Book by Namit Arora

  • The Lottery of Birth reveals Namit Arora to be one of our finest critics. In a raucous public sphere marked by blame and recrimination, these essays announce a bracing sensibility, as compassionate as it is curious, intelligent and nuanced.” —Pankaj Mishra

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Namit wins 3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2011

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