Many of us have heard of Rekhta, the primeval form of Urdu. But the feminine form of the word is seldom known. Rekhti, whereby the -i suffix connotes femininity, stands for a genre of Urdu feminist poetry.
What if I were to tell you, that in the 18th century, there existed a form of rather significantly-known poetry that unabashedly expressed the desires of women—unbridled, carnal, and elegant? On top of which, these expressions of longing and affection were not limited to being directed at males. Yes, same-sex love, in eighteenth century India!
Rekhti is characterised by having a female speaker, and having women, and erstwhile feminine lifestyles as its themes. Its settings, scenarios, subjects and objects were often those commonly encountered by women in their everyday life. It was often situated in the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, staple workplaces prescribed to women then. The specific form of poetry that has contemporarily become a synecdoche for Urdu Poetry, Ghazal, did not extend to these places and often alienated a lot of real word entities, ever-excluding their mention.
Bred in the Hindi heartland, close to the seats of power, Rekhti was subtle yet bold, delicate yet unrelenting, and implicitly explicit. While Ghazals are contextually conversations between gentlemen, Rekhti are conversations between women, or at times, between women and men.
Back then, Ghazal often did not have this transcendental, surreal, mystical or metaphysical fixation, as it apparently does today. So Rekhti, like many other forms of poetry of its time, more often than not, dealt with the real world—the situations, ambiences and motifs of the real world, the beauties encountered in everyday life, and the joy of little things in rather uneventful trifles and chores of petty, daily rhythms of life. Rekhti unearthed elegance in the routine and the mundane, at times, even the trivial.
The upliftment and centre-staging that Rekhti provided, was intersectional and eclectic. It was not limited to the affluent women of Lucknow, but the subjects ranged from housewives to concubines and courtesans, and ladies to servants. Diversity of people was a central showcase of Rekhti.
Rekhti originated in Lucknow, the city of class, sensibility, genteel demeanor, fine-etiquette and high-society. The haute-couture centre of thriving Indo-Persian culture in India, Lucknow had a flamboyant lifestyle, demonstrated a consistent obsession with delicate and intricate aesthetics, and served as a flourishing milieu for cultural diversity, introduction and integration. Lucknow had a palate for everything. It was quite tolerant and indiscriminate, but exhibited a consistent favoritism towards finesse.
Rekhti originated from two distinct, robust and rich traditions, unfortunately denounced, systematically neglected and often conveniently pruned and blind-eyed by inheritors—The rich and elaborate ancient Indian tradition of sexual practices, customs, foreplay and paraphernalia, as codified in several treatises, most prominently the kamasutra, and a forgotten Perso-Arabic treasure-trove of splendid erotica, spanning all sexual orientations.
The hybrid of these two traditions yielded a distinguished form that documented the beautiful and diverse people and pleasures of the urban setting, glamour, fashion, and gender-plying customs, amongst others. Bred in the Hindi heartland, close to the seats of power, Rekhti was subtle yet bold, delicate yet unrelenting, and implicitly explicit. While Ghazals are contextually conversations between gentlemen, Rekhti are conversations between women, or at times, between women and men.
Rekhti is a holistic iconoclast; it is a stereotype-shatterer, in multiple senses. It often disregards erstwhile rules and standards of poetry, not strictly (but often doing so) adhering to metrical schemes and pre-imposed styles. It defies dichotomies, those of elite and subordinate, those of Urdu and Hindi, of servants and mistresses, of respectable noble ladies and courtesans. It was a poetry that treated the tawaif with the same naturality as it dealt the nobility. Indeed, Rekhti’s nonconformism was naturally intersectional.
