Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Life: Ghalib

I really feel I should acknowledge Mirza Ghalib's birth anniversary here after reading this tribute.

Here's a lesser-known couplet that has haunted me for a while. I have realized that one of the special qualities of Ghalib's couplets is that instead of losing their appeal on repeated reading and mulling over, their value is actually enhanced...every time a new door of meanings, insinuations and perspectives opens up on revisiting the same couplet.

Often, such a couplet becomes a prism through which one continues to see everything in life for days and days. Even his lesser-known couplets are packed with such rich poetic flavor:

Umr har chand ki hai barq-e-khiraam
Dil ke khoon karne ki fursat hi sahi.
[By Mirza Ghalib]

Life’s moments are but lightning flashes,
And yet suffice to slay the heart. [1]
[Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

[1] "dil ke khoon karne" literally means to 'turn the heart to blood', but the metaphor is lost on an English audience. I have used the direct meaning of "khoon karna" as ' to slay'.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Confession: An interpretation

[By Majaaz. Interpretive translation from the Urdu by Siyaah]

You come to me now – alas for what?

You are the visage of beauty, I deny not,
Of this garden of time, the very soul,
Dazzling as the sun, O youth of heavens,
Born of the moon, descended from worlds beyond

Yet to meet me now invites blame
My own deeds chastised me, to this end

Those days – of my fury unrestrained
A fury heedless of all but pleasures wild
A fury of love for burning moon embers
Of one-upmanship with the city’s men

My world was but a bed of roses,
A wonderful dream, of colors and beauty

What’s left to hear but wails of my youth, wounded
Pleas of my heart, complaints of my tears
My words drowned in agony deep
And I - a victim of my own cravings

That tender heart, long dead – how can I revive?
That innocent passion – where now can I find?

The poet's nom-de-plume, Majaaz, means "Metaphor" and also "Passing through".

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Aitraaf: Confession

Aitraaf: Confession
[By Majaaz]

Ab mere paas tum aayee ho to kya aayi ho
Maine maana ke tum ek paikar-e-raanaai ho
Chaman-e-dahr mein rooh-e-chaman-aaraai ho
Talat-e-mahr ho, firdaus ki barnaayi ho
Bint-e-mahtaab ho, gardoon se utar aayi ho

Mujhse milne mein ab andesha-e-ruswaai hai
Maine khud apne kiye ki ye sazaa paayi hai

Un dinon mujh pe qayamat ka junoon taari tha
Sar pe sarshaari-o-ishrat ka junoon taari tha
Maahpaaron se mohabbat ka junoon taari tha
Shahryaaron se raqaabat ka junoon taari tha

Bistar-e-makhmal-o-sanjaab thi duniya meri
Ek rangeen-o-haseen khwaab thi duniya meri

Kya sunogi meri majrooh jawaani ki pukaar
Meri faryaad-e-jigar-doz, mera naala-e-zaar
Shiddat-e-karb mein doobi hui meri guftaar
Main ke khud apne mazaaq-e-tarab-aageen ka shikaar

Wo gudaaz-e-dil-e-marhoom kahaan se laaun
Ab main wo jazba-e-maasoom kahaan se laaun

Asraar-ul-haq Majaaz (1911-1955) was born in Rudauli, Barabanki, near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. His poetic talent was noticeable even during his school days in Lucknow, where he befriended and was counseled by Jazbi. His college years were spent in Agra and Aligarh. Majaaz's later life is a subject of intrigue...depression and alcoholism played a major role in his premature death. He excelled in beautiful yet poignant expression, often centered around themes of unrequited love.

The above nazm is one of his most well known works...although the entire nazm is longer, I will attempt to translate the above parts. Jagjit has done some justice to it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I live...

I live at many levels
Flying high above Shanghai clouds
Firaq's earthen vernacular
Faiz's hope
Jazbi's despondency
All are me.

[By Siyaah/Black. Somewhere in Shanghai airspace, circa mid-2000's]

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Existential Dilemma: a translation

Existential Dilemma
[By Moin Ahsan Jazbi. Interpretive translation from the Urdu by Siyaah]

Why pray for death, why hope for life?
This world or the other- why desire either?

The fire that you lit- was doused by tears,
That which the tears have sparked, what will put out?

When the ship was safe and sound- who desired the shore,
Now, on this wreck- why desire it at all?

The world abandoned you Jazbi, why not abandon the world?
You've understood the world- why cry for it anymore?

The poet's nom-de-plume, Jazbi, means "one who absorbs / attracts".

The verses of this ghazal are ripe with idiomatic expressions. I have attempted to 'save the soul' and also kept it as literally close to the original as possible.

