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COLUMN: The bulbul in Urdu’s garden

COLUMN: The bulbul in Urdu’s garden

Yeh arzu thi tujhe gul ke ru ba ru karte

Hum aur bulbul-e be tab guftagu karte

I longed to put you and the rose together

The restive bulbul and I could then talk to each other

— Atish

THE bulbul is a songbird that is a common sight across most of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. There are as many as 140 different kinds of bulbul. However, there is a difference between the bulbul bird and its literary equivalent, which is the bulbul that lives in the garden of ghazal poetry. The bulbul or bolbol as pronounced in Persian is an imagined bird that sings a heartbreaking, sweet song for its beloved, the rose. Some of the poetic names for the bulbul reflect the magic of its song: hazar dastan, hazar avaz, or simply hazara suggests one who has a thousand melodies.

The indigenous Indian bulbul is a perky whiskered bird that could have white cheeks or a red throat and a tuft on its head. I was curious about what it was called before Persian became infused with local speech many centuries ago. I first looked it up in the glossary Hobson–Jobson, because that is where one can find colloquialisms, etymological, historical and other kindred terms. Under the entry for bulbul, Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell wrote: “The word bulbul is originally Persian (no doubt its name intended to imitate the bird’s note) and applied to a bird which does duty with Persian poets for the nightingale.”

Yule and Burnell’s hubris in calling the bulbul the Persian poet’s nightingale is typical of the patronising colonial attitude towards the Oriental. The Persians had no need for the nightingale when they had their own hazar dastan. In fact, the bird and flower theme was a traditional one in both painting and poetry well before the Safavid period. The origins of this theme may be traced to the beginnings of Persian manuscript illustration in the 14th century, where the rose first appears as a discrete motif and a landscape element utilised in the illustration of epic and lyrical texts during the reign of the Ilkhanids. Persian painters drew upon literary images of the rose as a metaphor for love and beauty to create symbolic compositions in the margins accompanying narrative scenes or lyrical landscapes, evoking visions of springtime and young love.

The bulbul and the rose are both important motifs in Persian literature, particularly in ghazal poetry. In mystical poetry the bulbul’s longing for the rose served as a metaphor for the soul’s yearning for union with God. The theme of the rose in Persian mystical poetry has been the subject of detailed investigation since the beginnings of Orientalist studies in Europe in the late 18th century, and poets such as Wolfgang Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke have been inspired by their Persian counterparts. The gul-o bulbul theme fascinated Victorian society. Variations on the idea of the flower or rose as a symbol of mortality caught the imagination of poets and painters. Oscar Wilde’s poignant fairy tale The Nightingale and the Rose is the best example of reworking the gul-o bulbul theme.

In Urdu poetry, the bulbul is conceived in the exact literary image of the Persian bolbol. This bulbul’s concern was time’s garden where beauty had a short span. The rosebud blossomed and the bulbul sang; the rose petals scattered and the bulbul lamented the loss. The bulbul and the rose in time’s garden symbolise both the fragility and eternity of love. One rose will fade, another will bloom, and a new bulbul will be born. The bulbul’s egg, baizah-e bulbul, causes excitement in the garden because a new lover is on its way.

Critics of the Urdu ghazal often single out the “exaggerated, unrealistic passion” symbolised by the gul-o bulbul in order to label it “foreign”. It’s a Persian image they say, not indigenous to the subcontinent. Yet the image was so persistent that most people have forgotten what the bulbul was called earlier. The commonest name for the bulbul was kalsiri which means black-headed. The Persian lexis bolbol was indigenised into Sanskrit. Whatever species the Persian bulbul may belong to, the application of the name to a certain species in the subcontinent has led to many misconceptions about their power of song. The native species belong to the family of short-legged thrushes. In John T. Platt’s A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English, the Indian bulbul (Lanius boulboul) is suggested to be closer to the fork-tailed shrike. The bulbul’s mistranslation or conflation with the English nightingale has created further confusion about the bird and its literary-romantic perception.

To those who quibble about the bulbul’s role in the Urdu ghazal, I offer Mir Taqi Mir’s verse:

Jis chaman zar ka hai tu gul-e tar

Bulbul us gulsitan ke hum bhi hain

The garden whose freshest rose you are

We are the bulbuls of that garden too

The story of the rose and the bulbul is to be cherished as a metaphor for undying passion. In Allahabad, my bulbuls were a pair who built their nest in the hanging pot on the veranda. The male had a white throat, ruby red cheeks and charming little black whiskers. In the courting season I heard him sing beautiful notes. The song was sweet but not plaintive. My garden in Charlottesville has no bulbuls. There are lots of perky red cardinals, finches of many stripes and colours, chickadees, doves and the ubiquitous robin to mention just a few. As I write I can hear a bird warbling; he is my bulbul, Ghalib’s bulbul, all poetry lovers’ bulbul:

Kehta hai kaun nala-e bulbul ko be asar

Pardeh mein gul ke lakh jigar chaak ho gaye

Who can call the bulbul’s lament wasted?

In the guise of a rose, a million hearts were sundered

MEHR AFSHAN FAROOQI is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib.

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