The Sublime and the Mundane

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.

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67 comments for “The Sublime and the Mundane

  1. Nanda Kishore
    August 26, 2009 at 7:15 PM

    Amusing post and discussion (considering my ignorance in such matters). Guess it takes a truly chauvinistic post for Ot to be the voice of reason.

  2. ra
    August 19, 2009 at 12:58 AM

    Don’t like ghazals either, but not all sufi music is sung in the style of ghazals, and not all of it can trace it’s influence to Arab countries. The Sufi music of Sindh and Punjab for example, has plenty of Hindu references (in the poetry as well as the music) and the music is not about illicit love etc-it’s about a longing to unite with the Divine, who is referred to as having no religion. Sufi songs are not always melancholic either. Rumi perhaps is incomprehensible -but Rumi does not all Sufi poetry make. Here’s a peppy sufi song:

    Bhagat Kanwar Ram’s music which was Sufi and Hindu and Sikh at the same time (unable to label it) was neither melancholic nor peppy…it was just a call to the divine.

  3. August 17, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    The discussion now seems to have veered to weird assumptions and twisted logic about Mahabharata…

    Anwar, Stick to the facts (or the normal interpretation of them) please… I dont think you would like it if I jump to unrelated conclusions about Mohamed and Koran !!

  4. 2bornot2b
    August 17, 2009 at 6:06 AM

    Larissa – on yoru post dated 15th august on movies, i have the following comments: i was a discerning movie goer (just like any other indian fan wathed movies of my favorite start multiple times) and leaned towards well made films that were not necessarily popular. though i enjoy ‘artie’ movies, the reality is movies are also business. Art film producers lose money by following their creative urge without compromising, rather than making compromises for commercial sucess. The bottom line is, in my opinion, this is money making business. No one wants to lose money and so are the producers and artists. Once in a while we get good compromises (liek Shankar’s movies in tamil) and purely uncompromising movies like ‘Naan Kadavul’ in tamil (and of course some malayalam movies as well). these are the choices made by the directors and producers. I like Shankar’s philosophy, whereby he puts in the money he earned in commercial ventures to help new directors produce off-beat movies. One international guitaris said, the greatest service you can do to music is not playing music for money. Play it for love and pleasure, that way you can be umcompromising. No one is ready to take on such a journey these days, execpt for some poor carnatic and hindustani music artistes. but some gems come once in a while. we just have to look for them and rejoice. I think less said about Bollywood the better.

  5. August 17, 2009 at 12:20 AM

    Sandeep, OT, Pala, Vasuki, and others:

    I am sorry I am late, but did I just miss you all accepting the following as true?

    1) Pandu was impotent

    2) Karna was a good guy, who had to side with evil

    3) Pandavas suffered from “moral cowardice”

    4) Indian muslims are basically good and we Hindus drove them away towards the evil.

    Please tell me you did NOT concede to these terms.

  6. Bhikku
    August 16, 2009 at 5:00 PM

    First it was “I cannot stand Hindustani music especially the way it is sung. While it’s true that emphasis is more on melody/alaaps than sahitya, there’s a tendency to overdo the alaaps”
    Then “…or the slow lull of Mandra (Low pitch), which like Hindustani music, gradually assumes momentum, force and ferocity as it builds in strength and plays out human nature in unimaginable notes”

    Now,”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”


  7. larissa
    August 15, 2009 at 7:35 PM

    This is truly stupid and bizarre article
    anything good and appealing cannot be produced by other cultures

    No thats not true. The author is explaining why he does’nt like gazals–many of us can’t stomach them either…but I can understand many would like them…you cant blame people for liking someting they are bought up to like can you? Just like the other day at an Indian party I could not understand why intelligent girls were dancing to the cheesiest Bollywood songs. I recently rented a movie by Satyajit Ray–was so good? What happened to the movie industry these days? It has gone the way of pure commercialism– Bollywood is at least a hundred times more vulgar than Hollywood…
    But you know who do does this kind of thing affect the most? Educated people can laugh at Bollywood, but is there not an obligation to produce tasteful movies for poor people, for whom movies are often a big treat? People with edcuation can be discriminating, but is there not an obligation on the part of artists to give back something to the poor man whose few enjoyments consists of movies? Is there not an obligation for educated people to elevate tastes in general when it comes to movies?

  8. larissa
    August 15, 2009 at 6:54 PM

    The problem that I have about ghazals and shayari is that for most indians north of the vindhyas, urdu, ghazals and shayari are the defining words for poetry and richness of expression.

    I for one could never understand why Hindus think the Islamic court had a rich culture? It is easy to see how India never produced anything great those years–what happened to the original creativity of the Hindus? They retrogressed under Islamic rule–Where was the culture apart from some poetry and architecture? I am like Sandeep in that I never feel elevated by gazals–this is a personal taste, perhaps I associate them with indolence and a repressed kind of culture. Regarding Sufis–many were tricky in Kashmir–they tried to appear like another HIndu sect and many common people were tricked like this to accepting it without understanding that Islam is a religion that does not tolerate other religions in its midst–i.e. thinks only it has access to the truth…

  9. TarkaPriya
    August 15, 2009 at 10:58 AM


    That was a very refreshing look from an outsider on Mahabharata, and i suspect you are one as it is difficult for any Hindu to come up with that hypothesis. I have been following a large number of blogs for a long time and the arguments made by people with islamic pen names have been largely rhetorical and predictable. Your defense of ghazals was like a breath of fresh air and i wish and hope that more of your ilk start participating in discussion forums.