Update: As promised, here's a high quality recording of this ghazal rendered by Habib Wali. I noticed that this one is more classical, while the earlier one has more 'movie-song' type music:

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Duniya: Existential Dilemma

[By Moin Ahsan Jazbi]

Marne ki duaein kyun maangoon, jeene ki tamanna kaun kare,
Ye duniya ho ya wo duniya, ab khwahish-e-duniya kaun kare.

Jo aag lagayi thi tum ne, usko to bujhaaya ashkon ne,
Jo ashkon ne bhaRhkai hai, us aag ko thanda kaun kare.

Jab kashti saabit-o-saalim thi, saahil ki tamanna kisko thi,
Ab aisi shikasta kashti par, saahil ki tamanna kaun kare.

Duniya ne humein chhoRha Jazbi, hum chhoRh na dein kyun duniya ko,
Duniya ko samajh kar baithe hain, ab duniya duniya kaun kare.

Jazbi (1912-2005) was born in Azamgarh and had a long association with Aligarh, where he received his Ph.D. in Urdu and continued as an academic. He is counted among the most prominent 20th century Urdu poets. His most famous poetry is excessively morose and even deals directly with existential issues. The ghazal above, which I have titled "Duniya", is one of his most well known works, and is typical of his style - highly lyrical yet easily interwoven with the most difficult themes.

Listen here to a quaint rendition of the above ghazal by the lesser known but highly regarded, Habib Wali (the sound quality isn't all that great. I might upload from my collection later).

Saturday, October 28, 2006


[By Firaq Gorakhpuri. Translated from the Urdu by Siyaah]

Who has ever belonged to another for life? Still...
This beauty and love is all deception; but still...

A thousand times has the world traversed through here-
Something about your passage is new still.

A lifetime has gone by in avoiding your gaze-
The dagger has pierced through to life's artery still. [3]

[3] rag could literally mean vein or artery.
neshtar literally means lancet, but the meaning contained in 'dagger' is closer to the context.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Phir Bhi

Phir Bhi
[By Firaq Gorakhpuri]

Kisi ka yun to hua kaun umr bhar, phir bhi,
Ye husn-o-ishq to dhoka hai sab, magar phir bhi.

Hazaar baar zamaana idhar se guzra hai,
Nayi nayi si hai kuchh teri rahguzar phir bhi.

Teri nigaah se bachne mein umr guzari hai,
Utar gaya rag-e-jaan mein ye neshtar phir bhi.

I'm not aware if any prominent singer other than Jagjit (listen here) has sung this ghazal...though I wish there were more versions.

Raghupati Sahai Firaq (1896-1982) has a distinctive voice in many ways. He often used a mellifluous vernacular style based on the language spoken around his native region, Eastern Uttar Pradesh. The content of his poetry almost always borders on the melancholic, with night and darkness as repetitive metaphors and themes. The first couplet of his poem above reveals a rare cynicism with the more affable themes of ghazals...but it also suggests that he came to accept and live with his own disposition. Is it any surprise that I am drawn to his work...I'll render this into English verse soon...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Blackening

How many times have I laughed like hyenas,
with blood curdling silence clutching at my throat,
with the absorption of all,
and the absence of all,
at daggers drawn.

How many times mountains, seas, and plains,
have I crossed with my soul yearning for home,
with the blood in my veins,
and the words in my brain,
at daggers drawn.

How many times indeed have I,
looked back again and again to the skies,
with immunity, solitude, and isolation,
and life, the world, rejection and depression,
with what's left of my fingers recounting,
and the new look, in vain, again arising,
in this black ambience,
these black ages,
with black,
and black,
at daggers drawn.

[by Black/Siyaah, circa 1990's]

I initially thought I wouldn't put down any of my own experimental poetry here. Mostly because I don't write anymore...anything I have is quite a bit old. But I already snuck one or two verses past the net. Sometimes I like these bits and pieces from long ago a lot - they were part of a freer me - a more intrinsic, natural me. I am slowly losing these pieces, in more ways than one - from my own being, my memory and also in terms of hardcopies - not sure I have them all anywhere anymore.

These pieces are perhaps the more 'personal' side of my personal interaction with poetry in general, and Urdu poetry in particular, which influences me at many levels. My own experiments led me to appreciate the real masters better, and see the pinnacle where they stood.

I've thus noted a very personal work here. The title and content reveals my fascination with the metaphor of black and blackening that I later admired in the works of the Urdu masters. I should perhaps mention that it was around this time that I first adopted the nom-de-plume "Black".

Friday, October 13, 2006

Exile: a translation

Exile: Nahin Nigaah Mein Manzil
[By Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Interpretive translation from the Urdu by Siyaah]

Though the destination eludes sight- let the search be;
Though union defies attainment- let the longing be.

The body lacks blood, the eyes lack moisture-
Yet the prayer of desire is obligatory, without purity it may be. [2]

Let the gathering come alive somehow- O those of the tavern,
If not goblets of wine, let lightheartedness and laughter be.

