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Rekhta, Rekhti and how women found their voice in Urdu poetry

Who speaks for 'her'.

ART & CULTURE  |   8-minute read  |   10-12-2017

The beloved of the Urdu ghazal is a cold-hearted, indifferent being who has no time for the overtures of the beleaguered lover.

The beloved has no time to reply to his missives professing his passions.

A point to note is the beloved of Persian/Urdu poetry is gender-neutral. The one addressed is never spoken of — referred to — in the female gender as per the classical Persian form. Could that be to spare the beloved’s blushes?

Whatever be the reason, the beloved (henceforth I’m breaking tradition and, for ease of writing, addressing the beloved as her/she) was an arrogant object of unrequited passion.

So what was the beloved really like and what were her own feelings?

Why was she so indifferent to the lover, for doesn’t everyone need romance in their lives? Or a lover or two singing her praises and sighing verses into her tumbling curls?

A conversation I had with the late Prof Yunus Jaffery on the development of romantic ghazals led to a surprising discovery.

According to him, after the Mongol invasion of Central Asia in the 13th century, the beloved in Persian poetry started getting portrayed as the cold-hearted, indifferent and inaccessible one. This was because the barbaric Mongols perpetuated such cruelty on the conquered, including women; those women and courtesans who had till then been willing partners in flirtation and romance were now hostile and repulsed by attempts aimed at closeness.

This developed into a style. While I must confess I am no authority on Persian ghazals, the theory seemed to make sense to me.

Poetesses like Kishwar Naheed speak for women and on women’s issues with a fearlessness like never before. PC: Poetry International

That also means that this was an artificial portrait of the beloved and the latter would definitely be having romantic inclinations, feelings and reciprocal passions.

The first to explore this genre in the 18th century was Saadat Yaar Khan from Lucknow who kept his pen name as Rangin. The genre was called rekhti as opposed to rekhta the classical form of Urdu ghazals.

Rekhti wasn’t afraid to give full-throated expression to the sexual longings and desires of women. Here was a woman who was not afraid to speak out. Of course, one mustn’t forget that it was men who wrote it, and who read it in mushairas, often dressed as women, and mainly men who consumed it too.

This genre was not for genteel gatherings where women would be present as it was thought to be voyeuristic and aimed at titillation. Only in a decadent society would a woman talk so openly of her sexuality or her lovers. For example a verse by Rangin where one woman complains to her friend [du-gaana] of her lover’s demands:

[Translation Ruth Vinita in Gender, Sex and the City]

Though it got a lot of flak from connoisseurs of poetry, it proved to be an invaluable source of information regarding the society of the 19th century. It talked of not just sexual and sensual desires, their dresses, and jewellery but as Ruth Vanita writes in Gender, Sex and the City, also of the wearer’s good taste and the garment’s erotic dimension. “The woman swinging her body to catch a ball while adjusting her bodice draws attention to its close fit.”

This verse by Nisbat talks of a mundane earring:

Very few women wrote rekhti. Prof CM Naim records only Naubahar — a temporary wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah with the takhallus “Zalil” (shameless) who was a maidservant employed by Mirza Sulaiman Shikoh, a Mughal prince living in exile in Lucknow. The latter was Rangin’s patron. 

When I first decided to include rekhti in a #shair schedule, purist members were outraged that I was trying to defile Urdu ghazals, since rekhti too is written in that form. #shair is a poetry forum that I run on Twitter with a vast number of members who tweet poetry as per the weekly schedule I set. It’s been ongoing since 2011 and not a single day has passed since then when we haven’t had a series of poetic tweets.

However, other members found no such objection and since I also explained what rekhti actually was we ended up learning something.

The famous rekhti poets are, of course, Sadaat Yaar Khan Rangin, Inshallah Khan Insha, Mohsin Khan Mohsin and Meer Yaar Ali Jan.

Sajid Sajni (1922-1993) revived this genre and was the last famous rekhti poet. His famous couplet is often attributed to Meena Kumari:

But at the end of the day these were male poets addressing a male audience, albeit with deep knowledge of women from their frequent interactions with courtesans and dalliances with khangis (according to Prof CM Naim these were “parda nasheen women who surreptitiously engage in prostitution in their homes”).

Mahlaqa Chand (1768-1824) is said to be the first woman to publish her diwan, but her verses were written in the classical context of her times with the recurring use of saqi, makhana and sharab, which were the themes of many ghazals.

Once again these are verses which could have been written by either sex and except for a few of her verses none were expressions of a feminine voice.

It’s not till mid-twentieth century that we find women who could articulate both feminine and feministic feelings of a woman in verse and they didn’t need rekhti for that.

They did it in the classical form of nazms and ghazals.

Now we have female poets who speak for women and on women’s issues with a fearlessness that was not seen before.

Whether it is Kishwar Naheed challenging patriarchy or Parveen Shakir questioning male prerogative, or Zehra Nigah on the compulsions and compromises of a woman, there are many who speak for her and have found appreciation and acceptance.

Find the full poem and translation here.

The poem recited by Kishwar Nahid herself:


Nayyara Noor sings Zehra Nigah:


There are many more female poets and can be found on the websites on Urdu poetry, for finally women have found a voice — their own — they don’t need others to speak for them.

Also read: How Lucknow — the soul of tehzeeb — is reinventing Sham-e-Awadh

Read more!

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