On the benefits of Persian poetic jousting


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LONG before I came to be interested in classical Persian literature – and that of pre-colonial South Asia in particular – I had wanted – like, I imagine, most Bollywood-infected Indians – to visit Kashmir. I’m pleased I couldn’t get around to making that visit until the summer of 2011, well after I’d begun to research these traditions. I’m pleased because it meant that my visit was bound up by then with my interest in Mullah Tahir ‘Ghani’ Kashmiri (d. 1669), the most celebrated of the valley’s many Persian-language literati.

Visiting the valley as I was poring over Ghani’s delightfully dense ghazal verses in his relatively slim Divan or poetry collection gave me, personally removed as I had been from the everyday realities of living under the Indian Army’s carapace on the valley, something like a point of vantage. By that I mean: rather than encounter the valley and my friends there with little knowledge of their historical past other than that of the roughly century long history of their subjection to oppressive governments, I was able to ask myself what kind of world Ghani’s poetry took for granted and what remained of it in today’s Kashmir. It allowed me to take the measure of what I saw and heard.

The serious study of Persian literature in Kashmir, as in the rest of South Asia, has all but ceased. In response to the editors’ call at Seminar to address the question of how the philology of pre-colonial South Asia could help us complicate contemporary nationalist uses of the pre-colonial past, I will spend the following pages offering a miniature illustration of the possible benefits of Persian philology in an age of nationalism.

Among the textual practices standard in Persian literary culture was that of keeping a bayaaz, a litterateur’s personal notebook of his favourite verses. Two of the most famous bayaazs of the Safavid-Mughal period to which Ghani belonged feature verses by Ghani. Sa’eb of Tabriz (d.1676) whose ingenious ghazals were a stylistic watershed in the history of the genre excerpted twelve of Ghani’s couplets in his bayaaz; and Abdul Qadir Bedil (d.1720), the compacted density of whose ghazals made him the next major stylistic watershed after Sa’eb, included dozens of Ghani’s couplets in his bayaaz. Bedil arranged the ghazals in each sequence in his bayaaz alphabetically according to the final letter of the ghazal’s refrain. But each sequence was itself arranged according to who Bedil considered to have best formulated a certain set of themes in the same meter and rhyme. These themes – asymmetrical desire, the divine beloved’s hierophany, the lover’s rivals, old age, asceticism, writing and so forth – were as old as the ghazal genre itself. It was how a poet rendered them that distinguished him from his competitors, conferring temporary ownership of a theme on him if he was considered to have excelled at his rendition. Ghani’s presence in most of the ghazal sequences in Bedil’s bayaaz signal his acclaim among Safavid-Mughal Persian literati.


Bedil prefaces each ghazal in his bayaaz with a title in red ink bearing the poet’s pen-name. All of Ghani’s ghazals bear the title ‘The Keeper of Meaning’s Treasury, Ghani’. This is a play on the name ‘Ghani’ which means ‘rich’, here implying spiritual richness. But it also captures a certain truth about Ghani’s poetics, namely his pervasive claim to have ascetically achieved intimacy with the primordial and divine source of ghazal themes. This claim was not a new one in the Persian tradition that, since the 1500s, had valued a renewal of its poetic heritage. This renewal had often taken the form of poets claiming access to the eternal wellspring of inspiration, a claim that allowed them to circle around the backs of their predecessors, negating literary history but also renewing it ab initio. This was, of course, a poetic conceit. For such poetry always took the form of innovations on received themes, meter-and-rhyme formulae and figures of speech.


Here, I want to examine one of Ghani’s couplets composed in response to corresponding couplets by Sa’eb and Bedil. As I said, Sa’eb was one of his period’s most celebrated poets whose ghazals set patterns for scores of contemporaneous and later poets who sought to honour and rival him at once by composing in the same meter and rhyme as him. Bedil and Ghani were among these. By examining these three verses closely in relation to their prestigious models we might get a sense of Ghani’s individual voice in relation to his two peers. Sa’eb:

ai zi muzhgaan-e tu dar chishm-e gulistaan khaar-haa

gul zi saudaa-ye rukhat uftaada dar baazaar-haa

O by your eyelashes do thorns pierce the rose-garden’s eyes.

