Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 5:20 pm Post subject: MIRZA GHALIB
By:Shikoh Mohsin Mirza
How Ghalib's genius took ghazal to new heights and depths:
AATEY HAI(N) GHAIB SEY YEH MAZAMEEN KHAYAL MEE(N)
GHALIB SAREER E KHAMAH NAVA E SAROSH HAI
(These ideas visit the imagination from the beyond: in the scratchings of the reed pen (I hear) the angel’s song.)
In this couplet, Ghalib expresses the age-old belief that the provenance of poetry is divine and mystical. The sound of the reed pen, substituted metonymically for poetry, is likened to the voice of an angel to emphasise the role of inspiration in a poet’s vocation.
The grating sound of a reed pen scratching on paper suggest the exacting efforts of creativity — ‘I was sentenced to the hard labour of writing prose and poetry,’ laments Ghalib in a letter. Through all this, Ghalib references the artist’s perennial struggle to mirror and embody in the earthly world the sacred essence of the beyond.
The couplet is vintage Ghalib – lyrical, dense, polysemous, metaphysical, and endowed with universal content. Ghalib wrote countless Urdu couplets of this kind, in which the sheer microcosmic intensity of his ashār captivates the readers’ mind and heart. He owed this accomplishment as much to his unique imagination and mastery of Urdu language as to his access to two traditions of ghazal form.
Comprising a series of closed couplets, similar to heroic couplets in English, the ghazal form’s natural tendency is to craft either an epigram or an aphorism — a fact that was exploited by Ghalib in all its varied possibilities. The ghazal’s sher, being syntactically and thematically an independent entity, compels the poet to cultivate a style that is allusive, symbolic, and, most importantly, resonant with images and metaphors found in the tradition of ghazal poetry reaching as far back as the seventh century CE in Arabic, and to the eleventh century in Persian. The form poses a creative challenge to poets, spurring the more ingenious to extend the boundaries and possibilities of the ghazal, both thematically and structurally – and Ghalib did exactly that.
Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in 1797 at Agra at a time when the British were strengthening their hold in north India, particularly in Delhi and Agra. In such turbulent times, life was chaotic and uncertainties prevailed. The Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was already reduced to a titular head: in 1803 General Lake captured Delhi and pensioned him off.
These conditions were hastening the decline of the feudal nobility to which Ghalib belonged. His ancestors had always held important positions in army or court, and Ghalib could do no better. As a member of the gentry, Ghalib could either choose to follow his ancestors into the army – now under the British an impossibility – or be a man of letters.
For centuries, in Delhi, a rich literary culture prevailed at court and at large – particularly symbolised by the popular custom of mushaira (poetry readings). Literature served not only as a cultivated pastime and entertainment, but also a means to earning esteem and prestige in society. When a poet’s artistic accomplishments caught the eye of a rich and powerful nobleman, he earned rewards as well as patronage, ensuring economic security.
But now literary culture was beginning to serve another purpose. It provided a refuge from the loss and humiliations of real-life disempowerment, and, as a consequence of nostalgia for the past, hyperbole, contrived language, and an obsession with rhetorical devices became paramount – all signs of escapism and decadence.
Around 1812, Ghalib had shifted to Delhi, a city supposed to provide better avenues in life. Ghalib had already started writing poetry in Urdu, but as Persian was the literary language of the cultivated elites, he taught himself the language. Soon, he was writing poetry in Persian and winning praise. He followed as his model the poetry of Mīrzā Abdul-Qādir Bēdil (1642–1720), an accomplished Indian poet of sabk-e hindī (the characteristic Indian style of Persian poetry).
Ghalib’s first collection of Persian poetry was published in 1845 as mayḵāna-ye ārzū. He maintained that he chose Persian as it provided better opportunities for self-expression, and always considered his Persian poetry to be superior to Urdu. Whatever his opinion of his Persian poetry, he had published the first version of his Urdu divan in 1841, which established him as the foremost Urdu poet of his era, only matched by Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789–1854), the poet laureate at the Mughal court.
By 1850, Urdu was the language of court, where Ghalib regularly participated in mushairas. Eventually, emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, an accomplished poet himself, acknowledging his talent and achievements, appointed him as his poetry mentor at the death of Ibrahim Zauq.
Though he was ridiculed and condemned by contemporary rival poets for writing incomprehensible poetry, Ghalib was experimenting and innovating – in both style and content – in his ghazals. His letters, collected and published during his life time, provide evidence that he was a conscious innovator, compulsively refining his expression and drawing out new meanings from the restricted thematic world, thereby continuously expanding poetic possibilities.
He enriched Urdu poetry with images and symbols with wider philosophical appeal, and his best ashar throb with sincere and profound sentiments that succeed in raising ghazal to a higher level than the frivolous and superficial depiction of love.
It is impossible to appreciate Ghalib’s genius and uniqueness till we read his ashar closely, by entering the world of their associations and allusions. The following brief analyses of four of his couplets illustrate Ghalib’s characteristic style and technique:
AAGAHI DAAME SHUNEEDAN JIS QADAR CHAAHE BICHHAAYE
MADA ANQAA HAI APNEY AALAMEY TAQREER KA
(However intelligence casts its net of reason: the meaning of my poetic world will ever elusive be.)
The couplet was written in defiance of the rival poets who ridiculed Ghalib’s recondite poetry as meaningless and beyond comprehension. Ghalib uses original metaphors and conceits to transcend a simple rebuttal of his detractors. It requires some explaining.
The mind may spread its net of reason striving to understand the meaning of the poet’s words, but as the mythical bird anqa can’t be caught, the sense of his words would never be grasped. Ghalib invariably described abstract ideas and thought in concrete images and symbols for greater impact – here, the net of reason and the allusion to the anqa, the mythical bird, serving that purpose.
The word anqa is used in Urdu idioms to suggest rarity, and a sense of elusiveness. However, there are other nuances of meaning that must be unravelled. Since anqa is an imagined bird, it represents imagination and contrasts with the reason of the first line, thereby implying the traditional conflict between reason and imagination. The poet’s ‘alame taqreer’—literally, ‘world of speech’, and figuratively, poetry – requires imagination to understand, and not the rigid and abstract reasoning which seems helpless before it.
