KARACHI: Habib University on Thursday evening held as part of its ongoing web series an online talk on ‘The critical edge of tradition: understanding Ghalib as Wali in contemporary Delhi’. Anand Vivek Taneja, an assistant professor of Religious Studies, Islamic Traditions of South Asia, College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University was the main speaker.

Prof Taneja in his opening remarks said his presentation was based on work he’d been doing for some time, a broad-based project on Indian Muslim ethics in the age of Hindu nationalism. He said on the evening of March 12, 2018 there was a programme on the famous 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib in a packed to capacity auditorium in South Delhi. Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, a famous musician belonging to the Delhi gharana who passed away last year, was staging a narrative of Ghalib’s life punctuated by his poetry set to music. One of them performed at the beginning was as in a form of qawwali. Before the rest of the programme commenced, the ustad came to the stage and said this was the first time that Ghalib’s ghazal was sung as a qawwali — the reason was that Ghalib was a Sufi of the Nizami silsila.

Despite the fact that the poet himself in one of his verses denied it, the ustad asserted that he deemed him a Sufi. A slow, uncertain clapping ensued. It was not surprising because since the 1980s when a TV serial on the poet was shown, in Indian popular culture he’s considered to be someone who chose to be outside the sphere of religion. To publicly claim Ghalib as a saint is to trouble the assumed boundary between poetry and piety.

Prof Taneja said once after attending a talk on the effects of Karbala in literature given by the prominent Shia aalim Ayatullah Aqeel Al Gharavi, a young man got up and asked the scholar what he would say about the salvation of Ghalib. His response was that “poetry has its own language”. When he (Taneja) himself met Ayt Gharavi in 2019 and talked to him about Ghalib, the religious scholar quoted the verse saying it’s a prophetic statement:

Scholar discusses the impact of the master poet on contemporary India

Bus ke dushwar hai her kaam ka aasaan hona
Aadmi ko bhi muyassar nahin insaan hona

[It is so difficult for any work to be easy
Even for man it is not easy to be human]

Prof Taneja said Ghalib is ubiquitously present in contemporary Delhi. Far beyond the limits of the old city or Muslim identity, he appears as a character in popular stage plays, such as Anti-National Ghalib; couplets attributed to him flood social media; his image adorns new art being made in the city. The ubiquity of Ghalib in the landscapes of contemporary Delhi is a far larger phenomenon, strange and wondrous even to those who are active participants in it. The sudden rise in popularity of Urdu literature, especially poetry, in Delhi over the last few years has coincided exactly with the coming to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Urdu, since the partition of the subcontinent, has largely been identified with Muslims in India and has systematically been marginalised. But the past few years have seen young people in urban parts of North India, a generation identified with Anglophone call-centre jobs and the English novels of Chetan Bhagat, not only filling auditoriums to listen to Urdu poetry but also writing Urdu poetry of surprisingly high quality.

He asked: how do we understand these two intertwined phenomena of the prominence of Ghalib and the popularity of Urdu in contemporary Delhi? He then argued that by being inextricably linked to the pre-colonial past and its intellectual traditions, Urdu poetry continues to question the dominance of the normative horizon of the nation-state and opens other potentials of being, selfhood and belonging then those demanded by the postcolonial nationalist modernity. Ghalib in particular embodies the pre-colonial intellectual and ethical world of South Asia, a world that to a very large measure was destroyed, if not utterly transformed, by the events of 1857.

The professor said Ghalib’s refusal to be defined by religious identities and his disavowal of dogma might seem at odds with the contemporary India in which identity politics and religious nationalism are the dominant political discourses, but the years of the Modi regime have also seen the appearance of counter-publics, including in the sphere of religion where radically different forms of association and discourse are experimented with holding open alternatives to the discourse dominating what’s called in India the ‘Godi media’ and WhatsApp University.

Sajjad Rizvi and Nauman Naqvi, both associate professors at Habib University, were the discussants.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2021

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