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Songs of love and more

It was a lively discussion on the role of ghazals in Hindi films, thanks to enthusiastic audience participation

NO FREE VERSE The panelists spoke about how films impose restrictions on poetic forms

"Can you name one ghazal in a film that actually has saath sher," challenged Urdu poet and artist Tilak Raj Seth, looking around confidently, expecting silence to follow. But pat came the reply: "`Rang aur Noor ki Barat' from the film Ghazal."

The remarkable thing about the recent discussion at Oxford Bookstore on the role of ghazals in Hindi cinema, in fact, was a sharp and focused audience which ensured that the discussion did not meander into nebulous, nostalgic bylanes.


The discussion started on predictable lines with Tilak Raj Seth elaborating on the format of the ghazal and reading his own ghazal on the ghazal form. He talked about how "nobody in films has done full justice to the form" and how film ki majboori compels lyricists to tailor poetry to already set tunes.

Television anchor and Urdu scholar Sabiha Zubair sung praises of the language that is mohabbat ki zuban, tehzeeb ki zuban... so on and so forth. Zafar Mohiuddin, actor, writer and architect, read a few exquisite poems from Javed Akhtar's collection Tarkash. Singer Ramnagaraj rendered a couple of ghazals from films.

But what got the discussion really focused on the topic of the evening was the intervention by Milansar Ahmed, a man well versed in Urdu literature and a programme executive with the All India Radio. Rather than lament over the decline in standards, he urged the gathering to look at why ghazals are rarely used in films.

Ghazal is a form that is guided by a strict structure. It has to have an opening rhyming couplet called matla and should be followed by verses that are independent thought units without a unidirectional narrative flow.

The rhyme of the opening couplet is repeated at the end of second line in each verse, forming a specific pattern. Considering that songs in films are situation-bound, it would be unreasonable to expect filmmakers to use this demanding form, he said. "What pass of for ghazals in films are usually not ghazals at all, though some of them start of in a ghazalish style," he said.

Milansar pointed out that ghazals that adhere to the format, such as "Dikhayi Diye... " in Bazaar, were not composed specifically for the film. Though we tend to assume all that Javed Akhtar writes for films are ghazals (because of his use of Urdu diction and imagery), only one of his film songs is a classic ghazal — "Tumko dekha tho yeh khayal aya" from Saath Saath.

Milansar then drew the attention of the audience to a crucial socio-political factor that has made ghazals particularly rare in films.

Most Urdu poets who wrote lyrics for early Indian films came from the progressive movement (with exceptions like Shakil Badayuni) and were not particularly keen on the ghazal form which carried with it the feel of a decadent socio-cultural ambience.

Even as he agreed with him, Zafar added that even when songs by Urdu poets are not always written strictly in the ghazal format, they carry the spirit of the form in their language and use of imagery. So, films deserve to be credited with keeping the tradition alive and vibrant.

Chiranjeev Singh, former IAS officer and a connoisseur of Urdu literature who was in the audience, added that Urdu songs in films could be better described as ghazalnuma, or ghazal-like compositions.

"The format of a ghazal is demanding like that of a sonnet," he said. Only highly academic composers such as Anil Biswas, who chose their lyrics first and then set them to music, did justice to the form. Hindi film music, he added, deserves to be seriously studied because it has brought together musical forms from several corners of the world, creating a rich synthesis that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.


Then came a fundamental and daring question about the form of ghazal from a young member of the audience: can anything new be said in this old form?

Is it time Urdu focused its attention to something entirely different in both form and content?

Milansar again intervened to say that these questions spring from the widely held misconception about ghazal being a form fit only for speaking of mehboob, maikhana, paimana, parwana...

"But you can talk about anything under the sun in the ghazal form," he said. "The ones which revolve around the theme of love have always been more popular, though."

He quoted the line of a poem by well-known Kannada poet G.S. Shivarudrappa which talks of how an old form can hold fresh and new thoughts: "Haadu haleyadadarenu bhava nava naveena."


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