Gender Politics and the Urdu Ghazal: Exploratory Observations on Rekhta vs. Rekhti

‘While it is obvious that no writer can find expression by a total denial of the past, the crippling effects of tradition have to be overcome to arrive at freer expression. ..[there exists] a situation where men’s writing and women’s writing have come to mean superior and inferior. . .’ 1

Nind ati nahin, kambakht divani, acha!

Apni biti koi kah aj kahani acha.

I can’t sleep-come here, you crazy wretch!

Come tell me about your troubles today, old nurse. (Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin)

Teri faryad karun kis se zanakhi tu ne

Yih meri jan jalayi kih Ilaihi taubah

To whom can I complain of you, my dear?

God, but hasn’t your harshness

scorched my soul!

(Insha Allah Khan Insha)

Keywords: Urdu poetry. Urdu literature, gender politics, feminine voice, progressive writers, Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin, Rekhti, Rekhta, Muslim culture, Modern Urdu literature, Urdu women writers

Most of us think of the Urdu ghazal as the quintessential poetry of romance, and for nearly three hundred years it has figured among the most popular art forms of the subcontinent. Its highly conventionalised aesthetics can tend toward the complex, metaphysical and philosophical while also satisfying less arcane romantic impulses. As a result, this poetic genre simultaneously enjoys high prestige and great popularity. The ghazal’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; but it is claimed and consumed by diverse audiences across the lines of class, community, international boundaries and the territory of South Asia. While its origins are pre-modern, an indication of the form’s tremendous vitality in our own times is its manifestation (some would say its egregious corruption) in the ubiquitous and extraordinarily popular modern film song. Many of the most successful songwriters in the film industry have been Urdu poets. Yet despite Urdu’s enduring prestige as a literary language, and despite how mainstream the ghazal is in contemporary South Asia, most of its audience has little formal knowledge of the genre’s conventions and history. In order to draw attention to the (perhaps otherwise invisible) gender politics of pre-modern ghazal, and to appreciate the issues inherent in comparing rekhta with rekhti, a brief introduction will be useful.

Stylistic Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal

What the average enthusiast is likely to know about the ghazal is that it is a love lyric composed in two-line verses (she’rs); that its main subject is an idealised love (‘ishq) and its [anti-]hero-narrator a lover, or ‘ashiq.2 Ghazal she’rs tend to speak either to, or about, the beloved (mahbub or ma’shuq), who plays the role of the ‘ashiq’s antagonist, and who is generally elusive, aloof, even cruel. As one critic has observed, ‘the proverbial inaccessibility of the beloved [is] the cornerstone of the ghazal’ (Sadiq 34). ishq is thus essentially a love experienced in separation, characterised by pain and suffering, even unto death. The pain and suffering necessarily undergone by the ghazal’s lashiq is understood to be ennobling, and the challenges of ‘ishq are thought to be at the core of the human condition. To strive toward negotiating them is what elevates the ‘ashiq to [anti-]hero status. Below are a few representative examples by the great Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). In the first she ‘r the ‘ashiq speaks from beyond the grave, reporting on his thwarted quest while at the same time reaffirming its value:

Yih na thi hamari qismat kilt visal-e yar hota 

Agar our jite ratite yahi intizar hota 

It was not my fate to unite with the Beloved; yet

Had I gone on living, I’d have kept up this same waiting.

The ‘ashiq would have kept up ‘this same waiting’ because there is no more worthwhile pursuit for a human being than to seek union with the beloved. He would have kept up this same waiting also because it is not the beloved’s role in this literature to actually grant the ‘ashiq his heart’s desire—only to promise to do so and then withhold or renege on the promise. And if we understand the beloved to be divine—which is another conventional possibility—we know that humans ‘meet their maker’ only at or after death, so it would be logically impossible for the ‘ashiq to have united with the beloved during his life. The initiated audience would understand all these layers of meaning.

The second verse expresses what might be called a kind of masochism, also conventional in this poetry.

‘ishq se tabi’ at ne zist ka maza paya

Dard ki dava payi, dard-i be-dava paya

From love my being gleaned

Existence’s peculiar pleasure:

A remedy for pain and pain incurable.

Here, the pain is remedied (if only temporarily) by the joy of hope to which the beloved’s promises of a tryst give riser while the incurable pain is love’s underlying status quo, the pain of living with the disappointment of all those unfulfilled promises. That status quo is elaborated upon a bit in the third verse below, wherein the ‘ashiq alludes to the ma’shug’s cavalier distance, but uses ambiguity as a way of avoiding a direct accusation of blame. In his abject state the ghazal’s ‘ashiq still, ideally, refrains from expressing outright anger or frustration—not to invoke the ma’shuq’s fearsome wrath—(though there are she’rs in which he comes very close):

Ham ne mana kih taghafal na karoge lekin 

Kakh ho jayenge hum tum ko khabar hone tak

I’ve accepted [your assurance] that you won’t be neglectful

But I could turn to dust before news of it reached you!

News of the ‘ashiq ‘s demise—his turning to dust—might be the only thing that could melt the beloved’s heart, but by then what use would it be? Whereas neglect is absolutely central to the cruelty of the (human) beloved’s conventionalised persona, neglect on the part of the Divine Beloved would occur not through harsh cruelty so much as the indifference born of the profound separation between the human and the divine. In either case, the verse underlines the distance between the lover and beloved. While it causes the ‘ashiq despair, the beloved may be only mildly aware of it, if at all. And since the ghazal is really a poetry focused on the ‘ashiq’s point of view, the reasons behind the neglect are ultimately irrelevant to his suffering.

The Issue of Gender

In each of the three verses just presented, the identity of the beloved could be either human or divine, male or female, and the experience and sentiments expressed would still ring true. But note that it is conventional for both the ‘ashiq and the ma’shuq to bear grammatically masculine gender, though the emotions expressed in the ghazal are not thought to be exclusively male. On the contrary, they are understood to be universal, and this idea is jealously guarded, as the ensuing discussion will show.

The average ghazal or film song enthusiast may or may not know that in former times Urdu poetry was called rekhta (the ‘scattered’ idiom), because it was expressed in a combination of Persian and local vernacular languages of north India.3 Almost certainly s/he will not know about a sub-genre of poetry called rekhti, which is said to be rekhta’s counterpart, and which is the subject of this essay. Defined simply by Ralph Russell as ‘a rather curious genre of poetry in which the male poet speaks in the role of a woman’ (Russell 123), various other definitions of rekhti will be offered below as the discussion develops.

Rekhti is interesting because, manifesting a grammatically feminine narrator (and usually a feminine addressee) it serves to shed light on problematic gender politics within the world of Urdu culture, someiliing of which both ghazal/ film song aficionados and scholars remain largely unaware. Because so much of ‘Culture’ is so profoundly and ubiquitously gendered, hegemonic reading and reception conventions associated with the ghazal actually work to render its gender politics invisible to huge audiences. It is possible for lifelong devotees of this art form, unaware of the existence of rekhti, to never ask why the feminine gender is never used for either the ‘ashiq or the mahbub in rekhta. They would almost certainly not describe the ghazal as a poetry of male homosexual love, and the Bombay film genre through which so many of us are inducted into the ghazal’s aesthetic is hardly a genre focused on celebrations of homosexual love.4

Yet we seem to find the absence of the feminine unremarkable. Why?

This kind of cultural and social invisibility, hardly exclusive to the subcontinent, has been challenged widely in feminist scholarship over the past few decades, and time result has been a sea change in standard critical thinking in many fields.5 Unhappily, scholars and amateur consumers of Urdu heve not been moved to make such changes in their own ways of thinking about their subject. Indeed one distinguished critic has suggested that the rolevirict of gender to the Urdu ghazal is primarily a bothersome concern of foreigners; and further avers that the metaphorical force of ghazal convention precludes, or renders irrelevant, realities such as socio-cultural constructions, which give rise to literary conventions. He goes on to suggest that intellectual concerns with these constructions are driven by the desire to judge the ‘political correctness’ or ‘moral soundness’ of a culture’s literary output.’ But in sorting out the complex cultural history of Urdu love poetry, we ought not fail to distinguish between colonial discourses that have shaped discussions of Urdu poetry a hundred years ago and the intellectual discourses of our own time; nor should we equate critical reading (through the lens of gender or otherwise) with lack of appreciation for one’s subject or with the desire to denigrate rather than enhance our understanding of it. A look at even marginalised Urdu poetic gemes illuminates the infrastructure of gender in the mainstream ghazal, and offers on opportunity to learn more about the bygone world(s) to which we are heir. This essay seeks to incorporate such discursive concerns as it traces the reception history of rekhti poetry. We resume, then, our discussion of normative ghazal poetics.

