Ministry of Home Affairs29-December, 2006 18:4 IST
The mind and Art of MIRZA GHALIB**

One of the greatest masters of muse, Mirza Asadullah Khan surnamed Ghalib was a born poet who not only wrote thoughtful poetry but also thought poetically. Known for its exceptional tenderness and sensibility, Ghalib rose above the poets of his age and thought ahead of his times. Ghalib believed that the ideals of culture did not lie in the isolation of freedom, but on the inter-dependence of individuals and societies in all spheres of thought and action. ‘My creed is oneness, my belief renunciation of rituals’. He stood for a learning society where the mind is free and the head is held high. His poetry reflects a deep philosophy based on beauty and truth and has been universally accepted as great poetry.

            Born on December 27, 1797 at Agra in a well-to-do family of army officers who traced their descent from Seljuk kings of Central Asia, his father Mirza Abdullah died fighting when the child Asad was hardly five. He was thus entrusted to the care of his uncle Mirza Nasrulla Beg, a Risaldar in the British army who too died when the child was 9. He was, therefore, brought up in his maternal grand uncle’s spacious house, his childhood spent in the company of female cousins, kite-flying, swimming across the Yamuna doing all kinds of pranks. Agra left an indelible mark on the young mind of the boy. Although he never went back, the nostalgia of his Agra days gripped him forever.

            Ghalib considered poetry as an accomplishment necessary for the nobility of which he was always proud. He wrote his first Urdu Ghazal at 9 and his first Persian ‘Masnavi’, at 11. Among his early influences were Shaikh Muuzzam, an eminent teacher of Agra in those days, a Persian scholar named Hurmuz who named himself as Abdul Samad on conversion from Parsi religion to Islam. He first visited Delhi at the age of 7 but after his marriage at 13 with Umroa Begum, daughter of Mirza Ilahi Baksh Khan ‘Maruf’, he settled in Delhi where he remained till he died on 15 February, 1869, at 71. In Delhi,  he changed many residences till he came to his Ballimaran house in Galli Qasim Jan, recently renovated and included in the heritage list. It is here he composed his immortal verses, it’s here he had love escapades, he drank to his fill, gambled, went to jail. He was a suspect in 1857 revolt, his pension was stopped, his end was pathetic. The poet who had defied all Gods in his youth and challenged the angels, realized in old age, that Ghazal was a narrow genre for him, he wanted wider vistas to express himself.

            In his youth, Ghalib was a very handsome man. ‘When I met him for  the first time’, wrote Altaf Hussain Haali, his best biographer in ‘Yaadgar-e-Ghalib’, ‘One could easily see what a handsome man he must have been; tall, broadly built, powerful limbs, of charming disposition and ready wit, he appeared even then a fresher from Turan’. A pagan to the core, he stood for the life of pleasure. Commenting on the poet’s hedonistic nature, Prof. Muhammad Sadiq, in his ‘History of Urdu Literture’ says : ‘Ghalib had no conscious theory of life to offer, he was more intent on living his life than theorizing about it; but there is one thing more than another that his life and poetry substantiate, and to which ample testimony is borne by those who knew him personally, it is that he yearned to have more and more of it and explore its possibilities for personal enjoyment. His attitude about the hereafter, as is well known, was skeptical, and even if, occasionally he was led to think of rewards promised to the righteous, a class to which he emphatically did not belong, he decided to have the cash and let the credit go’.

Jismein lakhon baras ki hoorain hon

Aiyasi jannat ko kaya kare koyi

(What will one do with a paradise where there are million-year old Hoories (beautiful maids)

            At an other place he declares: ‘I have inherited the nature of Adam and I am his descendant. I openly declare that I indulge in sin. I am not a theologian, I am a poet. I am Persian by nature, although my religion is that of Arabs’.

