As with most cultural aspects, literature is seen through heavily gendered lenses as well: ‘women’s literature’ or ‘LGBTQ+ literature’ are labelled differently in fancy book shops. But there is still the question to be addressed: what makes something women’s literature, for example? Is it because the voice is feminine? Is it because a female author wrote it? Or is it because it addresses a female audience? Although I don’t aim to delve into the nitty-gritties in this article, it is a question that we must think about when we get to the end: when, where, and how do women find their voice in literature?
Ghazals in South Asian culture are the “quintessential poetry of romance”, best remembered probably through cheesy, even cheeky, moments of reciting them under the winter sun outside on college grounds with a warm cup of chai that is almost too sweet. They flourished under the patronage of Muslim Royalty, rooted firmly in Persio-Arabic Islamicate literature. Its audience can be considered diverse, it transgressed the boundaries of class and communities even then. Its two indigenous forms, Rekhta and Rekhti, the latter unfortunately subjected to erasure, are topics of interest.
In early 19th century, Sa’adat Yar Khan ‘Rangin’ (often credited to be the one who first wrote Rekhti) is said to have borrowed much inspiration from his interaction with courtesans of Delhi and Lucknow in his youth, and written what turned out to be a nightmare for the morally conservative (as did Insha Allah Khan, Mir Yar Ali Khan and Qalandar Bakhsh ‘Jur’at’). Historian Ravi Safvi mentions in an article: “When I first decided to include rekhti in a #shair schedule, purist members were outraged that I was trying to defile Urdu Ghazals”; the ‘library culture’ that celebrates its heritage seems to actively try to root out an integral part of it.
If we must provide an explanation of its infamy, perhaps a substantial chunk of it would lie in the contents itself: Rekhta indulged generously in a modest exploration of unrequited love, a level of pining that 80,000-worded fanfics could only strive to achieve. The pronouns used to refer to the Mahbub (lover) were masculine (because of the intrinsic sexism of language itself) but at the same time, it wasn’t in order to honour male homosexuality. It was used to create an ambiguity that is essential to the acceptance of Rekhta and pass under the scrutinising eyes of morality gatekeepers. Mahbub became synonymous to god in its essence, only god could be so distant to (his) lovers:
“Ham ne mana kih taghafal na karoge lekin
Khak ho jayenge hum tum ko khabar hone tak.
(I’ve accepted that you won’t be neglectful but
I could turn to dust before the news of it reached you.)
Nind us ki hai, dimaagh us ka hai, raaten us ki hain
Teri zulfen jis ke baazu par pareshaan ho ga’in”
(Sleep is [his], peace of mind is [his], the very nights are [his]
Upon whose shoulder lie strewn your scattered tresses)
— (Mirza Ghalib)
Compare the symbolic and ‘multi-valenced’ language of Rekhti to the prominent characteristics of Rekhti as mentioned by C.M. Naim: “The language of rekhti is almost crudely realistic, and devoid of any ambiguity or multiplicity…its meaning is fixed.” It employs a straightforward confession of lust with racy undertones, the subject is always sexual in nature. Terms like “dogana” and “zenana” identified the lover clearly, and much to the surprise of the readers, the poetic persona, herself a woman, would address a female lover, going as far as to include a vivid description of their bodies (a sarapa), and even asking her to stop– she’s spent from sex:
“Tis peruu mein uthhi ohii meri jaan gayi
Mat sata mujhko do-gaana tere qurban gayi
(My pelvis aches, Oh my life is going
Don’t harass me, du-gaana I beg of you)
Baji, tum chahti ho bandi se kaisa ikhlas?
Ajï, do kuväriyon men nauj ho aisä ikhläs”
(Sister, what sort of affection do you want from this poor slave?
Oh Ma’am, God forbid that there be such Love between two maids!)
— (Sa’adat Yar Khan ‘Rangin)
Āg lene ko jo ā’īn to kahīn lāg lagā
Bībī hamsāī ne dī jī men merī āg lagā
Na burā māne to lun noch ko’ī muthi bhar
Begamā har terī kyārī men harā sāg lagā
(When she came to take fire, an attraction took hold;
The neighbor lady lit a fire in my heart
If you don’t mind, may I seize a handful or two?
Young lady, greens grow in every bed of yours!)