If the wait is tough- then in the meantime, O heart,
On someone's promise of tomorrow - let conversation be. [4]

In this abode of strangers, if no confidant exists,
Faiz - let the invocation of homeland with yourself be. [5]

Translator's notes:

[2] Namaz: prayer - original word relates to ancient Persian form of worship. Be-wuzu: to not be in a state of ceremonial/physical preparedness for prayer. Wuzu literally refers to ablution preceding prayer.

[4] waada-e-fardaa: literally, promise of tommorrow. Fardaa also has implications of 'the day of the event', 'judgement day', 'day of resurrection'.

[5] Mehram: has many shades of meaning, including 'confidant', 'trustworthy friend', 'close relatives', 'spouse'. Zikr: has many shades of meaning, including 'mention', 'remember', and 'invoke' (often in a spiritual sense).

I have taken the liberty of titling these couplets "Exile", as a mood of exile and deprivation permeates the poem. The last couplet, which had prompted an earlier post, reveals it clearly.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nahin Nigaah Mein Manzil: Faiz

Following my earlier post and the interesting comments it invoked about Faiz, I must do justice to him and showcase the full ghazal here.

Nahin Nigaah Mein Manzil
[By Faiz Ahmed Faiz]

Nahin nigaah mein manzil to justujoo hi sahi,
Nahin visaal mayassar to aarzoo hi sahi.

Na tan mein khoon faraaham na ashq aankhon mein,
Namaaz-e-shauq to waajib hai, be-wuzu hi sahi.

Kisi tarah to jame bazm maikade waalon,
Nahin jo baada-o-saaghar, to haa-o-huu hi sahi.

Gar intezaar kathin hai to jab talak ai dil,
Kisi ke waada-e-fardaa ki guftgoo hi sahi.

Dayaar-e-ghair mein mehram agar nahin koi,
To Faiz zikr-e-watan apne ru-ba-ru hi sahi.

Listen to it here in Abida's voice.

Will attempt an interpretive translation into English soon...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Urdu Rap...anyone?

Okay, I am stepping a bit out of character here to note something interesting that I stumbled upon: yes, rapping in Urdu. The group is Outlandish, and the person is Waqas Ali Qadri. Am still wondering what to make of this...a somewhat 'outlandish' yet contemporary expression form in Urdu...? The urdu comes in towards the end of the song.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Why Write?

"I have been one of the fortunate ones of the Earth,
Having gazed upon Beauty and Truth all my days,
And I had no need to think or to write concerning them,
But when Beauty and Truth were withdrawn from me,
I found I could no longer live without them,
But I was obliged to keep them ever by my side,
I therefore wrote of them,
and to write I thought of them,
And by thinking kept them with me and they stayed.
[by Stanley de Vere Alexander Julius, "The Poem of a Prisoner of War, 1917"]

If all we have is human experience, what can we do with it? We hold on to and communicate these experiences...through language. Humans are drawn to strings of words...that are ultimately the vehicles for communicating our experiences.

Interestingly, the recreation and communication of experience often reaches its zenith when immediate outlets are few. Is it any surprise that some of the most moving poetic expressions were created in incarceration. Faiz comes to mind:

"Dayaar-e-ghair mein mehram agar nahin koi,
To Faiz zikr-e-watan apne ru-ba-ru hi sahi."

Incarcerations though could also be of the mind, and not necessarily behind physical iron cages. Firaq's lifelong search for beauty outside his immediate life and the recurring portrayal of "night" and "darkness" as themes in his verses come to mind:

"Ghazal ka saaz uthao badi udaas hai raat,
Nawaa-e-Meer sunao badi udaas hai raat."
[Listen to it sung beautifully by Jagjit here]

I'll explore the entire ghazals related to these Urdu verses soon...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

More Than You: a translation

More Than You
[By Majrooh Sultanpuri. Translated from the Urdu by Siyaah]

Dare you teach us of fury? - we were distressed more than you.
We had our collars slashed through, O friends- way more than you.

The slashed-through heart needs patches- today the garments are but blood,
A season there was when we did yearn, for spring more than you.

To scale the peaks of loyalty with friends, to cater to whims of associates with smiles:
Then we had such desires as you do - now are we disgraced more than you.

Go - for the sake of your terrace, slice all flames off lighted candles-
The gifts and crescent of our wounds suffice- our celebrations alight more than you.

It is we who were slain always, and you who watched always from afar-
Think not however that we have suffered, a loss of life more than you.

Chains and walls is all you saw- Majrooh, and yet we:
See the world in a state of captivity more than you.

The poet's nom-de-plume Majrooh means "Wounded".

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tumse Ziyaada: More Than You

Hum ko junoon kya sikhlaate ho, hum the pareshaan tum se ziyaada,
Chaak kiye hain humnein azizon, chaar gerehbaan tumse ziyaada.