Rekhta vz. Rekhti

As stated previously, rekhta is a literature narrated in the masculine voice, its love, idealised rather than purporting to reflect social reality, is ‘spoken’ by a masculine ‘ashiq to a grammatically masculine ma’shuq, and although s/he may in fact be female, explicit reference to the grammatical feminine is avoided. Indirections in linguistic structure as well as polite discourse serve the purpose admirably. Here is another illustrative example from Mirza Ghalib:

Un ke dekhe se jo a jati hat munh par raunaq 

Voh samajhte hain kih bimar ka hal accha hai

The flush that suffuses my face when I look at [her/him)

[S/he] interprets as a sign of my return to good health.7

As befits love poetry in a culture that tends to value the implicit over the explicit in interpersonal discourse, ghazal aesthetics favour indirection. While this verse is about the relationship between the beloved and the ‘asuiq, the ‘story’ is told, so to speak, through indirect reference in the course of a more direct observation made to a third person or persons. Here the narrator/ ‘ashiq uses this she’r as an illustrative example to impress upon ‘his’ audience just how cruelly ‘he’ is treated by ‘his’ beloved. In some verses the beloved is addressed as “you’ but more often is referred to in the third person (‘s/he’) as we see here.

Another indirection in this verse requires that its real subject be unpacked through interpretation. Firstly, the flush on the ‘ashiq’s (‘my’) face comes from excessive emotion, an indication of the narrator’s lovesickness. But the conventionally cruel beloved deliberately chooses to see the flush as a sign of good health, thus allowing her/him to ignore her/his own implication in the ‘ashiq-narrator’s distress. This underscores how cruel the beloved is and how long-suffering is the ‘ashiq.

Yet another layer of indirection. arguably more germane to the present argument, is grammatical, and is brought center stage when the verse is translated into English. In English, third person pronouns are necessarily gender-marked, unlike ‘voh’ and ‘un’ in Urdu, so the only way of retaining the Urdu original’s gender neutrality in English would be to translate ‘un’ and ‘voh’ incorrectly as an inanimate ‘it’. Most of this verse’s audience, already steeped in ghazal convention, would automatically translate the ‘voh’ and ‘un’ into ‘she’ and ‘her(s)’ but that is a completely arbitrary convention, not required grammatically.

It would also be grammatically correct to translate this verse in either of the two following ways:

(1) From the flush that suffuses my face when I look at him He understands, “the patient’s condition is good.”

(2) Looking at them, the face flushes red;

They take it to mean that the sick one has recovered.

Indeed, the only grammatically incorrect way to translate this verse would be to do what most people do by convention: to indicate that the person being looked at—and misunderstanding the flush—is a ‘she’.’ Not to make too much of the obvious, this grammatically incorrect convention in translation has preserved the fiction of heterosexuality in rekhta. Its logic will be taken up later.

Now rekhti —the name by which pre-modern Urdu poetry narrated in the feminine voice has come to be called10 — is not considered at all normative, though it observes a number of classical conventions. Overwhelmingly it is composed in ghazal form and a fair amount of it is about the expression of desire.11 However, it is associated with the domestic sphere of socially elite, secluded women during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and alleges to speak in the particular idiom of their milieu (begamati zaban). These two factors distinguish it from rekhta’s perceived universality of expression and explicit gender and its social universe.

Rekhti’s reputed creator was Sa’adat Yar Khan ‘Rangin’ (‘the Colourful’) [d.1834/5],12 a poet associated in the critical literature with Lucknow, as is the itself. Rekhti is not associated with other cultural centres, although the rekhti-gos (authors of rekhti) during the course of their careers often spent as much time in Delhi or Rampur or other places as they did in Lucknow.

Among the most famous, besides Rangin, were Insha Allah Khan `Insha’ (`God Willing’) [d.1817], Qalandar Bakhsh ‘Jur’at’ (the ‘Audacious’) [d.1810] and Mir Yar ‘Ali Khan ‘Jan Sahib [1818-1886?].

Three things that are important to remember about rekhti are: (1) Rangin is said to have adapted rekhti from the idiom of the women of ill repute with whom he spent his youth consorting; (2) Jan Sahib is said to have dressed himself ‘like a woman and recited verses in the accent and gestures peculiar to them, much to the amusement of his audience’ (Sadiq 197). This sort of `biographical’ information has done much to determine the shape of rekhti’s place in Urdu literature, which is severely marginalised. The third bit of information, mentioned initially herein but generally omitted from critical literature, is that (3) both rekhti’s T and its ‘you’ are usually feminine. The following are a few she’rs by Rangin and Insha:

Teri tu tu nahin rahti hai bhala jis tis se

Phir yih kyun karti hai Rangin ka to mazkur Dada

When you don’t so much as say a word to him, Dada [Nurse]

Why do you keep on mentioning Rangin’s name?


Mangungi adhi rat ko sar kholkar du’a

`Amen’ ke kahne ke liye our ik jani rahe!

Halfway through the night, with open heart [head]

I’ll plead this blessing:

Let there be another soul left to say ‘Amen’ !


Tis pairu men uthi hu’i miri jan gayi

Mat sita mujh ko dogana, tire qurban gayi

This throb below has nearly killed me

Dear One, don’t tease so, you’ve already done me in!


Baji, tum chahti ho bandi se kaisa ikhlas?

Aji, do kuvariyon men nauj ho aisa ikhlas!

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!


From these verses it is clear why rekhti is associated with the zenana.

The use of terms of address like ‘Baji’(lit. elder sister), Dada (nurse), bandi

and vari (slave, servant) indicate women’s speech, as does the rich catalogue of idiomatic expressions (muhavare) employed voluminously in rekhti collections. The term ‘dogana’, which appears in the third verse above, is particular to rekhti and indicates not only an intimate, but even an erotic, relationship between the speaker and the person so addressed. Discussion will return to this as well.

Culture and Poetry in Lucknow and Rekhti’s Early Reception

To Rangin and his contemporaries rekhti doubtless represented an exciting innovation in a talent-glutted cultural marketplace. By the end of the eighteenth century the city of Lucknow had established itself firmly as a major cultural centre (markaz). Indeed, it was second in status only to Delhi, the Mughal capital. Delhi had seen hard times through much of the eighteenth century as the result of invasions by Persians, Afghans, Marathas and Europeans. As the seat of Avadh, north India’s largest spin-off state from a decentralising Mughal empire, Lucknow was home to legions of refugee nobility and artists from Delhi and environs. These included even Mirza Sulaiman Shikoh, the Mughal heir apparent.  He and the ruling Navabs of Avadh offered lavish patronage to scores of poets and other artists from all over northern India, ae Lucknow ‘the place to be’.13 Featured prominently in Lucknow’s cultural life were such literary luminaries as Siraj-nd Din Khan-i ‘Arzu’ (‘Desire’) (d. 1756], Mirza Muhammad Rafi ‘Sauda’ (‘Frenzied’) (d. 1780), the great Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ [d. 1810], and Shaikh Ghulam Hamdani ‘Mushafi’ (‘Collector of Volumes’) [d.1824], in addition to the rekhti poets already mentioned. Great monuments were being built, schools and centres of Islamic learning were thriving, and literature was in a ferment. Some of Delhi’s erstwhile elite was actively engaged in the process of ‘perfecting’ Urdu in Lucknow so as to cultivate an indigenous literary language to rival Persian. This process is referred to in the histories as islah-i zaban.14 The standard literary genres of Perso-Arabic tradition were flourishing under Urdu masters and the sense of rivalry among them for patronage drove cultural production to new heights.

