In millions of hearts, Ghalib is still alive

On the occasion of 220th birthday of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib we explore why even after two centuries his poetry is dear to both English speaking and vernacular speaking circles

Published: 27th December 2017 11:13 PM  |   Last Updated: 28th December 2017 08:00 AM   |  A+A-

By Express News Service

Isi benoor andheri-si ‘gali Qasim’ se,
Ek tarteeb charaghon ki shuru hoti hai,
Ek Quran-e-sukhan ka safha khulta hai,
‘Asadullah Khan Ghalib’ ka pata milta hai

HYDERABAD: The lines explore the residence of poet Mirza Ghalib nestled in the gloomy alleys of Ballimaran, Old Delhi. The mansion, now a heritage structure, saw the decline of Mughal era, the Revolt of 1857 and still stands sturdy housing a stone bust of the bard inside its rooms where Ghalib lived, composed his verses and made one and all smile with his refined humour. It’s where he saw the emergence and decline of an old era and an epoch new yet unfolding.

This convergence becomes vivid in his mastery of Hindustani which he chose to write his verses in, after composing opuses in Persian, the language of masters then. Ghalib was standing on this convergence line which gave rise to the couplets of existential distress that he composed in his beloved Delhi destroyed in the Great Revolt. Says literature scholar and poet Huzaifa Pandit, “ Ghalib can be viewed as a precursor to the Progressive Writers Movement; much of his poetry is a lament for the old era that was fast fading. His poetry therefore moves away from the courtly confines of shehar-e-malamat and koo-e-jana incorporating within it an expansion of the ghazal to define the lost era of an old civilization that breathed its last during his lifetime.”    

Ghalib, therefore, calls for a delightful oblivion which is nothing but an expression of a man caught in the conflict of two changing worlds: one which he saw and the other unfolding in front of him. He was among the first to employ the ghazal form of poetry for social commentary. That’s how in some of his works one finds the spirit of secular harmony and dejection of rigid rituals. Other than this, his view was modern infused with such universality that the same appear fresh even after two centuries. Sample the couplet:

‘hazaroñ khvahisheñ aisi ki har khvahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mire armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle ’

The lines above, quoted oft by every other person who knows Ghalib, define desires as chaining human existence i.e., draining him to an emptiness beyond refilling. He’s basically talking about the division of human souls classified according to desires (nafs): nafs-e-amaar of common people, nafs-e-lawama of semi satisfied and nafs-e-mutmaiyanna of prophets. And this void that he describes in his poetry is not just in terms of worldly desires, he also rues for what’s gone by: the time he belonged to.

In many of his couplets he goes deeper into this emptiness which is a by-product of pain and rejection. Ghalib buried seven of his infant children during his lifetime and hinted unhappiness at his marriage to Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh, who was the brother of the Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka. Bollywood lyricist, director and producer Gulzar explored this facet of the bard’s life in his popular TV series Mirza Ghalib aired on Doordarshan.

Played by Naseeruddin Shah the show was a hit with late ghazal king Jagjit Singh lending his voice to the ghazals. No wonder then that youngsters love listening to the Coke Studio renditions of the poet’s ghazals. An English Literature student from Osmania University Raji SVsays, “The poetry of Ghalib is not pretentious and devoid of embellishments yet so powerful. I recently got hooked to the famous ghazal ‘bazeecha-e-atfaal’ by a young Kashmiri artiste Ali Saffudin on YouTube.

The guitar notes and urban-scape are so contemporary and the lines from another era, yet so fresh, so new.” On his 220th birth anniversary, Ghalib was trending on Twitter and Google dedicated a beautiful doodle to him holding a book standing near arched windows while the moon shines above.

Ghalib had this stubborn egotist side also. One incident is much talked about when he recited a ghazal  at a symposium in Delhi. He was invited by Mughal prince Bahadur Shah Zafar. Several other significant poets were also present at the occasion. Couplets of the aforementioned ghazal are the following:

Naqsh faryadi hai kiski shokhi-e-tehrir ka,
kaghazi hai pairahan, her paikar-e-tasvir ka
kavkav-e sakht jaani haaye tanhai, na puchh,
subah karna sham ka, lana hai ju-e shir ka
jazb’a(h)-e be ikhtiar-e shauq dekha chahiye
sin’a-e shamshir se bahar hai dam shamshir ka
Aagahee daam-e shunidan jis qadar chaahey bichhaaye
Mudad aa anka hai apney aalam-e takreer ka
Baski hoon Ghalib aseeri mein bhi aatish zer-e pa
Muu-e aatish-deedah hai halkah meri zanjeer ka

It so happened that none present over there could understand a word of what he recited. Ghalib chose to walk out of the mushaira. This incident is of his early life in Delhi when he’d compose difficult lines incomprehensible to several who were not well-versed with the language. This side of Ghalib is juxtaposed with his sense of humour. Someone asked him once as to how many fasts he observed during Ramzan and he quickly replied: “Ek nahi rakha!” It was the same Ghalib who loved his cup of wine which symbolised his lament of the changing times, his beloved: poetry, the loneliness and the void settling in Delhi as he wrote:

Go haath ko jumbish nahin, aankhon mein toh dam hai Rahney dau abhi saghar-o-meena merey aagey

The same couplet was quoted by erstwhile Indian prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru while he was addressing a public gathering in Lahore to hint at the rigid reluctance of the British to let go India of their hands. The two lines were the vast universe where Ghalib spilled the ink and created countless oceans many of which are documentaries of literary history. He was among the last of the era gone by and one of the first modernists of Urdu poetry who fought with the friction of two worlds preparing a ground for the future wordsmiths. What he visualised was a self derived from the old world which frequently came into conflict with the rapidly changing world order, trying to adjust to it but all too often trying to edify it by the mannerisms of old one through his poetry. What this literary genius produced was and is brilliant, as he himself wrote:

haiñ aur bhi duniya meñ sukhan-var bahut achchhe
kahte haiñ ki ‘Ghalib’ ka hai andaz-e-bayañ aur

The perfect letter writer
 Ghalib was known to write epistles to his friends and aquaintances in a jovial manner. His letters read as if he was striking a conversation with the addressee right in front of him.


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