If it were possible for poetry to remain difficult to the point of obscurity and yet also the topic of literary debate across a vast geography, the poetry of ‘Abd al-Qādir “Bedil” (1644-1720) of Delhi exemplifies this. At the heart of his reception, consequential for the national literary canons of Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and formative for the poetics of Ghālib and Iqbāl, are Bedil’s ghazals. Though he also wrote in every other Persian verse genre, the ghazal was his – and his period’s – primary site of poetic creativity.
In his thus-far unpublished bayāż (notebook), Bedil arranged ghazals in order of poetic excellence rather than chronology, beginning with the ghazal that he thought best rendered a sequence of topoi (maẓāmīn), its poetic priority marked with a horizontal red ink stroke above its first letter. This was followed by ghazals by others in the same meter, rhyme and sometimes refrain. He inserted his own ghazals into 36 of these ghazal chains. This was his most explicit statement on what he valued in the ghazal heritage and on how his ghazal poetics related to those of his interlocutors. By reading some of his ghazals in these chains against their models, I propose that his editorial choices to exclude some of a poet’s distichs and include others, and his darkenings of mood and lexical and metaphorical densifications were effects of his bisemic ghazal poetics – a poetics simultaneously amenable to Akbarian (i.e. in the Islamic tradition of Ibn ‘Arabī’s theistic monism) and Advaitic (i.e. in the Hindu tradition of Vedic non-dual ontology) interpretations.
Having tried to capture broad aspects of his innovations through imitation, I then argue that his ghazal innovations surpassed such imitatively articulated self-differentiation by considering one of the 60 ghazals he composed in the eight-fold and sound Kāmil, a meter extremely infrequent in Persian though common in Arabic and in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Hindavī under the name of Gītikā/Gītā. I also consider another ghazal in the eight-fold, doubled ‘sewn-up’ Mutadārik meter, a prosodic innovation on Mutadārik that was permitted in principle but never actualized in practice until Bedil, an innovation that rendered it identical to the Sanskrit Toṭaka meter. By choosing the eight-fold forms of meters in these as in most of his ghazals, and by his pervasive use of syllabic additions (i.e. additive ziḥāfāt) permitted by Persian prosody, Bedil replicated the nominal compounds and rhythms of Sanskritic hymns. By his preference for mid-hemistich pauses and internal rhymes, he evoked the musicality of Rūmī and Ḥāfiẓ’s ghazals. This allowed him to fashion a ghazal poetics that echoed that of what his peers called “the old masters”; and that remained just within the bounds of rhythmic and imagistic intelligibility to readers who knew nothing of Sanskrit and Sanskritic literatures while evoking these literatures to those familiar with them. This was a Persian case of what David Shulman identifies across 16th-17th century South Asia as the “thematization of the imagination...as the defining element of the creative process”. To those with bi- and trilingual eyes and ears, it was a Persian mimesis of what Hindustān’s sant or Hindavī saint-poets proudly called the “middle way” (madhi mārg) between Hindu and Muslim, inscribing Ibn ‘Arabī’s monism into his very syntax even as it aurally translated the Sanskritic- Hindavī poetry of his milieu.
Prashant Keshavmurthy is Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill. His research interests focus on literary canon formation and conceptions of authorship in pre-colonial Persian and Urdu literary traditions, commentarial practices in pre-19th century Persian literary cultures, and ethical and political thought in late Mughal India. He is the author of Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark (Routledge, 2016), a study of poetics and politics in the work of the poet 'Abd al-Qādir Bedil (d.1720) and his circle, and several essays the most recent of which is "The Limits of Islamic Civility in India" in Milad Milani & Vassilios Adrahtas, Eds., Islam, Civility and Political Culture (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2020).