A nuanced articulation of intense romantic craving 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 bewailing of separation, and an occasional yearning for the divine form the familiar tone of the ghazal, it is the authoritative masculine voice that creates its narrative space. Here, the implicit is preferred over the explicit, and non-gender-specific pronouns, especially in the third person, appear frequently. The ghazal sets in motion a multi-layered imaginary conversation between a masculine lover (ashiq) with a grammatically masculine beloved (mashooq).
The absence of the feminine voice articulating ontological aspirations, desires, anxieties, sexual orientation, delusion and the infidelity of men in an idiom that was distinct from the vocabulary of men eventually led to the creation of an innovative genre. This went on to provide a channel through which the feminine narrator could challenge the central axiom of Urdu poetry – the severe marginalization of all that gives a woman an independent and self-respecting entity. An inventive configuration of female sensibilities, Rekhti sprouted in Lucknow around the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Saddat Yar Khan Rangeen (1757-1835) introduced this new genre which is now regarded as the first example of feminist poetry in Urdu. It created a stir and four more 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 subjects that have a strong bearing on the day-to-day lives of women. It turns the reader’s attention to women who take great sensuous pleasure in not abiding by socially accepted ideas of sexual orientation based on the gender binary. Bafflingly, Rekhti initially evoked good responses from readers and critics. However, literary supremacists and self-appointed guardians of public morality soon disapproved of its euphoric celebration of the female sensibility and of resistance to gender oppression.
It is no wonder then that it is still a genre that gets very little scholarly attention. Ruth Vanita’s seminal study, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India 1780-1870 (2012), evoked new interest in this marginalized genre that tears apart poetic norms prescribed by patriarchy. Rekhti provides a foundational understanding of the sexuality, identity markers, religious rituals, conventions, and practices of Indo-Islamic literary culture. How does a decadent culture during a time of social upheaval appreciate an unconventional genre? This question is eloquently analyzed in Mir Yar Ali Khan “Jan Sahib”: The Incomparable Festival which turns the spotlight on one of Rekhti’s most prolific poets and his long poem, Musaddas Tahniyat-e- Jashne-Benazir. This slim but insightful text edited and translated by Razak Khan and Shad Naved explains how the Rekhti form could be used to brood over the vital components of the mass and high cultures that constituted the urban realism of that time. Perhaps the first long verse composed in Rekhti, Mir Yar Ali Khan “Jan Saheb”’s (1818-1886) work hardly carries titillating details of steamy relations in the feminine idiom. Instead, it provides a deeper understanding of the convictions, 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 that, unlaced with salaciousness, produced an exquisite characterization of the female. “Jan Sahib is said to have dressed as a woman and recited verses in the accent and gestures particular to them (women),” says Rekhti researcher Carla Petievich. The long poem rendered into English vividly portrays a festival fair held in Rampur in 1867-68.
“He (Jan Sahib) blurs the genre boundaries between poetry and fiction, history and life history, by versifying details about elite personages, distinguished artists and commoners and subalterns, grouped in the carnivalesque space of the royal festival,” says editor Razak Khan.
Unlike the ghazal, Rekhti did 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 freely converse with the elite. The poet observes that caste hierarchies disappear during the royal festival:
“Washer man, butcher and water-bearer in Awadhi are singing/ while their epic called, all the Rajputs are reciting/on one side the drummers their tambourines are beating/ the lowest of the low, butchers and grocers, are they entertaining/ they sing songs for their deities, Salar and Madar, in devotion/ And roll about taking the name of Master Baley in adoration/”
The translated passage aptly reveals the meaning though the last line indicates a mess up. “Baley Miyan” cannot be translated as “Master Baley” as 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 said to be the nephew of Mahmood Ghaznavi. He died young, and every year, the people of Awadh commemorate him by organizing his marriage procession with great gusto. The publisher has done well to bring out 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 a bilingual critic and Professor of Mass communication, AMU Aligarh