Ghazal, ghazaal and gazelle

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Mehr Afshan Farooqi

GHAZAAL in Arabic and Persian refers to a small, graceful, swift antelope with long ringed horns and black face markings. The beautiful, melting eyes of a doe are compared to the eyes of a beautiful woman. There is something mystical, magical and tragic about the gazelle:

Kharke hai paat bhi to laga baithta hai chot

Rum khurdah voh ghazaal bahut hai shikar dost

When a leaf flutters it gets wounded;

A terrified gazelle is easy prey

— Mir Taqi Mir

Although the ghazaal is an integral part of ghazal symbolism, somehow it never occurred to me to reflect on the obvious concordance between the two. Ahmed Ali in his path-breaking anthology of Urdu poetry, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (1973) has dramatically titled his introduction as The Cry of the Gazelle. Ali points to the symbiosis between the ghazal and ghazaal. The word ghazal could mean the agonized cry of the gazelle when it is cornered or mortally wounded (Ali; p.12). The ghazal as a genre is derived from the Arabic qasidah (ode). It originates in taghazzul, the opening verses of the qasidah in which the poet talks about his female lover. Eventually the ghazal got separated from the qasidah, and became a poem of its own. The theme of love in the ghazal evolved and expanded to encompass a spectrum from mystical to mundane. Ideas and ideals of love and beauty pervade the ghazal; beauty of the soul and the body. It makes use of analogies — the rose, cypress, dove, bulbul, moth and many more, to explore depths of emotion.

The quality that best describes the gazelle’s temperament is vahshat. Depending on the context, vahshat could mean: wilderness, desert, solitude, loneliness, dreariness, sadness, dread, fright, terror, desolateness, bewilderment, grief and much more. The delicate beauty, beguiling eyes, and more important, its elusiveness make the gazelle a foil for the beloved. Because the Urdu ghazal is a part of the Indo-Muslim literary tradition, the gazelle also embodies the mirg, the doe that is emblematic of the mystical quest of the human soul for union with God. The elusive doe is an enigma.

I have selected three verses from three great 18th century poets, Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), Sheikh Ghulam Hamdani Mushafi (1747-1784) and Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1780/81) that engage with the theme of the ghazaal and vahshat with a view to showing the subtleties of mazmun afrini or developing new facets of meaning within the parameters of the theme. My rendition is somewhat free because I wanted to capture the playfulness of the theme in English.

Hum giriftaron se vahshat hi kare hai voh ghazaal

Koi to batlao uske daam mein lane ki tarah

The gazelle runs away from us who are caught;

Somebody tell us how to catch it in our net!

— Mir Taqi Mir

Vahshat hai mere dil ko tu tadbir-e vasl kar

Paon mein us ghazaal ke zanjir-e vasl kar

I am beside myself — do something to meet!

Chain down that gazelle’s foot!

— Mushafi

Tar-e nigah mein uske kyun kar phanse na yeh dil

Ankhon ne jis ke lakhon vahshi ghazaal bandhe

She captured thousands of wild gazelles

With the nets of her eyes;

My heart had no chance!

— Sauda

In Mir’s masterful shair, the play is on captivity and captivation. The protagonists are captivated by the gazelle, but she runs away (vahshat) from them. The captivated want to capture the gazelle in their nets. In Mushafi’s shair, the poet-protagonist is complaining or bemoaning his despair (vahshat) on not being able to see the beloved/gazelle. He wants to capture the beloved/gazelle with the chain of love or union. Sauda’s shair brings out yet another facet. The beloved’s eyes are even more captivating than the gazelle’s. Her eyes have enraptured thousands of wild gazelles (vahshi), so the poet-protagonist’s heart is bound to be caught in the net of her gaze. All three shairs speak of vahshat in different ways but the overarching theme is love’s desperation. A point to be noted is the imagery in these verses. Sauda’s shair is my favourite because of the verbal magic compressed in two lines! Tar-e nigah is such an eloquent phrase that describes both the reach, power, as well the imaginary nets of the beloved’s gaze snaring enraptured prey.

Mustafa Zaidi writing more than a century after the above poets (1930-1970) continues the theme of the elusive gazelle:

Mehr-o vafa ke dasht navardo javab do

Tum ko bhi voh ghazaal mila ya nahin mila

Wanderers in the wilderness of love and loyalty, tell me!

Did you find that gazelle or not?

Zaidi’s shair addresses the mystique of the ghazaal. He speaks to and for generations of poets, lovers, seekers, hunters who have quested for the elusive, illusionary gazelle in the harsh, lonely wilderness of deserts. Just as the mystical gazelle’s quest exists in the virtual space of the mind, so does the cruel, arid wilderness of the seeker’s terrain concur in the seamless world of the ghazal. When I began work on the absorbing, stimulating poetry of Ghalib’s mustarad (not current) divan, many outstanding verses caught my eye. The first verse that I chose to begin my commentary with was one that spoke about the gazelle in a manner that only Ghalib can achieve:

Hun ba vahshat intizar avarah-e dasht-e khiyal

Ek safedi marti hai dur se chashm-e ghazal

Crazed with waiting, I roam the arid

wilderness of the mind in solitary anticipation;

The gazelle’s eye, a white speck in the distance

The desperate agony (vahshat) of waiting (intizar) has made the poet-protagonist-lover roam in the wilderness of imagination (dasht). The gazelle runs fast but the recitor of the poem has outdistanced the gazelle in the valley of imagination (dasht-e khiyal). The second line’s obscurity opens a number of interpretations. The speaker is so deep in the wilderness of imagination that the gazelle’s eye is reduced to a speck of white from a distance. The poetic conceit is that the gazelle runs away because it is vahshi, or wild, scared, shy, unsociable, untamed etc. The whites of the eyes become prominent when one rolls the eyes, a sign of distress or vahshat; madness if you will. Thus the gazelle and the speaker are both terrified, bewildered creatures. The speaker is running in a world of ideas. Ghalib has juxtaposed the two images: of thoughts running wild and the gazelle running wild.

The speaker’s world is so utterly lonely that only the whiteness of the gazelle’s eye can be seen glimmering in the distance. Safedi marna also means to see a spark at a distance. It can be compared to the spark of a new idea. The despair of waiting, vahshat intizar is an entirely new twist to the concept of vahshat in the ghazal. I will leave you with Mir, thinking of the beautiful, black-eyed gazelle:

Kya Mir-e dil shikastah bhi vahshi misal tha

Dunbalah gard chashm-e siyah-e ghazaal tha

Heart-broken Mir — how he was an example of wildness!

Running after the black eyed-gazelle

Mehr Afshan Farooqi , “Ghazal, ghazaal and gazelle,” in Dawn, June 28, 2015. Accessed on June 28, 2015, at:

The item above written by Mehr Afshan Farooqi and published in Dawn on June 28, 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 June 28, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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