Hindusthani (Muslim) light classical music:
"the pride of Urdu Poetry": the "Ghazal"

Join me  in a small discovery of one of the loveliest art forms in Hindusthani music: the Ghazal.  It is however a fact that for non Urdu speaking/understanding people the poetical aspect/meaning of the ghazal will be completely lost.  Dealing with Ghazal requires  a knowledge of Urdu poetry and Hindusthani music traditions.  
Traditionally ghazal albums  don't even have a translation of the titles, let be of the full lyrics.  
Only the musical aspect of the item can have a attraction  to non-Urdu-understanding listeners, but this is than also a very charming and romantic item.


 Its first (poetical) appearance


The form of the ghazal can be retraced to CE 10th century Iran. It originated out of the Persian "qasida", a poem written in honour or praise of a high-ranking nobleman.  Ghazal, in origin  a Urdu 'poetry' got introduced  into the Indian Subcontinent around the 12th century CE by the Moghul invasion.  Although introduced in Northern India the ghazal established itself in Southern India (Deccan), particularly at the important courts of Golconda and Bijapur (after being seized  by the Moghuls).  By the 17th century CE a merging of Northern and Southern ghazal traditions took place.  The 18th and 19th century CE are to be taken as the blossoming, the "golden period" of ghazal with as centre: Delhi and Lucknow.  The word "ghazal" is derived from a Arabic root which means "to converse amorously with women.  This poetry had thus a sensual and erotic background. Being a Muslim art in origin it was influenced by the mystic themes of Sufi Muslim faith, where the beloved one is really God (Allah)  and the reciter yearns for union with Him.  The formal occasion for the recitation of ghazals was the "mushaira", 
a sort of intellectual-cosy-cultural gathering where poets were invited to recite their ghazals to a critical audience.


Its merging with music
Some technical aspects


By merging poetry with music the ghazal singer presents  not only a poem to his/her listeners,  but puts it even on a much higher artistic level by means of a total different medium, music. Through this music, whether he/she  composes it or not, he creates a personal identification with the poetical message, also by using visual expression - facial mimics and gestures. (Most of the ghazal singers play along with the typical handpumpet harmonium (a 19th century import) In order to be able to make hand gestures they temporarily release the pump, 
make a uplifting movement with the hand, then continue pumping...)

It is said that the composer Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) introduced the musical form of the ghazal  at the end of the 13th Century CE ( Common Era )
Amir Khusrau: , was a legendary poet and musician. He was court poet to at least eleven emperors. His compositions in Braj bhasa are widely acclaimed. He is also believed to be the father of the present khayal form and of the qawwali. 
Equally he is said to be the introducer of musical instruments like the sitar (1) and the dholak (2 )

(1) plucked string instrument used in Indian Sub-continental music using removable  frets and some 36 sympathetic strings, 
(its name comes from the Farsi: seh-tar - meaning "three stringed" as it had in early times)
(2) double-headed drum played with the fingers, used in qawwali and folk music.


Ghazal poetry is set to music in the form of six distinct musical forms identified
by their traditional occasion of performance.

These forms are:


1)    Taranna  ( secular ) - the chanting of poetry by poets at the mushaira.
2)    'classical' ghazal ( secular ) - sung at private meetings, the so called "Mehfil". ( Kacheri )
3)    Film or modern ghazal  ( secular ) - performed for film or cassette purpose.
4)    Salaam or nauha ( religious ) - a kind of hymn, chanted at 'majlis', mourning gathering. (  by Shi'a Muslims )
5)    Na't  ( religious ) - performed at "Milaad", gathering in praise of the Prophet. (by Sunni Muslims)
6)    Qawalli. ( religious ) - performed at the "Mehfil-e-Sama", gathering held to achieve mystical experience. (  by Sufi Muslims )

In these, one finds as in the habits of European classical music, both secular and the religious wings.
 The singing of ghazal however, only gained prominence in the 18th and 19th century at the courts of the rulers of Delhi, Lucknow and Rampur, where it was the preserve of the court dancing-girls and courtesans.
So, it is not difficult to imagine a 'very particular' social stigma associated with the singing or listening to  ghazal, also taken into account the censure of the orthodox Muslim society.




There was/is no uniform system confirming the use of classical rags.  A very short 'alaap styled' introduction is usually sung before the actual rendering of the ghazal.  This intro, according to the skills of the singer, mostly very much "loudly" appreciated ( wah, wah....).   Added instruments are: the handpumpet harmonium and the omnipresent tabla. To these all kind of other instruments may be added, ranging from few instruments to half a orchestra.  Some ghazals are written in classical raga's, others do not follow any specific mode 
(e.g. popular raga's: Tilak-Kamod, Khamaj,-(gara),Kafi, etc...).  Tala's ( time measures ) are usual short and clearly derived from folk music: dadra (6 beat), kaharvaa (8) and rupak (7)

One example of a ghazal musical structure:

"Ek Nagma Ek Dil " by composer Ghulam Ali ( Lahore )

fade out.


Its poetical classical composition

The Moghul emperors spread their language, a Persianized form of Hindi , into the "Lingua Franca" of the Subcontinent.  Typical for the Ghazal is the presentation of compound words which is tributary to original Persian models. Its principal feature is its binary composition: the ghazal is  composed of five or more independent couplets (Sher), each of which is a complete statement (message)  in itself, although formally and in mood, it is part of a whole poem whose verses are intertwined by a strict meter an rhyme scheme. (these are the combining factor Every single one of the amount of five or more couplets is named "Sher".  Every "sher"  has a 'statement' in its first line, which is answered in the second and concluding line.  The emotions in the ghazal are almost always expressed from male towards the female What made this poetry really popular was its merging  of eroticism, mysticism and philosophy.

