Indo-Muslim culture, Urdu ghazal and Shanul Haq Haqqee

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Rauf Parekh

Dr Tara Chand, an Indian historian and archaeologist, had earned his DPhil from Oxford. In his book Influence of Islam on Indian culture, Tara Chand says: “The history of India which furnishes a striking illustration of the impact of many divergent cultures, which were gradually transformed by a process of mutual adjustment, surely needs the attention of a student of sociology and history who endeavours to understand interactions of human mind and effects of cultural contacts as presented in the customs, religion, literature and art of a people”.

A student of Urdu language and literature, such as this writer, too, needs to study certain aspects of the subcontinent’s history and culture to be able to see many linguistic and literary phenomena in perspective, such as the development of the Urdu language and its cultural nuances. Both local (Indian) and Muslim influences were the contributing factors in the emergence of a new language which was later called Urdu.

In the words of Tara Chand, “In the North Hindi, in the west Marathi and in the east Bengali develop into literary languages and Hindus and Muslims share in the glory of their achievements. Above all, a new linguistic synthesis takes place: the Muslim gives up his Turkish and Persian and adopts the speech of the Hindu.

He modifies it like his architecture and painting to his needs and thus evolves a new literary medium — Urdu. Again both Hindus and Musalmans adopt it as their own; and a curious phenomenon occurs: Hindi Bhasha is employed for one kind of literary expression, Urdu for another; and thus whenever the creative impulse of the Muslim or Hindu runs in one channel, he uses Hindi and when it drives him into the other he uses Urdu.”

I will not go into the arguments about Hindi-Urdu controversy that ends up at the question: “Which is older, Urdu or Hindi?” and whether or not Urdu is an offshoot of Khari Boli, which, in turn, leads to another controversy regarding whether Khari Boli is older than Urdu.

What I want to emphasise here is the fact that Urdu and Hindi share many a characteristic and there is a huge body of words, phrases, idioms, proverbs and metaphors that have specific cultural nuances as they owe their origin to the soil and peculiar culture of the subcontinent. No native speaker of Arabic, Persian or Turkish, no matter how learned, can have even a faintest clue about certain cultural nuances that Urdu has, unless they know Urdu, though words are written in Perso-Arabic script and often an Arab or Iranian would be able to read them. But Persian and Arabic words borrowed by Urdu often have connotations that are peculiar to the subcontinent and are commonly used both in Urdu and Hindi.

From here we can pick up another controversy: Urdu literature has largely ignored the depiction of local Indian milieu and is deeply steeped in Persian and middle-eastern cultural heritage. This common misconception is not limited to commoners but some scholars too have had similar views. Aziz Ahmed, for instance, wrote in his book Studies in Islamic Culture in Indian Environment that “he [Quli Qutb Shah] and Nazir Akberabadi constitute two great but rare exceptions to the general rule of the rejection of Indian life and landscape by Urdu poetry until the middle of the nineteenth century.”

On another occasion Aziz Ahmed in this book wrote “the only considerable north Indian poet before the middle of the nineteenth century who found colour, richness and rhythm in the Indian life and atmosphere, and who wrote about it without any inhibition, borrowing his vocabulary from all source, … was Nazir Akberabadi”(Oxford, 1970).

We can, of course, take exception to the assumption that the depiction of local subcontinental culture in Urdu poetry, especially composed before 19th century, is “rare exception”. Dr Gopi Chand Narang’s book Urdu ghazal aur Hindustani zehn-o-tehzeeb (Sang-i-Meel, 2005) is a testimony to the fact that Urdu poetry, whether composed in the north or south, has been replete with examples since very beginning that portray local or subcontinental culture.

Narang has proved that whether it is love themes or aesthetic ideas, religious ideas or socio-cultural notions, Urdu ghazal had been depicting the local colour all along, even in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. While Iranian and middle eastern cultural references abound in Urdu ghazal, the large number of metaphors, similes, idioms, allusions and proverbs that have been used by the poets of Urdu ghazal amply reflect the social and cultural background against which they were composed. However, one has to admit, this depiction has not been as frequent and as continuous as one would have wished. Urdu ghazal composed in the latter half of the 20th century, especially the Pakistani Urdu ghazal, certainly lacks in this respect.

When it comes to the 20th century ghazal poets of Urdu who have shown a distinct awareness towards recording local and subcontinental socio-cultural elements, Shanul Haq Haqqee (1917-2005) stands head and shoulder above the rest. His cultural background, early life in Delhi, education at Aligarh, profound knowledge of Hindi and Sanskrit and an innate interest in lexicography and wordsmithery put him in a unique position to lend a new mood and colour to Urdu ghazal. Haqqee’s collection of ghazals Taar-i-pairaahan (1958), Harf-e-dil ras (1981) and Dil ki zaban (1987) were well received in literary circles. Most of the critics have eulogised Haqqee’s ghazal for its freshness, individuality, contemporary sensitivity and a beautiful amalgamation of ghazal’s traditional mood with a new sense of modernity. Strangely enough, with modernism and a new lexicon, Haqqee’s ghazal can be bracketed with the romantic voices of Urdu poetry. A thinly veiled sense of gloominess gives Haqqee’s ghazal a melancholic tone.

Yet another characteristic that makes Haqqee’s ghazal unique is his mastery over words and his exploring the boundaries of lexicon. Though Haqqee’s experimentation with the words does not go to the height that now Zafar Iqbal’s poetry is known for, no lexicographer of Urdu can ever ignore Haqqee’s writings, especially his poetry, for its linguistic variety and richness is a virtual treasure-trove for linguists and wordsmiths.

Nava-i-saaz shikan, a new collection of Haqqee’s ghazals, has just been published by Lahore’s Ferozesons. It includes many famous ghazals of Haqqee that were published in the previous collections, but most of the ghazals are unpublished. Some of the ghazals serve as a perfect example of depiction of Indo-Muslim culture and a diction that reflects an elegant union of Urdu and Hindi.

Rauf Parekh, “Indo-Muslim culture, Urdu ghazal and Shanul Haq Haqqee,” in Dawn, April 6, 2015. Accessed on April 6, 2015, at:

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on April 6, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on April 6, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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