ASAL E SHUHUD WA SHAHID WA MASHAHUD EEK HAI
HAIRAAN HU(N) PHIR MUSHAHIDA HAI KIS HISAAB MEE(N)
(The essence of what is seen, (the one) who sees, and all seen is one and the same
At a loss I am, (not knowing) how to account for the act of seeing.)
Indeed, the couplet is about the mystical philosophy of wahdatul wajūd (unity of existence), but Ghalib nuances and twists the conventional theme to pose a question that is simultaneously sceptical and profound. Despite the idea in wahdatul wajūd that the essence is fundamental, it’s the act of perception that creates all discrete entities that we see around. While essence exists in a timeless domain, the perception of things exists in the temporal realm.
Ghalib destabilises this understanding by asking a subtle question: in which of these realms does the act of seeing exist? For if the act of seeing did not occur, neither would there be discrete differences, nor the need for speaking about discovering their essence.
By asking this question, Ghalib seems to indicate that essence and its diverse manifestations are inextricably tied to each other. This highlights the paradoxical nature of existence, where we are bound to perpetually strain to appropriate the many as the one.
LIKHTEY RAHEY JUNUUN KI HIKAYAT E KHUN CHAKAAN
HAR CHAND ISS MEE(N) HAATH HAMAREY QALAAM HUEY
(We persist in writing blood-soaked chronicles of passion (obsession)
even though our hands are repeatedly cut off.)
The key word junūn stands for revolution, the sense made obvious from the words – blood-soaked chronicles and the cutting off of hands. Writing the history of revolutionary acts is essential, despite the attendant perils, to keep their memory intact for future generations. Qalam here has two meanings. The first refers to a reed pen, which requires a constant sharpening of the writing end with a knife to make them it write again.
The other, linked meaning is decapitation. By implication, the more the hands of poets – by synecdochic application, suggestive of the heads of revolutionaries – are cut off, the more they redeem their real purpose – turning into reed pens that write about and usher in revolution for posterity to emulate.
HAI GHAIB E GHAIB JIS KO SAMAJHTEY HAI(N) HUM SHUHUUD
HAI(N) KHWAAB MEE(N) HUNUZ JO JAAGEY HAI(N) KHWAAB MEE(N)
(What we take as manifest (just) points to the (inscrutable) mystery of the beyond;
those who wake up in a dream are still in a dream.)
This couplet is a genuine forebear of the Borgesian logic that describes the relationship between metaphysical reality and the illusion that this world is. We take shuhūd (signs) as the manifestations of essence, as perceptible signs of God’s realm and being, yet the terrifying fact is that we see them existing in an unreal, illusionary world. By living in this world, where we make do with arbitrary signs, how can we know the essence and the transcendent reality we yearn for? We are condemned to live within an illusion (majaz) from which it is impossible to know the transcendent reality (haq).
As these ashar reveal, Ghalib revelled naturally in delving into the complexities of ideas, reinvigorating thought with original images and symbols that strain towards new horizons.
Generally, it is less known that Ghalib contributed to the development of Urdu prose also with the publication, just before his death in 1869, of two collections of his letters, Ud-i-Hindi (The Indian Lute) and Urdū-ye moallā (The Urdu Sublime).
Published at the behest of his friend-publisher Munshi Shiv Narayan, these letters are written in a conversational tone and the colloquial idiom of Urdu, thus supplanting the ornateness of the prevalent style. The spontaneity and warmth of prose and the range of subjects, from the gossipy to the philosophical and the aesthetic, single-handedly helped transform the idiom of Urdu from the stilted style of his compatriots into a versatile instrument of expression.
Mirza Ghalib was a Shia and has praised Murtaza Ali wa Ahl Bait in his poetry.
GHALIB NADEEM E DOST SEY AATI HAI BU E DOST
MASHGUL E HAQ HUN BANDAGI E ABU TURAB MEY
Galib says, From friend's friend I feel fragrance of friend. I am involved with Haq, through remembrance of Abu Turab.
Abu Turab is one of the titles given by Prophet Muhammad to Mowla Ali. Literary Turab means earth or dust in Arabic. Abu Turab means 'father of dust'. Earth, planets, stars, and heavenly bodies in universe are made up of dust particles. Agriculture products come out of fertile dust, minerals are buried under dust, all kind of sand is dust. In other words Ali is one who controls and balances the earthly bodies in universe.
In Ismaili terminology turab is equated with iman, faith.
It is interesting to note that Ali Muhammad Jan Muhammad Chunara in his Urdu translation of Ismaili history NURUN MUBIN quoted the above couplet in the beginning of preface.
Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, popularly known as Mirza Ghalib, was a celebrated poet of his times. His work is much-loved by poetry lovers all over the world and today on his 221st birth anniversary.
BOOKS Updated: Dec 27, 2018 19:17 IST
Hazaaron khwahishein aisi ke har khwahish pe dum nikle,
Bahut nikle mere armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle
Penned by the celebrated Urdu poet of his times, Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, popularly known as Ghalib, we’ve heard these lines in several renditions, in films, as a film’s title, a song by Jagjit Singh and so much more. The theme of this ghazal is understood in terms of Ghalib’s love interest. In near-direct translation, it means all of Ghalib’s thoughts and desires are never enough. Even if some of those desires and thoughts are fulfilled, all of them can never be attained.
Born in Agra on 27 December 1797, Ghalib’s first love was always Dilli (Delhi) about whom he writes, “I asked my soul: What is Dilli? She replied: The world is the body, and Dilli is its life.”
This love was beautiful and most definitely reciprocated. The city and its residents have loved him as much, and even nearly 150 years after his demise. Ghalib’s work remains alive in the hearts of the lovers of Urdu and poetry in general.
In the words of Gulzar Sahab, “Ghalib is very important for everyone. You should know about him even if you are not familiar with his language. His poems, his lifestyle, his behaviour everything is a great inspiration. At a time when people used to carry their religion on their shoulders, Ghalib talked about humanity. The man lost seven children and carried a huge sadness inside him but despite that he was known for his sense of humour".
How the Ghazal traveled from 6th-century Arabia to Persia, India and the English-speaking world. The literary form has been adopted by many different cultures and adapted for a variety of languages.
