Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 7


With a touch of sun in the air here in the East, spring is definitely on its way and what better season than spring to pen down beautiful love songs or poems. It is indeed the season for romance, whether writing, reading or doing. 

This week, I am going to tell you about my personal favorite among the poetry forms - that is ghazals, mainly ghazals adapted in English. Though I will primarily be teaching about writing a ghazal in English, it can be used for Urdu or Hindi too as the primary form remains the same and I will be using the Urdu words for the technical aspects anyway. 

I grew up listening to ghazals of Mirza Ghalib and grew addicted to the magic and mystic of a ghazal. Though a very intricate form, ghazal flows seamlessly and is quite a challenging form to master. To learn more about ghazals it is important to know a little about the history of the same

Origin and History Of Ghazal

The origin if ghazal form can be traced back to the 10th century A.D in Iran. It grew from the Persian form qasida, which had come from Arabia in verse form. The qasida was a panegyric written in the praise of the lord or the emperor. The part of the qasida called tashbib got detached and developed in due course of time into the ghazal. Whereas the qasida sometimes ran into as many as 100 couplets or more in mono-rhyme, the ghazal seldom exceeded twelve, and settled down to an average of seven. Because of its comparative brevity and concentration, its thematic variety and rich suggestiveness, the ghazal soon eclipsed the qasida and became the most popular form of poetry in Iran.  

Since the arrival of the Turkic and Afghan tribesmen in India in about A.D. 1000, a most important place, a power base or shakti sthala has been occupied in Indian poetry and music by the lyric form called ghazal. This word, of Arabic origin, is now common heritage to all Indian languages and many Indian poets use it as the preferred form.
In Arabic, ghazal means a lover talking to his beloved amorously. The ghazal was developed further and to its maximum potential in Iran and in India where Persian was the court language of the Turcomans, Afghans and the Mughals who ruled in the North and the Bahamanis and their successors in the South. Of the Persian poets, Hafiz of Shiraz enjoys the highest reputation. The Indian poets held in esteem for Persian verse are Amir Khusrau (13th century) and Mirza Bedil (18th century). Khusrau also wrote in Hindi and was devoted to the great Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrau's Persian and Hindi verse is sung at Sufi shrines even today, some seven centuries later. On the anniversary of the saint's death, the Urs festivities start with qawwals singing a Khusrau verse. 

The most commonly used definition for a ghazal is very simplistic and yet kind of misleading. A ghazal is commonly defined to be a collection of shers (couplets).  A sher is a couplet, which means two line of poetry and makes sense all by itself.  In other words, each sher is a poem by itself and it doesn't depend on the rest of the ghazal to make sense. This also means that there is absolutely no enjambments anywhere in the ghazal not even between the two lines of the sher. 

Consider this sher,

The day we met my life was bound, with you
Every dream I dreamt of was found, with you.

You would notice that each line makes sense by itself and the sher is a complete poem by itself.  Yet not all collections of shers form a ghazal. Lets look at the other rules which have to be followed.


Beher refers to the meter of the ghazal. All the shers should have the same meter. The types of beher are loosely classified as:


Just that day, I was yours
In every way, I was yours


The day we met my life was bound, with you
Every dream I dreamt of was found, with you.


Just for that one joy in my lifetime, I would do anything
To live with your love so sublime, I would do anything

As you see the number of syllables is not same in each line but close enough. 


Radif or the refrain is the phrase or word with which all the shers end. The last line of all the shers end with the same word or set of words.


Just that day, I was yours
In every way, I was yours

'I was yours' forms the radif here. The opening sher in all ghazal must have the radif in both the lines and is called the matla. All the examples cited above are matlas.


Kaafiyaa is the rhyming pattern which all the words before 'Radif' MUST have. The ghazal follows an intricate internal rhyming pattern.

Just that day, I was yours
In every way, I was yours

Day and way form the kaafiya in our example.


In the last sher of the ghazal the shayar generally uses his nick name or alias in the poem. This may be in first person, second person or third persona and may be in any part of the last sher, though this is not a compulsory pat of the ghazal it is commonly used.

When you were away from me, my love
My heart was away ground, with you

Ephemeral though this life may be, dearest,
By love, I will our world surround, with you 

Here I take the nickname Ephemeral and use it to portray the timelessness of love.

Now coming to the most important rule of a ghazal. All the shers of the ghzals MUST NOT follow the same line of thought. Each sher should be a separate line of thought and yet must have the same underlying theme. Each sher shouldn't follow each other but must be disjointed.  If the shers are scrambled and arranged in different orders It should still make sense. Remember it is a collection where except for the matla the placement of the rest shouldn't really matter. 

Consider this ghazal I wrote a while ago.

