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A craftsman par excellence

Zafar Iqbal has left indelible imprints on modern Urdu ghazal. We cannot bypass him; we have to navigate through him

A craftsman  par excellence

Zafar Iqbal is not a popular ghazal poet nor has he ever ventured to be one. Even though some of his couplets have already become part of our popular imagination, he is perhaps the most talked about, even controversial, ghazal-poet among the poets that appeared in the post-1947 era. Besides his powerful interventions into modern Urdu ghazal, his linguistic experimentations and prose-pieces that primarily take the art, craft and form of ghazal as their subject-matter bring him to the centre-stage of discussions.

Zafar Sahib and I are a generation apart. I was still in my infancy when his maiden collection of poetry Aab-e Rawaan appeared. I have a three-fold relationship with him: as a common reader and admirer of his poetry; in the privileged position of knowing him personally; in the capacity of a younger poet who has been writing in the same genre for the last three decades or so.

Zafar Iqbal is a craftsman par excellence who has found astonishingly variegated ways to express in this closed genre of the ghazal.

In view of critical appreciation, Zafar Iqbal has been extensively written on and even more talked about. But the focus has entirely been on his linguistic experimentations, either by rejecting or justifying them. No critic has ever touched on his amazingly remarkable thematic range. With his enviable mastery of words, he has incorporated a lot of subjects hitherto alien to the repertoire of new Urdu ghazal. He himself views language at the heart of his creative process. Resultantly and quite interestingly, everything under the sun could be a subject-matter of ghazal. With his amazing craft and marvellous skill, he could make very banal things a part of his ghazal and elevate them to the point of sublimity.

It is said about Max Horkheimer, the chief proponent of Frankfurt School, that he could make metaphysics out of chewing gum. Zafar Iqbal is the rare example of this magical mastery in modern Urdu ghazal.

Like any of his junior contemporaries, I had certain reservations about the liberties he took with language, especially in his second collection of poetry, Gul-e Aftab. The urge on the part of an individual to alter the entire course of language was a radically romantic move. Quite understandably, he has made amendments in the latest edition of that book, though he tried to justify the subsequent changes by remarking that the book had already served its purpose.

These bold steps went a long way in emboldening the following generations of ghazal writers. But, on the whole, such deliberate distortions in language could hardly engender a serious, consistent and concerted following.

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A restless soul, he sets out again and again for his adventurous peregrinations. But, cunningly, he always leaves open his way back.

Zafar Iqbal is a craftsman par excellence who has found astonishingly variegated ways to express in this closed genre of the ghazal. The sharp chiselled lines of his couplets are mostly in prose order, and even on occasion when the first line relies on the one that follows it, it is not without some method.

He is perhaps the only major poet who has always maintained a very alive, lively and meaningful rapport with different generations of poets that came after him. As a young poet, he himself would lock horns with his senior contemporaries. Especially, he was at odds with his illustrious predecessor Nasir Kazmi. The soft and soulful strain of Kazmi’s ghazal — that sometimes verges on self-pity — was opposed to his own vibrant, vigorous and full-blooded poetry.

He cannot resist appreciating a poet who has the slightest spark, promise or potential. He discusses younger poets, challenges them and at times even provokes them. That generates controversy and sometimes even sharp reactions. A few years back, a whole book of ghazals was anonymously authored in the form of parody to his ghazals. Interestingly, he was the first to welcome this move and wrote an appreciative column about the book.

Ghazal is his passion and he loves to indulge in any discussion that centres on this genre. If he stumbles on a piece of ghazal written by an obscure novice published in an insignificant small-town periodical, he would write a whole write-up on it. In doing so, he expatiates on the art and craft of ghazal, and as a student of this genre, these points are of utmost interest to me.

The relationship between two generations is a matter that cannot be defined solely in terms of a dialectical process. You have a certain fascination towards your predecessors who have had already made a mark. At the same time, you wish to detach yourself from their system — a feeling that Harold Bloom has very aptly termed as the Anxiety of Influence.

It is generally expounded by some of my fellow writers that I am amongst the few poets in the later generations who came under the influence of his ghazal. Zafar Iqbal himself has expressed this view on some occasions. Well, Jaun Elia had located my poetry in the classical vein of Urdu ghazal — in the tradition of the great Mir and Mushafi while Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi had put my efforts in the line of modern poets like Firaq, Nasir Kazmi, Athar Nafees and Shakeb Jalali. It is not for me to determine the genealogy of my ghazal.

To get enamoured by a stalwart like Zafar Iqbal should surely be a matter of pride. By the way, it is hard to find a ghazal poet of the younger generation who is not influenced by him. It is more important to look at whether and where I and/or my fellow-poets have managed to exploit and improve upon the possibilities left open by him.

Zafar Sahib had very kindly sent me a set of his complete works. Having gone through his oeuvre for the first time, I cannot deny my fascination for his ghazal. But, I approach his poetry very cautiously and even sometimes I deliberately misprision it. If on one hand, Zafar Iqbal paves way for new poets, on the other hand, he closes many doors as well. He almost exhausts the possibilities of what he lays his hand upon.

Zafar Iqbal’s contributions cannot be overstated. He has left indelible imprints on modern Urdu ghazal. He is there and he is there to stay. We cannot bypass him; we have to navigate through him.

Dr Aftab Husain

Dr Aftab Husain web
The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University

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