Into this milieu at around the turn of the nineteenth century Sa’adat Yat Khan ‘Rangin’ introduced rekhti. The son of a Persian nobleman.15 Rangin seems to have migrated to Lucknow from Delhi, weaving a circuitous path that was typical of artists in search of asylum and patronage during those turbulent times. By way of introduction to his literary innovation, Rangin explains that, the course of a wild and misspent youth. he consorted extensively with the famous courtesans of the day.16 In their company he developed familiarity and appreciation of their particular idiom. The pithiness of their expression their wit so impressed him that he decided to compose poetry in this ‘ladies’ language’ (begumati zaban)17 and to call his collected poems ‘rekhti’. The combination of its feminine narrator and its begumati idiom gave rekhti its generic distinctiveness.18 Indications are that this immediately-popular style of poetry was accepted quite unproblematically into Lucknow’s thriving milieu. Anecdotal sources indicate that Rangin recited his rekhti for the general delight and delectation of the Lakhnavi elite (Sabir ‘Ali Khan 95). It is noteworthy, for instance that no less a literary master than Rangin’s companion, Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha,’ also composed a collection (divan) of such poems; and the significant literary reputation of Jan Sahib (d.1886?) largely rests on rekhti.19 Our few extant scholarly sources offer numerous other names which are identified as versifiers in rekhti, though few of them are still known today. The very fact that so many names can be found, and so little poetic output can be connected with them, speaks volumes about how attitudes toward this poetry have changed.

Rekhti’s Reception by Modern Critics

By contrast with the apparently unproblematic early reception of rekhti as a literary innovation, moralistic judgements and a great deal of evasion characterise twentieth century critical writing on the subject.20 It has received very little scholarly attention in a literary culture nearly obsessed with its own past and present: aficionados cannot claim a familiarity with rekthi equal to their expertise with rekhti, because it is so difficult to lay hands on the poetic texts themselves. Rekhti does not appear on the syllabi for university-level degree programs;21 with one exception it cannot be purchased nowadays in published form, and then, too, only in an expurgated anthology.22 Although references can be found to several critical works published between 1930- 1989, successive visits over the past few years to Urdu bazaars and institutions dedicated to the promotion of Urdu have yielded almost nothing in the way of rekhti poems.23 Institutions dedicated to republishing out-of-print collected works (kulliyat) of classical poets routinely omit the rekhti as well as other genres determined by publishers to be inappropriate for common consumption. They thereby leave incomplete (na-mukammal) the advertised ‘complete works” of a number of canonised poets.24 I have so far located only three copies of Rangin’s rekhti collection (called Divan-i Angekhta) the course of researching this genre. Two are held not in India or Pakistan, but in the British Library in London, in unpublished manuscript form, and are very difficult to lay hands on; the third, published in 1924 in Badayun, was located in the Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh.25 The search in private collections is ongoing, but it is fair to say that this is a body of poetry nearly unavailable to the general public; whereas rekhta, Urdu poetry in general, especially in ghazal form, is just about ubiquitous.

Secondary materials are slightly more available, and consist mostly of passing comments in literary histories. The following is a fair representation of what they have to say:

Rekhti is a badnam (disreputable) genre of Urdu poetry which is thought to serve especially for the expression of women’s particular emotions and generic concerns in women’s idiom…

(Quateel `Dakan Men Redhti ka Irtiqa’)

A slightly less benign, yet also representative, pronouncement has been:

Rekhti is mostly a woman speaking to another about her delusions and anxieties, the infidelity of husbands or the daring of her companions who ventured into social taboos…Rekhti never attained respectability and often sunk [sic} into vulgarity, catering for those who sought decadent pleasure. It is, however, useful for a study of the miserable life the womenfolk led under the feudal order, and the resultant discontent and the evil it bred. Linguistically, it provides a convenient collection of the idioms of the women of the time (Zaidi 137)

The discrepancy between early acceptance, and later distaste, for rekhti may seem at first glance to be anomalous. A judicious probe into the cultural constructions of gender can resolve much of that anomaly, especially shedding light on the logic of its rejection by Urdu literature’s modern custodians.

Such dismissive explanations of the genre’s concerns as a ‘depraved’ by-product of ‘the feudal order’ deflect the reader’s attention away from a critique of patriarchy crying out to be made here. It seems to this reader that rekhti is better explained as a by-product of patriarchy’s cultural constructions than as a by-product of feudalism’s gender oppression. After all, the gender oppression of patriarchy is alive and well in post-feudal South Asia no less than in the rest of the world, and continues to be amply witnessed and documented. The critical orientation we see reflected here—that of laying the blame for all social ills on feudalism—is consistent with the program of the Progressive Writers’ Association which so influenced Urdu literature during the middle parts of the twentieth century.26 In Progressive writing we see cogent critiques class but not of gender, despite how much space was given over to the plight women. One might also note that categorising ‘lesbianism’ as a social ill is quite consistent with the analytical terms of the Progressive Writers Movement, which simultaneously rebelled against the suppression/sublimation of [hetero-] sexuality and repudiated the gender oppression of the old social order. As in Zaidi’s remarks above, the critique of fendalism remains profoundly homophobic, attributing homoeroticism to feudal decadence and its expression by parda-nashin women as a last recourse, in the face of neglect by men. This can be seen, for example, in Krishan Chander’s Introduction to Ismat Chughtai’s short story collection, Choten (1962) where he ‘apologises’ for Ismat’s ‘lesbian’ story, ‘Lihaf’ [Quilt] by saying that any red-blooded woman would seek recourse in other women if neglected, as the story’s main character was, by a husband more interested in young men. (We may also note that the husband is not called a homoseiual, but a trans-sexual, a hijra, by Krishen Chander, thus displaying ignorance, or intolerance, of male homosexuality.)

To offer the promised critique of patriarchy we need to return to a discussion of standard ghazal convention.

Rekhti, ‘ishq and Ambiguity

Perhaps ultimately the crucial problem posed by rekhti is this: when a ‘woman’ addresses an unambiguously feminine beloved, ‘she’ challenges the central axiom of Urdu love poetry, which is that the beloved be of ambiguous identity, both in terms of gender and in human vs. divine terms (in other words, the beloved ought, theoretically, to be readable as either human or divine). While this makes sense for a religious culture in which the divine is not embodied, the ostensibly gender-neutral ‘he’ of rekhta works out to be less than benign for the expression of feminine desire. Indeed ‘he’ effectively excludes any potential feminine, because ‘she’ can never serve as a neutral marker.

The point has been made that, conventionally and in material fact. Urdu poetry has been the provenance of men and its domain masculine: the poets are men, the narrator-Lover/hero speaks in the masculine, and the beloved is referred to in the masculine gender as well. Even when physical attributes are described, and strongly suggest a female person, the beloved is referred to in Urdu as ‘he’.27 This is the opposite of conventions for reading the ghazal in English translation, as we have said, where the ambiguous beloved will be referred to as ‘she’ even though her attributes be masculine. Here are two examples of ambiguous desire commonly expressed in rekhta, one more abstract and one less so. Both were written, again, by Ghalib:

Nind us hai dimagh us ka hai raten us ki hain

Teri zulfen jis ke bazu par pareshan ho gain

Sleep is [his], peace of mind is [his], me very nights are [his]

Upon whose shoulder lie strewn your scattered tresses (rumpled locks?].

Zikr us pari-vash ka aur phir bayari apna ,

Ban gaya raqib akhir tha jo razdan apna

Mention of that fairy-faced one—

and my elaborations—

have made a rival of my confidant.

In neither of these verses do we see compromised the ambiguity of gender or humanity/ divinity in either the lover or the beloved. Anyone can claim them and identify with the desire they both express, be the lover male or female, human or divine.

