Ghazal as Bridge: Overcoming the Personal via the Universal
By Prateeksha Sharma
The mood swings that psychosis predisposes one to are severe afflictions that may keep a person rattled, fragile, and deeply anxious for long periods. Having lived in those states for years at a time, experiencing loneliness compounded by social withdrawal for decades together, health-giving possibilities emerged for me from unexpected quarters. One of those pathways was offered by music, though perhaps equal if not more, was contributed by the presence of my dogs. But dogs came into my life a good 15 years after my ‘breakdown’, until then, the only rope to cling on to was music.
The contribution of ghazal as the poetic genre to that healing was immense, unforeseen, and of an order that was unimaginable for me. Ghazal was a significant star, in a bigger constellation of ideas and engagements, that lead to my ultimate recovery from a debilitating, chronic case of Bipolar disorder. Recovery from serious mental illnesses of a psychotic nature cannot but be a long drawn and complex process. The first thing that happened as a result of my ‘psychotic breakdown’ in November 1992 was that it threw me out of regular university education when I was about 20 years old. Whatever I studied thereafter happened within the confines of my home: without teachers, guides, friends or anyone (outside of family) for support; though I had a kind hearted Jungian therapist, who showed new directions on the path of knowledge. The only area, in which regular support was available, to a small degree, was classical music. In the rare periods during my early 20s when I was functional enough, I would go and learn classical music regularly.
Recovery from mental illness is a difficult process for anyone. One of the key engagements that I have thereafter got into is to first consolidate my recovery, and second, to conduct an analysis of recovery, via research. Having ‘lost’ two decades of life, it has taken time to put the train back on track, and then to be certain what the track could be. In due course I got into independent research and have been involved in recovery mapping, in reflexive ways – I have been looking at my own and others’ narratives to understand what factors lead to recovery and how one’s story may contribute to a cultural understanding of both illness and recovery.
I started learning music when I was nine or ten years old. Musical training does not automatically lead anyone towards musical creativity, and in some ways I attribute mine to the creativity that is associated with those having experienced bipolar/psychosis: states that I experienced on multiple occasions in the span of those two decades. Whatever the source, musical training certainly created a pathway for artistic giftedness to emerge from amidst the psychic turmoil.
Ghazal was not my first choice of artistic expression. It was, in fact, the bhakti poetry of Kabir. I have worked extensively with his poetry from 1999, particularly because of a need to connect with God, to grieve about my suffering. Kabir provided the most befitting and sombre emotional and spiritual space, allowing me an introversion that would, over time, become a therapeutic crucible, especially when I chose to live alone from 2007. In a longer article, I have elaborated on my immersion in Kabir’s poetry.
Coming from a ‘bhakti’ orientation in which all my musical compositions would largely be a dialogue with an unknown God, whether through the poetry of Kabir, Meera, Guru Nanak, or Surdas, it was difficult for me to associate with the human in bodily form—more so due to having no such connections in real life. In these circumstances, the ghazal stole its way into my consciousness through an unlikely channel: a colleague of my father. Prejudiced as my mind was about ghazal being a form of poetry on women, wine, and song, he (a professor of mathematics and a poet), upon hearing my rendition of Kabir, came home to argue with me about the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the ghazal. He spent hours debating and explaining Urdu poetry to me, possibly because it was his belief that my voice was well suited for rendering the ghazal.
Birth of a Relational Bridge
Thanks to Naseem (Ajmal) bhai, my heart established a new connection—both with the new genre of the Urdu ghazal, as well as with other humans. This was further augmented by my father’s efforts to make me sing ghazals that he had composed in order to pull me out of deep depression. Of course I would laugh at it. But seeing his determination to compose new things even without having the sort of musical training that I had, I agreed to try singing his ghazals, just for a lark.
Even today, I remember how Naseem bhai introduced me to a poet who was a contemporary of Mirza Ghalib, Alim Lakhnawi. The poetry was seemingly simple and yet the possibilities it carried within its folds could only have been explained by a poet or an academic. Naseem bhai was both. He opened my mind to the spiritual layers of the poetry in which the poet says, “You have made this world worthy of being loved” (duniya ko tunae ishq ke qabil bana diya). He insisted this was not to be seen as a simple expression of love addressed to an earthly beloved but to the Divine Almighty. I thought about it deeply and the more I thought the more I was convinced this was the case.
