Saturday, July 04, 2009

Homosexuality in Urdu poetry: Tolerance in medieval India and Islamic societies in the past


For once, the Shankaracharya and the Shahi Imam are on the same side as also the BJP and the Muslim leaders. They are all opposed to the court's decision terming consenting homosexual relationship among adults as 'no longer criminal'.

Barely a handful of MPs have openly hailed the verdict. But it's interesting how tolerant people were towards homosexuality in the past. In Islamic world, from Iran to India,  such relationships were common and were completely acceptable in the society as well as among the Ulema [clergy].

Gar aan turk sheerazi be-dast aarad dil-e-maara
ba khaal hindosh bakhsham samarqand o bukhara ra [Hafiz]

Translation: If that Turk lad listens to my heart's cry, I can forsake the cities of Samarqand and Bukhara against the black mole on his face.

Poets like Hafez and the great Mir Taqi Mir openly wrote about their homosexuality. The divans of Urdu poets of 18th and 19th century are full of couplets that would outrage even some of today's 'self-styled liberals', but in those days even the orthodox Ulema were either lenient or indifferent.

They were ready to accept that everybody need not necessarily be like us and society should not impose its views on everyone. In present scenerio, it seems strange as an intellectual like Mushirul Hasan avoids commenting on the decision, for fear of enraging others.

Eminent religious scholars were less judgmental then and often took umbrage behind the extensive legal case including the requirement of witnesses that are needed to hold someone guilty of unnatural acts as per Shariah.

Either it was medieval homosexuality that is evident in couplets from the era of Aarzoo and Mir Soz or the pederasty in Firaq's shaayri and Josh's memoirs, the tolerant society openly accepted it. However, today it is unthinkable.

Contemporary Urdu poetry has just one openly gay poet Iftikhar Nasim 'Ifti'. However, in the past it was not considered outrageous. Poets openly wrote about their relationships.

Turk bachche se ishq kiyaa thaa rekhte kya kya maiNne kahe
rafta rafta Hindustaan se sher meraa Iran gayaa
[Mir Taqi Mir]

Above I quoted a coulet of the legendary Persian poet Hafiz. It was no different in India. Mir Taqi Mir celebrated his relationship:

Mir kyaa saade haiN biimar hue jiske sabab
usii attaar ke launDay se davaa lete haiN


Us Mughal-zaade se nibhii har baat kii takraar khuub
bad-zabaanii kii bhii usne, to kahaa bisyaar khuub

His divan is full of such references, often termed as 'ibtizaal' [literary decadence] and deleted from concise collection of his poetry. Like poets of that era, Mir had homosexual relationships with boys and later got married also, as per the tradition of the times.

But he never faced any opposition then. There was no disapproval from the Ulema then. Were they less religious or less cultured? Certainly not. But they did respect every person's right to lead his life as per his wishes.

Or at least leave them to their own ways rather than worrying about what they do in their bedrooms. I feel if a person is truly religious or spiritual he would be more compassionate and would avoid finding faults with others.

In Urdu ghazal, the gender of the beloved is often not clear. However, there are hundreds of couplets in divans of the classical poets where the lover is clearly a male or a boy.

The great poet Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish wrote:

Zuleikha ko dikhaaye aasmaaN tasviir Yusuf kii
Ye dil diivana hai jiskaa pari-paikar hai voh laRkaa

Mir Soz said:

Hai chaal qayaamat, hai husn ya sharaara
chaltaa hai kis adaa se Tuk, dekho Khudara

and Aarzoo wrote:

fareb-e-khush pisraaN khurdan Aarzoo rasm ast
za-rooe tajruba guft eeN chuniiN pidar maaraa

One of the greatest poets of the sub-continent, Mir Taqi Mir, who is termed Khuda-i-Sukhan, wrote numerous couplets celebrating gay relationships. In fact, so explicit is Mir, that one may think twice before quoting them.

Not more than a fraction of their poetry is explicit or obscene. In fact, a majority of the asha'ar treats the subject subtly and with sensuousness like the following couplet of a gahzal where the usage 'kya kya kuchh' is unusual and fresh. The poet yearning for his beloved dreams of the pleasures of sexual union.

wasl uskaa Khudaa nasiib kare
meraa dil chaahtaa hai kya kya kuchh

In these couplets Mir falls sick owing to his excessive longing for his beloved boy [yaani maiN shauq kii ifraat se biimaar huaa] and Mus'hafi describes the feelings in terms of waves [lahroN se saara daryaa aaGhosh kar diyaa].

The legendary Urdu scholar SR Faruqi terms some of them as 'international literary gems' and extraordinary couplets. It is noteworthy that Faruqi doesn't even use words like 'good' and 'fine' generously.

The recent court verdict has 'shocked' a large number of clerics and even litteratuers. The Victorian law that criminalised not just gay relationships but also any other form of sexual activity [even any other sexual position among man and woman except missionary posiion] other than the order of Nature, has just been reinterpreted by the Delhi High court.

Even today in sub-continent, many homosexuals succumb to family pressure and marry, thereby destroying the life of a woman also. Pakistan-born Iftikhar Nasim has been brutally honest about his life and the difficulties he faces when he decided to 'come out' rather than living a 'false life'.

Read selected couplets of Iftikhar Nasim here.
Read his famous poem Mere Baba. In this verse the poet seeks answers for his alternate sexuality in Urdu, Hindi and Roman scripts here.

[UPDATE: This post was written in 2009. Now, in 2013, the Supreme court has said that the law stands and homosexuality that had been de-criminalised, is a criminal act.]