Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib began and concluded his first collection of Urdu poetry — his Divan published in 1816 — with a dedication to the rooh, or spirit, of the great 17th century Sufi poet Mirza Bedil.

Mirza Bedil composed in Persian, not Urdu. He belonged to the school of poetry generally designated as Sabk-i-Hindi, but also known as taaza goee [fresh style], tarz-i-nau [new style] or khayaal bandi [capturing metaphor]. This style is marked by semantic complexity and a stacking of metaphors which expand the poetic image to accommodate multiple meanings. There’s a celebration of ‘difficulty’ in it. Scholars perceive this penchant for complexity as the early modern phase in the ghazal’s evolution.

Much has been written about young Ghalib’s tatabbu [following in the footsteps] of Bedil. Ghalib openly expressed his admiration for Bedil in numerous Urdu verses — I’ve counted up to 15:

Tarz-i-Bedil mein Rekhta kehna
Asadullah Khan qiyaamat hai

[Writing Rekhta in Bedil’s style
Asadullah Khan, it is impossible!]

Later, presumably after disagreements with Persian poets of Indian descent who criticised his Persian usages, Ghalib distanced himself from Indian-Persian. Thus, when preparing the 1841 intikhaab [selection] of his Urdu poetry, Ghalib did not include verses in praise of Bedil. Some Urdu critics even say that Ghalib changed his poetic style after 1840. I think Ghalib continued to admire Bedil. In the early Urdu Divans, this admiration was expressed as conspicuously as possible; later it remained mostly unexpressed, but still evident.

The complexity of the Ghalib-Bedil emulation hasn’t been explored fully. Most scholarship is focused on tracking and matching Bedil and Ghalib’s verses that have similar, if not identical, themes. Indeed, some verses are so close that they are virtual translations from Bedil’s Persian to Ghalib’s Urdu. Ghalib’s ‘poetic temperament’ was literally in tune with Bedil.

Mutrib-i-dil ne meray taar-i-nafs se Ghalib
Saaz per rishta paaey naghma-i-Bedil baandha

[Ghalib! My heart’s musician with the thread of my breath,
Stringed Bedil’s song to the instrument]

Bedil was considered a literary saint with a miraculous presence. We’re fortunate to have numerous resources about his life and times, including his autobiography, Chahar Unsur [Four Elements] — one of the most complicated books one could read. Although there’s some controversy about his place of birth, it seems likely he was born in Azimabad (now Patna) in 1644.

His father, Mirza Abdul Khaliq, was a soldier who gave up fighting and became a recluse. Unfortunately, Khaliq died when Bedil was four-and-a-half years old. Barely two years after his father death, Bedil’s mother passed away. His paternal uncle, Mirza Qalandar, took over the boy’s guardianship.

Mirza Bedil was somewhat of a wanderer in his early life, eventually settling down in Delhi in a mansion — purchased for the then princely sum of Rs 5,000 by his patron Shukrullah Khan — by the River Yamuna just outside the walled city. There, he held gatherings of musicians, Sufis, poets and devotees. A tall, imposing figure with a shaved head and eyebrows, a bushy beard, an athletic body and a declarative singing voice, Bedil was known to have a large appetite and was able to hoist heavy weights.

In accordance with his own request, Bedil was buried on a raised platform in the courtyard of this mansion. For 40 years (1721-60), Delhi poets convened around Bedil’s grave on the anniversary of his death. A graveside poetry gathering is a unique event; Bedil’s Divan, inscribed in his own hand, was passed around and poets read from it.

This gathering of poets at Bedil’s graveside is one of the most well-documented events in the tazkirahs [biographical accounts] of the period. Dargah Quli Khan tells us that the gathering’s hosts were former students of Bedil, notably Khan Arzu and Mirza Rafi Sauda. Bedil’s compositions were recited. A quatrain inscribed on the first page of Bedil’s Divan says:

[The mirror of your disposition shows the way
There is no harm in getting gains
My collection of thoughts is for the advantage of all
Explore it and be comforted]

In his quest for Bedil’s tarh-i-taaza [new style], Ghalib wrote:

Asad har jaa sukhan ne tarh-i-baagh-i-taaza daali hai
Mujhe rang-i-bahaar ijaadi-i-Bedil pasand aaya

[Asad poetry everywhere has planted a garden of a new style
But I liked Bedil’s colourful, Spring-inventing style]

By the 1780s, the grave had fallen into disrepair, as noted by Ghulam Hamdani Musahafi. It disappeared completely in the early 19th century as British hydrological projects caused the river Yamuna to change course. Although the grave had disappeared by Ghalib’s time, the history of the graveside gatherings and the bibliomancy tradition were preserved in literary culture’s memory.

In one of his unselected verses, Ghalib invoked the grace that would flow to him from the disappeared tomb’s plaque, were he to find it:

Gar ke milay hazrat-i-Bedil ka khat-i-lauh-i-mazaar
Asad aaina pardaaz-i-maani maangey

[If you were to find Hazrat Bedil’s inscription on his tomb’s plaque
Asad, the mirror would ask for elaboration of meaning]

The above verse (and the alternate readings) gives us an opportunity to think through the Ghalib-Bedil relationship: the metapoetics, fresh perceptions and visionary moments that drive the creative process. Ghalib’s fondness for using tropes — particularly mirrors, blisters, shame, wonder and madness — can be said to have come from Bedil.

Bedil’s poetry is introspective, innovative and metaphysically motivated. He revelled in the play between illusion and reality, or reality and abstraction. He drew on Sufi and Marga thought which he encapsulated in a Persian register that was influenced by the vernacular.

The young Ghalib invoked Bedil’s influential spirit in his quest for mazaamin-i-digar [new themes] as an Urdu poet. Ghalib felt the themes in the classical Persian tradition did not suit his creative vision at that time of political-social transformation. The British were in Delhi. A new literary landscape was dawning. Ghalib was in search of new meanings and fresh perceptions to grapple with his awareness of change. Questioning reality is both a subjective experience and a defining feature of imagination and human awareness. The mirror was a perfect trope for ‘hairat’ or wonder.

Bedil’s quatrain, inscribed in the opening pages of his Divan, speaks of seeking the way from the “mirror of one’s disposition” and suggests that his divan provides the guidance.

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

She tweets @FarooqiMehr

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2022

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