What connects the lives of the great pre-Independence film star and singer Kundan Lal Saigal, Pakistani ghazal singer Iqbal Bano who stood up to her country military establishment in the 1980s with her performance of the banned anthem Hum Dekhenge and the popular television music show Coke Studio Pakistan?
All three, straddled across generations, have adapted and performed an unusual five-couplet Persian ghazal Ma Ra Ba Ghamza Kusht… (Killed by Coquetry…), attributed to a little-remembered poet Mirza Mohammed Hasan “Qateel” Lahori (1759-c.1825).
Qateel, a man of prodigious Persian literary output, was born Diwani Singh in a family of Punjabi Hindu Khatri munshis. When he was 18, he converted to Shia Islam under the influence of his teacher, the poet Mohammed Baqir “Shahid” Isfahani, whom he followed to Iran.
He spent some time traveling widely in Central Asia and becoming acquainted with the Persian spoken there before eventually settling in Awadh, where he established his reputation as a prominent linguist, poet, philologist, munshi and devout Shia.
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Qateel and Persian
Qateel held forth on a diverse range of matters – not just amatory verse but on everything from religion to the linguistic variations in Persian and the proper usage of obscenities. A non-native, near-fluent speaker of Persian, his situation was similar to that of early Indian writers in English.
He was one of the earliest Persian-language writers to point out that there were considerable differences between Indian Persian usage, which he recognised as a distinct category. Coming, as he did from a highly accomplished lineage of munshis, whose work was mostly in Persian, he deferred in most matters to sahib-e-zaban (native speakers).
Yet despite being a linguistic purist, obsessed with pedantry and proper speech, he noted that the usage of Persian in India diverged from the standards in Iran and Turan (Central Asia) through which he had traveled.
Yet, despite being a linguistic purist, obsessed with pedantry and proper speech, he noted that the usage of Persian in India diverged from the standards in Iran and Turan in Central Asia through which he had traveled.
As numerous Persian scholars have noted, Qateel emphasised taqlid (emulation) of the Iranians. But he also wrote, as the Italian scholar, Stephano Pello noted in translation, “When speaking and writing normal correspondence, one must choose the current usage of the people of Iran; when composing poetry…in solid ornate style, one should not tie oneself to a single current usage. As a matter of fact, by doing so, one would contradict the way of the masters, and a forced attempt to look Iranian…keeps poetry far from refinedness: a written Persian which follows the use of the masters of the past is good.”
Qateel, KL Saigal and Coke Studio
Little of Qateel’s work is read today beyond a rarefied scholarly audience, but surprisingly, some of his poems continue to be rediscovered and recited in the subcontinent.
KL Saigal sang a handful of ghazals in his lifetime, only two of which were in Persian. Ma Ra Ba Ghamza Kusht… (Killed by Coquetry) was one. It is often mistakenly attributed to the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi (d. 1209) from present-day Azerbaijan, who is best remembered for his version of the romance Layla-wa-Majnun.
Qateel would have been amused, because it omitted the signature verse that would have identified him as the author.
Saigal’s version, released in the early 1940s is a short three-minute performance set in Raag Desh. The accent, pronunciation and stress are entirely Indian in form, not reflecting modern Persian pronunciation with some verses omitted, or reworked.
A generation later, Iqbal Bano reintroduced this ghazal in the 1980s, attributed again to the poet, Nizami and also omitting the signature verse.
In 2011, it re-entered popular imagination when Farid Ayaz, the Pakistani qawwal, included it as a digression in a song titled Kangana performed for Coke Studio. This version has been viewed almost seven million times on YouTube.
A ghazal, a callous lover
An extraordinary ghazal that covers a number of themes revolving around coquetry, mischief and jealousy, the song features a lover making excuses and going to extraordinary lengths to play hard to get. The lover kills Qateel with coquetry, burns him with jealousy by favoring another, pretends to pray to avoid him and finally even in a rather hyperbolic metaphor, uses his blood to apply henna on their feet.
ma ra ba ghamza kusht-o-qaza ra bahana sakht
khud su-ye-ma nadeed-o-haya ra bahana sakht
Their coquettish eyes killed us, and blamed destiny,
They did not even look at us, claiming modesty as an excuse.
The radif (ending rhyme) that ends each couplet – “ra bahana sakht” – is hard to translate but runs something on the lines of “make an excuse” or “to feign”, or “pretend”. Even harder to translate is the term ghamza, which conveys a range of suggestive meanings involving movements of the eye, from a wink to a flirtatious glance, and denote coquetry and flirtation.
Steingass’ Persian-English dictionary, for instance, defines it as “a wink or a signal with the eye; an amorous glance, coquetry, ogling; the eyelid”.
They put their arm on another’s shoulder lovingly
And on seeing us, blamed a slip of the foot.
While Qateel emphasised the importance of emulating the ancients, and authored several poems using tropes borrowed from the Persian masters, he reworked their themes into newer forms.
Persian scholar from Lahore, Zahida Parveen, who wrote a thesis on the poet in 2009, points out that several lines of this ghazal that appear as a footnote in some of Qateel’s manuscripts have been authored by someone else and that he reworked the theme in imitation and added other lines as homage.
All subsequent works have attributed this to Qateel, adding to the confusion regarding general authorship.
The lover’s callous, uncaring persona is contrasted with the delicateness and majesty of their beauty, which is too hard for the pious to bear. Two stock characters make an appearance in this ghazal – the raqeeb (rival) who is alluded to in the second verse as “ghair” or the other, and as someone the beloved favours by putting their hand on his shoulder. The poet thinks it is because they like the rival, but they blame it on an attempt to steady a slippery foot.
Qateel uses sarcasm to great effect, and sometimes an interspersed verse appears in some sung versions, which mocks the zahid (the dry, boring ascetic). He says that even someone who had renounced everything was unable to handle the temptation of the lover’s fairy-like face, so pretended to resort to solitude and remembering god.
The ghazal itself ends with a signed verse containing a rather graphic image of the lover rubbing Qateel’s blood on their feet, as if it were henna. Perhaps the striking image of an uncaring lover applying henna was too much for performance, so it is almost invariably omitted in song.
Qateel and his ghazal have been long forgotten in India and he is now an obscure figure in literary history. But he continues to enjoy wide popularity in countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where modern-day native Persian speakers – actual sahib-e-zaban whom he imitated – continue to recite Ma Ra Ba Ghamza Kusht… as if it were one of their own.
Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a writer who grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood has a PhD in Persian Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India-in film, music, books, religion and culture. Views expressed are personal. Read the other parts here.