Transmutations of the Qasida Form and Ghalib’s Qasida for Queen Victoria

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_6168I was first inspired to write a Qasida in English when I came across Lorca’s “Casida de la Rosa” while researching the history of Al Andalus for my book-length series of poems on Muslim Spain. I also knew of Qasida poems in Urdu. For Lorca, who was a native of Granada, Andalucia, and had fallen under the spell of Andalusi history, writing a “casida” was a way to enter an erased, haunting, vivifying past whose mystique and poetic sensibility he identified with and felt the urgency to express. Lorca’s work was produced at a time, when, according to a contemporary of Lorca’s, Europe was “suffering from a withering of the ability to desire.” A recurrent word in Lorca’s poetry is “quiero” or “I desire,” and in Bly’s words, Lorca “adopted old Arab forms to help entangle that union of desire and darkness, which the ancient Arabs loved so much.”

The qasida can certainly be seen as a poetic tradition with desire as its central theme. The classical Arabic qasida has fifty to a hundred lines with a fixed rhyming pattern. It is divided into three main thematic components and further divided into smaller units of certain fixed metaphors, which find nuances in the hands of the particular poet using the form. The primary metaphor that constitutes the qasida is that of being in sojourn, lost in the desert, in the pursuit of the loved one whose caravan always eludes the speaker. The journey, a figurative and literal subject of the qasida, may stand for desire. The different movements in the poem signify specific places along the journey that co-relate to the poet’s emotional journey: the origins of his desire, nostalgia for past campsites, intense passion for the absent beloved, the larger map of life, the pride he takes in his tribe/caravan, how he relates to the tribe of the beloved, so on. The tone of the subsections could be laudatory, melancholic or romantic, allowing even humor and light-hearted derision of other tribes in one of the sub-sections. The imagery often tends to be abstract or symbolic, relying on the traditional, complex network of metaphors. As the ancient form of qasida developed through the centuries and across cultures, poets adapted it to suit concerns relevant to them, as in the case of the Andalusi Arabic poets that Lorca emulates.

Considering the elaborate technical structure of the classical qasida, Lorca seems to have borrowed only a few elements, namely, the division into separate “movements,” the use of a refrain and a rhyming pattern. But even in Lorca’s much truncated and not too formal renditions, we can appreciate the authenticity with which he captures the mood of the classical qasida: the overarching sense of desire and longing, the deeply emotional struggle to name an absence.

While Lorca’s 20th century Spanish Qasida aimed to capture the dominant emotion of the original form, the preeminent Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib’s 19th century qasidas were drastically different in mood from the Arabic original but much closer in form to the classical qasida. Here I’d like to trace, briefly, the transmutations of the form that affected its thematic conventions by the time Ghalib wrote his qasidas.

The three main sections of the traditional Arabic qasida included a “nasib” or a nostalgically themed/toned opening, then a transition into a detailed, often dramatic description of the journey or “rahil,” and finally a conclusion expressing any of the following: “fakhr” (tribal pride), “hija” (satire aimed at rival tribes), or “hikaam” (a moral message). As Arabic spread throughout the Islamic empire, the qasida moved on from being an oral poem delivered at campsites for an audience of tribesmen, and became a popular form of court poetry. But the version that made the biggest impact across different Islamic cultures was not the secular but the sacred qasidas— most notable among these is the Qasida Burda or the “Ode of the Mantle” by Busiri.

As part of the Islamic civilization, Persian was the first language to absorb the qasida into its own literary tradition. The Bedouin themes were no longer relevant in this transmutation— the Persian qasidas celebrated, instead, the beauty of the beloved, the local landscape and seasons. Persian masters wrote panegyrics in the qasida form as well as philosophical or mystical poems. Rumi’s Sufi qasida for Hazrat Ali is among the well-known ones, and like Busiri’s qasida for the prophet, is still sung across Muslim cultures.

The qasida made its way into the Indian subcontinent through Persian, and Urdu. As a South Asian hybrid language, made up of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindavi, Urdu took root in the courts of 13th century Muslim emperors of India. Urdu incorporates, quite naturally, the poetic idiom and sensibility of the Persio-Arabic poetic tradition. Poets belonging to the Muslim tradition of India, wrote in Persian with as much facility as in Urdu. Amir Khusrao, a court poet and a renaissance man to whom the origin of Urdu poetry is attributed, wrote qasidas in the classical Persian style. In the centuries that followed, the qasida went through a series of transmutations in the Urdu/Persian tradition and by the time India’s most renowned poet Mirza Ghalib wrote his “Qasida” in Persian for Queen Victoria, the poetic form had been in use in Mughal India as a panegyric, a classically-toned poem of praise, typically in honor of patrons who were royals or aristocrats.

As a highly stylized gesture of appreciation, or petition, the Indian qasida was taken as no more than a courtly panegyric: ornamental, glorifying, with much sophistry and no soul, a stunt for wordsmiths. It is true that many poets established genuine relationships with their patrons but the rhetoric of the love and reverence they declared in their qasida poems still seems far-fetched, and ultimately, false. These otherwise quite magnificent poets of Urdu’s golden age, it seems, perceived the qasida form not as flattery but as currency— any poet of value had to have a patron, and patrons expected to be praised in formal verse.