This is an excerpt from the Preface to 'Hazaaron Khwahishein Aiesi': The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals, selected, edited and translated by Anisur Rahman, HarperCollins India, detailing the journey of the Ghazal across time and space.
The trajectory of the Ghazal is unlike that of any other literary form that has had a history of traversing beyond its spatial confines. A brief tour through the passages of this poetic form and its diverse routes would reveal both its uniqueness and universal appeal.
When the Ghazal moved out of the Arabian Peninsula, it found a hospitable space in medieval Spain where it was written both in the Arabic and the Hebrew languages.
In yet another instance, we have the Ghazal reaching out to west African languages like Hausa and Fulfulde.
Even while these Ghazals developed their own marks, they also kept close to the Arabic model by retaining the traditional Arabic metres and forms.
It was only when the Ghazal reached Persia in the middle of the 8th century that it started developing its own contours even while it did not entirely disengage from the formal patterns of the Arabic Ghazals.
Later, the Persian Ghazal acquired its definite character when it developed its own stylistic marks in refurbishing the matla, the first line (sher)of the Ghazal, and evolving a pattern of refrains (radeef) as the last unit of expression in the second line of each sher.
It also defined the length of the Ghazal from seven to 15 shers, and made way for the poets to use their signature in maqta, the last sher of the composition.
Abdullah Jafar RUDAKI (Ismaili poet), the first canonical Ghazal writer of Persia towards the end of the 9th century, was followed in chronological order by other major poets like Sanai Ghaznavi and Fariduddin Attar in the 12th century, Sadi Shirazi and Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th and Hafiz Shirazi in the 14th century.
The Persian Ghazal matured further after the classical models in the subsequent centuries but it always distinguished itself for two of its most distinctive qualities: its acute mystical preoccupations and its keen philosophical concerns.
The Ghazal written in Persian, the dominant literary language of central Asia and India, made remarkable impact and proved quite consequential in the development of the Ghazal as an archetypal form of poetic expression in the East.
Even the poets who wrote in other languages looked towards Persia for mature models. Turkey, for example, being another destination of the Ghazal, offered yet another variation on the Persian Ghazal.
Ali Sher Navai of Afghan descent, who was supposed to be the founder of Uzbek literature, brought it closer to new linguistic habits and exposed it to the extinct Chagatai language of Turkey in the mid-15th century, and Fuzuli brought the Ghazal to Azerbaijani Turkish in tone and tenor at the beginning of the 16th century.
Outside Arabia where it originated, and Persia where it matured, it was in India that the Ghazal found its most hospitable destination.
Even though the Ghazal in India is sometimes traced back to the 13th century in the works of Amir Khusrau, its Urdu incarnation is rightly identified in Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah towards the latter half of the 16th century, and Vali Deccani in the succeeding century.
Looking back, one may clearly notice that it has passed through several stages of development in form, content and language, ever since its first flowering in the Deccan and its subsequent branching out in various directions of India.
While prominent literary centers like the Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow created competitive conditions for the development of the Ghazal, several others spread over the length and breadth of the country championed their own features of style.
All of them contributed together in constructing a larger and comprehensive tradition of Ghazal writing which has kept growing ever since.
The most remarkable feature of the Ghazal in India which stands out quite prominently is that the poets of various linguistic, regional and religious affiliations joined hands to broaden its thematic and stylistic frontiers and impart to it a unique resilience that has stayed with it through all the phases of literary history.
The Ghazal, as a literary form which has no other approximate form in any of the literature, has long elicited the attention of poets writing in several Western languages.
When the Orient lured Germany in the 19th century, the Ghazal reached there with the translations of Persian works.
Friedrich Schlegal, an Orientalist who studied Sanskrit, chose to make his bold experiments in this form.
His contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, imitated Persian models, translated Ghazals, and wrote under the Oriental influence and published his collection, West-ostliche Divan.
We also have, in the same line of descent, Friedrich Rückert, another Orientalist, writing his Ghazals and publishing them in Ghaselen.
August Graf von Platen, a master of 12 languages, is yet another example who practiced this form, adhered to the Persian form of rhythm and rhyme through his qaafia and radeef, and published his collections Ghaselen and Neue Ghaselen.
In modern times, the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca wrote his Ghazals, called gecelos, and included them in his last collection of poems, Divan del Tamarit, which also reflected his ever-abiding interest in Arab Andalusian culture.
The appeal of the Ghazal traveled in other directions as well, which is exemplified by compositions in languages as diverse as French, Italian and English.
In modern times, the Ghazal found its larger acceptance in the English-speaking world.
Adrienne Rich, John Hollander and Robert Bly in America, Jim Harrison, John Thompson, Phyllis Webb and Douglas Barbour in Canada, and Judith Wright in Australia are just a few of the many poets who brought the Ghazal to new literary spaces, as they experimented with this form and made way for many others to emulate.
On being introduced to Ghalib during the death centenary year of the poet in 1969, and on translating his Ghazals, Adrienne Rich developed an instant liking for the form. Later, she wrote her Ghazals independently and published 17 of them in Leaflets as “Homage to Ghalib” and, subsequently, nine more in The Will To Change as “The Blue Ghazals”.
In her Collected Early Poems, she acknowledged her debt and wrote: “My Ghazals are personal and public, American and Twentieth Century; but they owe much to the presence of Ghalib in my mind: a poet, self-educated and profoundly learned who owned no property and borrowed his books, writing in an age of political and cultural break-up.”
Similarly, the Ghazal caught the imagination of John Hollander to the extent that he defined its poetics and wrote a Ghazal on the Ghazal, a kind of definitional piece, following the strict discipline of the form with its qaafia and radeef falling in place.
At a remove from Rich and Hollander, we have quite a few Canadian poets making their forays into this form.
Jim Harrison, who published 65 of his Ghazals in Outlyer and Ghazals, was aware of the Arabic and Persian Ghazal tradition and knew of Rich’s excursion into this form.
He is one of the more prominent poets to discover the Ghazal and find space for all that he considered crude and queer to write about, along with all that was normal and natural.
“After several years spent with longer forms,” he said, “I’ve tried to regain some of the spontaneity of the dance, the song unencumbered by any philosophical apparatus, faithful only to its own music.”
Another poet, John Thompson, in his carefully crafted Ghazals in Still Jack also valued the freedom that the Ghazal afforded, but he did not mistake it for surrealist or free association poems violating a sense of order.
