“Saying” the Ghazal: Duende and Performing the Courtly Art of the Ghazal

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

ScreenHunter_357 Oct. 14 09.24

Mughal miniature showing a poetry reading, c. 1640-50

The ghazal entered my consciousness first as music (on Radio Pakistan or my parents’ LPs), accessible only through melody, beat, rhyme, refrain; the poem’s literary heft, of course, utterly lost on me. The ghazal was really a visceral stimulus in my pre-language existence and as such revealed itself as sad, cold, dim, energetic, red, blue or sweet depending on what emotion its sonic synthesis suggested. Later, when I studied the form in school, I was filled with the sense of awe that surrounds the Urdu ghazal in Pakistan.

The ghazal is distinguished as the most elevated of poetic forms, and considered to be the litmus test of a true poet. I learned about the Urdu ghazal’s formal constraints, and how, in the hands of the masters the form has been known to embody in the elegant brevity of a couplet, a vast range of subjects with depth and precision. All this talk was useful in understanding the craft and reach of the ghazal but it created a chasm of sorts and cut me off from my earliest response to the ghazal—hearing in the ghazal a color or temperature of emotion, and falling under its spell. This loss of connection with the spirit of the form became apparent to me after writing and teaching the ghazal in English and reading the Spanish poet Lorca’s lectures on the Duende.

Before I discuss the ghazal and the duende, here is a brief history of the ghazal and how we have come to know and utilize it in English: The ghazal form originated in pre-Islamic, pre-literate Arabia, spreading across parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, soon after the Muslim conquests of these regions. The Persians cultivated and refined this form to the extent that it became a defining feature of Persian poetics and was further transmitted to many other literary traditions, including that of Urdu. The Urdu ghazal took root in the court of the Sultanate of Dehli in the thirteenth century. The foremost ghazal poet Amir Khusrau was a famed scholar, Sufi mystic and musician, and was a poet in the court through the rule of seven emperors of Muslim India. His Persian and Hindavi (early dialect of Urdu) ghazals would later have a significant influence on the Urdu ghazal.

While it was the Persian ghazal that inspired Goethe’s German ghazalen, the Arabic ghazal of Al Andalus (Muslim Spain) that inspired Lorca’s twentieth century Spanish gacelas, the ghazal in the USA was inspired by the Urdu ghazals of Ghalib. A literary critic by the name of Aijaz Ahmed involved a few American poets in doing literary translations of the ghazal master Ghalib. After participating in this project, Adrienne Rich wrote the first sequence of original American adaptations of the form and published them in her book Leaflets (1969). In the nineties, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali rejected these and the rest of the earliest American ghazals as inauthentic. These adaptations, he claimed, were too loose and did not capture the unique effects of the ghazal form. He re-introduced and promoted the form with all its stringent rules. The ghazal, complete with qafia(rhyme), radif (refrain), and the “signature” or poet’s self-address in the maqta (closing couplet) has now become an established, some might even say popular, American form.

Writing and teaching the ghazal in English, I have tried to pinpoint the reasons why the American ghazal often misses the mark despite being true to the template. I found a possible explanation in Lorca’s theory of the duende. There are many parallels between how the ghazal operates and Lorca’s notion of the centrality of the duende in different art forms.

“Duende,” a term coined by Lorca, comes from “duen de casa” (master of the house) which refers to a mischievous, sometimes demonic spirit in Spanish lore. It is a playful energy and operates on actively agitating the prevailing order. There is freshness and life in the way it provokes and produces chaos out of order, thereby creating the effect of surprise, and through surprise, a new perspective. Lorca’s duende, therefore, is the spirit that makes art come alive; it spontaneously ignites the fire of the imagination in the artist as well as the recipient while the art is in the process of being performed.

In explaining duende and its universality, Lorca mentions poets, musicians and painters from various cultures, and quotes Goethe in his lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende” on what in his view may be Goethe’s version of duende—in Goethe’s words: “A mysterious power which everyone senses but no philosopher explains.”

Duende, Lorca says, is a power, not a work, it is a struggle, not a thought. He emphasizes that it is not an angel or a muse because the angel and the muse are outside forces: “the angel gives light and the muse gives forms”—he calls duende “the marrow of forms,” the “energy of the earth,” something in the “blood,” something that travels up “from the soles of the feet.” Indeed, Lorca concentrated on flamenco and cante jondo or “deep song” of the gypsies, as prime manifestations of duende.

Lorca says one must reject the muse and the angel and devote one’s energies into fighting the duende by “dueling against it along the rim of a well.” This desperate struggle between life and death gives birth to true art. Only when an artist conquers duende, is the spirit enabled to generate original, unforgettable art and the audience is utterly overcome the moment that art is expressed. True art’s ultimate test, therefore, is whether the audience experiences the force of duende or not. Is the audience rapt, transported, entranced, impassioned or only mildly affected; moved to the point of outburst, or indifferent?