A classical popular explication of ghazal could be:

- a distinctive species of romantic Subcontinental Muslim art, existing in traditional and modern versions.
-  a merge of two art traditions of Northern India:  Urdu poetry and Hindusthani "light" classical  music.  
Priority is given to the articulation and understanding of the poem while he music must serve to highlight the meaning  of a particular line or text.
-  consistent of 5 or more binary, semi-epigrammatic "sher's". ( = 2 lines  per Sher,  long, medium or short in size.)
-  constructed  by the rules of Matla, Maqta, Beher, Qafia, Radif.

1-MATLA :the first Sher in the ghazal must have "radif" in both its lines. 
This sher called "matla" of the ghazal also, usually, gives its name to the ghazal

2-MAQTA:  a ghazal composer ( called the Shayar ) has usually a "artist name" or "takhallus". 
This takhallus is included in the last sher 

3-BEHER: is the poetical "meter" of the ghazal. It can be considered as the length of the sher. 
Both lines in the sher must be of the same length/Beher

4-QAFIA:  this is the rhyming pattern which all the word before the "radif" must have. 

5-RADIF:  the second line of all sher's must end with the same word (s)

 When these items are merged with a suitable raga and tala,  
You get a very romantic, melancholically , beautiful mixture.


Its surviving into the 20th Century

The ghazal is included in a "devision" of  "light classical" music because of its merging with  folk and classical music, which, obviously,  makes it much lighter to "digest" than a average classical orthodox raga performance (Khayal or dhrupad styled).  In the 20h century we observe  several "kinds" of ghazals:
1-the 'classical' ghazal

This topic, in its poetical or musical appearance, is discussed above.

2-the 'film' ghazal ( roughly the 50's & 60's)

One of the earliest musical/poetic forms to be tackled by the over- popular Indian cinema was the ghazal, able to express the agonies and ecstasies of love.  This resulting in a heavy influence of Urdu language on Indian film music (a lot of composers/singers actually came from Pakistan - Karachi, hence the Urdu influence).
As the film industry borrowed Western themes and habits, the ghazal got a coat of western harmonies and rich orchestral colours. This almost annihilated the ghazals ability of improvising ( a well know ghazal composer from those days: Talat Mahmood ).  Album: ( none available to me )
3-the 'song' ghazals  ( roughly the 70's and onwards )

This kind of ghazal was a immediate success, partly owing to the disappearance of the more melodic film songs of the 50' and 60's in favour of a disco-oriented style presented by the fresh action-packed "massala movie".
Given the almost standard 3'-4' time limit for recordings the ghazal has to be presented in a concised form. So we get a very small introduction,  good memorable themes used as some kind of refrain, 
walking beat, and few elaboration's and variations.
So the ghazal with its slow tempo, wailing melodies and over-sentimental lyrics was first presented 
by Pakistani composers as:


Mehdi Hassan,
( know as Khan Sahib - now living in the USA)
Album: ( at present none available to me)

 Hans & pankaj udhas

Ghulam Ali ( Lahore )
Ghulam Ali's ghazals are really exuberant bursting of love and joy, quite a very "live" style.
Next to the lyrics also his music is rich and full of different flavours.
In November 97 I was so lucky to be able to perform some of his ghazals in Pakistan (see the pictures on the Pakistan Tour). 
Album: the excellent 1991 album "Nagma-e-Dil" ( I arranged several ghazals of this album for our Pakistani concert tour 97 ).

In their trail came a whole host of very successful Indian ghazal composers as:
Ghulam Ali performing with RHO

Pankaj Udhas ( Mumbai )
(his performing has a real "nobel" style, in many ways he sounds  like a true reincarnation of the typical "aristocratical performer"),
His voice truly "hovers" over the accompaniment in a most subtle way.

Album: "Be-Pardah" 1987, "Rubayee" 1990, "Aashiyan" 1992, "Paigham" 1990.....


Anup Jalota, ( Mumbai )
unfortunately I have no recordings or details about him, 
Album: (none available to me)

Jagjit Singh (old albums + Chitra) ( New Delhi )
( these last singers- since their separation- are no longer performing together ) Jagjit Singhs style is somehow more focussing on  poetry
with a certain neglecting of instrumental flavours. His music sounds deeply melancholic and promises little joy in life.

Album: J & Ch Singh: "The Latest" 1982, "Passions" 1987, "Live at Royal Albert Hall" 1988, "Desires" 1989.
Album: J. Singh "Visions" 1991, "Sajda" 1991, "Cry" 1992, "Cry for Cry" 1995...


Hariharan ( Mumbai )
A very good example of a more pop song stylized ghazal singer is the South-India born Hariharan.
( also known from the very successful 1996 pop album 'Colonial Cousins' - but that is another story )
His ghazals are surely bursting of life "pop" spirit.
Truly remarkable to hear someone from South-India so indulging in this Urdu genre.
Like Ghulam Ali he has also a beautiful balance between lyrics and music. 

He explores also different instrumental flavours.  Quite refreshing to hear, I must admit.
Album: "Sukoon" 1984, "Reflections" 1987, "Horizon" 1988,  "Dil ki Baat" 1990,"Hazir" 1992.......
( Lately ( 2002 ) I have not heard anymore ghazals released by him )