Ghazal originated in Iran in the 10th century A.D. It grew from the Persian qasida, which verse form had come to Iran from Arabia. The qasida was a panegyric written in praise of the emperor or his noblemen. The part of the qasida called tashbib got detached and developed in due course of time into the ghazal. Whereas the qasida sometimes ran into as many as 100 couplets or more in monorhyme, the ghazal seldom exceeded twelve, and settled down to an average of seven. Because of its comparative brevity and concentration, its thematic variety and rich suggestiveness, the ghazal soon eclipsed the qasida and became the most popular form of poetry in Iran.
The ghazal came to India with the advent and extension of the Muslim influence from the 12th century onwards. The Moghuls brought along with them Iranian culture and civilization, including Iranian poetry and literature. When Persian gave way to Urdu as the language of poetry and culture in India, the ghazal, the fruit of Indo-Iranian culture, found its opportunity to grow and develop. Although the ghazal is said to have begun with Amir Khusro (1253-1325) in Northern India, Deccan in the South was its real home in the early stages. It was nursed and trained in the courts of Golconda and Bijapur under the patronage of Muslim rulers. Mohd. Quli Qutab Shah, Wajhi, Hashmi, Nusrati and Wali may be counted among its pioneers. Of these, Wali Deccany (1667-1707) may be called the Chaucer of Urdu poetry. Wali’s visit to Delhi made in 1700 acquires a historic significance. This visit was instrumental in synthesizing the poetic streams of the South and the North. Wali’s poetry awakened the minds of the Persian-loving North to the beauty and richness of Urdu language, and introduced them to the true flavor of ghazal, thus encouraging its rapid growth and popularity.
In its form, the ghazal is a short poem rarely of more than a dozen couplets in the same metre. It always opens with a rhyming couplet called matla. The rhyme of the opening couplet is repeated at the end of second line in each succeeding verse, so that the rhyming pattern may be represented as AA, BA, CA, DA, and so on. In addition to the restriction of rhyme, the ghazal also observes the convention of radif. Radif demands that a portion of the first line — comprising not more than two or three words — immediately preceding the rhyme-word at the end, should rhyme with its counterpart in the second line of the opening couplet, and afterwards alternately throughout the poem. The opening couplet of the ghazal is always a representative couplet: it sets the mood and tone of the poem and prepares us for its proper appreciation. The last couplet of the ghazal called makta often includes the pen-name of the poet, and is more personal than general in its tone and intent. Here the poet may express his own state of mind, or describe his religious faith, or pray for his beloved, or indulge in poetic self-praise. The different couplets of the ghazal are not bound by the unity and consistency of thought. Each couplet is a self-sufficient unit, detachable and quotable, generally containing the complete expression of an idea.
Some poets including Hasrat, Iqbal and Josh have written ghazals in the style of a nazm, based on a single theme, properly developed and concluded. But such ghazals are an exception rather than a rule, and the traditional ghazal still holds sway. However, we do come across, off and on, even in the works of classical poets, ghazals exhibiting continuity of theme or, more often, a set of verses connected in theme and thought. Such a thematic group is called a qita, and is presumably resorted to when a poet is confronted with an elaborate thought difficult to be condensed in a single verse. Although the ghazal deals with the whole spectrum of human experience, its central concern is love. Ghazal is an Arabic word which literally means talking to women.
Excerpts from Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal – From 17th to 20th Century, by K.C. Kanda