Does homosexuality exist in the Urdu ghazal tradition?

Published: February 6, 2016

The book, Dabistan-e-Karachi mein Urdu ghazal ka irtiqa (The evolution of the Urdu ghazal in the Karachi school of poetry) on about 80 poets was launched at a ceremony at Arts Council. PHOTO: TRIBUNE

The term homosexual was coined in 19th century Europe but its categorisation for the people in the Indian subcontinent had existed long before. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism emerged in South Asia in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the 1996 Indian-Canadian film Fire, written and directed by Deepa Mehta which starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

This film argued in favour of the legitimacy of lesbian representation in cinema and subsequently, in public discourse. Following this contention, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai presented an outstanding array of writings on same-sex relationships drawn from two thousand years of Indian literature to highlight the prevalence of homosexual themes from centuries earlier.

Their book, Same-Sex love in India: Readings from Literature and History covers the ancient period through texts like the Kama Sutra, Ramayana, Tantric Puranic texts, the medieval period through the genre of kafi from early Punjabi, and the relatively more recent period through early Urdu ghazals from the Deccan and rekhti poems from 19th century Lucknow.

One of the explicit aims of their work is to counter homophobic myths existing in India, and elsewhere, that homosexuality was imported from the West and was suppressed by the East. Vanita and Kidwai aim to recover, reclaim and palpably recuperate the lost and marginalised strands of the Indian subcontinent’s literary life through a celebration and re-creation of a past in post-colonial times. The relationship of homosexuality, continuing ghazal tradition and the newly innovated rekhti tradition is not only one of differences, but they appear to be in dialogue with the norms of the society in which they were begotten and reached the pinnacle of their fame.

In Islamic societies, symbolic poetry has always been a safe medium for expressing controversial ideas: what was not said in prose was licit in poetry. The ghazal tradition’s aesthetics are derived from Perso-Arabic Islamicate literature and the genre was developed mostly by Muslim poets under the patronage of Muslim royalty in North India. Although the ghazal deals with the whole spectrum of human experience, its central concern is love. According to Carla Petievich, this form of poetry is composed in two line verses, shers; its main subject is an idealised love (ishq), and its (anti) hero-narrator; a lover or aashiq (masculine voice) speaks to or about the beloved mashooq or mahbub (also in the masculine voice) who plays the role of the aashiq’s antagonist, and who is generally elusive, aloof, and even cruel.

There is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the gender and imagery of the beloved in the ghazal tradition.

This ambivalence is explored in CM Naim’s famous article, The theme of homosexual love in pre-modern Urdu poetry,” where the apologists’ justification regarding the incertitude surrounding the gender debate of the ghazal tradition is chalked out in order to defend it against homosexuality. The apologists state that the reference of the ghazal’s romantic hero to the beloved in masculine terms is a grammatical necessity for purposes of universality.

Naim also states that many verses not only exclusively refer to male accoutrements like swords and turbans but unambiguously refer to boys persistently: launda, larka, bacca, pisa. The apologists enunciate that masculine imagery could either refer to an earthly male or to the Divine beloved. This claim borrows heavily from the Sufi tradition where it is believed that the beauty of God is reflected in every earthly entity and ishq-e-haqiqi (love for the Divine) is reached only after the seeker had learned to love his murshid (a manifestation of ishq-e-majazi, that is mortal or earthly love) and both these objects of love were referred to in the masculine voice.

The very fact that the apologists go to lengths to defend the genre could reveal three extremely divergent viewpoints: one; where the ghazal tradition has no affiliation or inclination towards homosexuality and the need to defend it arises against the modern day misreading of the genre, two; where the ghazal tradition provides an expression of homosexuality without having any link or bearing with and to the society in which it was written and recited, and three; where the ghazal tradition incorporates the theme of homosexuality either because the notion of homosexuality like many other kinds of sexual orientation and love, found no acceptance in society or alternatively, because it was a thorough reflection of a tolerant society.

If the fact that homosexuality was expressed in the Urdu ghazal tradition but had no connection with the society in which it was begotten and recited, then this theme becomes a mere tool for aesthetic pleasure. Indrani Chatterjee states all this is simply to “invite the reader to reflect upon the sensuality of the world, contemplation of a debilitating lust.”

Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, however, debunks the notion that literature and poetry especially, the ghazal tradition, can only serve an aesthetic purpose. He states the ghazal was intended to be recited at mushairas and public gatherings — largely disseminated by word of mouth.

According to Faruqi,

“Poems – an oral performance needed to make sense of the experience, or the idea, of love, and in terms that made sense to the audience as a whole, and not a specific individual, beloved, or friend.”

This immediately means that the ghazal could not simply be for purposes of amusement and would need to encompass themes known to the audience either through their own experiences (their practice of homosexuality) or through the themes’ prevalence and acceptance in the society they inhabited (tolerance for homosexuality).

If the Urdu ghazals of the 18th and 19th centuries express homosexuality according to the social milieu in which they were produced, was the expression of homosexuality in this genre a platform for the enunciation of suppressed desire or a reflection of the tolerant attitudes of the time?

According to KC Kanda,

“In the medieval Islamic society where the purdah system prevailed and a rigid moral code denied to the young the freedom to mix and converse, love could only be indulged in secret, and expressed with indirection in hushed tones often with the aid or indirection and innuendo.”

He links the origin of the word to ghazaal in Arabic: “the painful wail of a wounded deer – The lover pained by the arrows of love and hounded by a hostile society” expresses his frustration and deep emotion which can never take place in reality due to its illicit nature through the ghazal. Homosexuality, in this way, seems to be one of the unacceptable forms of love in the Indian subcontinent which found expression in the Urdu ghazals.

Naim buttresses this stance when he says,

“In any case, such verses, whether true testaments or false, would not have shocked their audiences in the 18th century. Indian society has never looked upon homosexuality with the horror and anxiety that have characterised western responses to it since the early modern period.”

In summary, therefore, it is safe to say the attitude of the society through multiple layers and cultural lenses concludes that homosexual expression was a symptom of the re-imagination of poetry as a social institution with a role to play in the life of its linguistic community.

Yusra Hayat

Yusra Hayat

The author has a Bachelor’s in English Literature from LUMS. She is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune Peshawar desk. She tweets at @hayat55y (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.