On days when my mother wouldn’t make too much of my insincerity towards religion, I’ve often told my mother in good humour that if I could bow down to anyone except for god it would be the maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahab, possessor of the most beautiful voice in the world, that has the power to hook me to 20 minutes long Qawwalis early in the morning. Even when I’m out with my friends, I would often fight with them to play these “excruciatingly long” (in their words) Ghazals, Nazms and Qawwalis instead of some rock music or the deafening EDM.
Such is my dedication to this pristine form of art!
One such morning while listening on loop to, ‘Kali Kali Zulfon ke phande na daalo’ which literally translates to ‘do not lure me with your lustrous (black is used figuratively) hair…’, I realized that I was missing something.
After several references to jawani (youth), adaayein (charm) and dagha (deceit), I realized that it was basically a song about a bitter man defeated in love, blaming the failure of his lost pursuit on his beloved’s beauty and all its typical consequences – that she is unfaithful, her demonized beauty compared to a snake that would kill his innocence, blaming her for casting ‘evil spells’ (hints about witchery, anyone?) on innocent men with her black tresses.
All blame is rested on the woman’s beauty (read: sexuality). Ring a bell?
Let us dig a little deeper
On the surface, you could just go on and on listening to this man singing unending praises for a woman, but once you venture deeper, guess what you find? Alas, everyday sexism and subtle propagation of rape culture.
In another Qawwali song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, ‘Husn waalo’n se Allah bachaye’ literally meaning ‘May God save Me from the Beautiful ones’, he goes on to describe how a man should take upon himself any disaster but not fall in love with a ‘beautiful’ woman. There is an elaborate description of all the possible reasons for a beautiful woman to be deceitful and tyrannical, fond of doing zulm (inflicting pain) on her lovers. A line from the song, ‘Inki fitrat mein hai be-wafaai’, goes on to attribute the deceit of these pretty women to their very nature.
To offer a gist, an extremely attractive woman is being defined by the Qawwal as an evil tramp who would ‘phasao’ (trap) the men around her and use her sexuality to play them. A typical everyday trope on the internet, right?
In ‘Kali Kali Zulfo’n ke phande na daalo’, there is actually a very clear reference to the state of human society in a dystopian/degraded state because of the beloved’s beautifully ‘scandalous’ black hair and pink cheeks.
“Ye sumbal se gesu, ye aariz gulabi,
Zamane me laayenge ik din kharabi…”
In an abundance of examples of similar nature, what we find is that these poets were really obsessed with what seems to me like the perfect image of a ‘modern’ woman – one who knows she is beautiful, one who embraces her sexuality rather than demonizing it and one who does not hesitate in using it.
Why do we ignore flaws in the language?
A recent realization has dawned upon me that with such a dedication to a man and more importantly to an art form, it becomes inevitable for me to discover, and incumbent to point out the inherent misogyny contained in it. In an age of popular culture where we have more people who love the idea of a language than the number of people who actually know it, it is hard to pick on the flaws of the divine state that Qawwali has acquired.
Apart from that, Urdu speakers in the country are marginally lesser than the number of people who listen to songs in Urdu. That simply means that most people are not even in a position to critique something they do not fully understand.
With knowing (and loving so dearly) a language that is dying at such a fast pace, there also lies a burden on me to do my bit to preserve and advance the language in whatever ways possible, or to ‘cut it some slack’.
Along with people who do know the language, there has been an immense amount of effort by lovers of the culture and heritage such as Rekhta to preserve the language and has made many more people interested in learning it and others, in simply engaging in its appreciation. Having said this, I must admit that I feel almost guilty for doing this.
Language: Bollywood vs offbeat forms of music
Bollywood, owing to its populist approach and resultant fame enabling a clear understanding for the audience, has been under the scanner multiple times whereas other lesser known forms of music and art haven’t. Bollywood songs are heavily parodied and every day a new film or song on women empowerment or other relevant social themes can be seen. Bollywood and other mainstream forms are now coming up with lesser problematic content (or are at least trying to).