Ghalib, whose genius imbued his every poetic phrase with a unique elegance, wrote qasidas of great technical and aesthetic merit for various princes without whose patronage Urdu’s literary renaissance would not have been possible. Ironically, the downfall of the Mughal empire coincided with this period of great literary florescence, one in which Bahadur Shah (the emperor of Mughal India and Ghalib’s pupil) himself took part as an esteemed poet. When the British Raj annexed princely states, princes as well as poets were left without money or titles. Ghalib, a nobleman by birth had no livelihood other than funding from the Mughal coffers. Indigent and desperate after losing his pension, he wrote a Persian qasida for queen Victoria. In Dalrymple’s words: “After a brief introduction praising the Queen as “splendid as the stars” and flattering the general as “magnificent as Alexander”, “splendid as Faridun,” Ghalib quickly moved on to the main business, namely reminding the Queen of the long-established convention that sovereigns should support the poets of their dominions in return for being immortalized in verse—” What sounds hackneyed, transparent flattery in translation (as Dalrymple suggests) was a poem of sonic grace whose aesthetics were obviously lost on the British monarch and whose cultural and traditional context seems to have been ignored in this historical moment. Ghalib’s attempt turned out to be futile. The queen did not respond.

This qasida, elaborate as it is, is said to be a minimal reworking of another qasida Ghalib had written in the past. He had invested very little in this project— times were hard, Ghalib was acutely aware of the chasm between the British culture and his own, and had little hope for patronage, and much pride in his art. Despite having to live in a dilapidated house, enduring the death of all seven of his children in infancy, despite the struggle and the queen’s snub, Ghalib went on to become the greatest poet the Indian subcontinent has known. But the classical, courtly qasida, as we know it, was dying.

Another transmutation of the qasida, a radically divergent one in theme and diction but true to the original in structure, was to take place a few decades later. Hali, a younger peer of Ghalib’s, would come up with a manifesto that served to modernize Urdu poetics by favoring a plainspoken idiom that was free of hyperbole and rang true. Hali’s poetic ideals of a more forthright approach was tied to a movement that aimed to bridge the gap created by mistrust and a less than congenial relationship between the Muslim populace of India and the British Raj. This movement, which eventually became a call for independence, was built around establishing communication, cultural and political, with the British, in a manner that reflected the allegiance and genuine appreciation by Indian Muslims, as well as highlighted the Indian Muslim heritage and cultural identity. It was a plan to try to meet half way with the new imperial order. Hali’s Urdu qasida, modeled after the classical Persian qasida, was presented to Queen Victoria in 1887 on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. In this poem, According to Christopher Shackle: “After a brief opening, the jubilee is exalted over the Iranian festival of Sada, said to have been instituted by Jamshid to celebrate the discovery of fire. The third part of the introduction (or “tamheed”) is devoted to a sober enumeration of the colonial regime’s achievements in social policy. Exercising some poetic license to include measures instituted before the start of Victoria’s reign as queen.” This list included, among other things, the abolition of slavery, the education of girls, the prevention of cruelty to animals and the suppression of sutti or the Hindu tradition of widows burning themselves alive in the funeral pyre of their husbands.

Hali’s qasida had diplomacy as its driving force. It was a gesture of goodwill towards the British Empire, a pledge of allegiance of sorts, but also a celebration of a time-honored poetic tradition that he presented with pride. As a qasida, this poem adheres to tradition insofar as structure is concerned but by relaxing the idiom and anchoring the content in the here and now, Hali modernizes the form to the extent possible. He successfully takes the cultural leap that Ghalib was not willing to take in the wake of the Mughal Empire’s collapse. Hali enumerates the reasons, in no abstract terms, why the empress or “Qaiser e Hind” is worthy of praise— and in doing so, he enables a traditional gesture to become an effectively symbolic modern gesture.

Though Ghalib genuinely appreciated certain aspects of modernity that the British stood for (especially advances in technology), a truth about his attitude on the secular qasida becomes apparent in his letter to the visionary Sir. Syed Ahmed Khan. To quote the scholar Syed Akbar Hyder:

“Ever the devotee of the prophet Muhammad and his family, Ghalib is careful not to forfeit his personal faith to the panegyrics for the new order.” Ghalib’s famously irreverent, edgy style notwithstanding, his genuine devotion to the prophet makes itself apparent in the qasidas that were authentic as praise poems. Considering this, and the artistic superiority of Hali’s qasidas for the prophet over his qasida for Victoria, it is easy to conclude that the secular qasida was outmoded because decorum, without a deeper passion to give it meaning, ultimately makes for lower quality poetry and that the desire and longing for the beloved, which was the spirit and the defining feature of the original qasida, endured for a reason.

In summary, while the centrality of desire for the absent beloved remained intact in the sacred qasida, the secular qasida proved to be more volatile and vulnerable to change through the form’s various transmutations.

When we consider laudatory poetry, the first question to crop up, at least for practicing poets such as myself is the question of intention. Ironically the word “qasida” means “intention”— that empowering factor that happens to be the opposite of “on demand praise,” such as a court panegyric or even the kind of poem America’s inaugural poet is asked to write for the Presidential inauguration ceremony.

Here are some questions to ponder: does the tradition of the court panegyric continue in our times in a different form? Is the poet laureate essentially a court poet who must not criticize the regime in any way, who must be willing to assume the voice of collective passion as in the case of poet laureate Billy Collins, who, in an interview, confesses his difficulty when he was commissioned by Congress to write a poem for 9/11, scheduled to be recited at a session convening in New York on the first anniversary of 9/11. As poet laureate, it was expected of him to write an on demand poem commemorating a national tragedy. Do we see this as modern? Do we see this as tribal? Finally, can we separate desire from praise?