Instead, he valued them as “poems of careful construction performing controlled progression” with no deliberate design upon the reader. He found in it a way to test the limits of imagination that might lose the track of reason, if left unguarded.
Yet another variation in the writing of the Ghazal may be seen in Phyllis Webb’s Sunday Water and Water and Light. She evolved the concept of “anti Ghazal” and found in them a space for “the particular, the local, the dialectical and private”.
She degendered the form and resorted to a subversive way by de-valorising the female figure, which the Ghazal had been traditionally valorising ever since its inception.
A much more radical position was adopted by Douglas Barbour in his Ghazals included in Visible Visions and Breathtakes.
He chose to try the limits of sound and form by modulating breath as a mode of expression and bringing it closer to performance poetry.
With this entirely new mode of apprehension, Barbour added yet another facet to the fast emerging body of the North American Ghazal.
“Indeed, a very particular sound, for example, caught my imagination,” he said, “when I thought of Ghazals, the sound of breathing itself. There was a form and there was a breath. And there appeared what I call the breath Ghazals.”
Compositions by Douglas Lochhead in Tiger in the Skull and Max Plater in Rain on the Mountains may be read alongside the compositions by the North American poets.
The prominent Australian poet, Judith Wright, who began as a traditionalist, turned quite experimental towards the end of her career when she too experimented with this form in a section, “Shadow of Fire”, containing Ghazals in her collection, Phantom Dwelling.
In her departure from the traditional Ghazal, she maintained thematic continuity in her couplets and gave her compositions a title.
Like all other poets, she too executed a variety of experiences in her couplets like the experiences of warfare, birth, growth, decay, contemporary life and the inevitability of the human fate.
In the hands of all the poets mentioned above, as also many others who practiced this form, it may be marked that they treated the Ghazal with great respect and curiosity.
It was an immigrant form for them in which they saw the prospects of simulation and assimilation to enrich their own poetic capital. They saw in it the possibility of exploring newer areas of experience that could be expressed in manners hitherto unknown in the European tradition.
Carrying the argument further, I should like to assert that the Ghazal in English acquired its definite face and form with Agha Shahid Ali who wrote his own Ghazals, but more importantly, he created a condition for the poets to write their Ghazals, observing its formal requirements.
He despaired over the way poets treated this form as a way of writing free verse, which he thought was a contradiction in terms if one wanted to write a real Ghazal.
Considering their efforts “amusing”, he brought them face to face with the rigorous demands that the Ghazal made.
Compositions by Daine Ackerman, John Hollander, WS Merwin, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Maxine Kumin, Keki N Daruwalla, to name just a few, included in his Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, amply show how far the Ghazal had moved towards meeting the rigorous demands of the form after Ali’s intervention.
TODAY'S PAPER | OCTOBER 15, 2019
COLUMN: GHALIB’S FAVOURITE GHAZAL
Mehr Afshan Farooqi
In the course of my journey with Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s Divans, I noticed how he carefully chose verses from his ghazals when he made the selection for publication. For example, the very first and extremely powerful ghazal in his Divan, ‘Naqsh Faryadi Hai Kis Ki Shokhi-i-Tehreer Ka’ originally comprised nine verses. There were seven in the 1821 Divan (Nuskhah-i Hamidiyyah), and two more were added in 1826. But when the 1841 Urdu Divan was published, this ghazal had five verses. Indeed, the verses that Ghalib dropped were no match for the ones he retained. To clarify my point, I will present the dropped verses from this famous ghazal; they are intricate and adorned with unfamiliar phrases which makes them difficult to read:
“Shokhi-i-nairang sayd-i-vehshat-i-taoos hai
Daam sabze mein hai parvaaz-i-chaman taskheer ka”
[Vividness of illusion makes the timid peacock captive
Grass becomes the net that holds back the peacock’s flight]
In the first line, what could be “vehshat-i-taoos”? How is it related to “shokhi-i-nairang”? What is meant by “shokhi-i-nairang”? The second line makes us stumble on “parvaaz-i-chaman taskheer”. Ghalib likes to use the peacock imagery, especially in his early verses. Here he gives a unique meaning to the well-known fact that the peacock does not like to fly. In this verse, the peacock, because of his vehshat [timidity] does not go far and is deprived of the colourfulness of the garden. If the peacock were to fly (parvaaz) high over the garden, he would be free of the limits imposed by timidity and see the colourful world.
The beauty in this verse lies in the play with reversal of colours. The peacock is vividly coloured, but cannot fly and misses the colours of the garden. He becomes a captive of the net hidden in the green grass (daam sabze mein hai); that is, he likes to stay on the ground. Perhaps such a complex verse in the opening ghazal might have thrown off readers. We can tease more meanings from this verse and delight in its complexity, but I’ll move on to the next verse:
Naal aatash mein hai tegh-i-yaar se nakhcheer ka”
At first, I quite disliked this verse. How can this even be regarded as Urdu, I thought, as I stumbled while reading aloud. The string of izafats [possessives] in the first line make it sound more Persian than Urdu. In any case, this verse embodies the acme of restless anticipation expressed through the idiom ‘naal aatash mein’. This refers to a practice followed by enchanters or sorcerers of writing the name of the one who was to be tormented on a horseshoe (naal) and putting it in fire. Ghalib says that the beloved’s prolonged, flirtatious coquetry, which involves inventing new ways of teasing, exquisitely protracts the poor lover’s eagerness to die. The poor lover and victim of the beloved’s charms, who is craving for his head to be chopped (zauq-i-qatl), is burning like metal in fire.
This verse is about the poignancy of emotions at the time of parting (vida) narrated through the metaphor of brick-making (khisht). Bricks are set in containers that hold them. Thus, the brick is in the embrace of its container and doesn’t want to be parted from it. The brick’s heart is filled with pain when receiving the last embrace before being placed for construction (taameer). The building’s foundation made from these bricks will be filled with water (sail).