You look up with a smile, as love catches me unawares
Your dancing eyes beguile, as love catches me unawares

Stolen kisses whispered words, walks in the moonlight
Fond memories pile, as love catches me unawares

Nose pressed to the window, ears tuned to the door
My dreams run fertile, as love catches me unawares

Snow kissing my nose, wind whipping away my cape
I walk with steps agile, as love catches me unawares

Roses bloom in splendor, spring has spread her beauty,
I just want to sit down awhile, as love catches me unawares

Waves kissing the shore, branches swaying to the wind
Flowers bloom in style, as love catches me unawares

Wind whispers in my ears, the promises of a sweet tomorrow
My heart yearns to walk the aisle, as love catches me unawares

In some cases the whole second line of the sher is used as the radif throughout the poem.

The wind lovingly ruffles your hair
As the rain splatters against the pane

A new found love blossoms in passion
As the rain splatters against the pane

A matured love basks in familiar comfort
As the rain splatters against the pane.

A young couple share the day's worries
As the rain splatters against the pane.

A young heart dreamily yearns for love
As the rain splatters against the pane.

An old souls knits memories of love
As the rain splatters against the pane.

My heart just wishes you were still be my side
As the rain splatters against the pane.

Generally when writing a new form of poetry I use a blank form and then fit my words in it.    

The Ghazal Format

Sher 1
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 2
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 3
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 4
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 5
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 6
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain
Sher 7
------------------------------rhyme A + refrain

Now draft the first sher, While doing so keep a few things in mind. Pick a rhyme for which you would be able to find lots of rhyming words, which gives you freedom. Then, make sure that the refrain is strong enough to sustain throughout the ghazal.  

I pick my first sher as

They were people all new, the two strangers by the night,
Like the morning dew, the two strangers by the night..

My refrain is two strangers by the night and my kaafiya will be new, dew and so on. Now I write out the next sher

Just a chance clash of glances across a crowded hall,
Life took on a new hue, the two strangers in the night.

I make sure I stuck to the rhyme scheme, my radif is there and my kaafiya is correct. Now move on to the rest of the couplets one by one

Thrown together by a chance of a fate, circumstances
Act stronger than a glue, the two strangers in the night

Just a few moments together in a life spent apart
Will tell if love is true, the two strangers in the night

Whispered words and concealed glances at each other
In one night their love grew, the two strangers in the night

In the night set for romance in a star spangled sky
And a moonlight view, the two strangers in the night

The face a passing blur, catching yearning in the heart
Sometimes love occurs to, the two strangers in the night.

Till you get all the rules of the ghazal known thoroughly it might be a good idea to use this form. 

A class about ghazals would be incomplete without the mention of nazms.  A nazm is very similar to a ghazal except that all the shers are bound together by a single thought.  Some contemporary shayars use the nazm within the sher too. 

An example of a nazm 

I stood waiting for you near the door, just to be by your side
That's what I wanted since I was four, just to be by your side

When we met for the first time holding our mommy's hands
I hated you and thought it a bore, just to be by your side

Yet I pounced on excuses and often landed on your door
even when the rain did pour, just to be by your side

The year when i turned sixteen you made me yours with a kiss
My heart did pound and blood did roar, just to be by your side

All through the tumultuous years we were together and fought
I wanted even when we were at war, just to be by your side

And then came the day when we were named man and wife
That was the day I solemnly swore, just to be by your side

Now as you sleep carelessly on the bed with an arm around me
I know I am blessed, even if you do snore, just to be by your side

The ghazal takes a little bit of time in the beginning to master the rules but is a pleasure to write later on. It is a very beautiful form to capture the myriad emotions of love. The ghazals of Ghalib are a treasure to read and I have provided the link below. 

Recommended Reading : http://www.msci.memphis.edu/~ramamurt/ghalib.html  

Wrapping up the rules pertaining to a ghazal are

A poem of five to fifteen couplets 

No enjambment between couplets. Think of each couplet as a separate poem. One must have a sense that line 2 is amplifying line 1, turning things around, surprising us.

Once again, ABSOLUTELY no enjambment between couplets'each couplet must be like a precious stone that can shine even when plucked from the necklace though it certainly has greater luster in its setting.

What links these couplets is a strict formal scheme. This is how it works: The entire ghazal employs the same rhyme and refrain. The rhyme must always immediately precede the refrain. If the rhyme is merely buried somewhere in the line, that will have its charm, of course, but it would not lead to the wonderful pleasure of IMMEDIATE recognition which is central to the ghazal. The refrain may be a word or phrase.

Each line must be of the same length (inclusive of the rhyme and refrain). In Urdu and Persian, all the lines are usually in the same meter and have the same metrical length. So establish some system'metrical or syllabic'for maintaining consistency in line lengths.

The last couplet may be (and usually is) a signature couplet in which the poet may invoke his/her name in the first, second, or third person.

The scheme of rhyme and refrain occurs in BOTH lines of the first couplet (that is how one learns what the scheme is), and then in only the second line of every succeeding couplet (that is, the first line of every succeeding couplet has no restrictions other than to maintain the syllabic or metrical length.

There is an epigrammatic terseness in the ghazal, but with immense lyricism, evocation, sorrow, heartbreak, wit. What defines the ghazal is a constant longing.   

Image (c) Gettyimages.com 

Smitha Chakravarthula


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