    A couple of points though. Granted that the wikipedia entry did not do full justice to ghazals. Granted also is the fact that the creators of ghazals were the rebels of the day (like the rock starts of today). There were romantics and perhaps mystics. But given the fact that they floursihed under the islamic rule and also that Islamic society is based on the concept of absolute morality, they are unidimensional (either romantic, or rebellious or suphiyana).

    In comparison, hinduism is multi-layered and does not practise moral absolutism and the hindu art and culture is also multi-layered. From one perspective something may look highly sensual, but if you look from a elevated perspective, you would find a lot of spiritual meaning hidden in it. Most of the literary works would look like odes to kings, but may in fact, be verses praising God.

    The problem that I have about ghazals and shayari is that for most indians north of the vindhyas, urdu, ghazals and shayari are the defining words for poetry and richness of expression.

    Regarding Mahabharata and the aftermath, I would like to digress a little bit. Hindu system of morality is based on the concept of Yugas. A yuga is a period of time where the average ratio of good and bad people is relatively constant. Krita Yuga represents the period where there every one was righteous. Treta Yuga, the next one represents the era with 75 % good and 25 % selfish and so on. A yuga purusha appears at the transition from one yuga to another (Yuga sandhi) and lays the moral foundation for the coming Yuga.

    Rama comes at the end of Treta Yuga where still good is predominant and you can follow rigid moral rules and win. Krishna comes at the end of Dwapara Yuga where the scales are tilting in the favor of selfish people. The message is that the odds are overwhelming and if you want to survive and win, bend the rules as long as you are clear about the fact that the end is righteous.

    Since Hinduism is so complicated, the king or the decision maker had to have a good guru guiding him in his moral decision making. If you look at history, whenever the guru was there to guide the decision maker (Samartha Ramadas for Shivaji etc.), things are good. Unfortunately, most of the times in the last 2 millenia, there is no good guru around, and the confused ruler chooses the improper moral ruleset and looses out (how can u explain defeating some one 10 times and being chivalrous and letting them go). This continues even today in the way we deal with our friends and most importantly foes. This is my rebuttal of your impotent theory.

    The blog followers can checkout this interesting site:


  10. music
    August 14, 2009 at 9:57 PM
    Ultimately, you get only what you look for, precisely!

  11. August 14, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    S B – I think Anwar has already hinted that he does not share in the Islamic glory.

  12. S B
    August 14, 2009 at 12:00 PM

    “Anwar Saikh”

    Interesting that you share your name with that famous apostate of Islam, who has written the wonderful book : “Islam : Arab imperialism”.

    Perhaps you may gain an understanding of another point of view by reading that book.

  13. pankaj
    August 14, 2009 at 11:52 AM

    This is truly stupid and bizarre article
    anything good and appealing cannot be produced by other cultures

  14. August 14, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    Harish – Yes, at first sight that would be the reaction of normal people.

    But remember when one is facing existential dangers, there are no normal times. So behaving normally nee civilly will actually be akin to displaying perverse behavior.

    No one can argue that the Pandava reaction that night was noble and Dharmic. They were not upholding anything, to say nothing of Dharma. No wonder Krishna had to intervene.

    Again, Anwar was very specific in his argument. To be fair, your response was specific to his charge. My suggestion is specific to your response.

    People even today argue stupidly about the “immorality” of the bombing of Dresden and the two bombs over Japan. They just as easily forget that if it were up to Germany and Japan, neither would have thought much about Atomic bombing the US and England. They would not have any moral qualms decades hence either.

  15. S B
    August 14, 2009 at 11:12 AM

    India is now on the “religious freedom watch list” …
    O dear !

  16. prachetas
    August 14, 2009 at 3:54 AM

    Karna is an example of a person who got destroyed for hanging around with wrong gang blindly serving Duryodhana who transformed him into a king from a charioteer’s son. Blind rage and anger towards society and total misunderstanding of the Dharma are the only reasons for his death. He could never make the best use of opportunities given to him because of hatred towards one and all. If you read the scripture, you can easily see the way Karna talks to elders without any respect, the vain glorious behavior he displays in various campaigns but in reality fails miserably. Duryodhana took in Karna into his company with great expectations but Karna in reality was a total failure. It was Duryodhana who had to pay the ultimate price for having faith in Karna. The hatred he had against society, the ego problems he had, his shameless boasting, lying about his prowess even when things were laid bare, the strange psychological complex of inferiority and injustice he developed finally brought doom to everyone.

    All Hindu converts are indeed like Karna. Many of the first Muslims in India are those short sighted Hindus who allowed the blind rage to conquer them even before barbarians from the west conquered them. If you look at our history, all initial Hindu converts converted not out of love for the foreign religion but because of the hatred they had in their minds towards their fellow men. Some didnt like the local king, some didnt like the landlords they worked under, some didnt like the social practices, some were just criminals who were waiting to join like minded people…you name it, you will find only hatred as the real motive for conversion. These people are like Karna who blamed everyone and everything except himself for his misfortunes, grew more angry and restless everyday until he destroyed himself and his mates.

    And coming to ghazals, the bitter truth is, no matter how hard you thump your chest, nothing of beauty can arise from political religions which survive on dogma and superstition. Persia and other native cultures and pre- christian Europe carry the real foundations for all kinds of art and philosophy these non pluralistic religions falsely claim as theirs.

  17. harish
    August 14, 2009 at 2:38 AM

    Then whats the difference between them and us?? We will also be uncivilised, barbaric tribal types.

    And Mahabharata is too huge to rant on the basis of a few episodes. May be it could have been different. Atleast our scriptures are open to intepretation, would you find that freedom anywhere???

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