This ghazal does not have the maqta [signature verse] Ghalib first wrote:
“Vehshat-i-khwaab-i-adam shor-i-tamasha hai Asad
Jo mizhah johar nahin ainah-i-taabeer ka”
Ghalib’s verse exemplifies a preferred theme in ghazal poetry: the mystique of the mirror. Mirrors were made of iron or steel and their surface was polished to improve their reflective capacity. The polishing created very fine lines that were known as the mirror’s jauhar. Jauhar can be described as the motes or particles of the mirror that constitute the vision inside the mirror. Eyelashes are compared to the fine lines created by polishing; thus, they can be jauhar, too. Persons who do not have the jauhar-like eyelashes cannot claim to have seen the vision (of existence or creation) in the mirror. What they see are the terrifying dreams in the state of non-existence. There is a lot to contemplate in this verse. There is an obvious play between khwaab [dream] and taabeer [interpretation]. Although this verse does resonate the ontological theme of existence and non-existence, perhaps it is too complicated to be parsed. Maybe Ghalib made the right choice by excluding this one?
The longest ghazal in Ghalib’s Divan is of 17 verses, each one as beautiful as the one preceding or following it. It was written after 1821, appearing for the first time in the 1826 Divan. When Ghalib published his Urdu Divan in 1841, he made very careful selections. This ghazal in its entirety is the last one in the ghazal section. In the course of my study of Ghalib’s manuscript Divans as well as published Divans, I noticed that the arrangement of ghazals within the broad category of radeef [refrain] was not the same except for the fact that ‘Naqsh Faryadi...’ was always the first ghazal and ‘Muddat Hui Hai Yaar Ko Mehman Kiye Huay’ was invariably the last.
Ghalib has a formidable reputation of being a cerebral poet who deliberately seeks to complicate themes with far-fetched metaphor. This is true; yet, Ghalib has given us some of the most achingly beautiful verses that capture desire in so many colours. Every verse in the following ghazal, by the young Ghalib, invokes longing for the beloved. I guess it was also his favourite because he kept it in its entirety, not pruning a single verse. I close with my favourite verse from this brilliant ghazal to illustrate Ghalib’s mastery in evoking emotion:
“Dhunde hai phir kisi ko lab-i-baam par havas
Zulf-i-siyeeh rukh pe pareshan kiye huay”
[Desire again searches for someone on the terrace lip
Dark tresses carelessly flowing over her face]
The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 6th, 2019
On Mirza Ghalib's 220th birth anniversary today, here are some of the famous couplets by the legendary poet that manage to pierce the heart.
All India Edited by Richa Taneja Updated: December 27, 2017 6:10 pm
Famous Mirza Ghalib Lines That Leave Deep Imprints On Heart And Mind
Mirza Ghalib is considered one of the most popular and influential poets of the Mughal Era.
New Delhi: Mirza Ghalib, a name synonymous with deep, philosophical and love poetry in Urdu and Persian, is considered one of the most popular and influential poets of the Mughal Era. A large part of Mirza Ghalib's poetry focuses on the praise of Prophet Muhammad and then there are many about life and love which leave a deep imprint on heart and mind. His fame came to him after his death and the 'treasure chest' of his poetry, shayari and ghazals was recognized, making him one of the most revered and celebrated poets of the present generation. On Mirza Ghalib's 220th birth anniversary today, here are some of the famous sher by the legendary poet that manage to pierce the heart:
aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak
kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hone tak
(Translation: A lifetime passes before a sigh shows its effect,
who would wait so long to see you fixing the tangles in your hair)
un ke dekhe se jo aa jaati hai munh par raunaq
vo samajhte hain ki beemar ka haal achha hai
(Translation: My face lights up when I see her and she feels that the sick me is now okay)
hazaron khwahishen aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle,
bahut nikle mere armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle
(Translation: I have a thousand desires, all desires worth dying for,
Though many of my desires were fulfilled, many remained unfulfilled)
hum ko maalum hai jannat ki haqiqat lekin
dil ke khush rakhne ko 'ghalib' ye khayal achha hai
(Translation: We know about janat, what's the truth, but to please yourself, this thought is good)
ye na thi hamari qismat ki visal-e-yaar hota
agar aur jeete rahte yahi intezar hota
(Translation: That my love be consummated, fate did not ordain
Living longer had I waited, would have been in vain)
bas-ki dushvaar hai har kaam ka asaan hona
aadmi ko bhi muyassar nahin insaan hona
(Translation: It is difficult to complete every goal easily. For a man, too, to be a human, is no easy feat)
kaaba kis munh se jaoge ghalib
sharm tum ko magar nahin aati
(Translation: What face will you show in kaaba, Ghalib, when you are not ashamed)
Mirza Ghalib was the pen name of Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan who was born in colonial India in 1797. Considered one of the most popular and influential poets of the later days of the Persian Mughal Era before British rule took full hold, he wrote several ghazals – poetic forms that incorporate rhyming couplets with a refrain, each line sharing the same meter.
Ghalib married Umrao Begum, according to Muslim tradition, and moved to Dehli, a period that was marked by personal tragedy. Ghalib and Umrao had 7 children but none survived beyond infancy.
Throughout his poetry there is a central theme about imprisonment and the painful struggle of life and Ghalib went on to describe his marriage a second form of imprisonment.
While his wife was generally pious and Godly, Ghalib was a little more unfettered, put in gaol on one occasion for gambling and acquiring a reputation as a ladies man in Mughal court circles. He has always been considered something of liberal mystic who was mistrustful of the literal interpretation of the teachings of Islam and other religions.
Poetry was a love from an early age. He composed his first poem at 11 and learned philosophy and logic in his late teens and brought this into his work, exploring issues such as the mysteries of life through numerous ghazals, which until then had been primarily used to express thoughts of love.
Although he was most connected to his Persian poetry, it was his Urdu verses that have lasted the test of time and are still sung and recited in modern day India and Pakistan. His work has been studied and written about by Urdu scholars across the years and the first complete English translation of his work was in The Love Sonnets of Ghalib by Dr Sarfaraz Niazi which was only recently published.
As a writer, Ghalib also chronicled a very turbulent period in Indian history and his letters provide a deep insight into the great changes that were taking place with the rise of colonialism and the end of the feudal elite.
Like many religious poets, both then and now, Ghalib was able to write profound pieces but also used verse to criticize many aspects of orthodox religion particularly the arrogance of certainty that many religious leaders were guilty of during the time. Often difficult to understand, especially in its English translation, in contrast Ghalib’s work brought about a revolution in Urdu literature, introducing a simplified, conversational style of prose.
