Monday, Dec 05, 2022

The city and its poet

Can Delhi afford to forget Ghalib, his legacy?

mirza ghalib, ghalib haveli, urdu poet, ghalib, mushaira, ghalib delhi, ghalib ballimaran haveli, old delhi haveli, jashn e bahar, jashn e rekhta, ghalib legacy, indian express The Yaadgar-E-Ghalib anniversary celebrations at the Haveli of the renowned Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib in Old Delhi on Tuesday, december 27, 2011. (Express Photo/Tashi Tobgyal)

jin shahroñ meiñ gooñji thi Ghalib ki nava barsoñ/ un shahroñ meiñ ab Urdu benam-o-nishañ thahri/ aazadi-e-kamil ka elaan hua jis din/ ma.atub zabañ thahri ghhaddar zabañ thahri

(In cities where Ghalib’s voice had echoed for years/ In those very cities Urdu is an alien language now/ The day complete independence was declared/ It was declared a national misfortune and language of anti-nationals).

Sahir Ludhianvi, in very harsh words, reacted to celebrations organised on the occasion of Ghalib’s centenary in India. The entire poem is a reflection of intense anger and despair. It was written in 1969. We have come a long way since. About a year back, in Delhi, a few young artists were forcibly stopped from writing Urdu in a wall painting, in the metro a person was harassed because he was carrying an Urdu book and recently an elected representative in Aligarh was stopped from taking the oath in Urdu. Reportedly, every terrorist was found carrying something written in the Urdu script. These are political projects, dowsed in hate and communalism. However, transcending communal boundaries, Urdu is striking back. The large presence of young Urdu enthusiasts witnessed at “Jashn-e-bahar”, “Jashn-e-rekhta”, “DCM Indo-Pak Mushaira” in Delhi, needs to be celebrated.

I have written elsewhere that we as a nation refuse to acknowledge that India has produced great writers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, scientists, historians, painters and artists. We project it as a land of politicians and god-men. Go around any city and you will find lanes, roads and colonies named after only politicians, god-men, gods and goddesses. The city of Delhi has produced two great poets, Mir Taqi Mir and Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib. Ghalib’s work has been translated in almost all languages and scholars world over even now write on his poetry and life. But today’s Delhi refuses to acknowledge his greatness and cherish the memories.

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It will be unfair not to mention that Delhi, during the past 300 years, has produced a galaxy of poets, writers and intellectuals. I have specifically mentioned two because I consider their work major turning points in the history of Urdu literature. Ghalib was born in Agra and at the age of 15, he came to settle in Delhi after his marriage. This was the period when the Indian subcontinent was going through a massive upheaval and Delhi was progressively losing its position as a cultural, economic and political powerhouse. The old structures were crumbling fast and new ones had not taken shape yet.

Ghalib’s personal life was also a series of traumatic events. His father died when he was five years old and his uncle who took charge of the family passed away when he was nine. None of Ghalib’s own children survived beyond infancy. Throughout his life he faced financial difficulties. The early life facts are obscure and we really do not know who inspired him to start writing poetry at the age of 11. Maybe it was just a refuge from personal pain.

Ghalib’s fame had already reached Delhi, even before he had shifted from Agra. When he shifted to Delhi, the cultural spaces in the city were shrinking fast and Ghalib, instead of receiving a welcome, was laughed at and criticised. He was not groomed under the tutelage of any famous poet, he had no ustad (teacher or literary mentor), and that was considered a big drawback. Criticism forced him to invent an ustad.


Most of his contemporaries and even predecessors could not comprehend the fast- changing realities and took refuge either in religion or in the poetry of love. Ghalib, despite his troubled life, distanced himself from mundane happenings and chose to be a compulsive, curious and bold observer. He abhorred tradition and accepted norms and constantly challenged them.

Almost every couplet he wrote, and included in Diwan-e-Ghalib, raises questions vis a vis established views and conventional beliefs. For example, his couplet, hon garmi-e-nishat-e-tasawwur se nagma sanj, main andilib-e-gulshan-e-naa-afrida hoon (Inspired by the warmth of the springtime of imagination, I sing/ I am the nightingale of a garden that is yet to materialise). This beautiful couplet is pregnant with meanings and can be interpreted in many ways. For me, he is yet again challenging the notion of the heavens created by God, and sings in praise of heaven that will be constructed by human imagination on earth. The entire ghazal is remarkable but this couplet is “Husn-e-Ghazal”. Let me cite one more example: nazar mein hai hamari jada-e-reh-e-fana Ghalib, ki yeh shiraza hai is alam ke ajza-e-pareshan ka. In this couplet, Ghalib deals with the dialectical relationship between order and disorder, and almost touches the present day scientific theory of chaos, which informs us that the disintegration of the components of one form of order results in the emergence of a different form of order.

Abdur Rahman, a biographer of Ghalib, wrote in Mahasin-e-Kalaam-e-Ghalib, that “there are only two divinely revealed books in India — the Holy Vedas and the Diwan-e-Ghalib.” Ghalib is an example of a perfect intellectual-poet. The city of Delhi must be proud of his legacy.

First published on: 02-01-2018 at 12:02:28 am
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