Chaak-e-jigar mohtaaj-e-rafoo hai, aaj to daaman sirf lahoo hai,
Ek mausam tha hum ko rahaa hai shauq-e-bahaaraan tumse ziyaada.

Ahd-e-wafaa yaaron se nibhaaen, naaz-e-hareefaan hans ke uthaaen,
Tab humein armaan tum se siwaa tha, ab hain pashemaan tumse ziyaada.

Jaao tum apne baam ki khaatir, saari lauwen shamon ki katar lo,
Zakhm ke mahar-o-maah salaamat, jashn-e-chiraaghaan tumse ziyaada.

Hum bhi hameshaa qatl hue, aur tumne bhi dekha door se lekin,
Ye na samajhnaa hum ko hua hai jaan ka nukhsaan tumse ziyaada.

Zanjeer-o-deewaar hi dekhi tumne to Majrooh, magar hum:
Kucha kucha dekh rahe hain aalam-e-zindaan tumse ziyaada.

While on the subject of Junoon in my last couple of posts, I stumbled upon this one, by (surprise!) Majrooh Sultanpuri. Majrooh is better known for his happy-go-lucky lyrics for movies, though his roots were in 'serious' poetry at which he excelled as well. His live rendition of the above is really grows on you once you've heard it a couple of times. It sounds as though this was recorded towards the later part of his life...the nostalgic content of the ghazal "More than you" suggests that as well.


Am eager to get down to translating this one soon...

Friday, September 22, 2006

O Frenzy: A Translation

O Frenzy: Ae Junoon
[By Suroor Barabankvi. Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

O Frenzy- reveal somewhat, at what destination am I?
In the lover's protective neighborhood, or in the killer's lair am I?

With shackled feet, carrying my cross on my shoulders,
I am the emissary of truth, but enclosed by falsehood am I.

Imagining celebrations at tomorrow's resurrection keeps this blood circulating,
I am in the present, but alive in my future am I.

Struck breathless I am by this vision of the gallows,
I am the slain, but in the ranks of the slayers am I.

He, from whom I have been estranged for ages-
Face to face with him today, and in a crowded gathering am I.


For this ghazal, I've tried to keep the rhyme of the original in English. Suroor Barabankvi's lines are very lyrical yet filled with sophisticated imagery and meanings. His takhallus, "Suroor" means exhilatration, often implying a state of 'making glad' such as that caused through inebriation.

I've always felt that this ghazal of his deserves more regard than it seems to have got...I quite enjoyed translating it. Unlike traditional ghazals, there seems to be more of a theme across all the couplets...depending on one's interpretations. For example, in the last couplet, the 'he' (which is really gender neutral in Urdu) could simply be another person / beloved...but I think it could also be the poet himself, or even a divine 'He'. The last interpretation is interesting in line with other couplets where Christ-like situations are described.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ae Junoon Kuchh To Khule: O Frenzy

Ae junoon kuchh to khule aakhir main kis manzil mein hoon
Hoon jawaar-e-yaar mein ya koocha-e-qaatil mein hoon.[1]

Paabajola apne shaanon par liye apni saleeb,
Main safeer-e-haq hoon lekin nargha-e-baatil mein hoon. [2]

Jashn-e-fardaa ke tasavvur se lahoo gardish mein hai,
Haal mein hoon aur zinda apne mustaqbil mein hoon. [3]

Dum bakhud hoon ab sare maqtal ye manzar dekh kar,
Main ke khud maqtool hoon lekin saf-e-qaatil mein hoon. [4]

Ek zamaana ho gaya bichhre hue jis se Suroor,
Aaj usi ke saamne hoon aur bhari mehfil mein hoon.

[1] jawaar-e-yaar: in neighborhood of / under protection of friend or lover.
koocha-e-qaatil: residence of killer

[2] shaanon: shoulders; saleeb: crucifix / cross
safeer-e-haq: ambassador of righteousness / truth
nargha-e-baatil: nargha: assembly / rank / circle formed by hunters for enclosing game. baatil: falsehood / evil

[3] jashn-e-fardaa: celebration of tomorrow / day of resurrection
tassavvur: imagination; lahoo: blood; gardish: circulation
haal: present; mustaqbil: future

[4] dum bakhud: without breath; maqtal: place of slaughter / execution
maqtool: executed person; saf-e-qaatil: assembly / rank of killer

Listen to the poet himself, Suroor Barabankvi (1930-1980), reciting this ghazal in a live mushairaa with accompanying applause (click the last link on the page).

I'll atttempt to render the entire ghazal in English verse soon...