Ghalib died in Dehli in 1869 at the age of 72. His fame grew after his death and over the years many films, plays and books have been produced about his work and poetry.
THE INCONSOLABLE GHALIB
Faheem Sikandar Published May 16, 2021
The year is 1857 and, after a long struggle with his persistent financial instability, our very own Mirza Nosha, also known as Mirza Ghalib, has established himself as a litterateur amongst Delhi’s literati.
Orphaned at a very young age and reared by one of his uncles, Ghalib had a difficult childhood. Later in his youth, he is to be obsessed with his portion of the same uncle’s pension as one of the legal heirs. The pension affair weighs heavy on his nerves and makes him travel to Calcutta. To his utter chagrin, things do not go his way. The uncle’s sons are wicked and influential enough to throw out the hapless bard who, in their view, was an inordinate claimant on their inheritance. The poor poet has to bear the brunt of it.
Since the very beginning, he carries a sense of bereavement within himself and believes that he is a burden for those on whom he depends. But he never lets his ill fate affect him adversely in any way. In Delhi, he is a man of an affable deportment, mannerly in speech. To rebuff his financial setbacks, he adopts the lifestyle of an aristocrat.
The result is more than obvious: he is in debt consistently. However, he lives quite a robust life in Delhi, while having flings with courtesans and dousing away his misery in excess of booze. He is conscious of being a sinner and knows the quantum of his sins to be limitless, as he says himself:
Ghalib is a giant in the world of Urdu literature. But he wanted to be celebrated as a poet of Persian — a status that eludes him in death, as it did in life. “Nobody enjoys the Persian odes that I pride myself on,” he once wrote in a letter. Why was he obsessed with this unrequited love for a language other than the one for which he is celebrated?
[The proclivity towards sins ought to be equated with the yearnings of the heart
Even if there be the water of seven seas, only a part of my garb will be soaked]
Ghalib is not a run-of-the-mill poet or just any other versifier in Delhi. He is an aficionado and maestro. He is too good at his art, and prosody is like child’s play for him. He asks his audience to play a round with him and flabbergasts everyone while ending up with all three aces in his hand. There is no match to him in contemporary literati.
That’s all right. The problem is that he knows the fact that he is the ace all too well. This adds to his misery as his merit is not acknowledged; rather he attracts more enemies. The best example is his rivalry with Ibrahim Zauq, the poet laureate of Delhi and the king’s tutor in poetry.
In 1852, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the king of Delhi, celebrates the wedding ceremony of his crown prince, Mirza Jawan Bakht, with great pomp and show. Ghalib is tasked by the queen, Zeenat Mahal, to write a sehra or prothalamion for the prince. The poet complies without delay. But, in his narcissist vein, he claims in one of the couplets that no other poet could write a prothalamion like him. The couplet goes:
[I understand the subtleties of art and am not Ghalib’s partisan
But let’s see if someone can write a better prothalamion than this one]
The king gets the message loud and clear, that Ghalib has taken a jibe at him for appointing Ibrahim Zauq his tutor and poet laureate instead of Ghalib. This shows the king does not know the worth of art and he is a partisan of Zauq.
The king asks Zauq to write a prothalamion promptly in response. Zauq complies, albeit his prothalamion is way inferior to Ghalib’s. With Zauq being the king’s blue-eyed boy, Ghalib has to write an apology for his tongue-in-cheek couplet. But Ghalib’s seditious spirit comes to the fore even in the apology. He claims that for centuries his ancestors were soldiers and poetry is not what he depends upon for honour and prestige.
In one of the couplets he, once again, belittles Zauq’s talent:
[I am not a poet of Urdu
I write Urdu poetry for the sake of your pleasure only]
Ghalib claims in the couplet that he makes no claim of being an Urdu poet, that he wrote the prothalamion only for the pleasure of her majesty (the queen). Here, again, Ghalib is averring himself to be a poet of Persian rather than that of Urdu. Whereas Zauq was no match to him at all in Persian poetry. He attests whatever he said afore in the apology in the last couplet as such:
[God be witness to the fact that Ghalib is truthful
I speak the truth as I am not in the habit of lying]
Despite the double meanings of the apology’s verses, prima facie the apology is meek and reconciliatory. Therefore, the king has to let the matter go. In 1854, Zauq dies and Ghalib is appointed as the king’s tutor. But, unlike Zauq, Ghalib is never to be honoured as the poet laureate.
PERSIAN, URDU AND GHALIB
Urdu poetry is one of the most difficult genres to practice, owing to its prosody. There is a common misperception that poetry is just rhymed thoughts and anyone can do it. This is hardly the case. In Urdu, the prosodists have developed certain meaningless words as measures to balance a couplet. These meaningless words are called arkaan. The repetition of these meaningless words in a certain sequence constitute a behr (metre). The words in each couplet are scanned/measured against the arkaan, so as to get one of the metres.
There are eight popular behrs in Urdu poetry; although metre can be manipulated to get some other complex metres, which are for specialists and maestros. Urdu’s prosodic base is from Persian poetry and so are its metres.
Ghalib is too well versed in Persian poetry; rather, he considers himself as one of the best poets of Persian and not of Urdu. He is not amused when the king asks him to write in Urdu for a poetry symposium to be held at the Red Fort. As he complains in one of his letters to his friend Munshi Nabi Bakhsh (Haqir):
“My friend, you praise my ghazal and I am ashamed of it. These are not ghazals, but things I write to earn my bread. Nobody enjoys the Persian odes that I pride myself on. My sole hope of appreciation now arises from his majesty, the shadow of God, issuing a command by saying, ‘My friend, it has been some time since you brought me a present’ — i.e. a new Urdu poem. So willy-nilly an occasion arises when I compose a ghazal and bring it to the court...”
The above cited letter has been quoted by Altaf Hussain Hali in his book Yadgar-i-Ghalib, and was also translated and reproduced in the book The Oxford India Ghalib by Ralph Russell.
Hali further adds, “He [Ghalib] did not look upon the ability to write Urdu poetry as an accomplishment; in fact, he thought it beneath him.”
