Appreciation of poetry is a complex process, especially in the context of Urdu poetry. Besides a good understanding of the language, it is important for a reader to understand the cultural backdrop and conventions of Urdu poetry. Many metaphors used in Urdu poetry will make no sense to a person who has no knowledge of the culture, myths, fables, conventions and the context that cause these metaphors to resonate with inherent, at times obvious meaning. That's what makes translating Urdu ghazals in English (and consequently their appreciation by non-native speakers) such an arduous task.
Let's take a very simple example - if you've had any exposure to Urdu poetry, or for that matter even Hindi film songs, you would have heard the word 'jigar' (जिगर) very often, too often in fact. (this word has been abused so badly by many of our Hindi film lyricist, that I consciously refrain from using it in any of my poetry... I have probably used it only in one or two of my couplets)
'Jigar' is normally used in the context of love. Now, what is 'jigar'? It means, liver i.e. lakht-e-jigar (लख़्त-ए-जिगर) or jigar ka tukda (जिगर का टुकड़ा), literally meaning piece of liver and hence someone extremely dear. Liver and love - what's the connection? A person exposed to English poetry, or even Hindi poetry, would always associate the heart with love. Even in Urdu poetry, the heart is associated with love, but so is liver. Why? This is brilliantly explained by Frances W. Pritchett in the following lines:
"In ghazal physiology, the liver is the organ that makes fresh blood; thus it's an emblem of fortitude, steadfastness, endurance over time. The heart, by contrast is always consuming blood: bleeding constantly, pumping blood to the eyes so the lover can weep tears of blood, and then tearing itself into fragments as a sign of its proper lover-like self-destruction. For the heart to be done for is an initial state of passion, since more blood can be sent for from the liver. But when the liver is finished, the game is up."In other words, the association of love with liver implies greater depth.
This example is very basic. Once you understand the 'ghazal physiology', the association is complete and there's no need for any further exposition. 'Jigar' now finds a place amongst the accepted conventions of Urdu poetry. The next time you hear the word 'jigar' in a poem you don't need any explanation or background information.
Yet, there are many great examples in Urdu poetry where knowledge of history and myth is so essential that you just cannot understand a verse without that knowledge. And in many cases you will probably not come across the same imagery again for it to become a 'convention' of poetry, like the way 'jigar' has become. Let me take the example of the opening verse from Diwan-e-Ghalib (collection of Ghalib's verses). It is a particularly interesting verse because the entire meaning of the verse rests on the knowledge of a quaint custom in Persian history, so much so that many commentators have declared this one to be a 'meaningless verse'. No other verse in Urdu poetry has been the subject of so much debate and analysis as this one. Here it is:
नक़्श फ़रयादी है किस की शोख़ी-ए-तहरीर का
काग़ज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का
(about whose mischievousness of writing is the image/painting a plaintiff?
of paper is the robe of every figure of the picture)......translation by Frances W. Pritchett.
If your really look at this verse, it seems completely meaningless. It's not only the typical Ghalibian complexity and abstruseness that makes this verse seem meaningless. This verse demands a certain basic knowledge. What's this stuff about a plaintiff, a picture and a paper robe!!! Now let's see how Ghalib himself explains this verse. (There are very few verses that Ghalib has explained in his own words. The fact that he chose to do that for this one, makes it obvious that people called this particular verse 'meaningless')
[Writing in 1865:] First listen to the meaning of the meaningless verses. As for नक़श फ़रयादी : In Iran there is the custom that the seeker of justice, putting on paper garments, goes before the ruler-- as in the case of lighting a torch in the day, or carrying a blood-soaked cloth on a bamboo pole [to protest an injustice]. Thus the poet reflects, of whose mischievousness of writing is the image a plaintiff? --since the aspect of a picture is that its garment is of paper. That is to say, although existence may be like that of pictures, merely notional, it is a cause of grief and sorrow and suffering. (Arshi p. 159)
Now that you know about this Persian custom of a plaintiff putting on a paper garment, doesn't this verse suddenly resonate with meaning? Read a delightful collection on commentary on this verse (Frances W. Pritchett).
I am very tempted to quote one of my own verses, where knowledge of ancient Persian myth is very essential to understanding it. How can I even think of quoting Ghalib's most intriguing and, in my opinion, the most brilliant verse in the same breath as one of my own? Before someone gets offended and accuses me of blasphemy, let me clarify that I'm just trying to make a point... anyway, here's my verse:
मेरी तक़्दीर पलटने के भी दिन आएँगे
मेरे सर पर भी हुमा बालफ़िशाँ होता है
(one day my fortune too will turn
on my head the 'Huma' spreads its wings)
I don't blame you if you don't get this. If I tell you that 'Huma' is a mythical bird, does it make you any wiser about this verse? Probably not. Now if I were to tell you that Huma is "the king-maker bird of Persian story tradition: anyone upon whom his shadow falls is destined to wield royal power", isn't the meaning of the verse crystal clear?
To be honest, I don't really like this verse of mine - primarily because once the 'secret' is revealed, the thought is quite run-of-the-mill. Moreover, the verse smacks of self-indulgence! But it does prove my point about the importance of 'knowledge' in understanding poetry.