A nuanced articulation of intense romantic longing coupled with an overwhelming sense of desolation makes the ghazal an extraordinarily popular form of Urdu poetry. While the many shades of unfulfilled love, the weeping of separation and an occasional longing for the divine form the familiar tone of the ghazal, it is the authoritative male voice that creates its narrative space. Here, the implicit is preferred over the explicit, and gender-neutral pronouns, especially in the third person, appear frequently. The ghazal sets in motion an imaginary conversation on several levels between a male lover (ashiq) with a grammatically masculine beloved (mashooq).
The absence of the female voice articulating male ontological aspirations, desires, anxieties, sexual orientation, delirium and infidelity in an idiom distinct from male vocabulary ultimately led to the creation of an innovative genre . This then provided a channel through which the female narrator could challenge the central axiom of Urdu poetry – the severe marginalization of all that gives a woman an independent, self-respecting entity. An inventive configuration of feminine sensibilities, Rekhti sprouted in Lucknow around the start of the 19th century.
Saddat Yar Khan Rangeen (1757-1835) introduced this new genre which is now considered the first example of feminist poetry in Urdu. It created a stir and four other renowned poets, Insha, Juraat, Jan Saheb and Nisbat, spread it through their own work.
Rekhti, which evokes traditional poetics and clings to the ghazal form, uses a female narrator to map out topics that have a strong impact on women’s daily lives. It draws the reader’s attention to women who take great sensual pleasure in not conforming to socially accepted ideas of sexual orientation based on binary gender. Disconcertingly, Rekhti initially garnered good responses from readers and critics. However, literary supremacists and self-proclaimed guardians of public morality quickly frowned on its euphoric celebration of female sensibility and resistance to gender oppression.
It is therefore not surprising that it is still a genre that receives very little scientific attention. The seminal study of Ruth Vanita, Gender, Sex and City: Rekhti Urdu Poetry in India 1780-1870 (2012), evoked a new interest in this marginalized genre that tears at the poetic norms prescribed by patriarchy. Rekhti provides a fundamental understanding of sexuality, markers of identity, religious rituals, conventions and practices of Indo-Islamic literary culture. How does a decadent culture in times of social upheaval appreciate an unconventional genre? This question is eloquently analyzed in Mir Yar Ali Khan “Jan Sahib”: The Incomparable Festival which shines the spotlight on one of Rekhti’s most prolific poets and his long poem, Musaddas Tahniyat-e-Jashne-Benazir. This thin but insightful text edited and translated by Razak Khan and Shad Naved explains how the form Rekhti could be used to evoke the vital components of the mass and high-level cultures that made up the urban realism of that time. Perhaps the first long verse composed in rekhti, Mir Yar Ali Khan’s work ‘Jan Saheb’ (1818-1886) contains hardly any titillating details of torrid relationships in the feminine idiom. Instead, it provides a deeper understanding of the beliefs, cultural assumptions, rituals, and values of contemporary Indo-Islamic literary sensibility in a language that closely resembled everyday speech. Not much is known about Jan Sahib, whose collection of Rekhti comprises 400 verses which, devoid of salaciousness, produced an exquisite characterization of womanhood. “It is said that Jan Sahib dressed as a woman and recited verses with the accent and the gestures which are characteristic of them (to women)”, explains Carla Petievich, researcher at Rekhti. The long poem translated into English vividly depicts a festival fair held in Rampur in 1867-1868.
“He (Jan Sahib) blurs the gender lines between poetry and fiction, history and life history, versifying details about elite figures, distinguished artists and commoners and underlings, grouped together in the carnival space of the royal party”, explains the editor Razak Khan.
Unlike the ghazal, Rekhti has not become an active part of public memory. However, Jan sahib used it as a private mode through which singers, instrumentalists, courtesans, storytellers, poets and dancers could converse freely with the elite. The poet observes that caste hierarchies disappear during the royal feast:
“Awadhi’s washer, butcher and water-carrier sing / as their epic calls, all Rajputs recite / on one side drummers beat their tambourines / lowest of lows, butchers and grocers , are they entertaining/ they sing songs for their deities, Salar and Madar, in devotion/ And roll taking the name of Master Baley in worship/”
The translated passage aptly reveals the meaning although the last line indicates a mess. “Baley Miyan” cannot be translated as “Master Baley” because Miyan is a widely used denomination for a respectable person, not “master”. Baley Miyan is the popular nickname of Ghazi Salar Masood (1014-1034), a Muslim warrior-turned-saint believed to be the nephew of Mahmood Ghaznavi. He died young, and every year the people of Awadh commemorate him by organizing his wedding procession with great enthusiasm. The publisher has done well to publish this seminal text of a severely marginalized genre of Urdu poetry that explores new dimensions of gender and sexuality in the subcontinent.
Shafey Kidwai is Bilingual Critic and Professor of Mass Communication, AMU Aligarh