Monday, September 18, 2006

"Understanding Everything"

Ai murgh-e-sahar ishq ze parwaaneh biyaamoz
Kaan sookht raa jaan shud wa aawaaz nayaamad.
Aain maddayaan dar talbash be-khabar-aanand
Kaan raa keh khabar shud khabari baaz nayaamad.
[From Gulistaan by Saadi Shiraazi, 13th century Persian poet]

O bird of the morning, learn love from the moth,
Because it burnt, lost its life, and found no voice.
These pretenders are ignorantly in search of Him,
Because he who obtained knowledge has not returned.
[Translated from the Persian by Edward Rehatsek]


Aql ke madarse se uth,
ishq ke mai'kade mein aa,
ab to piyaa jo ho so ho.
[by Hazrat Shah Niaz]

Arise from these seminaries of intellect and analysis,
Come to the taverns of love,
The goblet of annihilation and self-detachment,
I have now consumed, let what will be, be.
[Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

Rendered beautifully here by Abida Parveen for Muzaffar Ali's "Raqs-e-Bismil: Dance of the Wounded".


In the past several days, I have been thinking of "Understanding" and "Experience", both as an internal existential dilemma, but also as an occupational necessity. How much can we really know, understand or analyze? Everything we know - whether in the natural or social sciences - is ultimately bounded by the fact of our being human. We therefore record human "experiences" rather than "knowledge" in any objective sense. This thought (and analysis!) has instilled in me a new-found appreciation for "experience". Perhaps we cannot ever fully understand existence, but can only experience it by being part of it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Blossoms: An Interpretation

The Blossoms
[By Mirza Ghalib. Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

There's a restlessness in this heart again,
This bosom seeks wounds afresh. [1]

The heart is ploughed through again,
Here comes the season of blossoms red. [2]

Dying for that betrayer again,
It's my same old life, all over again.

This unconscious state - not without cause or reason, Ghalib
There's something here that's surely being veiled. [4]

[1] joyaa: seek / search for ; zakhm: wound
[2] jigar: literally, 'liver', but equivalent in English usage to 'heart' as the 'seat of emotions', especially love.
aamad: Here comes / arrives; fasl: season / harvest; laala: flowers, typically red.
[4] bekhudi: literally, 'detachment from self'. Has many shades of meaning, such as an unconscious / careless / forgetful / oblivious state. Also refers to being inebriated, or even being spiritually connected with the divine. Thus carries both 'positive' and 'negative' connotations, depending on the context and interpretation.
besabab: without cause / reason / motive
pardadaari: literally, the act of veiling.

I've taken the liberty of titling this selection of couplets 'The Blossoms' which is not its traditional title. It refers to the ironic usage of 'blossoms red' in Couplet [2], a visual that is beautiful yet distressing - the red blossoms in context also carrying an implication of 'blood' after the heart is 'ploughed'. This irony permeates the entire poem - a mood of despair where what could have seemed positive is revealed as negative. The last couplet seems to challenge this mood somewhat, and leaves one ambivalent about the poet's real state.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Aamad-e-Fasl: The Blossoms

Phir kuchh is dil ko beqaraari hai
Seena joyaa-e-zakhm-e-kaari hai

Phir jigar khodne lagaa naakhoon,
Aamad-e-fasl-e-laala-kaari hai.

Phir usi bewafaa pe marte hain,
Phir wahi zindagi hamaari hai.

Be-khudi be-sabab nahin Ghalib,
Kuchh to hai jiski parda-daari hai.

Listen to it here, Jagjit Singh in one of his more mellow moods. The 'aamad-e-fasl' couplet with its brilliant metaphor has always fascinated me...I'll attempt an interpretive translation in English soon.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Afsaana-e-Hasti: The Story of Life

Jigar says:

Jis qadar afsaana-e-hasti ko dohrataa hoon main,
aur bhi begaana-e-hasti hua jaataa hoon main.

The more I repeat life everyday,
The further away from life I stray.
[Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

afsaana-e-hasti: story of being / life

...and I'll let that stand here on its own, to be pondered upon. It's another couplet of the ghazal I just translated.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

By Nature A Poet: Interpretive Translation of 'Shaayar-e-Fitrat'

Jigar's verse moves like a river - effortless. Beautiful to behold in its natural ebb and flow, yet deep and much layered. His 'Shaayar-e-Fitrat' is in many ways perhaps a 'song of myself' in its own poetic tradition, as Walt Whitman would put it in his.

Balancing the literal and the implied, and also attempting to preserve somewhat of the original beauty of Jigar's verses, this took me quite some time to translate...but I loved every moment of it (I've followed the verse order of my earlier post).