            Strangely enough, he considered his Persian poetry far superior to that of Urdu verse. Even in volume it is less than one-third of his total output. ‘My Persian poetry is full of colours, my Urdu verse is colourless’. But little did he know that in India he would be remembered by posterity and would achieve immortality through his Urdu writings and not his Persian poetry on which he prided himself. Although some experts consider his Persian poems also of a high order and can be compared with the best of Persia’s own poets, but the fact remains that he is not recognized in Persia, nor is very much known there. His Urdu poems total no more than 1,800 lines and there also some of them that are laced with Persian idiom and metaphor, but whatever remains needs to be weighed in gold. He raised the status of the ‘Ghazal’ to the dizziest heights. ‘I wash my words with milk’, he often said.

Ganjina-emaani Ka Tallism usko Samajhiye

Jo Lafs Key Ghalib tere Ashar mein Avey

(Every word I use in my couplets creates a magic, I weave them in my thought process and charge them with the magic of meaning)

            Ghalib’s poetry, therefore, is not mere magic of words or a sheer picture gallery of diction, behind every word there is a magic of thought, every word is raised to the status of a concept. Ghalib was an original mind, a keen intellect, a deep thinker. More often than not, his poetry acquired the status of philosophy, a new humanism.

Bus key dushwar hai har kaam ka aasan hone

Admi ko bhi muyassar nahi insane hona

(It’s not easy for every task to be easy as it’s difficult for man to be human )


            Some critics believe that Ghalib was essentially a poet of sorrow and that happiness was only an occasional episode in the general drama of pain, that life was not worth living. Haali does not agree with this theory. Nor does Iqbal who himself was a poet of sorrow. But there are utterances which are very powerful and one cannot resist the feeling that his last-phase poetry is full of gloom.

I am Earth’s Extinguished Echo

My wail its Phoenix

In one of his undying poem he says:

Gham-e-Hasti ka Asad Kis sey ho Juz-Marg Ilaj

Shama Har Rang mein Jalti hai Sahar hone Tak

(There is no cure for the life’s sorrow, O Asad except death,

The Lamp burns in all its hues till dawn)

And again : Sorrow ceases to be sorrow in its surfeit

                    So numerous have been my difficulties that they themselves withered away.

            During the later years, the tone of Ghalib’s poetry had become rather bitter as is evident in the following verse:

Rakhiyo Ghalib Mujhe is Talkh-Nawai mein Muaf

Aaj ik dard mere dil mein siva hota hai

(Forgive me, O Ghalib if my narrative is bitter

Today I feel the pain pulsating in my heart)


            In one of his letters dated 1867, he opens up: ‘I am about  to die now. I eat hardly anything at present. All kinds of diseases have overtaken me. From God we come and to God we return. I am Pir-I-Kharif, an old man, decrepit par excellence. My memory has failed me. It seems I never had any memory. For long, I have been hard of hearing. Those who come to see me, write down what they have to say. My food amounts to nothing,  A piece of sugar candy peeled, powdered almonds in syrup in the morning, four dried kababs early in the evening. Wine, 5 tolas in weight mixed with equal quantity of rose water before going to bed, is my diet. I am decrepit, defeated, physically imbecile, sinner and a lechar’.

            Only a few years before he wrote to Mir Mehdi Majruh : ‘I read throught the day and drink throughout the night’.

            According to Prof. Mujeeb, ‘The poetic tradition which Ghalib represents was more than literature, more than culture. It expressed vigorously and coherently, the response of human nature to the problem of human existence. It was a fusion of elements that were philosophical, mystical and aesthetic, also elements that were essentially trivial and euphemeral. The fusion took place in man, and could not take place outside him, in a system of philosophy, mysticism and aesthetics, certainly not in religious dogma’. Ghalib as man, therefore, could not have been superior to Ghalib as poet. As a man, he was a man of the world wanting to live in sumptuous ease. As a poet, he transcends the boundaries of time and space.

