“… Nisbat’s speaker reveals her urban sophistication by shopping for a dildo. She declares Calcutta models superior to local ones and is willing to spend extra for a dildo made of whale
bone or leather. Although she prefers the “real thing” to a toy, she finds the latter
useful in an emergency. The poem ends humorously with the dildo disappearing
from her trunk and her crying out that the mischievous creature has run away.”
-Gender, Sex & the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, 1780 – 1870, Ruth Vanita
A mention of dildos (sabura) in Urdu poetry came as a sheer surprise to me. In a canon that is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the many shades of unfulfilled love, the references to dildos might leave a reader quite incredulous.
But it’s not just dildos that sit unseen in Urdu works. It’s an entire genre of poetry known as rekhti, which was characterised by a female speaker and preoccupation with women’s everyday lives. It is counter posed to rekhta, the “literature narrated in the masculine voice”. While both employ the ghazal format and it’s metrical and rhyme schemes, rekhta traditionally genders the lover and beloved as male, a convention inherited from Persian poetry. Its main theme is unrequited love, though many love poems could also be interpreted as yearning for the divine. For instance, this verse by Ghalib:
Nind us ki hai, dimaagh us ka hai, raaten us ki hain
Teri zulfen jis ke baazu par pareshaan ho ga’in
(Sleep is [his], peace of mind is [his], the very nights are [his]
Upon whose shoulder lie strewn your scattered tresses)
Rekhti, on the other hand,focuses on women’s relationships and their everyday activities and preoccupations. Take these verses by Insha Allah Khan‘Insha’:
Āg lene ko jo ā’īn to kahīn lāg lagā
Bībī hamsāī ne dī jī men merī āg lagā
Na burā māne to lun noch ko’ī muthi bhar
Begamā har terī kyārī men harā sāg lagā
(When she came to take fire, an attraction took hold;
The neighbor lady lit a fire in my heart
If you don’t mind, may I seize a handful or two?
Young lady, greens grow in every bed of yours!)
It eschews the heavily Persianised register of rekhta and employs a more colloquial cadence. In rekhti, the addressor is female, though the beloved can be either female or male. It is these allusions to lesbian love that many commentators found obscene. Interestingly, however, most rekhti poetry is written by men, some of whom dressed up as women and wore make-up during public recitals. This later provoked another criticism – that men could not ‘authentically’ capture ‘women’s experiences’ and performed it merely for titillation. There were female rekhti poets too, but almost none of their works are extant.
With rekhta upheld as the paragon of Urdu poetry, many scholars considered rekhti inferior. However, prejudice against rekhti is not simply a thing of the past. In an article on rekhti, historian Rana Safvi recounts, “When I first decided to include rekhti in a #shair schedule, purist members were outraged that I was trying to defile Urdu ghazals, since rekhti too is written in that form.”
In such a literary landscape, Ruth Vanita’s Gender, Sex & the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, 1780 – 1870 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), the first book-length study in English of rekhti, is an invaluable resource. It knocks down baseless assumptions about the genre and digs through the colonial impact on Urdu criticism to uncover its rich legacy. Vanita emphasises the interplay and overlaps between rekhti and rekhta, suggesting that the two are inseparable, rather than discrete, entities. She also explores the sub genres that rekhti spawned, such as chaptinama, which described erotic relations between women.
As Vanita parses the rekhti repertoire, she lays bare the lives of women and paints a canvas of life in Delhi and Lucknow in the 18th and 19th century. In doing so, she marshals evidence against commonly held assumptions and brings forth fascinating historical nuggets. The Nawabs of Awadh, for instance, have long been derided as decadent and effeminate rulers, a description which wiggled its way into later literary and cinematic representations, such as Premchand’s Shatranj ke Khiladi and Satyajit Ray’s film of the same name. However, drawing on the works of other commentators and the evidence presented in poetry, Vanita declares that it was also a time of prosperity and vibrant artistic production in which women played an important role. Women of the royal family, courtesans, prostitutes, singers and dancers exercised cultural influence and many from humble backgrounds rose to positions of power. She adds that polygamy, “generally read as evidence of women’s subordination… allowed some women social mobility” in the Awadh court. The world that shines through rekhti is one where “women are important shapers of urban culture, especially urban speech” and “well-established binary categories like courtesan/respectable woman, mistress/servants, high/low language, and lover/beloved” are upturned.
