The Politics of Ghazal Music in India

In a caste-based society, the defiant performance of songs about forbidden love challenges the dominant status of a Brahmin artform

Bhimrao Panchale in Butterfly on thorns, a 2024 work by Sanjeev Sonpimpare

In India, Youth Festivals provide a forum in which young adults can compete in a cultural event that allows them to demonstrate their artistic talents in categories ranging from singing and theatre to debates and dancing. All these activities require a great deal of preparation and cooperation among team members. At one such festival, near Nanded, I heard a cultural demonstration of a different sort. More specifically, I overheard someone singing at the top of his voice while in the bathroom.

The song wasn’t classical; neither was it pop. It had a style of romantic poetry. The owner of the voice emerged from the toilet, and I asked him for the source of this new melody. He paused and mentioned that he was singing Bhimrao Panchale, assuming I would know what that meant. I didn’t. “It’s a Marathi ghazal,” he said, sensing my bafflement as he walked off and broke into another song. Apparently Panchale (he’s a singer) is a star within the community devoted to that genre.

That was 2007. In addition to Buddha-Bhim-Geete, a Dalit Buddhist musical form invented during the second half of the twentieth century, I have been a lover of ghazal music from India and Pakistan for a while. But Panchale’s attempts to bring ghazal music, traditionally seen as belonging to the more Persianate (for which read Islamic) Urdu language, into the Marathi sphere were initially scorned. But thanks to the artist’s defiance and persistence, his concerts are now packed. Originating from Arabic forms, ghazals are a short, emotional exposition of punchy matters of the heart – often conditioned by betrayal or longing. The (generally) male protagonist invites the audience to follow their journey of pain, allowing audiences to escape the quotidian mindset and enter the scandalous world of trampled taboos. In a caste-based society, forbidden love is an idea that is close to one’s heart, but nevertheless suppressed. Ghazals, however, encourage communal confession. Here’s an example of a translated Marathi ghazal written by Ilahi Jamadar and sung by Vikas Kadam:

Either burn me like corpse or decorate like flowers in necklace
You may ignore me with words but curl me with your eyes

You may forget me or misplace me but don’t put me in someone else’s custody
I am a sensitive book of poem, read me or even skim over

I will visit you in my imagination, keep the house of dreams open
We will meet at leisure, talk, touch me with your fragrance.

Or this one, the reminiscence of a dead poet, composed by Suresh Bhat, one of the most famous Marathi ghazal writers:

Why did you cry so much for me today?
Did you even shed a tear at my corpse then?

You have started reading me now
Did you ever bother to turn my page then?

You kissed my word in solitary
Why did you avoid lips then?

Ghazals rely on repetition but deploy alternating styles. You may hear the same verse, but its pattern will have changed by the time you hear it for the third time.

Panchale has enriched the form by singing regional ghazals that have been articulated by canonical figures such as Siraj Aurangabadi, an eighteenth-century Persianate ghazal writer. The classical, Brahminical morality has always prevented the non-Brahmin artform from really ‘belonging’ to a general audience. When in fact Brahmins established the walls of ‘classical’ music by copying from the original form of non Brahmins. Yet non-Brahmins persisted in their efforts to popularise the form, despite the active discouragement of those who felt they were not the natural inheritors of these traditions.

Suresh Bhat introduced ghazal in the linguistic metre of the Marathi language. He, in turn, inspired Panchale (Bhat died in 2003). Writing a ghazal requires skilled oratory and jargon-infused, highbrow diction. But writing is only part of it: the performance alongside danceable tunes and walking words is what gives the form its true value. In Panchale’s case, if he found a good ghazal he bonded it to a tune and sang it, without worrying about who wrote it or what their background might be.

Panchale was born in Amaravati, central India, in 1951. He trained in formal classical music for nine years before he took up singing ghazals in 1972. His first teacher was his mother, who sang devotional songs in Varhadi (a dialect of Marathi), a practice among Mahars that continues to this day and which Panchale tries to emulate in his singing.

Evidently, Panchale’s background is musically rich. The Mahar, Mang and other untouchable communities played instruments and sang songs that were not considered equal to the classical music of dominant castes. But they remain central to the musical art of India, something that Keshav Waghmare and Yogesh Maitreya have demonstrated in their research into Marathi Dalit performers. Chandraiah Gopani has elaborated the Dalit musical form through the use of Dappu (drum) in the Telugu region. In Tamil, The Casteless Collective brought the pariah music to the popular genre. The Punjabi music has seen a rise of ‘dangerous chamar’ (dangerous untouchable) in response to the low-caste-infused Punjabi music industry. Dalits have sung the poetry of their ancestors and popularised it as devotional music that calls for honesty, accountability and righteousness. Each morning, messages passed through Dalit musical artforms that take the shape of bhakti – songs of liberation – continue to circulate. The poetry of Kabir, Ravidas, Chokhamela, Tukdoji, Panduranga and Buddha is united with an ektara (a single-string lute), halgi (drum) and dholak (drum), completing the circle of outcastes: using their own poetry and instruments. Panchale has insufficiently attempted to sing about his ancestors. There are no popular renditions drawing from his heritage.

Ghazals are not meant to be a long path. They are suggestive, and with a tease of brevity they are meant to leave the listener with occlusions. Panchale’s soft tone is unlike singers of ghazal who have high decibels and a pitch to match the Hindustani gharanas. Panchale walks into the terrain of raised inferences but delivers in treble, making it a one-tempo delivery. During an interview he said he composes music to ghazals by reading them hundreds of times and letting the process of matching the weight of words evolve. It is for this devotion to the music and words that Panchale has been anointed as Ghazal Nawaz (Gift of Ghazal).

Suraj Yengde is a W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Caste Matters (2019)

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