With (masculine) humans in search of the divine (probably conceived of as genderless but referred to in the masculine) there is little place left for female humans, or even for the feminine principle. Rekhta has served for centuries as a central icon of cultural identity and self-esteem among South Asian Muslims. Its elevated value hinges on the aesthetic of ‘ishq as the most noble of human endeavors, and this aesthetic was developed over several centuries in the context of a rich mystical tradition, that of Sufism. Perfecting oneself as an ‘ashiq is seen as the only true path toward unity with the divine; and the presumption that the ultimate beloved  is the Divine has been Urdu love poetry’s best defence against the austere and conservative forces of religious which might otherwise have tried to squelch it, along with other arts an extravagance of passion. Such a defense has been augmented by conventions which insist that the physical aspects of passion remain sublimated. Claiming the human-divine divide as its ultimate subject, its ultimate reality,28 rekhta is a poetry of love in exquisite separation.

Not so rekhti. Neither sublimated passion nor love in separation—let alone gender ambiguity—are its forte. The emotions expressed are understood to result from the social reality of women being thrown together, which is exactly the opposite of the separation on which ‘true love’(‘ishq-i-haqiqi) is predicated. The following rekhti poem by Rangin may serve as an illustration of that which the critics condemn. It takes the form of sarapa (lit. ‘head-to-foot’), in which the beloved’s beauty is enumerated by the ‘ashiq,- and while it conforms to normative ghazal poetics, both the ashiq and the beloved are of feminine gender:

Hai gi meri dogana ki sajavat khasi                             All decked out, my other half is something special:

Chunpa’i rang ghazab tis pe khichavat khasi                     Her complexion’s golden, her figure splendid to match!

Sar ke ta’viz sitam aur fateh pech ‘ajib                       That forehead gem’s a killer!

Bal mehke hu’e choti ki ghandhavat khasi                      the braided coiff a wonder:

Her perfumed hair and fragrant forelock choice.

Sab se guftar khudi sab se nirali nik-suk                     In speech she’s like no other, from

Dant tasvir hain missi ki jamavat khasi                              toe-nails to hair-plait unique:

Those powdered-black teeth complete the picture!

Kurti jali ki part sar pe dupattah achha                              How lovely on her body lies her lace chemise!

Qahr pajama aur angiya ki kasavat khasi                       Her head-scarf’s really super—

Those tight pajamas and bodice torment me!

Naz zebindah haya afat-o ‘ishvah jadu                              Even her blandishments enchant me;

Ghaniza vote zulm-ada aur rukhavat khasi                  her side-glances cast calamity

The winks are cruel, her coolness

private torture.

Kyun na aise se phanse dil                                         How could the heart not be ensnared?

Aji insaf karo Guftagu sahr kamar khub lagavat khasi         Dear One, have mercy!

Your discourses casts a spell, your waist

is gorgeous,

Our intimacy exquisite.

Pa’on men kafish bhabhuka voh magharraq nadir         Those  foot slippers are gilded a rare,

Sar-o qad aur hai raanon ki dhulavat khasi                    brilliant red;

Tall and willowy is her build but deliciously

curvy her thighs!

Sab se sab bat khudi sab se anokhi guftar                        She’s unlike all others in all things,

Sab se poshak alag sab se sajavat khasi                                Her speech strange and marvellous!

Her costume distinct from all other,

her adornments exquisite

Is ka azhar karun tujh se main kya kya Rangin?           How might I ever convey her to you,

Dast-o pa zor men mehndi ki rachavat khasi                 Rangin?

From hand to foot she’s formidable,

Hued in henna!

Consistent with critical remarks above, this poem in ‘women’s idiom’ (auraton ki boli) is generally light and racy in tone, often suggestive, occasionally salacious—some right even consider it obscene.29 All these characteristics seem to be understood as part and parcel of what it means for women to express themselves, and here is where gender analysis is illuminating. Whether or not the critics are correct that this is what rekhti is all about, raciness and salaciousness would seem to compromise the idealised and ennobled construction of the Urdu lyric’s standard diction as it is thought to be embodied in rekhta. Of course, suggestiveness is no stranger to rekhta (nor, to be perfectly candid, is occasional lewdness)—it is more that lewdness and off-colour suggestion do not reflect the ideals with which the ghazal is imbued, and therefore do not get presented as good representations of rekhta. The condition of rekhti being narrated in the feminine voice both is and is not, simply, what distinguishes rekhti from rekhta. Explicitly that may be the case; but implicitly they are separated by the bundle of associations arising from the very presence of ‘her’ voice. What is it that the feminine voice gives rise to?

It is possible that critical characterizations of rekhti as decadent may be based on its generally informal/immodest speech; or on its allusions to flirtations with servant boys; or to fantasies about males from outside the household espied across the rooftops—all of which do find a place in this corpus. But even more than its casual tone and (heterosexual) naughtiness, a huge ‘problem’ with rekhti surely lies in its loss of gender ambiguity. The logical extension of this absence of ambiguity in both the ‘ashiq’s identity and that of the ma’ashuq leads us to the fact that rekhti’s erotic expression is often female-to-female. The previously- quoted ‘particular emotions’ and ‘decadent pleasure’ of ‘venturing into social taboos’ must surely be allusions to the obvious but implicitly indicated erotic relationship between rekhti’s feminine ‘ashiq and ‘her’ beloved such as is manifest in this sarapa. Is this the logical extension of women expressing emotion? Certainly it would seem to dismiss rekhta’s fiction of non-gender lovers as heterosexual. And how are the custodians of Urdu culture to deal with ‘lesbian’ poetry?

My reading is that the critics draw no meaningful distinction between ‘lesbianism’ and the ‘particular emotions of women’; to them, these emotions- and the ‘particular concerns’ of women- constitute decadent pleasure and are socially taboo, rendering rekhti illegitimate poetry. Though he makes no explicit mention of lesbian eroticism, one distinguished critic offers perfect illustration in the following remarks:

As a general rule, wherever the female body or dress or manners are described in specifically female terms…the level of poetry is low and the tone is devoid of the true tension of experience. ( S.R.Faruqi ‘Expression of the ludo-Muslim Mind in the Urdu Ghazal’)

Poetic Parda

Deductive reasoning leads us back to a truth that is patently obvious anyway, which is that polite discourse and legitimate poetry are male domain. In Urdu’s pre-modern literary world, gender segregation (parda) was so widespread a social phenomenon that it might not seem particularly remarkable. But it is worth remarking that the institution of parda removes women not only from public space but also from expressive space, from the sphere of literature and the expression of ideas. In other words, (in addition to the obsessions with honour that continue to symbolically rationalise the practice of gender segregation), actual physical segregation of women from the public sphere has worked to remove them from the imagined community of Urdu speakers, a community arguably created and reiterated through recitation of ghazal poetry. When ‘women’ speak, as in rekhti, they do not express ‘ishq so much as mundane, even trivial, concerns. This renders rekhti of some sociological interest, as the critics note, but that interest is quite distinct from the realm of universal human striving toward transcendence that makes rekhta such a prestigious vehicle of cultural expression.

Pre-modern Urdu poetry is remarkable for its absence of female authorship.30 It has canonised no female poets. Indeed, there have been no women writers of repute until well into the twentieth century. Even these authors tend overwhelmingly to write prose31 in a tradition which favours poetry over any other form of literature, and over most other art forms as well.32 There are fewer than a handful of reputed women scholars of Urdu even today. Thus, any poetry authored by ‘women’, speaking in “women’s language’, or purporting to be about women, is necessarily ‘of a low level’ and represents an anomaly; it must necessarily be segregated from the more public, normative world of rekhta. No wonder that, in our time, rekhti is a thoroughly marginalised body of literature.

Among the reasons why poetry as an expressive medium is valued over just about all others in Islamicate cultures is that it represents a bridge between the private and the public. The ghazal legitimises the public expression of intimate emotions, an act that would otherwise be socially unacceptable. ‘Neutral’ gender conventions deflect what might otherwise be highly personal experience, protecting (whose?) particular privacy and metaphorically reiterating the social practice of parda.