By melancholy for your face has the rose fallen into bazaars.

My somewhat literal translation conveys what must seem the clichéd semantic content of Sa’eb’s verse. But the point is to recall that Sa’eb belonged to the aforementioned tradition that sought to renew the heritage of the Persian ghazal, and so to ask how this verse renews the all too familiar ghazal theme of the lover’s praise of his cruelly heedless beloved. The point, in other words, is to think of the early modern Persian ghazal as a verbal game whose literal semantic content often only serves as scaffolding for dexterity of non-literal varieties. Let’s look again at Sa’eb’s couplet: the first line seems simple enough – to be a thorn in someone’s eye here refers to the rose-garden’s envy. But it also calls attention to the physical resemblance between eyelashes and thorns.


The second couplet contains two puns: the word for ‘melancholy’ (sauda) also means ‘trade’ and ‘fallen into bazaars’ could also be translated by ‘is priced lower in the markets.’ Now we are alerted to yet another element in the first line’s ‘melancholy’, namely melancholy’s close association with black bile. The rose – conventional symbol of the beloved – stumbles in marketplaces because its eyes have gone dark or black when it was blinded by the real beloved’s eyelash-thorns. Or – it is no longer priced highly because the beloved’s face is valued more highly. Either interpretation works. This polysemy is why the ghazal of which this couplet forms the first of ten couplets was singled out for competitive responses. Here’s Ghani’s response:

har ke paa-band-e vatan shud mikishad aazaar-haa

paa-ye gulbun dar chaman daayim pur ast az khaar-haa

Whoever gets his feet stuck in his country suffers.

The rosebush’s feet in the meadow are always thorn-filled.

The couplet pays tribute to Sa’eb who was renowned for a technique by which an abstract claim made in one line of a couplet was instantiated concretely in the other. Here, Ghani’s second line calls attention to a familiar feature of the rosebush as (poetic) proof of the other line’s less immediately persuasive claim that staying on in one’s country leads one to suffer. Ghani exploits the literal sense of Persian phrase ‘getting one’s feet stuck’ to then point to the rosebush’s thorny feet.

Also arguably implicit in this couplet’s reference to the pain consequent on staying on in one’s country is a reference to Sa’eb himself who travelled to Kashmir from his native Iran, spending seven crucial years of his career in Mughal courts.

Here, finally, is Bedil’s response not only to Sa’eb’s couplet but to Ghani’s too:

ai bahaar jilva bas kun kaz khijaalat-e yaar-haa

dar ‘arq shustand khubaan rang az rukhsaar-haa

Withhold your splendour, O spring, for by the shame of lovers

Have the beautiful ones washed colour off their faces by sweat.


Shame causes the ashamed to sweat in Persian poetic convention. The spring that puts lovers to shame by its splendour causes beloveds to wash the ruddiness off their faces by the sweat of their lovers. Given Sa’eb and Ghani’s shared use of rose-garden imagery it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the sweat in this couplet alludes to dew.

Sa’eb, Ghani and Bedil all innovate on inherited poetic conventions by literalizing them and then grafting another metaphor on these literalized conventions. Ghani and Bedil both pay tribute to and rival Sa’eb’s formulation of the familiar ghazal theme of the lover’s encomium to his beloved by reusing his garden imagery. But each does so distinctly. Sa’eb’s is the most polysemic of the three couplets, carefully combining punning words to allow for two, perhaps three, divergent overall senses. Ghani uses a technique of illustration Sa’eb was renowned for as well as an implicit reference to Sa’eb’s own sojourn to Kashmir in order to formulate a theme distinct to Sa’eb’s lover’s encomium.

Ghani’s couplet instead formulates the ghazal theme of the Sufi as a traveller. Getting stuck in ones country is a metaphor for getting stuck at the point of departure for a Sufi journey of the soul. Ghani displaces Sa’eb’s amorous theme by a Sufi one of spiritual travel. Bedil displaces the themes of Sa’eb and Ghani to give us a version of one of his favoured ghazal themes, beseeching the divine beloved to put off or mitigate His unbearable hierophany. His word ‘splendour’ (jilva) is cognate with Arabic for ‘hierophany’ (tajalli), God’s self-disclosure as light and alludes to the fainting Moses at Sinai in the Quran, a scene that forms the paradigmatic Islamic instance of the human’s dissolution at divine self-manifestation. If God’s spring were to withhold its splendour, His creatures – here metonymically lovers and beloveds – would regain colour and self-worth.