It was unorthodox in defying, rather being free of the archetypal love that Ghazals and most of contemporary Urdu poetry ubiquitously venerated and exalted. Rekhti focused on free expression of desire. Fidelity was not romanticised. Polyamory was not seen as unfaithfulness. Love or rather loving, was seen as an end in itself, irrespective of it being directed towards different individuals at different times and of different varieties, even to different extents. Intense passion in the individual was depicted and the nature of love probed and discussed. Unlike the lover-beloved bipole that existed in Rekhta (a metonymy for Mainstream Urdu poetry, which happened to be near male-exclusive), and glamorized the classic Majnu-esque sacrifice—culmination and consummation post-death, Rekhti was way more liberated, in all senses and contexts of the word.
The upliftment and centre-staging that Rekhti provided, was intersectional, eclectic and inclusive. It was not limited to the affluent women of Lucknow, but the subjects ranged from housewives to concubines and courtesans, and ladies to servants.
Much of the corpus of Rekhti is lost, as it was regarded as obscene and perverse, and hence either passively neglected and not preserved and duly archived, or even actively destroyed by narrow-minded aficionados who had a parochial, stereotypical view of norm-conformant poetry.
Most Rekhti including the original foundational ones, was penned by male poets, speaking through female characters or narrators. There were a minuscule number of female Rekhti writers, but almost all of their work has been lost, partly owing to the fact that preservation depends on patronage, popularity and veneration through age and credentials. Urdu poetry often had an unsaid hierarchy of respect and consideration meted out to the work being in proportion to the popular esteem of the poet. Rekhti was strongly denounced late 19th century onwards and hence fell onto oblivion.
Several of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s wives wrote poetry, one of whom, known by her title “Rashq-i-mahal”, wrote the following verses:
“Hai man̤zūr bājī satānā tumhārā
Gila kartī hai jo du-gāna tumhārā
Sister, I accept your harassment
It is your du-gāna who complains
Ghar sih-gāna ke du-gāna merī mĕhmān ga’ī
Maiṅ yah angāroṅ pe loṭ ī ki merī jān ga’ī
My du-gāna went as a guest to the sih-gāna’s house
I rolled on burning coals, my life left me”
Regarding her, eminent scholar, writer and activist Ruth Vanita, in her book “Gender, Sex, and the City: Urdu Rekhtı̄ Poetry in India” writes, “Noteworthy is this woman poet’s facility with rekhtī vocabulary. Rangīn’s glossary defines a sih-gāna as the du-gāna (“intimate companion”) of one’s du-gāna, so she is writing about a female love triangle. (Begam’s other verses are unfortunately lost.) She was a contemporary of Jān Ṣāḥib, who presented his rekhtī to her husband. This example is enough to indicate that some women did write rekhtī.”
These verses are one of the very few figments of Rekhti written by a woman, that survive. Most women were seldom exposed to Rekhti, but they were frequently composed, heard, recited and even danced to by courtesans, some of whom were royal, and at times even queens, mistresses and concubines of the royalty. The courtesans in medieval India were one of the most educated, artistically-inclined, aesthetically-sensible and creatively-meritorious sections of the society. They were adept at striking an intellectually-engaging and artistically-fulfilling conversation. With time, their respect which once peered comparable to royal teachers and scholars, declined and their social order and system crumbled with the advent of Imperial powers.
Rekhtis were predominantly created by men and heard by them, leading to accusations of them being male fantasy-gratifying erotica. Reciting them to women was viewed as a corrupting influence on the fairer sex, that could compel them to indulge in unnatural acts and indecency, bringing disrepute and infamy to their families. It was often recited in mushairas by male poets dressed as females. But, the fact that, for the first time, female voices were ascribed enough consideration to even be mentioned, let alone explore female-female relationship, adultery and polyamory, absolve the genre of most of its allegations of being a male-titillating men-for-men body of work.
A verse by 20th century poet Sajid Sajni dispels doubts cast on Rekhti about whether it helped usher in pro-feminine reform in Urdu poetry:
“talāq de to rahe ho itāb-o-qahr ke saath
mirā shabāb bhī lauTā do merī mahr ke saath”
“You are punishing by giving me a divorce in fury
Do return my youth too, along with the bride money.”
Featured Image Source: TARSHI