Similarly, when the editor of a Delhi Magazine, Aaram, asks him for some Urdu ghazals, he responds as such:
“My friend, how can I write in Urdu? Is my standing so low that this should be expected of me? Still, it is expected of me. But where am I to turn, hunting for tales and stories? I haven’t a book to my name. Let my pension be restored and I’ll get the peace of mind to think of some...”
— From The Oxford India Ghalib
But when he writes Urdu poetry, or rather says it (as Urdu poetry is to be recited rather than written according to tradition), he does it splendidly. His excellence comes to the fore during poetry symposiums in the form of metrical acrobatics and the multiple meanings of his couplets.
Ghalib is not a run-of-the-mill poet or just any other versifier in Delhi. He is an aficionado and maestro. He is too good at his art, and prosody is like child’s play for him.
He is an erudite poet and has knowledge of philosophy and mysticism. He claims to be a mystic, and the themes of his poetry are testimony to the fact. He is well-acquainted with all classical Persian poets including Bedil and Huzein, and, at times, criticises them as well.
A rare photograph of Ghalib | Wikimedia Commons
Ghalib is, in fact, not solely a poet but a philosopher poet. His couplets are loaded and expose the reader to multiple meanings. He flabbergasts his readers and audience with far-fetched metaphors, historical references and the finesse of his prosodical expertise. His audience is either awestruck or, like his archrival Ustad Zauq, is extremely envious of him.
Being a debonair past master in the art of poetry, he has many disciples (shagirds), including King Bahadur Shah Zafar himself, who come to him for correction of their verses. This happens so often that it seems that many of the king’s ghazals come directly from Ghalib’s pen. Altaf Hussain Hali, a close companion and disciple of Ghalib, quotes an incident in his book Yadgar-i-Ghalib, where the poet corrected multiple ghazals by the king in a matter of minutes and added some verses to them as well.
AGONY IN DELHI
Unfortunately, Ghalib’s excellence in the poetic arts does not pay off during his life. He is not acknowledged the way he should be. His financial constraints overwhelm him during his lifetime, save a brief interlude when he is appointed tutor to the king in 1854. But that too is short lived; in 1857, Delhi is overtaken by the East India Company and the king is promptly sent into exile to Rangoon. The poor poet is left without any hope for the future. His poetry duly reflects his plight in detail.
Ghalib’s prowess and excellence in poetry overshadows his prolificacy as a prose writer. The best amongst his prose works is Dastambu, meaning ‘posy of flowers’. Dastambu provides sufficient material to gauge the quantum of agony the poet went through. The writing is completely devoid of Ghalib’s characteristic humour. It’s an extremely sad book. In what circumstances and why this prose work was written by the ace poet is a pertinent question to be asked. For that matter, we will have to get back to 1857.
Ghalib is basking in the weak sunshine of slight monetary affluence through the stipend from the king and a meagre salary for writing the Mughal history, when catastrophe barges in, and the façade of Mughal rule in India is rendered topsy-turvy. 1857 is the year of revolt and one of the most turbulent times in Indian history. It is Ghalib’s fate to witness the massacre in the streets of Delhi and to see his city reduced to ruins in his lifetime.
There is carnage in the streets, initially by the mutineers and then by the Britishers. In any case, the loss of human lives is colossal. Ghalib is under self-imposed siege at his neighbourhood Ballimaran (not “Billimaran” or “street of cat killers”, as it was misidentified in historian William Dalrymple’s book City of Djinns). There is a situation of lockdown and curfew in the city; anyone found in the streets is liable to be killed.
Being a debonair past master in the art of poetry, he has many disciples (shagirds), including King Bahadur Shah Zafar himself, who come to him for correction of their verses.
During these ominous days, Ghalib engages himself in writing about the chaos around and resorts to his favourite medium, Persian, and not Urdu. This Persian is ornate and classical. The title, Dastambu (Posy of Flowers), is chosen not as per the book’s contents but as a literary metaphor. The book recounts 15 months of travail and agony in Delhi.
A commemorative 1969 postal stamp in India | Wikimedia Commons
Ghalib appears to be an Anglophile when he laments the loss of British lives at the hands of mutineers, and even condemns the mutineers’ ‘act of brutality’ when they resort to killing British women and children. However, in September 1857, when the British recapture the city of Delhi, Ghalib is also courageous and bold enough to express extreme grievance over the British excesses and the atrocities committed by them.
Meanwhile, life at Ballimaran turns out to be miserable and deplorable. There seems to be no access to even basic necessities of life, including drinkable water and food. The people are constrained to live like prisoners in their own homes and have to suffice with rainwater for drinking.
Ghalib dwells in detail about the turmoils he faces those days. He adopts two children from a relative. The poet is saddened when he cannot arrange for their milk and sweets, which they desire the most. But the climax of his agony comes in the death of his brother, whose corpse remains unattended in the streets of Delhi for days.
Despite all these odds, he is a professional poet and writes a paean for Queen Victoria. He allegedly also tones down some passages in Dastambu that might cause offence to the British, in the hope of saving his skin from British vengeance and of claiming a pension for himself. But these hopes are finally dashed when his pension claim is rejected in 1859.
Whether in dejection or elation, being a poet, Ghalib resorts to his art of poetry for catharsis. He dies a decade later, in 1869. His words and legacy continue to live on.
LANGUAGES OF LOVE
The million dollar question is, why did Ghalib prefer Persian over Urdu? Was it just a subconscious infatuation with the language or was he doing it consciously? To answer the question, we will have to revisit the cultural and linguistic ethos of Mughal society.
Persian was the official language during the Delhi Sultanate era. When the Mughals took over, they kept Persian as their official language. Persian was not the Mughal’s language; their mother tongue was Turkic and Tuzk-i-Babri was written in the same language.
Unfortunately, Ghalib’s excellence in the poetic arts does not pay off during his life. He is not acknowledged the way he should be. His financial constraints overwhelm him during his lifetime, save a brief interlude when he is appointed tutor to the king in 1854. But that too is short lived; in 1857, Delhi is overtaken by the East India Company and the king is promptly sent into exile to Rangoon. The poor poet is left without any hope for the future. His poetry duly reflects his plight in detail.