One of the great ironies in all this is that, though narrated by one ‘woman’ who usually addresses another in intimate terms, our only existing records indicate that rekhti was recited by male poets (sometimes in female dress) to a male audience.33 Women were, as one writer has observed, quite incidental to this ‘women’s poetry’.34 Yet it does seem remarkable that two centuries ago, during an expansive period in Urdu culture, men were open to exploring the notion of a distinct female experience; while during the past century that openness has been replaced by an anxiety so deep as to lead Urdu’s (male) elite to condemn all poetic expression at all—real or imagined—of women’s experience in the feminine voice as delusional, decadent, or ‘of a low level’, to be swept under the carpet. Unhappily, what men could imagine about the experience of being a woman was limited to the petty quotidian concerns of the zenana or the mischief to which they felt seclusion inevitably gave rise. But the insaniyat of women is not explored în rekhti though it is, as we have said, the cornerstone of rekhta.

The anxiety to which we draw attention here is doubtless felt much more acutely by today’s literati than by the rekhti poets of yesteryear, because they were not obliged to face the onslaught against Muslims from the Hindu right which is so prevalent in our times. Simultaneously, the Muslim right, the world over, increases its regulation of feminine expression, understanding such expression to be a point of marked vulnerability for the community as a whole. Surely the diminished availability of revit publications in bookstores, libraries and even university syllabi reflects this anxiety. And while battening down the hatches may be understandable, its intellectual viabilité is questionable.

The Gender Politics of Male vs. female Homoeroticism

The ghazal’s gender-ambiguous normative conditions create an expressive environment quite receptive to male homoeroticism, as some scholars have discussed,35 but they tend to close the door to expression of female homoeroticism. Without rehearsing the growing literature on the subject, let us say that during the past century or so reformists and colonialists have been concerned with the extent of homoeroticism in the ghazal and how poorly that reflects on Indo-Muslim culture as a whole. More recently voices have been raised to confirm its existence in the face of prudish denials; other voices have up in celebration; and still others to put homoeroticism in a strictly literary context incidental to social practice.36 Insofar as this topic has been taken up by critics, they have confined themselves to discussions of male homoeroticism and to rekhta, as far as I can tell, neither the theoretical possibility of a feminine ‘ashiq nor the genre of rekhti has ever entered into these discussions. This is the case even though two of the most distinguished critics to have written on the subject are clearly aware of rekhti’s existence.37

All disclaimers aside, the gender-ambiguity achieved through the ghazal’s conventionalised masculinity lends itself easily to the ‘safe’ expression of male homoeroticism. No subversion of convention is necessary, and there is ample documentation of these conventional possibilities having been exploited by male poets who were, to varying degrees, homoerotically inclined.38 But to express female homoeroticism, by contrast, is to abandon gender neutrality, to entirely subvert the ghazal’s central conventions and, by extension, its aesthetics. Rekhti makes it possible to give voice to such emotions, but does so on pain of ostracism from the entire universe of ideas associated with rekhta, that most privileged idiom of Indo-Muslim expression. Whereas the possibility of expressing male homoeroticism has enriched the connotative realm of rekhta, the mere possibility of expressing female homoeroticism has already affected rekhti’s ostracism, denigration and suppression.

Some readers will willingly forego this universe in exchange for a promised lesbian utopia. It is tempting for the feminist reader to see in rekhti a private world where women, obliged to live in seclusion, resist the misery of gender oppression by discovering rich emotional and erotic possibilities with one another, and to celebrate them in Urdu, that iconic language of love. Rekhti and the zenana have been posited as such a site of resistance by at least two authors.39 And if rekhti poets were indeed secluded women, such an interpretation would be far more persuasive. But alas, it is not. We can’t look to rekhti for insight into what it means for women, living together, to develop a literature of same-sex eroticism. Intellectual honesty requires that we look there instead for insight into what it means for men, who keep women secluded and socialise with other men, to invent a parody of their own idealised love literature, and to perform it for other men while impersonating women, for laughs.

Only rarely do we see the pleasure of melancholy expressed in this male- authored poetry in the feminine voice, although the following she’rs represent a welcome exception, and could be said to approach the idealised aesthetics of the ghazal:

Rishta-i ulfat ko torun kis tarah 

‘ishq se main munh ko moron kis tarah 

How shall I break this intimate bond?

How can I turn my face away from love?

Pochhne se ashk ke fursat nahin

Aasatin ko main na chhorun kis tarah

There’s no respite from wiping away the tears:

The cuffs of my sleeves need to be wrung out—but how?

Sheeshah-i dil tor kar Rangin mira

Ab tu kahta hai main jorun kis tarah

Rangin, having shattered my fragile heart

now asks, “how shall I piece it back together?”


Far more common are poems like this:

Mere ghar men Zanakhi ayi kab? 

Main nagori bhala nahayi kab?

When did my Zanakhi last come to my house?

Poor me, when’s the last time I had a bath?

Larki muddat se voh gayi hai ruth

Meri us ki hu’i safa’i kab

That girl’s been angry for a long time:

When have we ever cleared up matters between us?

Voh na-bakthi to apne ghar men na thi 

Pas us ke gayi thi dayi kab

When I sent the nurse round to her place

The wretch wasn’t at home.

Hargiz ati nahin hai sanch ko anch 

Pesh javegi yih barayi kab

Truth is never scorched by fire: When will this great truth make its impact?

Gundh kar hath pa’un men rangin

Us ne mehndi mine lagayi kab

When did she last apply henna, Rangin,

kneading my hands and feet?

Zanakhi and Dogana

The relationship depicted above (though currently on the outs) is clearly perhaps—but not explicitly—sexual. Its ‘lesbianism’ is marked by the term ‘zanakhi’, which was employed in the first verse to indicate the absent friend who is longed for. This, and ‘dogana’ are terms particular to rekhti and indicate an intimate, even erotic relationship between two women. While there is little explicit lesbian content in rekhti, erotic relationships between the narrator and her beloved ‘other’ are overwhelmingly alluded to by employing these terms. They are generally not found in dictionaries40 and are nearly untranslatable. Here is how Rangin is said to have explained the terms, in the glossary he provided by way of introducing his rekhti collection (Divan-i Angekhta):

Dogana—having ordered almonds from the bazaar, they ( shell them. Those almonds from which twin, or double, nuts are extracted, usually are formed in such a way that one is implanted within the other. This implanted nut is called ‘masculine’ (nar) and the one in which it is embedded is called ‘feminine” (maadah). Then an unknown person (shakhs) is summoned and, giving [him] the two almond fruits, one of them tells [him], ‘Give me one of the fruits and give her the other.’ 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’ and they call each other ‘dogana’ or ‘twin.’

ZanakhiAfter slaughtering a chicken or pigeon and having it cooked, they ( sit down to eat together. In this bird’s breast is a bifurcated bone (the wishbone) which they refer to as the “zanakh.” Simultaneously each of them takes one branch of the bone and pulls it toward herself. The one whose end snaps is the feminine and the one whose end remains whole is called the masculine, and if the wishbone snaps in the middle, then they order another bird to be slaughtered and repeat the exercise so that it may be fully determined who is masculine and who feminine.41 (emphasis added)

IronicalIy, Rangin and Sabir Ali Khan, who reproduced these definitions,42 confirm stereotyped views about men viewing lesbian acts (or purporting to) insofar as their voyeurisms concerns itself with how to gender the interactions. It does not seem to occur to them that neither the erotic, nor sexual acts, are inherently gender-marked. How else to understand the explained principle behind the definitions above, via ‘to fully determine who is masculine and who feminine’, when the terms dogana’ and ‘zanakhi’ themselves don’t imply gender differentiation within the relationship? As it happens, this aspect of the terms is absent from the one other gloss apparently available for dogana and zanakhi. The Muhazzab ul-Lughat, a reference dictionary from the second half of the twentieth century, offers similar definitions but gender ascription is absent from them. The woman who holds the shorter end of the zanakh is deemed ‘little sister’ while the one with the longer end is ‘big sister’. Muhazzab ul-Lughat notes that the terms are no longer in use, and offers contradictory testimony as to whether they represented the parlance of secluded women (begumat-i qila’) or debauched women (aubash)43. So it is difficult to tell whether the Lughat (dating back 30-40 years) is doing the sanitising itself, or whether the process has been going or even longer.