By Nature A Poet
[By Jigar Moradabadi. Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

By nature a poet, when I do reflect-
As a spirit I soar through nature's every speck. [1]

Estrangement from you, O friend, I so dread-
As if an aspect of life disappears from life's every aspect. [2]

Alas, these opressive constraints- these reasons to forsake love,
She attempts to convince me, and I, - to convince her back. [3]

Behold my courage, behold my state:
I tangle up yet again- the strands I have untangled. [4]

Bravo, O deathwish, towards the killer's lair-
Humming, dancing and swinging- I am on my way. [5]

Your congress, your displays- who then cares for restraints,
Here, I arise, and here, - I am out and on my way. [6]

One heart, and a relentless storm of accidents, O Jigar,
A piece of glass, shattered on every rock I've met. [7]

Translator's notes:

[Couplet 1] fikr: to be concerned about something; on its own it also implies to reflect about the world / life with care and concern, often in a spiritual sense.
zarra-zarra: literally means atom or smallest particle. In this context it implies nature's smallest possible particle, thus I chose 'nature's every speck'.
samaa jaata: literally means 'come to reside in / possess'. I have used 'soar through' as a derivative meaning that preserves the effect in English.

[3] wo: the third person pronoun in Urdu can apply to both genders, though I use the female gender here.
tark-e-mohabbat: literally, forsaking of love.

[5] shauq-e-shahaadat: literally, shauq means desire; shahaadat means 'to witness (the truth) / to be martyred'. I have used the idiomatic 'deathwish' familiar in English.
ku-e-qaatil: literally, residence of killer. Also implies 'residence of beloved', as qaatil is also a term of endearment (similar to 'killer looks'). 'Lair' fits the dual meanings here well with its usage as 'den' and 'a resting place'.

[6] mehfil: literally means a gathering or congress of people, and can also mean tribunal. 'teri mehfil' means 'your gathering', and is an expression that could imply 'a gathering in your honor / where you are in-charge / where you are the most cherished'.

[7] toofaan-e-hawaadis: literally toofaan means storm, and hawadis is the plural of haadsa i.e. accident, misfortune, calamity, tragedy.

In the tradition of the ghazal, the poet signs his poem in the last couplet. Jigar is the non-de-plume or takhallus of Ali Sikander, and his last name, Moradabadi, derives from the city of his roots. Jigar literally means 'liver', which was traditionally considered the 'seat of courage', and sometimes like the heart, also the 'seat of love'. The word jigar thus generally equates with courage, and here interestingly the poet exclaims 'O Courage' while metaphorically describing the uneven battle of his life in the last couplet.

As here, I'll mostly try to introduce poets through their poetry, rather than the other way round. A poet's work is the best introduction.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

From Childhood's Hour: Alone

On hindsight, I notice that Pirzada Qasim's self-critique and Jigar Moradabadi's self description that I posted relate deeply to each other. Perhaps these choices were a natural outgrowth of the state of my mind in the last few days. While one accuses the self of being strange, the other accepts and retorts by saying- indeed, he is by nature a poet.

Why do poetry and 'strangeness' go hand in hand?

I am tempted to note my favorite lines by a poet from another dimension, that perhaps relate to this...

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were - I have not seen
- as others saw.
[by Edgar Allan Poe]

Thoughts echoed in more contemporary times in a different voice: Javed Akhtar, recognized for his scripts, dialogues, and popular lyrics, has tried reverting to his poetic heritage, sometimes with interesting results.

Hum to bachpan mein bhi akele the,
Sirf dil ki gali mein khele the.

Alone was I, even in childhood,
The lanes of the heart, were my only playground.
[Translated by Siyaah]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Shaayar-e-Fitrat Hoon Main

I've been thinking about which Jigar Moradabadi poem I should showcase and interpret first...I like quite a few.

Today a friend whom I haven't met in a few years called me up...we talked of life's blackening canvas, of the innumerable strands of threads in life needing attention, resolution. "All strands are one", he said. "A tangled up string of thread needs one point of initiation to resolve, and the entire bundle resolves magically...". It sounded like a sufistic metaphor and solution to life.

Unless of course we unresolve it once again...out of choice, as Jigar [Couplet 4 below]. Which brings me to what is perhaps Jigar's signature ghazal. I will transliterate my favorite couplets from Urdu here:

Shaayar-e-fitrat hoon main: By nature a poet...

Shaayar-e-fitrat hoon main, jab fikr farmaataa hoon main,
rooh ban kar zarre-zarre mein samaa jaataa hoon main.

Aake tujh bin is tarah ai dost ghabraataa hoon main,
jaise har sheh mein kisi sheh ki kamin paataa hoon main.

Haae ri majbooriyaan, tark-e-mohabbat ke liye,
mujh ko samjhaate hain wo aur un ko samjhaataa hoon main.

Meri himmat dekhna, meri tabiyat dekhna,
jo sulajh jaati hai gutthi phir se uljhaataa hoon main. [4]

Waah re shauq-e-shahaadat, ku-e-qaatil ki taraf,
gun-gunaata, raqs karta, jhoomta jaataa hoon main

Teri mehfil tere jalwe, phir taqaaza kya zaroor,
le utha jaata hoon zaalim, le chala jaataa hoon main.

