Jatinder Yakhmi

Chasing the Covid Blues Away with Ghazals

Reading or writing ghazals can become a passion, though it gives relaxation and solace to the mind. To get over the current phase of melancholy during the Covid-19 pandemic, many admirers of this poetic form in the Indian sub-continent, and elsewhere, have taken to reading or listening to ghazals to keep their blues away.

A ghazal is a short poem comprising five or more rhyming couplets written in Urdu. Unlike any other format in poetry, the couplets in a ghazal may or may not have the same theme running in them. Woven around the central emotions of love and separation, the ghazal gained popularity amongst the elite, thanks to the patronage provided to it by the Mughals, the Nawabs of Awadh and some other dynasties of Northern India, and also due to the genius of the poets like Meer, Daag, Zauq, and Ghalib, who took ghazal-writing to great heights during the 19th century.

Composing a ghazal is an emotional experience. An even bigger challenge is to master the exact nuances of the words and their pronunciation (talafuz) before attempting to recite or sing it. Though by profession a scientist, I took to writing Urdu poetry as a hobby in 1995, and have published two books of my Urdu ghazals, titled Izhaar and Ehsaas in 2004 and 2014, respectively.

A ghazal can powerfully reflect the moods of the moment. Last year, during the strict lockdown conditions, I wrote: ‘Bandh rahiye apne ghar mein, ban gaye halaat aise; eik jarra hum sabhi ko de gaya ho maat jaise’ (Translated: ‘Situation has emerged such that we stay back in closed homes, because a tiny particle has defeated us all, as if’).

Then came the sharp surge of Covid-19 during April-May 2021, causing much loss of lives. The poet in me stirred up to compose a poem of patience, precautions and positivity addressed to a WA-group of about thirty former officemates, who are now 75, or above. I wrote:

‘Ab retire huye eik arsa hua, koi kissey suna, khilkhilate raho;

Khoob thi apne maazi ki rangeeniyan, yaad sab doston ko dilate raho;

Phone par hi sahi, saath unke raho, kuchh kaho, kuchh suno, gungunaate raho!’

Translated:                                                                                                                          (‘True, we retired quite a while ago, but all of us can recall happy anecdotes from our past and create some laughter; Keep reminding about some very colorful events of our past to all friends; Even if just on phone, keep company, say something, hear something, hum something!’)

Public rendition of ghazals was popularized in the modern times, initially, by singers like Begum Akhtar, K.L. Saigal and Talat Mahmood; and through recitation on stage by Ustad Mehdi Hassan, Ustad Ghulam Ali, and Abida Parveen.

Though no longer a medium of instruction for the majority of Indian school-going children, Urdu language has been sustained in India through a variety of other efforts. Among them, credit goes to Bollywood films for keeping it alive by its generous usage in lyrics and dialogues. To cite an example, the song ‘Chalo ek baar phir se’ (‘Let us once again’), penned by Sahir Ludhianvi for the 1961 Hindi film Gumrah, is a lyrical classic. The richness of dialogues in chaste Urdu in Mughal-e-Azam, the 1960 magnum opus, made an invaluable contribution to the popularity of Urdu among the masses. Dialogues in court scenes in Hindi films have largely been in rich Urdu phraseology. Posters continue to mention the name of each Bolywood film in three languages – Hindi, English and Urdu.

Hind Pocket Books published dozens of books of Urdu poetry during 1960-90, though in Devanagari script, for its vast readership. The 1988 TV serial ‘Mirza Ghalib’ brought the ghazal live to the drawing rooms of Indian homes. Finally, the website ‘REKHTA’, puts on record each and every poem or couplet ever published in Urdu! At the flick of a button, one can choose to read them at REKHTA in any of the three scripts – Persian, Devanagari, or Roman, for easy access. Both my above-mentioned books, too, have been uploaded on REKHTA*.

I maintain a circle of close friends who are fond of ghazals. The eldest in this group is MI, a Chemistry expert, now 81. He is an avid reader of Urdu poetry and keeps a large collection of books on it. During lockdowns, he has been reciting his favorite poems to me on phone. In turn, I have been reciting my own poems to him, to blow our Pandemic blues away.

Another very active member of this circle is CJ, a Systems Engineer, now 77. He is very resourceful on Urdu vocabulary and ghazals. To benefit from that, I have recited each of my poems, just after its completion, to seek his Islaah (suggestions). This continued during the Pandemic, like before, since 1995. CJ maintains his own blog. Making use of the leisure period during the lockdown, he published a book of his ghazals, ‘Poetical Meandering’, in August 2021. My favorite line from one of his ghazals in this book is: ‘Mera maazi hi mera haasil hai’ (‘My past reflects my achievements’).

A third member of this group is ML, a Materials Engineer, now 75, who is a regular listener of  old classic ghazals. During Covid-times his particular favorites have been the three, sung by Saigal for the 1946 film, Shah Jehan, which had music by Naushad:

    1. Gham diye Mustaqil, kitna nazuk hai dil’ (‘My very delicate heart is loaded with massive troubles’), written by Majrooh;
    2. Jab dil hi toot gaya, hum jee ke kya karenge’ (‘What should I live for, now with a broken heart’), also by Majrooh;
    3. Chah barbaad karegi hamein maloom na tha’ (‘Desires will ruin me, I didn’t know’), penned by Khumar Barabanqvi.

However, ML’s all-time favorite is Pandit Bhushan’s ghazal, ‘Aye qaatib e taqdeer mujhe itna bata de’ (‘Tell me, O writer of Destiny’), sung by Saigal for the 1944 film, My Sister, which had music by Pankaj Mullick.

Some other friends, too, swear by the pleasure they derive from listening repeatedly to: ‘Nukta Cheen Hai Gham e Dil’ (‘The troubles of my heart are so debatable’), the ghazal sung by Suraiya for the 1954 film, Mirza Ghalib; or, Talat singing ‘Aye mere dil kahin aur chal’ (‘O my heart, take me elsewhere’), written by Shailendra, with music by Shankar Jaikishan for the 1952 film, Daagh; or, the late Jagjit Singh – the ghazal king, singing ‘Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho’ (‘The way you are smiling excessively’), written by Kaifi Azmi, for the 1983 film, Arth.

In recent times, both Pankaj Udhaas and Jagjit Singh brought world-wide popularity to the ghazal by singing it on stages across the world. A ghazal can go straight to the hearts of audiences, when a singer sings every line, soulfully, rather every word with the right emotion. Pankaj Udhas is able to do that in a masterly manner. Each time when he sings ‘Chithhi ayee hai‘ (‘A letter has arrived’) from the 1986 film, Naam, on stage, many among the audiences are moved to tears, forgetting all their blues.

Note: The author has changed the names of his friends for privacy considerations.                  —————————————————————————————————————- *

About the Author
Prof. Dr. J.V. Yakhmi, FNASc, had a research career of 45 years at BARC, Mumbai. He authored 450 publications, and 10 books on magnetism, superconductivity, soft matter, Sensors and Organic Electronics, etc. Also published two poetry books and 52 popular articles in newspapers, including Medium. Delivered 425 Invited Lectures in reputed labs and at conferences. As Chairman, AEES, he ran 30 Schools /Junior Colleges across India for three years.
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