Here is the ghazal, ‘Duniya to tune’, that I recorded in the year 2004—my first. This ghazal carries in its couplets/shers a certain lightness which could reach me even while I was not well-versed in the language. Without waiting to master the diction or tallafuz, I just needed to sing it, in particular the passage which talked about the glance that could transform a devastated scenario to a joyous gathering – “ujde hue maqaam ko, mehfil bana diya”. Along with every ghazal recording I have documented the date as well as the story behind the ghazal, the Soz-e-ghazal.
Another that comes to mind in particular is this ghazal, ‘Phir koi hoshruba’. When I examined it’s lyrics, I could not understand a single word in the first line of the sher, and yet the second one mirrored my inner reality quite accurately—ke jidhar dekhiye, ronae ki sadaa aati hai (which ever direction I turn, I hear a voice that makes me tearful). I was deeply depressed at that time, my mind was tearful, heartbroken, in the midst of a chaos that knew no boundaries. In that state I identified with this ghazal and set it to music. The first time around, it sounded like a ghazal in the style of the legendary Begum Akhtar, not that I had borrowed the music from her, but possibly the musical sensibility. Till today when I either sing the ghazal or listen to it, I am reminded of her; I cannot attribute it to myself for some reason. I see it as a reflection of her. This experience, that through my own musical compositions I have been able to spiritually connect with great artists and poets, is an intriguing aspect of my life. My music is a reflection of the world, and it enlarges my world from my small self to a larger universal one. This, I believe, is the key to my recovery.
Naseem bhai informed me that this ghazal was written by Alim when Awadh was facing great crises and losing its former glory as the seat of Urdu tehzeeb and adab, waiting anxiously to be annexed by the British. (The story and the movie, Shatranj ke Khiladi, by Munshi Premchandhas portratyed the reality of that moment) Time and again art has come to the rescue of human emotions caught in vortexes difficult to navigate. Yet seeing the universal, while in the midst of a personal suffering, can help someone transcend the immediate surroundings of one’s life. When I heard Naseem bhai’s interpretation my mind was pulled into another era of human experience and, on many later occasions when I would be engulfed in inner mires, the same image would help in displacing my woes in a much-needed manner. Naturally, as a musician I was dedicated to perfecting the music, to hone it via riyaaz.
Every song has personal, social, and universal symbols attached to it. This can be detected not only a musician but also by a listener, if he/she identifies closely with the music. One of the features of my engagement with music is that I have not delved into existing repertoires of music to the extent I have on my own compositions. Possibly, the resonance which poetry produced within me was an echo of my suffering, and in expressing that suffering via a musical medium I got rid of the suffering. I have often thought about the connection between bipolar disorder and its tendency towards artistic creativity, and whether that gave me the scope for working with three forms, bhajan, ghazal, and khayal, as well as connecting to poetry in at least four languages- English (which I have never used in music), Hindi/Braj, Punjabi (my mother tongue), and Urdu.
I cannot appropriately hazard a guess about the source of my own musical creativity. But on pondering where my creativity lay, and this reflection was not easy to access until one was at least experiencing hypomania, if not full blown mania, I realized that the order lay in discipline and labor, which nobody in a disordered state can muster. It was with the order and discipline that music instilled in me that my emotional and spiritual chaos subsided—making me a healed and centered person.
To another going through a similar suffering I offer this song of hope, which instilled hope in me a hundred times. The ghazal freed me from my suffering and gave my listeners, I hope, whenever I had the opportunity to perform, a similar relief. The photo attached with this piece is from one such concert in Nepal.
 My preferred word is mental suffering.
 She came into my life a full decade after managing without such guidance.
 https://www.academia.edu/5312747/Making_Song_Making_Sanity-_Recovery_from_Bipolar_Disorder. “Making Song, Making Sanity”, Canadian Journal of Music Therapy [download from the link as given]
 These are my humble translations. I admit that my verbal acuity to move between the two languages is limited.
 I did expend a reasonable amount of effort a decade later in learning the Urdu language and therefore the diction is much better in my second album, Rooh-e-Faiz.
In a world full of labels, having overcome a long stint of bipolar disorder, Prateeksha Sharma currently chooses for herself the label ‘multipolar in order’. It reflects her negotiations among her multiple professional roles and identities of researcher, collaborating therapist, musician, dog pack leader and struggling entrepreneur. Her main focus in research is to create a culturally responsive, peer-informed method of counseling, and clear pathways in music towards therapeutic goals. She is committed to helping more people recover from serious mental illnesses and empower people with any dis/ability to live happier lives, as she lives her own, in verdant South Goa. She may be reached at email@example.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.