Interview: Ajit Dutta and the Art of Urdu Love Poetry

by Sara Grimes

Ajit Dutta is a poet and graduate of UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-residency MFA program. His book, A Lover’s Sigh, is a translation of Urdu love poetry in a form called the “ghazal,” comprised of five-15 thematically autonomous couplets. It is Dutta’s work of the heart, combining classical and modern influences ranging from Indian and Pakistani songwriters to historical political figures. Dutta’s translation approach included listening to a wide range of singers performing ghazals. He fell in love with the form at sixteen, after purchasing a stack of ghazal poetry at a bookstore before a train ride to Delhi. As he rode the train, he became enthralled with the rhythm and beauty of the lines.

For this carefully-curated book, Dutta translated fifty poems by fourteen poets representing the Romantic era of the Mughal poets (Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqu Mir, Momin Khan Momin), as well as new, modern poets (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Luhdiavni, Asrur ul HaqMajaz) for whom justice, freedom, and equality were clarion calls.

TCR: What was your first experience of the ghazal?

AD: I was in London, and an uncle of mine used to come to visit quite often. He was very fond of Urdu poetry and was always invited to these evenings of recitations, where a really famous singer would come to people’s houses. In the living room, twenty people would sit on the floor, and this [invited performer] would sit front and center and sing these songs. Imagine listening to Bob Dylan in your living room; it was that experience of listening to someone really famous, where you’re on intimate terms with that person. They would sing for a couple of hours. Then there would be a conversation around the poems themselves and around the way of singing. If the guy was a performer at heart, he would really show off by dazzling you with different interpretations of the singing.

My first experience of a ghazal performance was at one of these parties. It was with a singer by the name of Mehdi Hassan. He sings in a very classical way, and he’s always accompanied by a harmonium, a small concertina piano, an instrument of the West, which was adopted by Indians as their instrument of choice.


TCR: How did music influence your translation? Did you listen to the ghazal in addition to reading it?

AD: Think of Shakespeare: you can read Shakespeare, and you can listen to a great actor perform [his work]. When that person performs, he is placing emphasis on words that you have not noticed before, or he is placing the emphasis in such a manner that you have not read them. The same experience applies to songs. You may hear pauses between the words that are not there in the original, only in the singing. It can help you to understand the poem better. When you listen, it opens your mind to new interpretations. I totally get lost in the music. I was attracted to certain poems not because I read them but because I heard them sung. It’s the passion, but it’s also the rhyming and the rhythm that catches your ear.


TCR: The theme of unrequited love comes up often in the ghazal. Why is that theme so powerful?

AD: In the ghazal, the woman, or the beloved, is always seen as someone who is unattainable. It is in that unattainability that there is pathos and drama. If it were fulfilled, then there would be nothing to write about except being very happy. [Percy] Shelley is the one who writes, “Sweetest songs always tell us saddest thoughts.” Grief touches all of us more so than joy.


TCR: In the West, we might not take someone who is experiencing this dramatic range of emotions seriously. How do views of taking a lover seriously differ in the East?

AD: In the West, you might think of someone who is moaning and groaning about their love life as being a melodramatic. In the East, and especially in India and Pakistan and the geographic region, there is a term in Hindi and Urdu for “the lover,” a fellow who wants love. Then there is the concept of “phata,” meaning “torn up.” His clothes are all torn; he is all messed up physically. He looks like a tramp. Yet he is so madly in love with someone unattainable he doesn’t care how he looks. He appears to the world as someone who is physically and mentally lost, and that has no shame. There is no sense of drama. It is just taken for what it is.


TCR: In your book, the modern Urdu poets seem to shift between being concerned with worldly problems and being distracted by love. Can you give some examples?

AD: Faiz writes from this perspective: There was a time when I thought nothing existed but the beauty of your eyes. If I were to have you, there would be nothing else that I would ever want. But then I looked at the world, and I looked at starving children, and the disease that they have, and the pus that is oozing out of their wounds, and that distracts me. As much as there is satisfaction in meeting you and being with you, there is this misery that always comes between me and the enjoyment of being with you. I’m aware of the world’s misery. I’m aware of your beauty. But the innocence that I had before I knew this misery has gone. What I can give you now is not this innocent love but a tainted love.


TCR: Sahir Ludhianvi is also interested in offsetting his passion for his lover with thoughtfulness about poverty and worldly matters.

AD:  Someone who bought the book called me. She is close to a hundred years old now, and she lives in Texas. She’s of Pakistani origin, and she said she went to college with Sahir. When he was in college, he was extremely poor. She said, “Our class got to go on a trip to Agra where the Taj Mahal is, and he didn’t have the money to go. So some of us pooled our money, and we bought a little model of the Taj Mahal, and we gave it to him.” That’s where he saw it, and he wrote this beautiful poem that is titled “My Love, Meet Me Somewhere Else.”

[In this poem, Sahir says:] You may think that this Taj is a thing of beauty, that it embodies the love that an emperor had for his wife, and he built this whole mausoleum that even now is looked at as a wonder of the world. That his love is immortal because this building is immortal. But have you ever thought of [who] your forbearers and ancestors were? The poor people who built this building? They too probably loved someone in their world as true as the love the emperor had for his wife. But they had no money to build mausoleums. So, in essence, what the emperor has done is taken his wealth and built this memorial. He has mocked us because we don’t have the wherewithal to build this memorial, which means our love is fake, and his is true. If you want to meet someone there, go ahead. But if you want to meet me, meet me somewhere else, not at the Taj.


TCR: Did you have an intended audience in mind when you began your translations?

AD: The most popular songs are from Bollywood movies. As you know, in Bollywood movies, if there are not at least five or six songs, it’s supposed to be a failure. In Bollywood, there’s a subgenre of ghazals that people have written specifically for movies or have written for their private poetry, and it has made it into a movie. People will listen to performances of the ghazal, and because they’ve heard it on Bollywood recordings, they’ll say “bravo” or “encore; please repeat it” at the right moment. However, if you ask them what a particular thing means, they don’t know. After reading my book, I’ve had people say to me, “I’ve been listening to this particular song for the last fifty years. I didn’t know what it meant, but I didn’t realize it. Now I get the meaning, and it is so much more beautiful.” So that was the primary target.

Sara Grimes is a poet and writer, studying creative writing at UC Riverside. Her poetry has been published in the Dewdrop Digest and Beyond Words Magazine and featured in Kelp Journal. She is an advocate for diverse women’s rights through her work in Expat Women, is active in immigrant education through her work at Literacy Source and uses her writing to empower neurodiverse individuals. You can find her on Twitter at @UrbanLimrick

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