Saturday, November 8, 2014

Poetic Talk of Prosaic Things

Among the vast corpus of poetry in the Urdu language, there is an often overlooked genre known as Rekh in which male poets took on female voices and addressed matters thought to pertain specifically to the world of women. Flourishing from the late 18th century onwards, Rekh has somewhat of a voyeuristic quality and much of it was certainly meant primarily to titillate male audiences with its imaginative portrayals of women's spaces and their private thoughts and feelings, though to the credit of the poets it ought to be pointed out that their depictions are often quite nuanced and deeply sympathetic to women's concerns, and that they do not shy away from using the female voice to ridicule stereotypical male behaviors. Same-sex romantic and sexual relationships between women also feature prominently in much of this poetry - as does romance between men in the more mainstream Urdu poetry in the male voice - and needless to say, British colonial scholarship and the heavily Victorian South Asian literary establishment of the 19th and early 20th century that it spawned abhorred this kind of poetry and effectively excised it from the canon. The male beloved in poems with a male speaker, though uncomfortable for the homophobic codifiers of Urdu literary history, could be explained away by declaring him entirely a symbolic representation of the divine, since Urdu poetry, like the classical Persian poetry from which it inherited many of its forms and tropes, often plays with an ambiguity between earthly love for a human beloved and a spiritual quest for union with the divine. Rekh, with its emphatically feminine speaker and often similarly unambiguously earthy objects of desire, both male and female, did not really allow for such a maneuver. To be fair, Rekhtī poems can be very sassy as well as quite bawdy, as illustrated by this verse by the later Rekhtī poet Mīr Yār 'Alī Khān Jān Ṣāhib (1810-1873), given here in the original Urdu, a Roman transliteration, and my attempt at a translation:

ہمیشہ سے نہیں کچھ مرد کی رنڈی کو خواہش  ہے
مری نارنگیوں سے آپ کا بہتر نہیں کیلا

Hamesha se nahīṉ kuch mard kī ranḍī ko khwāhish hai
Merī nārangiyoṉ se āp kā behtar nahīṉ kelā

A woman does not always wish for some man
Your banana is not better than my oranges

Why, you may now be asking, do I write about this poetry here, on a blog ostensibly about garden- and plant-related matters? Well, apart from the fact that I think it is cool and much of it quite beautiful and that I deal with this poetry as part of my research, its focus on the realm of female experience means that it makes much more extensive, detailed, and realistic references to the material culture of 18th- and 19th-century northern India than the more well-known genres of classical Urdu poetry that import much of their imagery from the established catalog of Persian poetry. As a result, there are glimpses of Indian vegetation and garden practices of a rather different sort than those found elsewhere - note the banana in the naughty line above! This is borne out well in the Rekh poems of one of my favorite Urdu poets, Inshā' Allah Khān Inshā (1756-1817), known more today for his prose Rānī Ketakī kī Kahānī or "The Story of Queen Ketakī" and for the first study and grammar of the Urdu language, entitled Daryā-i Laāfat or "Ocean of Pleasantness". Once again referencing bananas, but this time the plant and not just the fruit, he writes:

جاکے کیلوں میں چھپو سب سے اکیلے ہوکر
تاڑ لے کوئی تو تن جائیو کیلے ہوکر

Jāke keloṉ meiṉ chipo sab se akele hokar
ṛ le ko'ī to tan jā'iyo kele hokar

Go and hide among the banana plants, alone from everyone
Should someone notice stand still and straight and become like the bananas

In another set of couplets, we get an idea of domestic vegetable gardening, alongside the emotional drama:

آگ لینے کو جو آئیں  تو کہیں آگ لگا
بی بی ہمسائی نے دی جی میں مرے آگ لگا 
نہ برا مانے  تو یوں نوچ کوئی مٹھی بھر
بیگما  تیری کیاری میں نیا ساگ لگا

Āg lene ko jo ā'īṉ to kahīṉ āg lagā
Bī bī hamsā'ī ne dī jī meiṉ mere āg lagā
Na burā māne to yūṉ noc ko'ī muṭhī bhar
Begamā terī kiyārī meiṉ nayā sāg lagā

When she came to get fire somewhere else caught fire
The neighbor lady has set fire to my heart
"If you do not mind, may I just take a few handfuls?
Madam, new greens have sprouted in your plot"

Yet another verse has a flower - or is it a girl named after the flower? - talking to the garden bed, the kiyārī, itself: 

 بولی  نرگس کی جو کیاری  میں نہ دیکھا پانی
ہے ہماری طرح تجھ کو بھی کیاری روزہ

Bolī nargis kī jo kiyārī meiṉ na dekhā pānī
Hai hamārī t̤araḥ tujh ko bhī kiyārī roza

Said the narcissus when it saw no water in the garden bed:
"Like us, you too, garden bed, are fasting"

In another poem by Inshā's friend and contemporary Sa'ādat Yār Khān Rangīn (1758-1835) the play on the names of flowers doubling as women's given names is sustained with a veritable list of plants, at least most of which are also names. He includes ketakī (Pandanus odorifer) - the name of the queen in Inshā's famous tale! - and campā (Magnolia champaca), nargis (Narcissus sp.), cambelī (Jasminum grandiflorum), mogrā (Jasminum sambac 'Grand Duke of Tuscany'), gendā (Tagetes erecta), and basantī (yellow spring blossoms, such as those of the mustard plants Sinapis alba and Brassica juncea). 

There were - and are - female poets in Urdu as well, of course, though prior to the 20th century they tended to write in poetic voices that were at least grammatically masculine, and with much the same stock of tropes and the same ambiguous beloveds - is it a girl? is it a guy? is it God? - as what has come to be thought of as the mainstream of Urdu poetry. Inshā, incidentally, liked to both play with and subvert these ambiguities not just in his Rekh but also when waxing poetic in the male voice, dropping a sassy couplet here or there that makes it abundantly clear that in this instance he is talking about human love, and what the gender of the object of desire is. Thus he writes,

جان نکلے ہے او میاں دے ڈال
آج وعدہ نہ ٹال بوسے کا

Jān nikle hai o miyāṉ de ḍāl
Āj va'da na ṭāl bose kā

My life is leaving me, o mister, give me one
Today do not go back on your promise of a kiss

And elsewhere he takes a guy too defensive of his masculinity down a notch with a healthy dose of humor about himself:

گر نازنیں کے کہنے سے مانا برا ہو کچھ
میری طرف کو دیکھیے میں نازنیں سہی

Gar nāznīṉ ke kehne se mānā burā ho kuch
Merī t̤araf ko dekhiye maiṉ nāznīṉ sahī

If some offense be taken at being called "sweetheart" 
Look in my direction - I am definitely a sweetheart 


Argalī, Fārūq, m. Reḵẖtī : Urdū ke nāmvar reḵẖtī go shāʻiroṉ ke kalām kā mukammal majmūʻah. New Delhi : Farīd Buk ḍipo, 2006.


  1. that was an interesting post. I find the Urdu language very poetic when I encounter it in prose and even more so in the form of these couplets.

    1. It is a lovely language, isn't it? I fell in love with it at the beginning of my studies, even before I started studying Persian and Sanskrit. Unfortunately, even though so many people are aware of the beauty of Urdu poetry, Urdu literature does not have much of a market today and receives relatively little serious academic attention.


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