Ek dil hai aur toofaan-e-hawaadis ai Jigar,
ek sheeshaa hai ke har patthar se takraataa hoon main.
Listen to this ghazal sung beautifully by Vinod Sehgal here...and wonder, like me why Vinod isn't more popular as a ghazal singer.

I'll attempt an interpretation and translation of these couplets soon...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On ghazal singing

The ghazal lends itself naturally to classical singing. So deep has this connection become that many ghazal lovers identify ghazals with the singers who made these ghazals popular, rather than with the poets. I heard most classical ghazals through contemporary singers, as earlier ghazals were penned at times when no audio recordings were possible...

This deep connection between a well established poetry form and classical singing is perhaps unique to the Urdu ghazal and South Asian musical traditions. I have wondered about why this is...

The ghazal as a poetry form is unsurpassed in terms of its rhyme quality, following the rhyming structure:
...A [Couplet 1]
...A [Couplet 2]
...A [Couplet 3]

And often, in the hands of the most fluent and traditional-style poets, also:

...Y, PQA
...Y, PQA [Couplet 1]
...Y, PQA [Couplet 2]
...Y, PQA [Couplet 3]

The ghazal I recently translated, Peerzada Qasim's "Aap bohot ajeeb hain" is a beautiful example of the latter. Among 20th century poets, Jigar Moradabadi was also a natural at the latter form.

This circular structure of the ghazal lends itself well to singing. Once the first couplet [matla] is set to a classical melodios tune [raga], subsequent couplets follow the lead tune in a circular manner. Often, the first line of the first couplet is repeated after each subsequent couplet with a beautiful rhyming effect.

Ragas are all about mood. These classical musical compositions were meant to be entire experiences in themselves, instilling particular moods and feelings in the listeners. How naturally this then fits the ghazal! The ghazal is also about an experience of moods and feelings but through the layered meanings of the verses. Often, the singer's skill at composing a tune for a ghazal is all about picking the most appropriately matching raga on which to build the entire composition. When this is done well, the results are out of this world.

Is it any surprise that this poetry form and singing tradition took to each other and are now inseparable?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fard-e-amal Siyaah kiye jaa raha...

Fard-e-amal siyaah kiye jaa raha hoon main,
Rahmat ko bepanaah kiye jaa raha hoon main.
[By Jigar Moradabadi]

Blackening life's canvas of deeds to the extreme,
It is I who expand divine compassion to the limitless.
[Interpretive translation by Siyaah]

Jigar is one of my favorites. Some more on him with translations soon...

My Interpretation: "You Indeed Are Strange"

As promised, I've started the exercise of interpreting and translating Pirzada Qasim's "Aap Bohot Ajeeb Hain" from Urdu into English. I try to retain some of the aura of the original lines in terms of their complex and layered meanings, and yet also try to convey what the lines meant literally. It's a tough balancing act. I'll continue to edit and improve some lines as I go along...

You Indeed Are Strange
[By Pirzada Qasim. Translated from the original by Siyaah]

In grief do you find solace, you indeed are strange,
Pain, you take to with ease, you indeed are strange. [1]

Your beloved's shade, with arms outstretched, awaits you for long,
You prefer solitary scorching travails, you indeed are strange. [2]

The judgement against you, flows forth from your own pen,
You but wring your hands in despair, you indeed are strange. [3]

Time blew out long ago, the flame of your hope,
You still melt as wax, you indeed are strange.

Efforts to strike you down again, you spare your friend,
You fall and rise by yourself, you indeed are strange. [5]

Love's paths utimately lead always to the same state,
You change your path again, you indeed are strange. [6]

All wonders of the wilderness reside at your home,
Why then do you step out, you indeed are strange. [7]

These wanderings in search of yourself, will they ever abate,
You walk even in your sleep, you indeed are strange.

Translator's notes:
Dhal rahe hain in couplet [1] has no exact equivalent expression in English. It could mean 'take the form of', 'become comfortable', 'conditioned', etc. 'Take to' seems the closest expression possible to convey the various meanings.

Saaya-e-Vasl in couplet [2]: Vasl literally means 'union' and could also imply 'consummation'. Saaya-e-Vasl is therefore literally 'shade of union'. I have captured the effect by the image of the 'shade of the beloved's outstretched arms', and contrasted the union implied by adding 'solitary' in the second line.

Haath bhi mal rahe hain in couplet [3]: literally means 'rubbing one's hands' and is a gesture of loss and helplessness in Urdu, but has a very different meaning in English, as in 'rubbing one's hands in glee'! I finally chose 'wring one's hands' as a more accurate expression in English.

Zahmat-e-zarbat-e-digar in couplet [5]: 'digar' is often mis-transliterated as 'jigar' on many websites. This beautiful expression is composed of Persian words: Zahmat: effort, obligation; Zarbat: strike, hit; Digar: again, another.