Some of the raciest rekhti was written not by in ‘inventor’, Rangin, but by two other poets, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at (‘the Audacious’) and Insha. The musaddas44 below is the opening stanza of one of Jur’at’s two Chapti Namas (‘Tribad Testimonials’):

There’s no love lost between women Apas men zen-o mard ke hargiz inn

and men these days: raha pyar

New ways of being intimate are seen sohbat ke nazar aate hain kucch our

all around. hi atwar

Everyone knows about women who chapti se jo rahta hai ab har ik ko

love women – sarokar

At night these words are always to Ati hai sada shab ko yahi kan men

be heard: har bar

They way you rub me, ah! it drives Ghisson pe tere ha’e mira dil hai

my heart wild – divana

Stroke me a little more, my sweet Ragra de zari aur miri acchi 

other.45 Dogana

The Suppression of Rekhti and its Lesbianism

The Chapti Name of Jur’at have been published, as far as one can tell, only in Italy; the edition of the Kulliyat-i Jur’at in which they appear is not available in South Asia but rather only in a few select research libraries in Europe and North America. As has been made clear, rekhti is an extremely difficult body of poetry to lay hands on and whatever is available tends to be highly expurgated. Whatever has been made available to the interested reader is almost solely available in the truncated format known as ‘selections’ (intikhab). Few of those editors who have prepared these selection have worked from manuscripts, and none of these editors has translated any rekhti into language, Indeed, their standard practice is to replace they deem ‘objectionable’ with dots in the texts of the pems!46 Furthermore, biographical other potentially illuminating information from rekhti poets and their contemporaries have been preserved not in Urdu but in Persian, with one partial exception.47 While Persian was indeed the language of literary criticism used for Urdu until the end of the nineteenth century, it is not nearly so widely taught today, and the decision to keep primary information in Persian funher excludes potential readers, mediating between them and the text.

Is what we are being protected from literature like Rangin’s sarapa ? This playful poem hardly seems depraved to us; nor does it seem particularly reverent, lofty or noble. Its appeal lies in the entertainment value of a lusty description through the gaze of the admirer, as in any sarapa; but it must be acknowledged here that the sarapa itself, even as a genre of rekhta, is marginalised. The reason, again, is that its concreteness of imagery in describing the beloved militates against the ghazal’s cherished ambiguity. Its elaborate description encourages us to visualise the beloved as female. Not only is this inconsistent with normative Islam’s understanding of the divine, it echoes rather uncomfortably with the idolatry of Hinduism.48

Decadence, the Feminine and Lucknow

Suppression has, sadly, a well-entrenched history in Urdu letters, dating back for well over a hundred years. Among the most easily identified instances occur when its custodians come up against scathing colonialist discourses of cultural decadence. As I have discussed elsewhere, the birth of criticism about Urdu in Urdu occurred at one such moment, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.49 Among the most potent of these discourses were those which emphasised the effeminacy of Indian culture. Urdu’s elite literati, who were also cultural reformists, engaged in a defensive campaign, still evident in literary histories. to protect Indo-Muslim culture overall by sacrificing some of its parts, those deemed most vulnerable. Ironically, much that went under the axe were the most arguably ‘Indian’ elements in ludo-Muslim culture. Thus, Lucknow was called decadent, its milieu described in terms of its counesans and effeminate monarchs, and genres like rekhti and sarapa became ‘Lakhnavi’; while Delhi was preserved as a cultural space conforming more closely to the ‘vigour’ (for which read ‘masculinity’) apparently admired by India’s new colonial masters, regardless of that fact that its poets also wrote rekhti and sarapa. Similarly, reformers within the Muslim community identified the ‘Hindu’ elements of popular culture as those which had diluted Muslim culture in India and contributed to the demise of Mughal rule. A look at Deobandi Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar confirms this.50

If Indo-Muslim culture was to remain strong in the face of British colonialists and a Hindu majority, social reform would have to be extended also to literary reform. Genres like the sarapa were suspect, as were feminine beloveds (and certainly feminine ‘ashiqs). It makes good sense, tm, that poets like rekhti’s inventor, Rangin; or practitioners like Insha, Jur’at and Jan Sahib—who were born and raised elsewhere—would be labelled ‘Lakhnavi’ and relegated to the sidelines. Rangin talked about the courtesans of Shahjahanabad (Delhi) with whom he allegedly squandered his youth, not about the courtesans of Lucknow. Jan Sahib was born in Farrukhabad and lived perhaps as long in Rampur (1857-86? 97?) as he did in Lucknow. In Farhatullah Beg’s Dilli ki Akhri Shama’ (translated by Akhtar Qamber into English as The Last Musha’ira of Delhi)51 there is clearly a Jan Sahib-like character who wears a dupatta and recites rekhti. Yet Jan Sahib is associated with Lucknow and rekhti, not so much with Delhi or Rampur.

Such details as these may not at first seem significant until one assembles them, together, with the suppression of rekhti, and draws the obvious conclusion that Urdu’s literati were taught to be ashamed of those elements in their culture which the British, and their own conservatives, pounced upon. What is left the reader after the depredations and mediations of editors and other scholars is not at all a body of poetry celebrating serious, erotic love between women, nor even a body of poetry which could be easily subverted, as can be rekhta by homoerotically-inclined male poets. What is left, rather, is a body of verse featuring frivolous ‘women’ concerned with petty and mundane things and, in tire meanwhile, reiterating patriarchy’s gendered status quo. In times like these, with Muslim culture under threat in India by Hindu chauvinism; and with secularity and the realm of an idealised erotic under threat from orthodox Muslim ideologues the world over, that status quo would seem to offer sufficient palliative to the beleaguered male elite that it willingly sacrifices rekhti in order to hold on to the self-esteem derived from the perpetuation of rekhta. Doubtless this sanitised tradition is thought to be further protected by the ignorance of its poetics and history in which we, its audience, are steeped. But history has demonstrated over and over that those expressive cultures are best preserved which are disseminated freely and continuously. The vitality of Urdu requires that we think (and talk) about it more, not less, bringing to the table as much information as can be garnered, and then allowing individuals to draw their own, informed, conclusions.


I wish to express gratitude to a number of colleagues and friends who read and commented on earlier drafts of this essay, especially Uma Chakravarti, Indrani Chatterjee, Kathryn Hansen, Beth Hutchison, Ramya Sreenivasan, and an anonymous reviewer for IESHR. I would also like to acknowledge the research of Gail Minault on the subject of begamati zuban (women’s language), some of which is referred to below.

1 C. S. Lakshmi. The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature. New Delhi, 1984, vii.

2 For further discussions of ghazal convention see Carla Petievich. Assembly of Rivals: Delhi, Lucknow and the Urdu Ghazal, New Delhi, 1992, Introduction; or any of the standard histories of Urdu literature in English, for example T. Grahame Bailey, A History of Urdu Literature, Calcutta, 1932; Ralph Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, Delhi, 1992; M. Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, London, 1964; Ram Babu Saksena, A History of Urdu Literature, Allahabad, 1940; Annemarie Schimmel, A History of Classical Urdu Literature from the beginning to Iqbal, Wiesbaden, 1975; Or Ali Jawad Zaidi, A History of Urdu Literature, Delhi, 1993.

3 ‘Rekhta (as Urdu poetry was called in [Mir’s] day) was poetry on the Persian model, written in the language of…Delhi.. ‘ . Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Three Mughal Poets: Mir; Sauda, Mir Hasan, London, 1968, p. 210, discussing the great ghazal poet, Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810). Russell and Islam’s source is Mir’s famous tazkirah (literary biography) of Indian poets, Nikat us-Shu’ara, (I, 187).

4 But see Shohini Ghosh for exercises in reading the homoerotic into the Bombay film: ‘Hum Aapke Hain Noun…!: Pluralising Pleasures of Viewership’, Social Scientist, Vol. 28(3-4), March-April 2000, pp. 83-90; and ‘Queer Pleasures for Queer People: Love and Romance in Indian Television and Popular Cinema,’ in Ruth Vanita, ed, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, New York, forthcoming.

