Mehtab Malhotra: An Outsider's Stumble Through the Musical Poetry of South Asian Ghazal

A walkthrough of my (white British) experience of a program of Ghazals sung by Mehtab Malhotra at the Nehru Centre, London.

Mehtab Malhotra singing Amir Khusrau's religious poem Chaap Tilak at a different event, found on the YouTube channel InsightandMind

After a few minutes winding down streets near Green Park, London, I stepped into the Nehru Centre (cultural wing of the High Commission for India). I showed my ticket and wandered in, spending some time perusing artwork displayed in a well lit, high ceilinged room before heading upstairs for the concert.

As I entered the room I was washed over with the sudden darkness of a room in which only the musicians were lit, and the faint, sweet scent of rose water that transported me back to my recent brief stay in Pakistan. An enthusiastic gentleman was introducing Mehtab in rapid Hindi/Urdu. I could not follow it, but was glad to pick out the occasional word. I took a seat, and was enveloped by the pure tone of Mehtab's voice, the precise click and boom of the tabla, the rich drone of the harmonium, and the clear picking of the guitar.

Ghazal is not only a genre of music. The word refers to the metre of the poetry accompanied by the music. A ghazal consists of a number of couplets which are semantically unrelated, that is, each is a unit of meaning in itself. The end of each line of the entire ghazal rhymes, and each couplet ends with the same "radif," that is, end-phrase. The final couplet of a ghazal usually contains a "takhallus," the poet's signature.

Ghazals deal with the theme of love. Modern musical performances of ghazals assume this in the sense of earthly love, but the historic world of metaphor from which it draws is that of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), where this would be interpreted as the love for God.

I call my experience of this concert a "stumble" because, as indicated by the subheading, I have only very limited exposure to this musical culture. My twenty weeks of Urdu lessons meant that I could get excited every so often when I recognised a word or phrase. From what I noticed, this included a lot of weather, as I recognised the word "garm" (heat), as well as the gloriously onomatopoeic "barish" (rain), and "havaa" (wind). There were one or two sufi metaphors that I also recognised, particularly "must," meaning the intoxication of God, a goosebumps moment for me.

Such is my interest in the effect lyrics have on emotions. Even understanding only a very tiny portion of the words of these ghazals, I was deeply affected. My breaths came shallow, and I felt a leap of joy each time I understood something, although I am aware this is likely only pride at having understood. However, the only moment of the "mehfil" (gathering) that actually brought tears to my eyes was a beautifully executed and fleeting, slow vocal shake (possibly "andolan," my recognition of ornamentation is not wonderful) in the third ghazal sung.

Other indications of my lack of knowledge were my attempts to identify raags (tone scale and sequence), and tal (metrical cycle). I thought I could identify the first ghazal as raag bhairav, and the sixth piece, an instrumental, as the tal kaharva, but I may have been wrong, and in others, my listening was in vain. All this straining to understand may have reduced the emotional impact of the music, as I was almost constantly thinking, and it was only when I switched off that the magic really happened for me. Even so, it was easy for me to know when to be impressed, as the expert listeners in the room regularly exclaimed "wah, wah" and "kya baat hai" (what matter!).

Two of the Urdu poets' names I recognised: Ghalib (one of the most famous late Mughal aristocratic ghazal poets), who I believe was mentioned prior to the first ghazal sung, but I couldn't be sure as everyone was speaking Hindi/Urdu, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the late Pakistani intellectual, whose ghazal was the fifth song.

Later on in the two-hour mehfil, there was a beautiful moment of abandon when Mehtab Malhotra leaned over to speak to the tabla player for a moment, before dismissively exclaiming "ghazal ka nam mujhe malum nahin (I don't know this ghazal's name). She proceeded to sing it anyway.

My original purpose, to find participants for an experiment I am running on emotional responses to qawwali, was thwarted as no-one was young enough, but perhaps I found something just as valuable: a moving experience.

Thomas Graves
Thomas Graves

Aspiring academic, sometime activist, lapsed musician. Creating content on music in culture, music and emotion, and music in politics.

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Mehtab Malhotra: An Outsider's Stumble Through the Musical Poetry of South Asian Ghazal