This sense of nowness, the in-the-moment submission to passion that imbues the notion of duende is a significant characteristic of the ghazal as well. Ralph Russell points out that in Urdu, the verb used for “creating a ghazal” is “saying” rather than “writing.” Audience response is all-important— a driving force behind the writing.

The ghazal comes from a tradition of performance; it is a highly interactive art, the mushaira (poetry reading) being central in the life of the poem. The audience actively participates as a ghazal is recited, repeating the first verse of each couplet with an outburst of “wah! Subhanallah!” (or my favorite: “kya baat hai!”). Sometimes there is a shout of “mukarar irshaad” or encore! Just as the radif or refrain is the signifier of the climax, the crowd being moved to join the poet as he delivers the radif, signifies the success of the ghazal. All sonic effects, including wordplay, count heavily as a ghazal unfolds for a live audience. The poet, it seems, is deeply aware of this as he or she pens the ghazal; the ghazal must “perform” on the page; its emotive, argumentative power being akin to that of classical tragedy, an art with high stakes, or in Lorcan terms: a duel along the rim of a well.

Cante jondo or “deep song,” which is emblematic of duende is described as a “song of pain” or a song of deep emotion, boundless ecstasy or melancholy, song of genuine passion. The ghazal is defined as a poem of lyrical intensity, a poem that allows in its form divergence from continuous thought, a form that coaxes an outburst by means of brevity and climactic surprise. A ghazal couplet blossoms as a sudden miracle in the same way as Lorca describes the miraculous power of the duende.

And like Flemenco, the other art form praised by Lorca for its duende, the ghazal “does not proceed by undulation but by leaps.” The continuity of the ghazal is produced by the sonic hinge of the radif which holds together the apparently disjointed thought/emotion structure. In other words, the ghazal proceeds by thematic leaps that are joined by means of exciting the imagination through memory and association, and most importantly, through the music of qafia and radif.

Because the ghazal listener anticipates disparate themes to be connected through rhyme and refrain, the excitement builds as the first verse joins the second verse of the couplet. It is as if the poet and the audience happen upon the elegant solution, the missing piece of the puzzle together. The variety and looseness of theme is balanced by the precision of meter and rhyme and the result is the ecstasy of discovery that the poet and the listener experience simultaneously.

Cultivated primarily in the royal courts of the Sultanate and Mughal periods, the ghazal maintains a certain high brow quality and sophistication even today. However, owing to its elasticity in theme and propensity for paradox, the ghazal has always been able to absorb primal, mystic subjects or the folk culture. Amir Khusrao’s thirteenth century Sufi ghazals were popular in the court as well as the street. They were sung to ragas, recited by scholars and mystics alike, and are still performed on radio and television. The duende too, comes from the earth spirit—it is a folk energy, a force, Lorca maintained, much stronger than what constitutes high- brow classics, the arts of the ivory tower. The ghazal, in its form and spirit, forges an affinity between high- and low-brow concerns, between the sacred and the profane, the intellectual and spiritual—it is a deeply human art, one that is open to many ways of connecting the dots, and it does so with audience participation.

Some of our American ghazals that adhere perfectly to the form are nonetheless lacking in spirit, and in my view, do not come across as ghazals at all. The fact that emotiveness is at the center of this art, as in cante jondo (Lorca calls emotiveness “deep song’s most striking trait”), and that the ghazal is quintessentially a performance, has been lost or ignored in its transmutation from Urdu to English. Ghazals in English that are true to the original are the ones that elicit a duende-like response from the audience because they seem to have been “said” with a sparkling immediacy, seem to have been arrived at after a process akin to Lorca’s description of the artist being “possessed” by duende, thereby successfully casting a spell on the audience. True to the form, in letter and spirit, are some of my favorite ghazals by Eleanor Wilner, Agha Shahid Ali and Grace Schulman, among others. A few couplets from Wilner’s ghazal:

Risk it? What after all, have you got to lose?

With a time-honored form, you ought to lose.

The gambling fever rises: the wheel, a dervish spins.

Temp fate. You feel too hot to lose.

Is it the Beloved’s dear form, glimpsed in the crowd?

What the heart most desires, you’re taught, to lose.

In all transparent modesty, you drop your name.

For Eleanor is not a lot to lose.

A ghazal such as this one would do sensationally well at a mushaira, with the audience chiming in every time the couplet climaxes with the radif “to lose.” The same can be said for these ghazal verses by Agha Shahid Ali:

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities

multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—

I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?

This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

These ghazal verses are memorable for their poignancy and wit, but also for the emotive immediacy, the visceral response I felt to the ghazal in my early childhood: they come across as bright, bitter, green, playful or scintillating to the extent verbally possible—they carry duende, leaving an indelible impression on the spirit, leaving me with the urge to respond with “Wah!” in Urdu or “Ole!” in Spanish.