How Ghalib's genius took ghazal to new heights and depths

Though he was ridiculed for writing incomprehensible poetry, Ghalib was experimenting and innovating.
Published Oct 07, 2019 04:30pm

āte haiñ ġhaib se yeh mazāmīñ ḳhayāl meñ
ġhālib sarīr-e-ḳhāmah navā-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.

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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.

Read next: ‘Beloved Delhi’: Exploring how Dilli became the city of poets and of Urdu

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:

āgahi dāme shaneedan jis ḳadar chāhe bichhāye
madā anḳā hai apne ālame taḳreer kā
(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 shuhūd o shāhid o mashāhūd ek hai,
hairāñ hūñ, phir mushāhidā hai, kis hisāb se
(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.

likhte rahe junūñ kī hikāyāt-e-ḳhūñ-chakāñ
har-chand is meñ hāth hamāre ḳalam hue
(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 ġhaib-e-ġhaib jis ko samajhte haiñ ham shuhūd
haiñ khwāb meiñ hunoz jo jāg haiñ khwāb meiñ
(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.


The article was first published in The Wire and has been reproduced with permission.