Was Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s young poetic voice different from his mature one? Ghalib himself gave credence to the idea that he discarded most of his early poetry.

According to renowned Ghalib scholars such as Maulana Imtiyaz Ali Khan Arshi, Ghalib’s early verses are obscure, with tasteless flights of imagination, and the language is peppered with farfetched metaphors and unusual Persian phrases. But did Ghalib actually change his poetic voice drastically in his mature phase? Leafing through Divan-i-Ghalib (Urdu), can we discern which ghazals are from the earlier period?

Let us not forget that Ghalib did not write much in Urdu for 20 years — roughly from 1828-48 — and composed mostly in Persian. When he returned to Urdu, his style was definitely more fluent, polished and accessible.

Marxist Urdu literary critic Khurshidul Islam has done commendable work on Ghalib’s early years (Ghalib: Ibtidaaee Daur [Ghalib: The Early Years]). Khurshidul Islam rightly maintains that the young Ghalib was excessive in his penchant for khayaal bandi, which literally means “capturing an idea.” It frees a poet from external realities and allows space for imaginative, experimental, casual and unpredictable ideas.

Khayaal bandi also permits a poet to use reality/ philosophy at an elevated level.

Unfortunately, Khurshidul Islam’s explanation as to why Ghalib was drawn to khayaal bandi is too mundane. In his view, Ghalib’s personal misfortunes had a lot to do in making him adopt this abstruse style. In my opinion, Ghalib was thrilled by the possibilities and freshness of this style. He wrote khayaal band poetry throughout his career. However, his early poetry is complex and convoluted, while his mature compositions are more direct.

The young Ghalib was inordinately consumed by “hairat” [wonder] and its expression through the trope of “ainah” [mirror] and with “jalvah” [manifestation]. Even a cursory analysis of his 1816 and 1821 Divans will show the overuse of these ideas. Complexity, perhaps, is inevitable when one grapples with abstractions. Let us examine the following verses:

Khabar nigah ko nigah chashm ko adu jaanay
Voh jalvah kar keh na main jaanoon aur na tu jaanay

[Perception and sight have become mutual enemies
Manifest your radiance so that neither you would know, nor I]

This verse pushes our understanding of awareness and its relationship with perception to abstract levels that are complicated. Awareness doesn’t want the eye to see/ know; the power of sight shoots arrows of desire, but doesn’t want the eye to know.

There’s a fine distinction here between the ‘eye’ (the organ of sight) and ‘sight’ (the function of the eye). The traditional belief was that sight emanated from the eyes in the form of light rays. That is the way ghazal poets conceived it. The lover-protagonist suggests to the beloved (God) to elevate her radiance to a level of abstraction where there is no awareness.

Aashiq naqaab-i-jalvah-i-jananah chahiyay
Fanoos-i-shama ko par-i-parwanah chahiyay

[The radiant beauty of the beloved demands the lover as its veil
The candle’s shade demands the moth’s wings]

In this verse, we have spectacular imagery and abstraction simultaneously. The lover becoming the veil of the beloved’s radiance, and the candle having a shade made of the wings of moths implies a number of things: (1) The lover will be close to the beloved like a naqaab; (2) Like the parwanah [moth], the lover will be burnt to extinction by the beloved’s radiance and will thus reveal her radiance to the world; (3) The lover will hide the beloved’s beauty from the world’s eyes; (4) The true beloved is the Beauty of God, or the Ineffable Being of God.

According to the Sufi doctrine, God is hidden behind the things in the world: all things in the world are His manifestations, but He is not seen anywhere. This theme has been used numerous times since Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi led the way. Ghalib adds a new twist to it: the world hides the Glory and the radiance of God; even though the world is separate, it cannot exist without God, for whom it is the veil. In the same way, the lover cannot exist without the beloved. By hiding the beloved, he reveals her.

Timsaal-i-jalvah arz kar ay husn kab talak
Ainah-i-khayaal ko dekha karay koee

[O Beauty! Show us the splendour of your image
How long can one keep looking at the mirror of imagination?]

Husn, or beauty, is ineffable; it is perceived to be synonymous with its creator who is apparent in beauty. But this is not enough for the seeker of beauty. The protagonist craves something more concrete than a reflection.

The mirror produces illusions and imagination heightens the illusory, intangible reflections produced in the mirror. Timsaal-i-jalvah is an extraordinary concept, because it brings two converses together. It implies the concretisation of something overwhelming and beyond description.

There is an excess of abstractions in the above verse. Why does khayaal need a mirror? The answer to this could be that the image of the beloved (husn) will be reflected here. How can imagination be mirrored without producing more illusions? How can jalvah have an image?

Ghalib was not yet 20 when he wrote this kind of poetry. The ghazals from where I have pulled the verses are absolutely miraculous. But Ghalib excluded these esoteric ghazals. He knew that if his published Divan were filled with an excess of this kind of poetry, he could hardly expect readers to enjoy it.

My point is that Ghalib’s younger self was deeply involved in metaphysical explorations; he was influenced by Mirza Bedil. Ghalib acknowledges Bedil in the header of his first Divan (1816). Ghalib commentators shied away from expounding the verses that Ghalib had not included in his published Divan. My forthcoming book, tentatively titled Ghalib: A Burnt Treasure, seeks to bring Ghalib’s younger self to readers.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 20th, 2021

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