With the passage of time, the Mughals let go of Turkic and started adopting more Persian in their daily routine. However, a major breakthrough for Persian in the Subcontinent came with Akbar. Being a proficient administrator, he focused on revenue records in the country, and made it obligatory that all records be kept in Persian. It became necessary for all the educated lot to know Persian and, thus, Persian came into operations of the state full throttle.
At the same time, there were literary endeavours by the poets of the court in Persian. It’s interesting to note that native Persian speakers would snigger over Indian poets’ overtures in Persian, the way the British mocked Indians speaking their language in the later part of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the Indian Subcontinent witnessed a rare linguistic phenomenon when Urdu emerged as the common language of people. Initially, Urdu was the pidgin language of the military camps, but soon it gained its distinct character and overwhelmed the Indian linguistic scene.
It had the Persian script, Hindi syntax and Persian-Arabic vocabulary. The royal harem adopted Urdu as their language for common parlance and, gradually, Persian was replaced by Urdu. However, it took time for sophisticated Urdu literature to come up.
It was not until the mid-18th century — during the reign of Muhammad Shah, the great grandson of Aurangzeb — that Urdu poetry was accorded recognition at the Mughal court. Till Aurangzeb’s time, Persian was in full vogue and his own epigrammatic prophecy in Persian, about the future of India, held water. As he said, “Az ma est fasaad baqi [After me chaos].”
Persian, being the language of the elite and the royal court, always had an upper hand over Urdu. That’s why the literati preferred to master the language to show their prowess and eruditeness. It was a sine qua non for the literati of the period. This may explain Ghalib’s obsession with the language.
However, his own etched belief, that he was an adept Persian poet rather than an Urdu one, turned out to be his fatal misperception. In fact, Persian was not his mother tongue but a foreign language. Despite his avid interest in the vocabulary and prosody of Persian, Ghalib’s Persian never reached the level of a maestro. His Persian was, more or less, stylised Indian Persian.
This statement can cause ripples and stirs amongst Ghalib’s admirers but truth needs to be acknowledged. The vocabulary he used in his Persian poetry was more of Urdu than Persian. The vocabulary of native speakers of Persian was markedly different .
Whatever Ghalib is today is solely due to his Urdu poetry. Ghalib’s stature as a poet is neither due to his Persian prose nor poetry. While he kept on perfecting his art and became more mature in the later stages of his poetic evolution, he is at his best when he renders poetry in an explicitly simple and meaningful verse known as Sehl-e-Mumtana.
This Urdu literary terminology literally means unattainably simple. The extreme simplicity of the verse strikes the reader/listener at once, so much so that he feels that he can also compose such a verse with ease. Of course, when he actually attempts it, he finds himself at a total loss. Allow me to explain this with certain verses of Ghalib:
[O my naive heart, what has gone wrong with you?
What can be the cure for this ache?]
Now, both of the above are proper prosodic metres of Urdu poetry, namely behr-i-khafeef and behr-i-ramal. At the same time, however, the verses are profound and nuanced. The listener can objectively correlate with the emotions and feelings for catharsis.
This is the real Ghalib — the Ghalib who is a maestro and doyen of Urdu poetry, who can come up with his own mark in poetry. He has his own identity and is a beacon for the progeny to follow. He would employ florid vocabulary with explicit ease, and prosody was a piece of cake for him. There can be no one like Ghalib in the annals of Urdu poetry. He is a milestone and trendsetter, at times inimitable due to his excellence in his art.
Maybe if he had written Dastambu, his prose work, in Urdu instead of Persian, its impact would have been formidable, and the recognition for the work everlasting. Apart from its literary merit, it would have been a perfect material for a historian to explore the ravages of the 1857 uprising, like Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastaan-i-Ghadar. In Persian it was not accorded the status it deserved, as it was a foreign language for the people of the Subcontinent, and the native speakers of Persian were not interested in Indian history.
Ghalib was a literary genius. Yet, he failed to gauge the impact of Urdu in the future and recognize the overwhelming influence the language would have in times to come. There are about 170 million speakers of the language presently; it is spoken and understood in the Subcontinent and in South Asian diasporas around the globe. Ghalib’s Diwan consists of no more than 215 ghazals. Yet, it is the most applauded and debated book of Urdu poetry. No other Urdu poet could get that stature and, without Ghalib, no one can claim to know the ABCs of Urdu poetry.
Ironically, the poet himself couldn’t take pride in his magnum opus, as he used to flaunt his skills as a poet of Persian in the faces of his opponents. Ghalib is to Urdu what Shakespeare is to English. His insistence on being a better poet at Persian rather than Urdu seems like much ado about nothing.
The author was lecturer of English literature at Peshawar University prior to joining the Civil Services of Pakistan
The one who gives you a reason to live is also the one who takes your breath away
Lest we forget: It is easy to be human, very hard to be humane
Love cannot be seeded into someone. It is a fire that is difficult to kindle but once it takes on, it is equally difficult to extinguish.
For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river.
Alas, not all things in life are easy; Even man struggles to be human.
When nothing was, then God was there,
Had nothing been God would have been;
My being has defeated me,
Had I not been, what would have been.
The drop grows happy by losing itself in the river.
Love demands patience, desire is restless; What color shall I paint the heart, until you savage it? You shall not ignore me when the time comes, I know, but I may turn to dust before the news reaches you.
Oh, Lord, it is not the sins I have committed that I regret, but those which I have had no opportunity to commit
The world is no more than the Beloved's face. And the desire of the One to know its own beauty, we exist.
For how tiny the world,
This ant's egg-and the sky!
The object of my worship lies beyond perceptions reach. For those who see, the Ka'ba is a compass, nothing more.
Since sorrow follows joy As autumn does the spring Man must transcend the joys Of earth, which sorrows bring.
Whoever can't see the whole in every part plays at blind man's bluff. A wise man tastes the entire Tigris in every sip.
He gave me heaven and earth, and assumed I'd be satisfied; Actually I was too embarrassed to argue. The spiritual seekers are tired, two or three at each stage of the path. The rest who have given up never knew your address at all. There are so many in this gathering who wish the candle well. But if the being of the candle is melting, what can the sorrow-sharers do?
In the deadly sweep Of every wave, A thousand dangers lie in wait.
If there is a knower of tongues here, fetch him; There's a stranger in the city And he has many things to say.
Whereas it is difficult for everything to work out easily, A man cannot even afford to be a human
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