The Nawabs’ portrayal as effeminate is also because of the variant norms of masculinity prevailing in Victorian England and 19th-century north India. Take the bankas, for example, a subculture of men known for their stylish attire and looks as well as their martial skills. Vanita explains that they “were perceived as simultaneously dandies and warriors, whose pride in appearance was inseparable from valor and honor”.
In this milieu, men and women interacted not only in the context of a family or as lovers, but also as friends. Courtesans were fairly independent and men were free to form non-sexual bonds with them. These close friendships are perhaps one of the reasons why rekhti, despite being written by men, gives an insightful account into women’s lives. Vanita writes, “When I present rekhti today, particularly to feminist audiences, listeners express surprise that men could have been so sympathetic to women’s relationships and emotions and could have been interested in details of fabrics, jewelry, dress, cosmetics, and other female accoutrements… I have even been asked if I am sure the writers were male.”
However, Vanita makes sure to not romanticise rekhti poetry and the society in which it was propagated. While acknowledging the elevated status of women in the Nawabs’ courts, she adds that many were also sexually exploited by courtiers, and killed or exiled by jealous rivals. Lest one thinks that the Hindu references in rekhti poetry and the Nawab sponsoring grand Holi celebrations in Awadh pointed to some halcyon days of Hindu-Muslim harmony, she tempers it with mentions of a communal riot in 1829 and armed conflict over the Ayodhya dispute in 1855.
In an essay on Ab-e-Hayat, the first history of Urdu poetry (written in 1880), Shamsur Rahman Faruqi examines the omissions its author Mohammad Hussain Azad makes. Azad ignores the poetry of Bengal and Bihar, does not include any women and lists only one Hindu poet. He also comically rails against the common themes of Urdu poetry: “It is an unhappy state of affairs that our poetry has become ensnared in the toils of a few trifling ideas: that is, romantic themes, carefree drinking of wine… bewailing the calamity of separation, delighting in imaginary union… Don’t you see on what level our language stands? Yes, you can clearly see. She lies there on the doormat!” If “carefree drinking of wine” and “calamity of separation” are unsuitable for the first chronicler of Urdu literature, rekhti verses such as these would provoke a moral emergency:
“Come, du-gāna, let’s press breasts to breasts and grind them
Let’s rub body to body and grind sandalwood that way”
In addition to its denunciation as obscene, there are other reasons for the paucity of extant rekhti works – few poems have survived as the works of minor poets were not preserved in manuscripts. Many were destroyed or lost. Often, anthologists of poetry excised rekhti verses from a poet’s collection. It is for this reason that the bulk of rekhti verses in the book are quoted from just six poets – Rangin, Insha, Jur’at, Jan Sahib, Qais and Nisbat.
While few Urdu readers today are aware of rekhti and it might seem like a relic of another era, it has left a mark on popular culture, most evident in Hindi film songs. Vanita mentions melodies like Jhumka gira re Bareli ke bazaar mein and Hawa mein udta jaye mera lal dupatta malmal ka, which are reminiscent of rekhti’s celebration of women enjoying the pleasures of life and urban spaces. While most modern-day Hindi speakers might need a dictionary to decipher rekhta verses, the language of rekhti, with its colloquialisms and closer adherence to everyday speech, is still remarkably accessible.
Cover Image: While the focus of Rekhti was on women’s love relationships, the agency still clearly remained in the hands of the man for whom the genre of poetry was more a means of entertainment. (Source: exoticindianart.com)