Monday, December 22, 2008

The Genius of Mirza Ghalib

Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, known to posterity as Mirza Ghalib, (Ghalib being a nom de plume) is the greatest of all South Asian Urdu and Persian classical poets. A prolific writer, best known for his ghazals, he is also remembered for his elegant and witty letters, letters which are highly informative of the political and cultural developments during his time in Delhi. These included the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 which was to greatly transform Indian life.

Ghalib was born on 27 December 1797 in Agra, and died in Delhi on February 15 1869. During his time Delhi and, to some extent, Lucknow were centres of Islamic culture in northern India; poetry thrived on the patronage of emperors and noblemen. His contemporaries in Delhi included Zauq, the tutor of the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, Momin, notable for his lyrical ghazals, and Mir Mehdi Majrooh. In some ways the tradition of Urdu poetry, and the ghazal in particular, started before him by poets such as Meer Taqi Meer gained much from Ghalib. His genius transformed this genre from one purely depicting themes of romantic love into one that, through greater versatility, provided space for philosophical, religious, mystical as well as other themes, often all in the same place.

Due to developments in the entire political and cultural landscape of India during the final decade or two of Ghalib’s life, developments which, in addition to the physical destruction of Delhi by the British, also, in some ways, put an end to the feudal aristocratic system, the art of Urdu poetry also suffered rapid decline both in quality and quantity with the loss of patronage, particularly after the work of Hali, one of Ghalib’s disciples.

In our own generation Urdu poetry once again came into prominence with Sir Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the most notable of recent poets, although numerous others are regularly featured in poetry gatherings (mushaira). Many ghazal poets, including non-Muslims, have also gained tremendous popularity through the use of their work in songs that inevitably pepper Urdu/Hindi films in both India and Pakistan. Once again, Mirza Ghalib’s contribution to this new medium is strong. His ghazals have been brought to life by some of the sub-continent’s leading singers, past and present—K.L. Saigal, Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum, Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmood, and today, Abida Parveen and Daljit and Chitra Singh.

Because of the stunning originality and beauty of these poems Ghalib continues to be remembered as the pre-eminent South Asian poet. He is, undoubtedly, the most popular and influential poet of the Urdu language, a language which, in many ways, he shaped through the incorporation into it of Arabic and Persian idiom to the extent of making it sophisticated--a literary medium of excellence. Today Urdu is regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful languages.

Ghalib’s life has also been the subject of several films and television plays. The Indian film Mirza Ghalib (1954) starred Bharat Bhushan as Ghalib with Suraiya as his courtesan lover, Chaudvin. In Pakistan another film, also entitled Mirza Ghalib (1961), had Sudhir in the lead role with Noor Jehan playing Chaudvin. Both these films had a considerable impact. A historically accurate documentary on Ghalib produced in Pakistan in 1969, regarded as a masterpiece, was never released for public viewing. An Urdu television serial Mirza Ghalib (1988), produced in India with Naseerudin Shah playing Ghalib continues to be popular to date. Once again, the lyrics, sung by Jagjit Singh and Chitra have drawn a worldwide following. In virtually every instance, while other aesthetic elements such as acting may have been significant, the principal attraction has been the songs composed on Ghalib’s immortal words.

Of Ghalib’s numerous memorable ghazals, possibly the most notable is Dil-e-Nadaan tujhe hua kiya hai (What ails thee, my innocent heart?).

My Innocent Heart

What ails thee, my innocent heart?

What, after all, is the remedy for your distress?

I am passionate, while she remains reserved,

Oh my Lord, what matter is stirring here?

I, too, bear a tongue in my mouth,

I wish you would ask me the nature of my desire.

When, without You, nothing at all exists,

What, then, is the meaning of all this commotion , my Lord?

What kind of people are these beloved fairy-faced ones?

What is the meaning of this flirting charm and coquetry?

Why do the curls of her tresses effuse the smell of amber?

What intention lies behind those antimony-darkened eyes?

Whence this greenery and these flowers?

What are clouds made of? What is the substance of air?

I am restless for faithfulness from one

Who does not even sense the meaning of fidelity.

Yes, do a good deed and earn the same in return,

What else is the call of a wandering dervish?

To you I offer the very preciousness of my life

I know not the meaning of prayer or supplication.

I admit it has no worth at all, Ghalib,

But why protest when it comes to you for nothing?

As a Muslim, Ghalib was not particularly pious. He was given to drink and spent much of his own or borrowed money on liquor. He is reputed to have generously given away money to beggars, poets and street singers, particularly when a ghazal made a favourable impression on him.

Two interesting anecdotes recall his attitude towards religion and culture. On one occasion, when he was arrested by British soldiers, he was asked if he was a Hindu or a Muslim, he replied that he was half a Muslim for while he certainly did drink, he did not eat pork. Again when criticized for listening to music, regarded by orthodox Muslims even in his own day as haram, his comment was particularly telling: how could any musical instrument, say a drum, be regarded as Hindu or Muslim? The symbol was less than what it symbolized; the instrument was less than the purpose it served. One is reminded of the use of the famous reed symbol in Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mathnawi.

The performing arts have remained controversial or, at best, ambivalent in traditional Muslim societies. This has also been the case in Sufism, although there are interesting metaphorical uses of the shadow play in several major Sufi poets. In the more orthodox orders of Sufism, particularly in certain branches of the Naqshbandiya, there is total avoidance. In others, such as the Chistiya order in India qawwali music is an integral part of rituals as well as a means of preaching. Then there is the Mevleviya in Turkey; founded by Rumi, it is an order well-known for its whirling dances.

Ghalib, through his remarkable fusion of Middle and Near Eastern as well as indigenous South Asian symbols, made possible, no doubt, by his own rich and varied heritage and the new Indian environment, took a middle path between these. This gave a stunning richness to his work, as demonstrated in remarkable ways everywhere in Indo-Muslim culture.

In one of Ghalib’s most insightful ghazals there is a clear suggestion that, had he not been so fond of liquor, given his high thoughts and poetry, he would have been recognized as a saint (wali).

These maxims of mysticism, this your sublime oration, Ghalib,

We would have taken you for a saint had you not been so drawn to wine.

This raises the question of Ghalib’s position as mystic poet. There certainly are, in his verse, in the tradition of Indo-Persian poetry, rich images and symbols that work on several levels --romantic, erotic, religious and certainly mystical. Ghalib shares these with his brother poets of the Middle and Near East.

· 27 December 2008, is the 211th anniversary of the birth of Mirza Ghalib.

· Translations of Ghalib’s verse included here are by the present writer.

No comments: