By Intizar Husain 

Ghalib Institute, New Delhi, has brought out a new volume, Ghalib and His Times. Though there is enough reading material in it, it is primarily a coffee-table book meant to help us understand the nature and background of the photographs and illustrations contained within. The book has been compiled by Sadiqur Rehman Qidwai, Shahid Mahuli, and Raza Haider.

Ghalib Institute was formed in 1969 on the occasion of Ghalib’s death centenary, which had been officially celebrated at the initiative of Dr Zakir Husain with active participation of the then president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, and prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The secretary of the institute, Rehman, has in the introduction to the volume explained the need to understand Ghalib’s context: “India and Delhi of Ghalib’s times is immensely important from a historical angle. In view of this, it was essential that all that is preserved in our memory be recast through illustrations. After 1857, when photography became common, much has been preserved in pictures. But the period before 1857, which was the most important phase of Ghalib’s life, slowly vanished from common memory. In this volume we have tried to review through illustrations all that was lost.”

Ghalib and His Times has been compiled to provide a graphic description of the times Ghalib lived in through the cities associated with the poet and how they were then. As for the historic city of Delhi where Ghalib lived and died, much has been written. Apart from the historian’s version we have access to reminiscences recorded by visitors as well as by the old Dilliwallas who took pride in calling themselves rore (pebbles) of Dilli.

An attempt has been made in this book to provide a full picture of Delhi, both in times of peace and war. The depictions are so realistic that it seems as if the city has come to life. The depictions of the battle scenes from the war of 1857 are in particular very impressive. Every illustration is followed by a description of the situation in Urdu and in English. A number of these descriptions, particularly those relating to the killings and looting, have been picked up from the writings of Ghalib. These add immensely to the effectiveness of the illustrations and we feel ourselves in the grip of those ferocious moments.

But Delhi alone is not the centre of attention. We are given glimpses of a number of other Indian cities as well that had the honour of being visited by him, for instance Agra, Banaras, Rampur, Lucknow, Azimabad, Calcutta and Allahabad.

One his way to Calcutta, Ghalib stayed in a number of cities. Of them all, Banaras in particular inspired him a lot. In praise of the city, he wrote a masnavi in Persian under the title Chiragh-i-Dair.

As for Akbarabad now known as Agra, it was the birthplace of Ghalib and he spent his childhood there. But while depicting Akbarabad, the compilers chose to ignore Nazir Akbarabadi. The fact is that if this city has a place on the map of Urdu poetry it is because of Akbarabadi. It seems that the compilers are still stuck to the prejudices the elites of Delhi had developed with respect to the poet.

Everything that we know about Ghalib’s times with particular reference to Delhi is because of the writers who have written extensively on this subject. Now this information has been recast for our benefit in visuals, through photographs and illustrations. This well-produced volume is a precious addition to Ghalibayat and at the same time may impart some glamour to our bookshelves.

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