5 Recent scholarship addressing women’s writing and women’s voices abounds, and includes theoretical discussion of what distinguishes male writing from female. Too voluminous to rehearse here in its entirety, a few select authors and titles are mentioned: Susie Than]. and K. Lalitha, eds, Women Writing in India from 600 B.C. to the Present (2 vols.), Delhi, 1997; Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Ann Grodzins Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words: Re-imagining Gender and Kinship in North India, Berkeley, 1994; C .S. Lakshmi, The Face Behind the Mask (on women in Tamil Literature); Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Poetry and Honour in a Bedouin Society, Berkeley, 1986; Carla Petievich, ‘The Feminine Voice in the Urdu Ghazal’, Indian Horizons (39, 1-2), 1990, pp. 25-41. The sole such published work of which one is aware for Urdu literature is an anthology of translations into English rather than a scholarly work: Rukhsana Ahmad, ed. and trans., We Sinful Women: Urdu Feminist Poetry, London, 1993.

6 S.R. Faruqi, ‘Conventions of Love, Love of Conventions: Urdu Love Poetry in the Eighteenth Century’, Annual of Urdu Studies 14, 1998, pp. 1-31.

7 Divan-e Ghalib, Delhi, 2000, Radif ye, ghazal #38:5.

8 In this verse “they” can be read correctly and grammatically as either female or male.

9 Ironically, the first person pronoun in English “me/my” is also gender-ambiguous; only the third person pronouns present a problem here.

10 Literally the grammatically feminine counterpart of rekhta’ . Cf. Firozul Lughat (Urdu Jadid) p. 388: ‘Voh nazm jo auraton ki boli men kaha ja’e’ (that verse which is spoken in women’s idiom); and John T. Platts, A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English, New Delhi, 1977, p. 611: ‘Hindustani verse written in the language of women, and expressing the sentiments, &c. peculiar to them. (The two principal writers in this idiom are the poets Rangin and Jan Sahib)’.

11 This observation is based on a survey of the rekhti divans of Rangin, Insha, and Jan Sahib, the genre’s best known poets. Rangin’s Divan-i Angekhtah is comprised of 88 ghazals (650 she’rs), five times the number of ruba’i or masnavi verses, 7-8 times the number of verses in the divan’s single panegyric (Qasidi) [sic], and about ten times the number of lines in mukhammas form (145-line stanzas). Insha’s Divan-i Rekhti (see Kulliyat-i Insha, Lucknow, 1876, pp. 185-219) contains about the same: 90 ghazals and some 25-30 autonomous she’rs (qitah)as well as 175 lines of ruba’i, masnavi, paheli and other assorted verses. Jan Sahib has two full divans in rekhti and a third that appears to be a compilation of whatever was not collected in the first two. There are 232 ghazals in Jan Sahib’s first divan and 71 ghazals in the second; 6 poems in mukhammas form, 4 of them untitled (a total of 35 five-line stanzas)and 2 Shahr Ashobs in mukhammas, one of which is 42 stanzas in length and the other 15; two laments (Vasokht) in musaddas form (6-line stanzas), one 39-stanzas in length and the other vasokht of 18 stanzas; a 39-verse qasida as well as a 7-verse qita’ and a 3-verse qita’. See Muhammad Mubin Naqvi, Tarikh-i Rekhti Ma’a Divan-i Jan Sahib, Allahabad,

12 Andalib Shadani, however, discusses the rival claims for Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha’ as the creator of rekhti, in his essay, ‘Rekhti ka Mujid’ in Tahqiq ki Raushni Men, Lahore, 1963, pp. 91-104. Rather contradictorily, Shadani quotes Insha’s treatise on poetics, Darya-i Latafat (1807), which seems to support Rangin as the creator of rekhti.

13 See Petievich, Assembly of Rivals; and C. M. Nairn and Carla Petievich, ‘Urdu in Lucknow, Lucknow in Urdu’, in Violette Graff. ed. Lucknow: Memories of a City, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 165-80, for a fuller discussion of Lucknow’s milieu.

14 This aspect of Lucknow’s history has been widely celebrated in Urdu and in English. Insha Allah Khan’s Darya-i Latafat (1807), purportedly the first linguistic and literary treatise on Urdu, makes a point of attributing to Delhi’s erstwhile elite leadership in Lucknow’s cultural efflorescence. See also Abdul Halim Sharar, Guzishta Lakhna’o, translated into English by E.S Harcourt and Husain Fakhr as Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, Boulder, 1976; Naim and Petievich„ ‘Urdu in Lucknow, Lucknow in Urdu’; and Petievich, Assembly of Rivals, passim.

15 Indrani Chatterjee points out that ‘although Rangin’s father was ennobled by the end of his life, [he] had begun as a slave-boy in the household of the Mughal governor of Lahore’. (Personal communication, September 2000).

16 While the histories associate courtesan culture especially with Lucknow, it actually flourished all over India. Rangin speaks of himself as a poet of Shahjahanabad (Delhi), though later histories associate him with Lucknow. Majalis-i Rangin, Lucknow, 1929.

17 For more information on begamati zaban see especially Gail Minault, ‘Begainati zuban: Women’s language and culture in nineteenth-century Delhi’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 9(2) and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms: The View from the Zenana’, in Nita Kumar, ed, Women as Subjects: South Asian Histories, New Delhi 1994, pp. 108-24.

18 Like rekhta, most rekhti is composed in ghazal form, but there do exist poems in other genres as well. See n. 11 above.

19 See especially Irfan Abbasi, Tazkirah-i Sho’ara-i Rekhti, Lucknow, 1989; Muhammad Mubin Naqvi, Tarikh-i Rekhti Ma’a Divan-i Jan Sahib; Sibt-i Muhammad Naqvi, Intikhab-i Rekhti, Lucknow, 1983; and Khalil Ahmed Siddiqi, Rekhti ka Tanqidi Mutala’ah, Lucknow, 1974.

20 This is evident in all the standard literary histories and in lesser-known critical works as well. See note 2 above.

21 Perusal of personally-held copies shows that rekhti is omitted from current M.A. syllabi for both Delhi University and Punjab University, Lahore.

22 Sibt-i Muhammad Naqvi, Intikhab-i Rekhti, Lucknow, 1983, a selected anthology. Tamkeen Kazmi, Tazkirah-i Rekhti, Hyderabad, 1930; and Man Abbasi, Rekhti ka Tanqidi Mutala’ah, Lucknow, 1989 represent the earliest and most recent critical works of which I am aware, in Urdu on the subject of rekhti. Neither was available from any bookshop or Urdu library in Delhi or Lahore during sustained efforts by this writer between November 1997-October 2000.

23 In a July 1999 interview with the director of one such major institution, where I was not granted access to the archive itself, he apologised that there would be nothing in his custody of use to me—as the poets I mentioned were highly reputable—and referred me instead to a gentleman known to have a large collection of pornography! The director is himself a distinguished man of Urdu letters.

24 The Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab [Society for the Advancement of Literature] in Lahore, though it is to be lauded for the beautiful editions it has produced during the past years of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets, is a particular offender. I have been told by its director that there are no plans to complete the final volumes of Kulliyat of poets like Insha, who was highly reputed as a rekhta-go but who also wrote rekhti. The Kulliyat-i Jur’at, including his two infamous Chapti Namas (Tribad Testimonials) had to be published in Italy and is not available in South Asia, as far as I have been able to determine. Indian or Pakstani scholars of Urdu must travel to Europe or North America, at great expense and hardship, to avail themselves of the meagre scholarly resources in existence.

25 Oriental Ms. 385, entry No. 74, pp. 40-41; and entry No. 183, U.82, pp. 94-95 of Blumhardt’s Catalogue of the Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts in the Library of the British Museum, London, 1899. In November 2000, I was finally able to obtain a photocopy of the rekhti divans of Rangin and Insha published by the Nizami Press, Badayun, 1924, from the Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University.