(Insha Allah Khan‘Insha’)
We’re not so different now, even in 21st century, as a society when it comes to talking about sex and lesbian relationships so it isn’t hard to guess how unacceptable this method of ‘celebrating’ ishq would be to the ‘proper’ and the ‘refined’ audience of the Ghazal legacy who considered it to be the “most noble of endeavours”. The language is far from the lofty, embellished Persian because it specifically utilised the female colloquial variation called the ‘begamati zuban’, it gave the verses a unique vibrancy because it in itself was ‘earthy, graphic, and colourful’ and a private practice of women in their households, separate from the eyes of the male society where they did not need to keep up the pretentions of being a ‘polite’ woman.
So, in a space and culture where women were denied even the opportunity of learning ornate vocabulary; Rekhti, claiming an expression of women handling their personal affairs (pun intended) took over. For this reason, oftentimes people designate a ‘feminist’ position to the art of Rekhti. Now we might not have changed much, but we have the vantage point of sitting down to examine it hundreds of years later, and this is the place my critique also comes from. Considering the incredible popularity of Ghazals that still exists, it wouldn’t be right to only judge by the standards of their times.
A closer look then, reveals that there is hardly any female presence outside the content of these she’ers: the only female poet that we still can trace is Naubahar, who took up the pen name ‘Zalil’ – “History of Rekhti mentions only the names of courtesans who were no less an object of entertainment to their male patrons than the paltry verses they wrote.” Moreover, even though it gained popularity, it wasn’t considered respectable. Anyone told to start with their ghazal at a mehfil before the Rekhti singers was considered a total “buffoon”.
Apart from the realisation that these voices were of men donned in the persona of a woman, we do not see these women even inside of she’ers actually acting in resistance to the oppressive rule of patriarchy by identifying their sexualities. The lesbianism depicted only exists because men hypothesised what goes on behind the domestic doors when they aren’t around: the neglected wife turns to her female servants for sexual satisfaction.
We cannot forget that this was a show: Jan Sahib is said to have cross-dressed and copy the accents and gestures of women. While there is nothing wrong with ‘cross-dressing’, the fact that the ‘masculine’ being ‘reduced’ to the ‘feminine’ was a source of humour and amusement raises a few eyebrows, even more so does the entire aspect of mimicking women. It can only be seen as a rude joke. “Adultery, lesbianism and other stereotypes of quarrelsome or superstitious women” had become quality entertainment. (We do need a second to process that this hasn’t changed much either.) A critic has claimed that there was no “human aspect” or “insaniyat” to rekhti; it was only a parody “performed for other men” and although it talked of “feminine-ness” this was “a feminine-ness re-imagined by a man”. This train of thought is marked by Rangin’s explanation of the terms ‘zanakhi’ and ‘dogana’. While a complete translation is hard to pin down because of the deliberate erasure, it is explicitly based the modern equivalent sentiment of ‘who’s the man in the relationship’:
For Dogana, he claims that lesbian lovers would order almonds from the bazaar and shell them. Twin almonds have a masculine ‘nar’ portion (the ‘implanted’ one) and a feminine ‘madah’ portion, the one it’s embedded in (say hello to sexual innuendos). An unknown (male) person would be given the two nuts and be asked to give them back: “The one in whose hand [he] places the nar fruit then thinks of herself as the ’man’ (mard) and the one in whose hand the ’feminine’ fruit is placed becomes the ’feminine’” .
For Zanakhi, similarly, he says that the lovers would sit down to eat cooked chicken together, each of them would take one ‘branch’ of the wishbone and pull it. “The one whose end snaps is the feminine and the one whose end remains whole is called the masculine.”
At best, in the most innocent light, it can be labelled as a misunderstanding of lesbian relationships. But at worse, it is a gross fetishisation of gender and sex and an invasive attempt at heteronormalising a homosexual relationship. It is blatant male voyeurism, a pornographic titillation and a laughable representation of homosexuality. However, the thought of representation and the question of women’s literature still looms at the back of our minds: the objectification is infuriating but it did mark a definite point in literature when women were put out of the spheres of patriarchal domestic ideals. Rekhti did not shy away from the ‘untamed’ nature, in fact the individualistic tendency is a remarkable aspect and it did ultimately displace the traditional subject. Its audience was not female, and neither did women write the majority of it. Moreover, it left deep scars for the early female writers of Urdu Literature. The question of where it falls on the ‘feminist’ spectrum is for the readers of this article to decide.
What is also commendable is the effort to cover up what little ‘representation’ (if we can call it that) women did get through rekhti. When Britishers took over, it became a shameful Lukhnawi thing, separated from Delhi because it, as the centre, could not ‘afford’ something so risqué tainting their pride of traditional appropriateness. How consistently ironic that the she’ers written about women, even by men, was still not appropriate enough to be passed down in the pages of history.
Featured image source: Tarshi.net