This analysis of a miniature sequence of two couplets in response to a third lets us propose a generalization, one that I wager would stand the test of further reading in the corpuses of the three poets. Sa’eb presented the Persian-language poets of Safavid Iran and Mughal India with polysemic renewals of diverse old ghazal themes as models to rival. Ghani appropriated Sa’eb’s polysemy but displaced the profane thematic diversity of his corpus of ghazals by his narrower but more intense concern with Sufi themes. Bedil inherited the polysemy of Sa’eb and Ghani as well as the latter’s thematic Sufi refocusing of the former to characterize the created world as a multiform, coruscating emanation of the divine One that eluded it, an idea central to Ibn Arabi (d.1240), arguably the most influential Sufi in the history of Islam.

Sa’eb of Tabriz spent most of his life in Safavid Isfahan but earned his fame during his seven-year sojourn in Mughal courts. Ghani very likely spent almost all of his life in the valley of Kashmir but kept a distance from the Mughal court there. Yet, he read and responded to the Persian textual traditions that came his way from Central Asia, Iran and India. Bedil was a legatee to both poets, never left Mughal India, but was perhaps its greatest poetic interpreter of the theistic monism of the Andalusian Ibn Arabi. He came to be read across India, Central Asia and Iran, becoming pivotal to various national canons.


What connects these three poets from geographically and culturally distinct regions, as I have tried to show, is the jousting of poetic imitation in Persian. We cannot discern the individual voices of these poets without acquainting ourselves with the rules of this joust and learning the rules is itself an exercise in entering a pre-national textual universe. This is a pre-national universe in the sense that no equation of national territory, textual heritage and religion can help us make sense of the poetic relations between Sa’eb, Ghani and Bedil. Rather, it is the rules of poetic imitation in the ghazal, assumed as given by Persian language literati from Bosnia to Bengal, that let us listen in to what each poet is doing with these rules. While Sa’eb was a Shi’a Muslim and Ghani and Bedil were Sunni Muslims, hundreds of Hindus and Jains, many members of the same circles as Ghani and Bedil, also composed poetry in Persian.

While there are signs that notice was taken of religious identity for membership in Persian literary circles there is no evidence that it made a difference to the poetics at work in the Persian compositions of a Hindu or Jain. This is not to imply that Persian literary culture was unreservedly open but that the necessary condition for membership in it was the practice of already authoritative codes and symbolism. This is why seventeenth and eighteenth century Kayasthas and Khatris composed Persian paeans to Krishna on the already familiar model of the ghazal beloved – a beautiful Turkish male slave or a bewitching boy cupbearer. The conservative symbolism of Persian literary culture made for its social openness.

As for Ghani, was there anything Kashmiri about his poetry? This was a question more than a few Kashmiris put to me during my visit. My answer was that Ghani’s Divan contained verses in praise of Kashmir in much the same way as Amir Khusrow’s did in praise of Delhi and India or Sa’di’s did in praise of his native Shiraz. None of this was nationalistic or even proto-nationalistic because it implied no claim as to a whole people’s identity and a collective past.

I said at the beginning of this essay that reading Ghani before my visit to Kashmir gave me a point of vantage. My attempt above at a miniature exposition of how Ghani fashioned his own poetic voice in relation to his peers may also be read as an exposition of early modern Kashmir’s Persian textual connections to Iran, Central Asia, India and, including but exceeding all these, to the world of Arabic language learning. One could, as a Sanskritist, expose a similar textual network extending eastward and southward, enmeshing Kashmir with Tibet, China and India.

The agitated present of Kashmir, like that of any politically troubled region, obscures its past relations with neighbouring regions by making it stand out for most people as a zone of exception. The study of such connections can grant us a point of vantage by reminding us that whatever cultural individuality a region like Kashmir claims has historically depended on the conversations it was involved in with contiguous regions, conversations in which its voice, like Ghani’s, attained a distinctive audibility only against the other non-Kashmiri voices it spoke out with and against.