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Thursday, 2 June 2011

When Men Speak As Women -- Review

In Urdu poetry, the beloved has always been a bit of a mystery wrapped in an enigma. While the voice may be that of a lovelorn woman suffering from the pangs of separation, a discontented concubine, or a young woman on the verge of marriage, the object of these passionate outpourings of both requited and unrequited love could just as well be man, woman or child! Since Urdu poetry has largely been a male preserve and there has been only a sprinkling of women poets, that too in recent times, men have produced the bulk of Urdu poetry. And it has been regarded as perfectly acceptable for men to write in women’s voices on so-called women’s issues expressing womanly concerns. This vocal masquerade has been taking place for centuries and has been taken rather quite for granted.  

Carla Petievich lifts the veil on this impersonation in When Men Speak as Women: Vocal Masquerade in Indo-Muslim Poetry. Instead of the conventional ghazal, Petievich has chosen from three different bodies of what she calls “marginalized” love lyrics. These are the Punjabi kafis, the predecessor of the Urdu ghazal in its Dakani avatar and the rekhti ghazals from nineteenth-century Lucknow. Each is written in a distinct dialect – different not just from the other two but from modern standard Urdu. Similarly, those who have indulged in this vocal make-believe come from vastly different milieus – from “the royal courts of sixteenth-seventeenth century Deccan plateau in south-central India; the sophisticated urban setting of nineteenth-century Lucknow, and the largely rural Punjab of sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.”

Essentially, Petievich is busting two myths in one book: one, that the Beloved in conventional Urdu love poetry is actually more unconventional than most people would credit; and two, that there is far more fodder in the Indo-Muslim literary canon than the ubiquitous ghazal. She has deliberately picked on lesser-known and by-now-forgotten poets who were as popular in their own age as Mira or Kabir are today. She is drawn by these poems that have been written by men but narrated in the feminine voice to express both erotic and spiritual love. Incidentally, here, as elsewhere in Urdu poetry, love can be ishq-e-majazi or ‘symbolic’ love or ishq-e-haqiqi or ‘real’ love; disconcerting for the uninitiated is the realisation that the former is earthly, carnal or erotic and the latter is spiritual, sublime, mystical. Equally disconcerting for modern readers is Petievich’s assertion that the poems such as those chosen for this collection are the ‘casualties of history’ because the feminine narrator and feminine sensibilities increasingly began to be associated with effeminacy whereas the ghazal – the model against which these poems have been counterposed – became the vehicle for ‘high’ culture which was, in contrast, masculine and classical. She argues that the ‘masculine-gendered narration’ that has come to be regarded as ‘classical’ in the ghazal form is actually a relatively recent phenomenon; the Indo-Muslim love lyrics of the previous centuries freely and unabashedly used not just the feminine voice but also other feminine elements from medieval bhakta poets.

Petievich maintains that the kind of poems chosen here not just challenge the hegemonic superiority of the ghazal form as it is practiced today but also its claim to be the sole and iconic representative of Indo-Muslim culture. On the common thread that runs through her selection, Petievich says:
“But as diverse as these poems may be in origin, their lyric medium and a conventionalized language of love draw them together even as they draw the reader into a world that is both old and new, familiar (and in the case of rekhti poems) perhaps a bit strange. They all reflect a literary culture shared by poets and god-men, all of them born into Muslim families, whose aesthetic and philosophical worldview was neither exclusively ‘Hindu’ nor ‘Muslim’ but a rich blend of both.”

With its roots in 12th century Sufi poetry, the kafi from Punjab is essentially an expression of love in separation, viraha, expressed by the virahini who is personified by the legendary Heer. Heroine of countless love lyrics, Heer crying for her Ranjha epitomizes the anguish of separation from the Beloved – both earthly and divine. Here are two samples from Bulleh Shah and Shah Husain, the two most popular poets from rural Punjab that demonstrate the passion and intensity of the feminine persona in the best tradition of bhakti poetry:
Pilgrims go to Mecca
Ranjha the cowherd is my Mecca
Beloved Ranjha’s
An expert physician
And I a unique body of pain
I must go to Ranjha’s place; won’t someone come with me!
In essence, all through When Men Speak… Petievich assertion is: “the feminine persona came to represent more than anything else what was Indian in Indo-Muslim poetry”.

The feminine voice in Dakani poetry too has its roots in sufism. The Muslim-ruled kingdoms of Golconda and Bijapur too feature the virahani who suffers from the pangs of separation from her beloved, who as in the Punjabi kafi, could be either divine or earthly. The vocabulary, however, is far removed from the rustic folklorish feel of the kafi; it, in fact, shows a Perso-Arabic influence both in imagery and diction, as in:
            Lonely and cut off from my beloved
I am a candle of wax:
Standing on one foot
I burn and melt away
My life’s been spent solely
In contemplation of the one
Who renders others irrelevant
Even should the world carry on

For the purists, the Lakhnavi rekhti is the “spoilt (bigri hui) face of the ghazal”, a fall from a noble tradition, a weakening of a robust, masculine art. Condemned as frivolous and frothy, written in the language of the bazaars, it is mistakenly taken as being nothing more than a deliberate dumbing down of the ‘high’ conventions of rekhta (the highly Persianised Urdu that was the preferred vehicle for the ghazal), it is, according to Petievich, a valuable repository of begamati zabaan (women’s language). Both “ innovative and playful”, rekhti delighted the listeners with its “wit and pithiness of expression”. Yet for all its popularity in the nineteenth century, this form has “gone the way of the dinosaurs”. Why did this happen? Petievich offers an explanation:
Rekhti’s marginalisation in Urdu scholarship is of a much greater degree than that of Dakani court poetry. Critical neglect – especially as the result of regional chauvinism – goes a long way to explaining why the extensive Dakani corpus is almost unheard of by most Urdu enthusiasts, who have tended to identify with northern, Mughal culture. But the censorship that has been applied to rekhti is of quite another order, and its quite frequent allusions to sexuality between women has surely been the catalysts driving its suppression… The “problem” with rekhti does not begin and end with lesbianism, however. It represents a dramatic subversion of the idealized classical Urdu model.’

Given the challenges of conveying the spicy jauntiness of the rekhti originals, sample this:
All this world’s stories contain their own vexations
but here’s mine:
I lust after both sun and moon.

Rakhshanda Jalil

When Men Speak as Women: Vocal Masquerade in Indo-Muslim Poetry by Carla Petievich, OUP, 2007, Rs 695, hardback, pp 365.

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