A good way to take a break from sickening news, never ending political crap and even mundane life, and recover sanity is to turn the mind towards the more refined appeals. The kinds that we’ve lost the time and solitude to enjoy at will: music, painting, sculpture, plays, and literature. More specifically, the classical variety of these arts. Long-time readers of this blog know my inclinations–and biases–mostly veer in that direction. While I don’t need to justify these inclinations/biases, it helps to clarify–for myself–why I tend to favour the Classical Elements. One reason is their timeless quality and their independence from fancy ideologies and theories. While I don’t distinguish the worth a work on the basis of language, I must say I favour classical Indian literature (includes works in regional languages) and music over others. Perhaps I identify with them more intimately because I was born into it, but in my (limited) readings of classical world literature, nothing gives me the same experience that our classics do.
Which is why I’m both amused and angry when I hear/read people waxing eloquent on ghazals. I’ve listened to scores of ghazals with an open mind–with a sincere attempt to appreciate them. Every single such attempt only ended up reaffirming my conviction that ghazals are mundane at best and repetitive crap at worst. I do appreciate some film-based ghazals but that’s more for their musical, than lyrical quality.
The classical theme of a ghazal focuses on the failure of attaining illicit or forbidden love. Equally, the Sufi/mystical ghazals also hold no appeal for me. The theme of illicit love isn’t unique to ghazals but that’s where the difference ends as we shall see. I view Sufi/mystic ghazals–yes, that includes Rumi, sorry to break your heart–as pretty much incomprehensible. As I’ve said elsewhere, a classical, lasting work has a universal quality to it. None of the ghazals meet this criterion at the least. As far as I discern, ghazals are mostly centered around various facets sensual love: unattainable illicit love, longing for the beloved, the sensual and mental state of lovelornness, and the pain of unrequited love. Almost every such ghazal is sung in a uniform, melancholic monotone devoid of any feeling except sadness. I mean, an average Bollywood film has at least five songs, one for each occasion–joy, celebration, romance, and sadness. But I’m yet to listen to a peppy, zestful ghazal: as the theme so the tune. After continuously listening to more than a half hour of ghazals, you can almost predict the same, piteous mourning that makes up as the tune of the next number.
If that sounds harsh, it wasn’t intentional: a country’s society and culture is reflected in various aspects of its life including the arts. Thus, ghazals, which originated in the Arabian region reflect the culture of that region, which primarily involved conquering, subjugating, and enslaving other cultures and in times of leisure, given to utter sensuality. Such a culture can obviously produce only such literature (on a related note, SL Bhyrappa has written a pithy analysis on this subject). Thus, ghazal-poetry never rises above the sensual and the mundane: food, drink, and the rest.
The entire corpus of ghazals doesn’t match the sublimity or heroism of this verse of Bhartruhari:
Yaam chintayaami satatam mayi saa viraktaa
Saapyanyamicchati janam sa janonyasaktah
Asmatkrute ca parishushyati kaachidanyaa
Dhik taam ca tam ca madanam ca imaam ca maam ca
She, upon whom I meditate perpetually is detached from me,
She desires Another and the Other desires yet another–
Thus it always goes,
This desire to always desire Another–
Fie on her, on him, on Madana (God of Love),
Fie on all this and fie on me too!
[Ed: A very crude translation]
We have ghazals, which now–since I began writing this post–resemble an assemblage of sensual love-elegies and we have Bhartruhari, who dismisses even the notion of this kind of love because in the end, it is futile.
You can argue that there’s ample sensual love in Indian classical poetry starting right from Kalidasa. Sure, but what ultimately distinguishes Kalidasa’s love poetry from wine-and-tear dripping ghazals by several light years is one word: Rasa (emotion, feeling, experience). What you derive after reading Kalidasa elevates you. The verses describing Lord Shiva in deep meditation right up to burning down Kama (God of Love) is worth reading in the original. The emotional elevation that it gives you? Priceless. Or the episode of Yayati, where after a sensual feast of a thousand years, he realizes that you cannot extinguish fire with ghee. Majority of classical Indian literature deal with such themes: of taking the quotidian and levitating it to unimaginably subtle levels. This does two things: it does not discount the importance or significance of the sensual/material by giving it a healthy respect. Simultaneously, it demonstrates the possibility of a happier state beyond the sensual. Again, these works possess this quality because it is already present in the Indian culture.
Ultimately, you get only what you look for.