शेर गज़ल नज़्म & Jagjit Singh





5 years to this day, India’s best ghazal singer Jagjit Singh passed away. For me, there’s no discussion of sher-o-shaayari without invoking the memory of Jagjit Singh.

It was early 1980’s when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Living in Hyderabad/India, I would amble about the house while my father would listen to ghazal or qawwali. My next door neighbor Mr. Azam would wax eloquent about the finer points of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals. At the cavalier age of 12 or 13, I couldn’t care less about ghazal-wazal!

Fast forward to 1987-88, I was in my first or second year of engineering college. I stumbled upon a cassette of Jagjit Singh’s album The Unforgettables from my father’s music collection. I was awestruck by Jagjit’s voice and that sparked my curiosity of Urdu poetry. By the time I finished my engineering in another couple of years, I had bought almost every album that Jagjit Singh released and most of his songs and their lyrics were etched into my brain for eternity.

Over the years I have heard most of the stalwarts – Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas, Farida Khanum, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, etc. But, I kept coming back to Jagjit Singh. The reason was very simple – he always rendered the ghazal in a simple mellifluous melody. Even though Jagjit Singh was an accomplished Hindustani classical singer, he rarely engaged in any vocal ustadi (i.e. vocal virtuoso techniques like taankari) because he believed that vocal acrobatics distracted the listener from the ghazal lyrics. Jagjit Singh truly personified the bol-pradhan style of singing – he let himself be the invisible vocal medium while letting the lyrics of the shaayari take the spotlight. His choice of what to sing was also very deliberate – he chose easier to understand ghazals by poets like Qateel Shifai rather than the loftier ones penned by Ghalib.

So, what exactly is shaayari?


Shaayari – Sher, Nazm, Ghazal & Ruba’i

Quite simply, shaayari is poetry in Urdu language, while the poet is a shaayar. Here are some common forms of shaayari that have their own form and style:


Sher: It’s a two line couplet, a poem. A sher can be an independent poem or part of a larger ghazal. Think of a sher as a single lustrous pearl.


Nazm: A nazm is a freestyle form of urdu poetry with a lot less restrictions around the structure and rhyming pattern. A nazm can be 2 lines or a multi-line paragraph. The focus of the nazm is around the content and thought without much rigidity of the constraints. Given this freedom, writing a nazm is a lot less difficult that writing a proper ghazal.


Ruba’i: It’s a form of nazm that’s a 4 line poem. A collection of such quatrains is rubaiyat. The beauty of a ruba’i comes from its rhyming pattern where the first, second and the fourth lines share a rhyme while the third line breaks the monotony of the rhyme in the other 3 lines.


Ghazal: A ghazal is a string of shers (usually 5 or more) linked to a central theme. If a sher is a single lustrous pearl, think of the ghazal as a beautiful pearl bracelet with 5 or more sher. A ghazal is very structured with strict rules to follow – hence not very easy to write. Here are the 5 basic constructs of a ghazal:

  • Matla: The first sher of the ghazal. The two lines of a matla must end with radeef.
  • Radeef: It’s the common word(s) at the end of the first two lines of the matla. This radeef must also be used at the end of the second line of other shers in the ghazal.
  • Kaafiya: It’s the rhyming word that comes before the radeef. In a ghazal, all the kaafiya share the same rhyming sound.
  • Beher: It’s the meter of the ghazal – the length and the tuning pattern. A ghazal that doesn’t use a proper beher cannot be composed or sung musically. Writing a ghazal with proper beher that can be sung in rhytm, requires choosing words of appropriate length & rhyme while respecting the rules of a ghazal construct – a very difficult proposition. It’s not unusual for musicians & composers to occasionally make slight changes (the gustaqi) to lyrics (without changing the meaning) so that the lyrics fit the rhythm of the song.
  • Maqta: The last sher of the ghazal. It’s customary for a poet to use his takhallus (pen-name) in the maqta.


Here is a famous ghazal by the poet Mirza Ghalib:


दिल-ए-नादान तुझे हुआ क्या है

आख़िर इस दर्द की दवा क्या है


हमको उनसे वफ़ा की है उम्मीद

जो नहीं जानते वफ़ा क्या है


हम हैं मुश्ताक़ और वो बेज़ार

या इलाही, यह माजरा क्या है


जान तुम पर निसार करता हूँ

मैं नहीं जानता दुआ क्या है


मैने माना की कुच्छ नही ग़ालिब

मुफ़्त हाथ आए, तो बुरा क्या है


In this classic ghazal, क्या है is the radeef while the rhyming words वफ़ा दवा बुरा दुआ are kaafiya. In the maqta (last sher), the poet uses his taqallus Ghalib!


These are just the basic constructs and there are many more rules around writing a proper ghazal. With all these constructs and constraints, as you can imagine, writing a proper ghazal requires a firm grip on vocabulary, poetic aesthetic and even a musical sense.

Traditionally ghazals are written around love, longing, rejection, etc. But, at times, ghazals have a spiritual interpretation where the beloved is a metaphor for God. This duality in interpretation makes the ghazal even more sublime!



In the last 25+ years, for me, not a week has gone by without listening to Jagjit Singh. He invisibly accompanied me on walks, hikes, drives, on beaches, on buses trains and planes. With his music on my phone, he went everywhere I went – a constant companion. Over 25+ years I developed a je ne sais quoi relationship with Jagjit Singh – depending on what he was singing,  he was a a friend, a philosopher or a father figure!

I can think of no other way to pay homage to Jagjit Singh other than writing a ruba’i in his honor:


ना है तू यार

ना है क़ुरबतदार

फिर तेरे जाने पे

क्यों है हम ज़ार-ज़ार


I remember this as if it happened yesterday. On that crisp October morning 5 years ago, I dropped my kids off to school and went for a morning walk in the neighboring Ortega Park. While walking, I read on Facebook that Jagjit Singh had died. I lost somebody who was no friend or relation – but a constant companion over the decades. Slumped on a park bench, I wept like a baby!