26 The Progressive Writers Association was first officially convened at Lucknow in 1936, and the keynote  duress made by the writer Prem Chand, who did not live out the year. In this address he spoke of the need for Indian writing to address the concerns and lived social realities of the people. Most of the prominent writers of ‘Hindi as well as Urdu from the middle part of the twentieth century were associated at one time or another with the PWA, which had had chapters in Pakistan and ;India, and bore a decidedly nationalist and leftist orientation. For more on the PWA see Ralph Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, Chapter 13, pp. 204-28; d M. Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, pp. 534-35.

27 This problematic is discussed in some detail in Carla Petievich “The Feminine Voice in the Urdu Ghazal’, Indian Horizons Vol. 39(1-2), 1990, pp. 25-41.

28 Ishq expressed toward the divine beloved is known as ‘true love’ [ `ishq-e haqiqi]; while love for a human, being only an approximation of divine love, is called ’metaphorical love’ [ `ishq-e majazi].

29 But see Petievich, ‘The Feminine Voice in the Urdu Ghazal’, in which north Indian rekhti is distinguished from Dakani poetry in the feminine.

30 No female poet is ever mentioned in standard anthologies of the classical Urdu canon. There exist a few, rare anthologies of women poets housed in archives, but they are clearly defined as ‘female poets in Urdu’ rather than ‘Urdu poets’. An example of this can be seen on the title page of one such anthology, Baharistan-i Naz, compiled by Hakim Fasihud Din Ranj (d. 1885) in the 1870s and reissued at Lahore in 1965 from the Majlis Taraqqi-I Adab. The subtitle reads, ‘Tazkirah-i Sha’iraf [not shro’ara’, the masculine form of the word for ‘poet’], and the introduction describes the project as extraordinary. The first pre-modern Urdu  `poetess’ to have been published in English seems to have been Mahlaqa Bai Chanda, a courtesan of eighteenth century Hyderabad. See S. Thom and K. Lalitha, eds, Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, New York, 1990/ New Delhi, 1997.

31 The earliest such writers to gain acclaim would include, but not necessarily be limited to, Rashid Jehan, Khadija Mastoor and Hajira Masroor, Ismat Chugtai and Qurratulain Nyder. This rule has begun to erode during the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the modem canon now including such famous female poets as Parveen Shakir, Zehra Nigah and the overtly feminist poets Kishwar Naheed (b. 1940) and Fahmida Riaz (b.1945). This absence of female writing also characterises the Perso-Arabic tradition, from which Urdu consciously draws its lineage. But these exceptions and its cultural roots do not alter the rule of Urdu poetry and scholarship as an overwhelmingly male domain.

32 Shoaib Hashmi made succinct allusion to this phenomenon during the course of a review of women in drama. He said, Muslim civilisationwas not interested in  the drama, one way or another, and the dramatic conflict was worked out instead in poetry’, thus rendering other literary forms irrelevant. See ‘Women in Drama’, in Kishwar Naheed, ed, WOMEN: Myth & Realities, Lahore, 1994, pp. 299-314.

33 Perhaps the best known example of this comes in Farhatullah Baig’s depiction of a poetic assembly (musha’irah) in Dehli ki Akhiri Shama’ (New Delhi, 1934), translated by Akhter Qamber as The Last Musha’ira of Delhi, New Delhi, 1979.

34 Adrienne Copithorne, ‘Poet in Drag: the phenomenon of rekhti’, unpublished paper.

35 C.M. Naim, ‘The Theme of Pederastic Love in Premodern Urdu Poetry’; Frances W. Pritchett, ‘Convention in the Classical. Urdu Ghazal: the Case of Mir’, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 1979, pp. 60-77; and Tariq Rahman, ‘Boy-Love in the Urdu Ghazal’, Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 7, 1990, pp. 1-20.

36 Naim, ‘The Theme of Pederastic Love’; Pritchett, ‘Convention in the Classical Urdu Ghazal: The Case of Tariq Rahman, ‘Boy-Love in the Urdu Ghazal’, Faruqi (1999) and Vanita and Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India.

37 See Naim in Graff, pp. (170-71) and S. R. Faruqi, The Secret Mirror: Essays on Urdu Poetry, p. 32.

38 See Kidwai and Vanita, Same-Sex Love in India, passim.

39 Veena Oldenburg, ‘Life-Style as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow’, in Graff, Lucknow: Memories of a City, pp. 136-54; and Vanita and Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India, pp. 191-94.

40 Copithorne refers to Farhang-i Asafiyah, but does not give a full citation. It is possible that the source was the Introduction (Dibacha) to Rangin’s Divan-i Angekhta, the fourth and final section of his Nau-Ratan-i Rangin, no published edition of which I have either uncovered or seen referenced in the critical literature—but Copithorne makes no indication of this. There are only two published sources for these definitions of which I am aware: (1) Sabir All Khan, Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin, Karachi, 1954. Sabir seems to have worked from a manuscript of the Divan-i Angekhta in the British Museum’s India Office Library during the 1940s; and (2) Divan-i Insha, Rangin: Mirza Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin aur Sayyid Insha Allah Khan Insha ka Mashahur kalam jo Dihli ki Begamati zaban aur ‘ahd-i Mughaliyya ke akhri daur ki ma’ashrat k a’inah h ri.. This was published by Nizami Press, Badayun (1924). A copy is held in the Maulana Azad Library of Aligarh Muslim University.

41 Cited in Sabir Ali Khan, Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin, pp. 215-6.

42 This practice is also mentioned in passing by Minault in the context of the forging of relationships by secluded women in the absence of blood relatives. The erotic is not alluded to here. See ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’, p. 111.

43 Muhazzabul Lughat, (Lucknow 1968,69) vol. 5, p. 219; and vol. 6, p. 241.

44 Musaddas is a six-line verse used generally for narrative poems. Its rhyme scheme is aaaa bb.

45 Translated by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai , Same-Sex Love in India, p. 223.

46 Perhaps the most egregious example of this can be found in Askari and Fazl, eds, Kalam-i Insha (Allahabad 1952).

47 Sabir Ali Khan occasionally presents parallel translation from Persian into Urdu.

48 Adorning the deity (sringar) is a common Hindu ritual; and the head-to-toe description of the beloved would seem to echo such poetic motifs from Sanskrit as keshadipadavarnana or Nakh-Shikh in Hindi poetry, in which a beautiful woman (or a deity) is described in elaborate, iconographic detail, fashioning a sort of verbal sculpture.

49 Petievich (1992), chapter XII, passim.

50 Cf. Barbara Daly Metcalf, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar (California 1990). Specific excerpts from Thanawi have also been made by Minault in ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’, passim.

51 Although here the poet is called `Nazneen’ and identified as ‘the only rekhti-go in Delhi’. See Akhtar Qamber, trans, The Last Musha’irah of Delhi, a translation into English of Farhatullah Beg’s modern Urdu Classic, Dehli ki Akhri Shama’, New Delhi, 1979. This pen-name appears, along with poetic selections, in Tamkeen Kazmi’s Tazkirah-i Rekhti, pp. 73-77. This is possibly a historical figure, as Kazmi cites earlier tazkirahs in calling Nazneen a student of Zauq (d. 1854) who was one of the most distinguished poets to have allegedly participated in Beg’s ‘last priusha’irah’ . The earlier tazkirah-writers quoted by Kazmi are Sabir (Gulistan-i Sukhan) and Nassakh (no title cited).


Sadiq M. A History of Urdu Literature. Allahabad, 1940.

Russell, Ralph. The Pursuit of Urdu Literature. Delhi, 1992.

Khan, Sabir `Ali. Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin. Karachi, 1956.

Quateel, Hafeez Dr. “Dakan Men Rekhti ka Irtiqa”, Majalla-I Usmaniya. Dakani Adab Number, 1964. 139

Zaidi, Ali Jawad. A History of Urdu Literature, Delhi, 1993.

Faruqi, S.R. “Expression of the Indo-Muslim Mind in Urdu Ghazal”, The Secret Mirror: Essays on Urdu Poetry. Delhi,1981. 30

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