Dairawaar in couplet [6]: literally means 'bounded in a circle'.

Dasht in couplet [7]: literally conveys a mix of the meanings in 'desert' and 'wilderness'.

Monday, September 04, 2006

On Translations and Bilingualism

I have often thought long and hard about translations of poems, particularly of Urdu poetry into English. Dick Davis, a translator of Persian poetry into English has laid out the issues brilliantly in "On Not Translating Hafez" and created interesting poetry out of his own dilemma in "A Translator's Nightmare".

Urdu poetry's roots lie deep in Persian poetry, in terms of both style and content, and Dick's thoughts on translating Hafez apply equally to translating Urdu poetry.

However, the reality of bilingual affiliations still propels some of us to translate what we found beautiful in one language into another. I am somewhat less pessimistic about the possibilities than Dick.

Translations are essential. They fulfil many purposes...fostering an understanding of other languages and cultures to some extent; aiding understanding for those whose knowledge of the original language is limited but not non-existent: this applies particularly to Urdu poetry which has universal appeal across South Asia even amongst those whose first language is not Urdu; and quite simply, giving the authors their due in the form of international recognition.

K. C. Kanda's recent translations of Urdu poetry have filled a colossal void. Perhaps our inspiration should also come from the relentless attempts by people like Agha Shahid Ali who not only translated Urdu poetry but also introduced Persian / Urdu poetry forms such as the ghazal into English as original English poetry.

Translations aside, bilingualism can find expression in strange experimental ways:
'All words that exist have already been used;
Ab tum se kuchh kahoon to kis zubaan mein kahoon.'
[by Siyaah]

Similar transpositions of Persian and Hindi lines by Amir Khusro form interesting poetry at the time of Urdu's origins, as in:
'Zihale miskin makun tagaful
duraye naina banaye batiyaan'
[Listen to this sung beautifully by Chhaya Ganguli here, from the album Husn-e-Jaana composed by Muzaffar Ali]

What this means is that I will attempt translations of Urdu poetry in these pages, starting with Pirzada Qasim's "Aap Bohot Ajeeb Hain" into English...if nothing else, this will be an exercise in understanding Dick's dilemma more deeply.

Stranger's spot

'If you look at the city from here,
You'll find a lot of things you thought didn't exist anywhere...'

You Indeed Are Strange: A self-critique

For several days, I have been enthralled by what I consider Pirzada Qasim's self-critique of the poetic sensibility: Aap bohot ajeeb hain: You indeed are strange.

I feel as if Pirzada steps back, takes a look at the poet in himself - and perhaps at all those who share a similar poetic sensibility - and comments on how puzzling and 'irrational' the poet's behavior is. The unifying, underlying theme of this ghazal is the recurring refrain at the end of each couplet, the accusation directed at himself in the second person that 'You indeed are strange'. Here is my transliteration of the entire ghazal:

Gham se bahel rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.
Dard mein dhal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Saaya-e-vasl kab se hai aapka muntazir magar
Hijr mein jal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Apne khilaaf faisla khud hi likha hai aap ne
Haath bhi mal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Waqt ne aarzoo ki lau, der hui bujha bhi di
Ab bhi pighal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Zehmat-e-zarbat-e-digar dost ko dijiye nahin
Girke sambhal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Dairaawaar hi to hain ishq ke raaste tamaam
Raah badal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Dasht ki saari raunaqen, khair se ghar mein hain to kyun
Ghar se nikal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Apni talaash ka safar khatm bhi kijiye kabhi
Khwaab mein chal rahe hain aap, Aap bohot ajeeb hain.

Listen to the spellbinding recitation of this ghazal by Pirzada himself in a live Mushaira (click on the last poem, "Gham se...")

I also try to browse the original in Urdu script to make sure I've got the words right...I've found a version here.

I feel compelled to note that 'Strangeness' has also been a subject of fascination for many other poets. In another poetic dimension, Jim Morrison's (The Doors) cynic commentary puts it in a way that I always found interesting:
People are strange, when you're a stranger...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Siyaah

On "Siyaah" (literally meaning "black" in Urdu and Persian), I intend to showcase pieces of Urdu poetry that strike me as and when I'm in the mood.

Often I will also attempt a translation of verses I like, sometimes entire poems, and will also try to record translations by others where I find these interesting.

I also hope to comment on the verses and translations. With no pretensions to formal training or education in the art of Urdu poetry, these comments are expected to be no more than personal ruminations, perhaps revealing why I found the verses interesting in the first place.

Siyaah will essentially be a place where I record verses and accompanying ruminations for myself. It would be a very personal interaction with Urdu poetry...a journey of the self through an understanding and interpretation of the works of Urdu poets...