How India’s Finest Urdu Poets, Male, Obsessed Over Women’s Clothes

This sampler highlights the objectification of women by men, even some of the finest minds of their age.

5 min read
Even the most progressive poets have obsessed over women’s clothing. 

A recent controversy over ripped jeans has brought the focus back on clothes, especially women’s clothes and what constitutes decent attire for women. Outrageous and offensive though the remarks were, they have rekindled debates on what women should and should not wear. As always, in this series of columns, we shall attempt to view this debate through the mirror of Urdu poetry and seek answers in the words of Urdu poets, both past and present, to glean a ‘majoritarian’ view on libaas and what women should, and in some cases, should not do with it.

As always, the views range from provocative to traditionalist, sometimes operating from a space of benign patriarchy to, occasionally, inciting outright rebellion against accepted best practices; but this column will be confined to the male gaze, to how men see women and, more to the point, how they would prefer to see them dressed. As to how women see matters of dress, let’s keep that for our next column, next month.

Poets’ Obsession With Women’s Angiya

Of all the many items of women’s clothing, greatest amount of poetry is to be found on the angiya (a brassiere or short fitted blouse or bralette worn under a diaphanous kurta). Such as this by Munir Shikohabadi with its delicious play on words:

Shabnam ki hai angiyaa tale angiyaa ki pasina
Kyaa lutf hai shabnam tah-e-shabnam nazar aai

The dew of sweat beneath this angiya made from dewdrops
What joy to spot dewdrops beneath a layer of dewdrops

Nazeer Akbarabadi, the ‘bazaar-poet’ from Agra, has written with great naturalness on not just the female body but left us with a catalogue of women’s ornaments, toiletries and cosmetics popular in the 18th-century in poems such as Pari ka Sarapa and Chitvan Mein Sharaarat Hai Aur Seene Bhi Chanchal Hai.
Here are the last lines from Saraapaa Husn-e-Samdhan Goyaa Gulshan Ki Kyaari Hai:

Bhare joban pe itraati jhamak angiyaa ki dikhlaati
Kamar lahange se bal khaati latak ghunghat ki bhaari hai

Proud of her prime of youth showing glimpses of her angiya
Her sinuous waist beneath the lehnga, her face hidden behind a heavy veil

Holi, Choli and the Male Gaze’s Folly

With Holi around the corner, the choli finds itself centre stage in the popular male imagination, be it songs from popular Hindi cinema or conventional Urdu poetry. What the angiya was to an older generation that fanatsised over the glimmering inner wear visible through a pearly, diaphanous outer garment, the visible in-your-face of the choli is for the latter-day poet, and the more chust (snug) the better!

The choli finds itself twinned as in choli-daaman ka saath (meaning to be inseparable), chaak choli (slit or torn), or bheegi choli (damp with perspiration or the colours of Holi). Even a classicist such as Meer Taqi Meer has this to say about the choli:

Guundh ke goyaa pattii gul kii vo tarkiib banaaii hai
Rang badan kaa tab dekho jab choli bhiige pasiine mein

As though the petals of the rose have been kneaded
See the colours of her body when her choli is drenched in sweat

Another item of women’s clothing that finds profuse mention in Urdu poetry is the dupatta. Used as much to dab tears of helplessness as to cover one’s head with modesty, for the poet it’s a tantalizing length of fabric.

Ideally, though, it must keep “honour” safely hidden within its folds as unequivocally declared by Mardan Ali Khan Rana:

Abru aanchal men dupatte ke chhupaanaa hai bajaa
Turk kyaa myaan men rakhte nahin talvaaron ko

It’s only right to keep honour hidden in the hem of a dupatta
After all, don’t Turkish soldiers sheath their swords in scabbards

Dagh Dehelvi takes a jaunty sally at the dupatta that reveals in a vain bid to conceal:

Yeh sair hai ki dupattaa udaa rahi hai havaa
Chhupaate hain jo woh siina kamar nahin chhupti

In this excursion the breeze lifts the dupatta and ends up
Revealing the waist as she tries in vain to cover her chest

Much like the hectoring minister of the recent ripped-jeans debacle, here’s an unknown poet wagging the metaphorical finger at women and telling them how they should wear their dupatta:

Dupatte ko aage se dohraa na odho
Numudaar chizen chhupaane se haasil

Don’t wear your duppata folded in the front
Things that should remain hidden become visible

The Romanticised Aanchal and Voyeurism

The aanchal, especially the udta hua aanchal (the billowing veil) that both conceals and reveals tantalising glimpses, that is at once a sign of modesty and a source of much speculation as to what lies behind, is the subject of profuse amounts of Urdu poetry. Even a liberal, feminist poet such as Ali Sardar Jafri falls back on the old, romantic trope of the aanchal and the mystique of its falling:

Apne udte hue aanchal ko na rah rah ke sambhaal
Husn ke parcham-e-zar-taar ko lahraane de

Don’t constantly fix your billowing veil
Let the gold-threaded pennant of beauty flutter

The aanchal is invoked, time and again, for the spreading night or the clouds that cover the moon as also for something pure that has now been soiled (maila aanchal) or poverty and want (phata aanchal). Then there’s also maa ka aanchal, evocative of shelter, warmth, safety, nurturing. Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani speaks of the allure of the female form beneath the outer raiments:

Yuun hai dalak badan ki us pairahan ki tah men
Surḳhi badan ki jaise chhalke badan ki tah men

Such is the lithe body beneath the folds of the dress
Like the red glow of the body gleaming from below

Then there’s the ultimate male fantasy embodied in this sher by Akbar Hameedi:

Libaas men hai vo tarz-e-tapaak-e-aaraaish
Jo ang chaahe chhupaanaa jhalak jhalak jaae

Her clothes have such a style embellishment
The parts she wishes to hide glimmers ‘n glimpses

And this by Jan Nisar Akhtar:

Maanaa ki rang rang tiraa pairahan bhi hai
Par is mein kuchh karishma-e-aks-e-badan bhi hai

Agreed that your colourful attire adds to your allure
But the magic of your body’s reflection, too, adds to it

How Majaz’s Lone Voice Cuts Through Tradition of Objectification

Taken together, this sampler highlights the objectification of women by men, even some of the finest minds of their age and shows how deep patriarchy cuts. It is, therefore, a lone voice such as Majaz who is inciting women to refashion their aanchal into the standards or pennants that are carried into the battle field by advance riders:

Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi ḳhuub hai lekin
Tu iss aanchal se ik parcham banaa leti to achchhaa thaa

This veil on your forehead looks very pretty indeed,
But It’d have been better if you had turned it into a pennant

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at@RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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