KARACHI: Genius is an enigma. But when you read Ghalib’s poetry, you say to yourself that an ordinary human being can’t achieve the feats that he has.

This was said by renowned scholar and poet Prof Sahar Ansari during a lecture on Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s image-making in his poetry on the poet’s 151st death anniversary at the Arts Council here on Saturday evening.

Prof Ansari said it saddened him to see that on that important day major newspapers did not publish a single line about him; instead they had printed material related to horoscopes and how to cook mashed potatoes. Still, as a philosopher once articulated, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

The professor said there were many perspectives from which Ghalib’s poetry could be examined. He was born more than 200 years back and if he’s still being discussed, he must be someone special. Returning to the rubric of his talk, he quoted the poet’s following two lines:

Seekhe hain mahrukhon ke liyey hum musavvari
Taqreeb kuchh to behr-i-mulaqaat chahyey

[I learn how to paint to attract female attention
After all, you need an excuse to interact with them]

It’s not known whether Ghalib learned to paint, but what could be said was that he had no comparison when it came to painting through words. On some occasions he turned the abstract into the concrete and on other, the concrete into the abstract. He came from a Mughal family. If we analysed his work closely, we would know that by the age of 28 he had penned his best poetry. Genius was an enigma. But when one looked at a genius’s work, one couldn’t help but say that no ordinary human being could achieve such a [literary] feat.

Prof Ansair said the first couplet in Ghalib’s diwan is:

Naqsh faryadi hai kis ki shokhi-i-tehreer ka
Kaghazi hai pairahan har paikar-i-tasveer ka

[Whose playfulness this lament of image is directed against
Each figure in the painting has a dress made of paper]

Construing the two lines he said they were made great by feigning ignorance because the poet knew against whom it’s directed and yet claimed he didn’t know about it. The shokhi-i-tehreer could be likened to children’s doodling or scribbling. And the kaghazi pairahan focused on paper: fire wanted to burn it [paper], water dissolve it, air whisk it away and earth bury it. And at the time these four elements (fire, water, air and earth) were deemed important [for existence]. The poet masterfully turned them into images on the level of intellect.

The scholar said the second factor in his poetry was that the poet took pride in his Mughal lineage. Musical instruments, buildings, attires, miniatures etc signified and defined Mughal aesthetics. Ghalib was aware of it.

Maange hai phir kisi ko lab-i-baam per havas
Zulf-i-siah ko rukh pe paraishan kiyey huay

[Desire again searches for someone on the terrace’s corner
By displaying her dark tresses hanging over the face]

The phrase of lab-i-baam, he explain­­ed, denoted Mughal aesthetics.

Then Prof Ansari spoke about some painters who made artworks based on Ghalib’s poetry. Beginning with Abdul Rehman Chughtai, he argued that Chughtai’s was a combination of a few schools of art: Iranian, Japanese and Chinese (miniature influence) and Mughal and Rajput art; while Sadequain interpreted Ghalib’s poetry against the backdrop of industrial and capitalist eras. An example that he gave in that regard was the verse:

Go main raha raheen-i-sitam-ha’ey rozgar
Lekin terey khayal se ghafil nahin raha

[Although I was tied up with economic constraints
I was never oblivious to your presence]

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020