Ghalib & the English

            Ghalib’s relations with the Englishman were generally cordial except during the 1857 rebellion and the Macpherson episode. Macpherson, an Englishman, had opened a wine shop in Chandni Chowk and Ghalib was a regular who purchased the stuff called Old Tom on credit. The Englishman being basically a businessman, waited for some time, but when he could wait no more, dragged him to the court and recovered his dues. Legend has it that the Qazi who fined him was a great admirer of Ghalib and paid the fine from his own pocket. The same night there was a ‘Mushaira’ at the Qazi’s house where Ghalib was the chief guest. Returning home late night, when a water-carrier near Jama Masjid asked him to write a poem on him, Mirza Ghalib became sad and said : ‘You quench the thirst of the thousands, I only mine, what will you do with a poem’?

            Ghalib welcomed Western learning and Western innovations and institutions such as steam engine, railways, post offices, wireless. He even wanted to learn English language. He had a number of English friends, prominent among them were Sir John Frazer and Sir William Rattigan, the Vice Chancellor of Punjab University. ‘I met  Rattigan Sahib. He is writing in English a Tazkira of Urdu poets. I have sent him seven books’. When Ghalib died, it appears through his letters that a fairly large number of English words were introduced in Urdu language. When he fell seriously ill, a British doctor was sent for his treatment.

            Ghalib was an eternal bachelor, a perennial Don Juan even in old age. During the 57 rebellion, when an English Officer asked him whether he was a Muslim, Mirza Ghalib replied: ‘Only One half’. Asked to elaborate the half he was not, he snapped back, : ‘Because I take only wine, not pork’. Ghalib’s wit was axiomatic, his satire was urbane. When a Moulvi told him that a drunkard’s prayers will not be accepted in heavens, Ghalib replied that ‘what’s there to pray for  when one has enough to drink here. An apt illustration of his own verse he could drink anywhere, anytime but not with anybody: ‘When the tavern is no more, it does not matter where I drink : A Mosque, A School, may be a monastery’. When a devout Muslim complained to him for non-observance of ‘Roza’ (Fast) in the sacred month of Ramazan, he replied ‘It’s one thing not to observe the fast, but quite another to fondle it’.

            Elsewhere, he challenged the divine distribution on the plea that no human being was  present at the time of recording of divine will, it was an all angels’ affair. His principle was ‘Live like fly, not a bee’. A free thinker, he stood for the freedom of the individual, some passion for an ideal,  whether patriotism, religion, humanity, love of a woman or of nature.

            During his last days, he turned to mysticism. In his famous letter to Hargopal Tufta, his most trusted friend, he says:

            ‘You are cultivating the art of poetry and I am cultivating the art of immersion in the divine spirit. I consider the scholarship of Avicenna and the poetry of Nizami as useless. To live, we require little happiness. As for philosophy, kingship, poetry, magic all are absurd. If someone was an Avtar among the Hindus, what then? If you make a name in the world, what then. We are good poets and may be as famous as Saadi and Hafiz. What did they gain by their renown, and what shall we gain. What did Urfi gain by his Qasidas and what did Saadi gain by his Bostan …. Nothing exists but God’.

            Yet the fact remains that tens of thousands of people recite Ghalib’s poems every day in their moments of agony and ecstasy. People still exchange Ghalib’s verses as gifts. His poetry transcends the boundaries of history, geography, calendar, tradition and modernity, thought and belief.

            He died on 15th February 1869 in the same house at Ballimaran. He lies buried in Nizamuddin near the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. A large number of mourners joined the funeral procession, both Hindus and Muslims, and among Muslims both Sunnis and Shias. For about a year, articles on Ghalib appeared in Urdu papers every day, every week, every month special supplements were carried out by Delhi papers. Death makes no conquest of this conquerer for he now lives in fame, he belongs not to one country, but to all the ages. A universal poet, his appeal was universal. (PIB Features)

*A noted Historian

** 210th Birth Anniversary Celebrations

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and not necessarily reflect the views of PIB.



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