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Rubai, Ghazal, Nazm, Qawwali and Shayari Explained

Updated on September 20, 2013


I cannot explain these poetical forms without, talking about a bit of the history of the Indian Subcontinent. The Ghazals, Rubais, and Nazm had their origins in Persian (erstwhile Iran-Iraq). With the invasion of the Indian Sub-continent by the Mughal Emperors, the poetical forms from Persia, reached Indian shores. By 1700s several poets of Indian Birth had started writing in rubais, and Ghazals. Indian Ghazals were heavily influenced by an Islamic religious offshoot called “Sufism”. Sufism unlike their Arabic counterparts gave emphasis on singing and dancing. For them God was an experience, not a set of rules to be followed.

Over a period of a century, Indian and Pakistani Ghazals, attained a distinct characteristics.

RUBAI (plural Rubaiyat)

After the 11 century, The Persians refined their Rubais and developed it separately from their counterparts found in the Indian sub-continent. The Persian Rubais were quatrains. The most popular of them in the western world is the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”.

It’s hard for me to understand a Rubai, since it uses lots of Persian words. Here is a Rubai recital by Shahbaz Qamar Fareedi.


The poems written in the Indian-subcontinent were of two basic genres: Nazm and Ghazal.

Nazm is more like a story telling. It has only one subject matter. it is less restrictive than Ghazal can contain philosophical, romance, love and similar themes.

and here I have translated a Nazm in Hindi by Pakistani Poet Zeeshan Sahil

ऐ परिंदों! किसी शाम उड़ते हुए

(Oh Eagle! Flying in the evening

रास्ते में अगर वो नज़र आये तो

If you find her on the path

गीत बारिश का कोई सुनाना उसे

Sing a song of rain to her

ऐ सितारों! यूं ही झिलमिलाते हुए

Oh Stars! When you shine like this

उसका चेहरा दरीचे में आ जाये तो

If you see her face in a window

बादलों को बुला कर दिखाना उसे

Call the clouds and show it to them

ऐ हवा! जब उसे नींद आना लगे

Oh Wind! When she is about to sleep

रात अपने ठिकाने पे जाने लगे

And the night takes her to it place

उसके चेहरे को छू कर जगाना उसे

Wake her up by touching her face

ख्वाब से जब वो बेदार होने लगे

When she moves from dream to wakefulness

फूल बादलों में अपने पिरोने लगे

And flowers will entwine itself with clouds

मेरे बारे में कुछ न बताना उसे

Don't tell her anything about me.)


In India, Mirza Ghalib and his counterparts first wrote their poems in the Persian language. Later poets started writing in poems in Urdu (a language which is quite similar to Hindi, but it used mostly by Muslims and has a Persio-Arabic script).

Ghazal is a form with rhyming couplets and a refrain. Ghazals are usually about both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. A Ghazal contains 4-5 sher (couplet). Every sher will have the same meter and rhyme scheme, but can have different subject matter. Couplets may or may not have same thought. Ghazal usually have a strict rhyme and rhythm structure. Ghazals are usually much shorter than a Nazm. A sher can stand on its own, i.e., it will have complete meaning even if it is taken out of its context of a Ghazal.

The first sher of a Ghazal is a known as Matla and Makhta is the last sher which contains the pen name of the poet.

The most important Ghazal Writer, I believe is Mirza Ghalib. Here is two of his couplets which I translated into English:

Come yesterday and today itself you say you’re going,

Agreed though not forever, but well, some days more.

Its been long that I have entertained my beloved guest

Highlighting the meeting with gushing wine goblet.

The two contemporary Ghazal Singer and Write: Jagjith Singh and Pankaj Udhas. Jagjith Singh passed away recently.

You can watch Punkaj Udhas reciting a Ghazal here:

Here are the first two lines of that Ghazal translated into English:

Mahol Bemaza hai tere pyar ke bagair

Kaise Piye Sharaab koi, Yar ke bagair

There is no fun in the ambience without your love

how can I drink wine, without a mate?

Here a video in Hindi, where famous Ghazal Singer Jagjith Singh talks about the difference between Ghazal and Nazm and then sings a Ghazal:


Late Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

A Qawwali is more closer to music than poetry. Here a main musician along with accompanying harmoniums and Dholak (a drum like instrument) sings a song which involves rhythmical hand clapping.The most famous qawwali singer was late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. You can lisen to a qawwali here: Yeh Nazar mere Peer Ki


The word shayari is taken from ‘sher’ which is couplet of a ghazal. Shayari is also a form of rendition of shers. The poems taken for Shayari is usually of romantic nature. It uses puns, humorous, and surprising use of words.

There are a few things that a western audience have to keep in mind when listening to any of these forms of poetry:

  1. Most of the Ghazals, Qawwali and Nazms may seem to have an outwards frivolous meaning, but they have deeper meaning. For example: Wine may refer to ecstacy ceated by God’s presence. A lover can be God himself. This inner meaning is more pronounced in Qawwali. A ghazal can be enjoyed without reference to this meaning.
  2. Most of these songs are rendered in Mehfils which usually a large home or palace. The audience have a much more active role to play here. They often clap the hands or say “wah Wah” and “Suhanallah” when they a encounter a beautiful usage in a poem.


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    • Vyttila Varkey profile imageAUTHOR

      Jims Varkey 

      2 years ago from Kochi, Kerala, South India

      In other words, we can say that Nazm is less restrcitive than Ghazal

    • profile image

      Sonali Jain 

      2 years ago

      The major characteristics of a Nazm includes:

      -No specific rhyming or size considerations, but also depends on the writer as well. (

      -Can be short or long, depend on the mood of the writer.

      -Makta or Matla are not compulsory.

      -Complete theme is conveyed through the Nazm verses.

      -All the verses must be interlinked together and cannot convery the complete theme alone.

      -Nazm is a descriptive poetry form, which covers more areas than a Ghazal.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      King of ghazal, mehdi hassan, gulam ali, nusrat fateh ali khan, ahmad rushdi, masud rana.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      thaher bad..e ..khija kaliyo ko delu m jara bosa .ab iske bad gulsan m mera ana to kya hoga


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