As a result of its decline in post-Partition India, Urdu, as a language has suffered stagnation, at least in post-Partition India and has not evolved as much as other languages such as Hindustani (used in films and Bollywood songs) has.
Qawwali and very often other forms of Urdu poetry become inherently misogynistic because of the time/culture it takes birth from and its long-dated history of not being critiqued. When Urdu originated, it was primarily only men who worked on the language. So naturally, the language has words which these men wanted.
Of course, Urdu is one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but for it to survive, its sexism needs to be addressed for it to fit into an ever-growing society. Just like any other form of art, Urdu poetry is also a reflection of the society which demands a more egalitarian vocabulary and artists now. As a tool of communication, it has the power to shape cultural norms.
Were Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and other maestros sexist?
Nusrat sahab was famed not only for his Qawwalis but for many other forms or songs he sang such as the ghazal, nazm and even religious forms such as naat and hamd. He has sung the song ‘Chaap Tilak’ written by Nizamuddin Auliya’s disciple, Amir Khusrau and ‘Afreen Afreen’ penned down by the present day lyricist Javed Akhter. He was also known to be influenced by Rumi.
Considering the delayed growth of the language and the stagnation that it has seen, it’s safe to assume that these artists may not be necessarily sexist (mostly just ignorant), but at the same time, we must remember that in no circumstances should this be acceptable!
Ignorance is no excuse when it means propagating rape culture and contributing to the oppressive structures against women in any intensity. It is high time that we start to expect the new age of poets to evolve and do better than their role models. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, are you listening?
What is the fuss all about?
Constantly appreciating a woman’s beauty but associating it to her ‘adulterous nature’ and demonizing it is part of a bigger problem. It is the artistic equivalent of male gaze wherein the man’s idea of a woman’s beauty entirely defines her, consuming her individuality in the process.
A larger harm?
A woman’s hair being held responsible for bringing ‘kharabi’ in the society, her beauty responsible for the corruption in society and eventually for the condemnation of the entire humankind all contribute to furthering the deteriorated position that women hold in society and in fact, justifies it.
Some parts of the songs, though subtly, also contribute to rape culture.
The feminine dichotomy in Urdu poetry
There exists a Jane Eyre like angel-demon dichotomy in Urdu poetry. Either the woman is the evil beloved or she is angelic and indescribable. On one hand, there is the docile, innocent, ‘angelic’ woman with her ‘bholi surat‘ whereas, on the other hand, there is the extremely beautiful woman just waiting to trap men with their ‘kali zulfein’.
Not just that, women are judged for something where men are equal participants! Men deriving pleasure and then cursing. How typical! Urdu has tens of thousands of degrading words readily available to describe women. Wait for it!
Rekhti – a reaction to such poetry
There is plenty of poetry admiring a woman’s beauty but hardly any women poetesses admiring their own, and if she does so, it would be typically faced with criticism. What does this tell us about Urdu poets? That they love to appreciate women only as long as they happily take compliments from them but remain innocently oblivious to their beauty.
Another thing to note is that this branch of patriarchal poetry has also hardly praised men. Why, are none of our men worthy of endless praise and desire? Where does one draw a line between harmless praise and unsolicited suggestive compliments? In the above-mentioned kind of Urdu poetry, a very thin line exists between the two.
Rekhti is a kind of poetry where male poets write in the female voice, trying to imitate their narratives. Double negative? Hmm.
Women are known to have entered the domain of Urdu Shayri in the late 20th century. Male-dominated Urdu poetry marveling at the beauty of women, at the same time stereotyping them as evil was challenged by the likes of Kishwar Naheed who embraces all that has been said about women with open arms in, ‘Hum gunahgaar auratein‘ (we are the sinful women) and Parveen Shakir’s ghazals that arise from the honest, plain and beautiful subjectivity of women.
It’s time women take hold of the reins and go on to bequeath the world with stories of their struggles, in their own voices.
Featured Image Credit: Express Tribune