GHALIB, (Mirza Muhammad) Asadullah Khan (LITERATURE)

Born: Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1797. Father killed when he was five; guardian uncle died when he was nine. Education: Self-educated: well-versed in classical subjects, Arabic, and developed interests in philosophy, Sufism, and astrology. Family: Married nobleman’s daughter in 1810. Career: Began writing poetry in Urdu from the age of ten, but after 1847 wrote mostly in Persian. On uncle’s death, his estate was confiscated: subsequently devoted much time attempting to regain control of his share; lived for most of his life in Delhi, apart from two years (1827-29) in Calcutta; attended the court of the Mughal rulers, from 1847; commissioned to write official history of the Mughal dynasty, in Persian, 1850; appointed official poetry teacher, 1854; witnessed the Indian Mutiny 1857-58, and recorded his experiences in letters and journals. Died: 1869.



Di va-i Ghalib [Ghalib's Works]. 1841; 5th edition, 1863; modern editions: (Nizami edition) 1915, 1958, 1965, 1969, 1989; selections translated in collections listed below, and in The Falcon and the Hunted Bird (anthology of different poets), 1950; The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Love Poetry (80 poems, with critical study), translated by Ahmed Ali, 1973; An Anthology of Classical Urdu Love Lyrics, translated by David J. Mathews and Christopher Shackle, 1972; Classical Urdu Poetry 2, translated by M.A.R. Barker and Shah Abdus Salam, 1977. [MS Amroha Verses], edited by Nisar Ahmad Farooqi. 1857. Nuskha-i-Hamidia, edited by Abdur Rahman Bijnori. 1921.

Intikhab i Ghalib (selection), edited by Imtiyaz Ali ‘Arshi. 1942.

Divan-i Ourdu (Urdu verses). 1954.

Shish jihat-i Ghalib (Persian verse), edited by Chaudhuri Nabi Ahmad Bajwa. 1962.

Selected Verses, translated by Sufia Sadullah. 1965.

Selected Poems, translated by Ahmed Ali. 1969.

Ghalib Urdu kalamka intikhab (selection), edited by Mukatabah Jam’ah. 1969.

Mata’-i Ghalib: Intikhab-i ghazaliyat-i farsi (Persian selection). 1969.

Twenty Five Verses, translated by C.M. Nain. 1970.

Ghazals of Ghalib, edited and translated by Aijaz Ahmad, adapted by various poets. 1971.

Ham Kalam, Farsi ruba’iyat-i Ghalib ka tarjamah, s Akbarabadi. 1986.

Galib: The Man and His Couplets, translated by Umesh Joshi. 1998.


Khatut-i-Ghalib (letters), edited by Ghulam Rasul Mehr. 3rd edition, 1969.

Ghalib aur fann-i tanqid [murattib] Akhlaq Hsain Arif (correspondence). 1977.

Urdu Letters, translated and annotated by Daub Rahbar. 1987.

Panj ahang men makatib-i Ghalib (Persian letters). 1989.

Dastanbuy: A Diary of the Indian Revolt of 1857. N.d. Ghalib: 1797-1869, translated and edited by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam. 1994. Quest for New Horizons. 1996.

Critical Studies:

The Aligarh Urdu Magazine: Ghalib Number edited by Mukhtar Uddin Ahmad Arzu, 1949; Studies in Urdu Literature by Fazl Mahmud Asiri, 1952; Interpretations of Ghalib by J.L. Kaul, 1957; Ghalib, The Man and His Verse by P.L. Lakhanpal, 1960; Ghalib: Two Essays by Ahmed Ali and Alessandro Bausani, 1969, and The Problem of Style and Technique in Ghalib, 1969, and The Golden Tradition, 1973, reprinted 1991, both by Ali; Ghalib by M. Mujeeb, 1969; Ghalib: Life and Letters by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, 1969; Mirza Ghalib: The Poet of Poets by S. Saran, 1976; A Dance of Sparks: Imagery of Fire in Ghalib’s Poetry by Annemarie Schimmel, 1979; Ghalib: The Man, the Times by Pavan K. Varmer, 1989; Yadgar-e-Ghalib: A Biography of Ghalib by Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, translated by K.H. Qadiri, 1990; Ghalib by Anis Nagore, 1990; Ghalib: The Poet and His Age, edited by Ralph Russell, 1997.

Asadullah Khan Ghalib died having lost both his sense of hearing and all interest in a life which, in any case, had not treated him kindly. Unappreciated during his lifetime, he stands in great esteem today, and his reputation has spread far and wide during the last two decades through translations into English and appraisals in other languages. He is a highly individualistic, sophisticated, and difficult poet, whose mind was far in advance of his age, and whose poetry retains its sophisticated and difficult nature today.

The 19th century was an age in India of upheaval, uncertainty, religious controversy, revolt, decay, and disorder, but also one of hope as a new order was emerging, in Ghalib’s own words, like ”Dispersed light in the mirror, a speck of dust / Caught in the sunlight in the window.” Psychologically it was a difficult period of warring loyalties, with instinct demanding attachment to national feeling, but with expediency suggesting alignment with an alien power that had almost complete control over India. Attitudes underwent a change. Some patriotic souls revolted against the dominance of the West, like Momin who reflected Ghalib’s own sentiments ”O Doomsday, come, rend up the world, / Shake it up and down, about … .”

These currents produced sentiments and attitudes that are difficult to analyse. Ghalib’s developed sensibility accepted a variety of thought as valid experience. His peculiar mind unified experiences so that the sifting of their elements becomes a hopeless task, the more so as Ghalib had a comprehension of his age similar to that of Baudelaire, while the changing pattern of the age was still incomplete and unrecognized by his contemporaries. As a result he was considered incomprehensible and obscure, so that one commentator said in exasperation, ”What he writes he alone / Or God can understand.” But Ghalib was a poet of passion with a philosophical conception of life and the universe, like the Metaphysical poets of England, and he carried his search for the truth to a more metaphysical plane. Endowed with a visionary imagination, his mind fused perception and thought so that he could see creation and the creator involved together in the situation:

Life’s leisure is a mirror of the hundred hues Of self-adoration; And night and day the great dismay Of the onlooker of the scene.

Here, conventional belief is upturned. Life is engrossed with its multifarious forms, and the Maker, bound by His own laws, then turns into a helpless beholder of the scene he has created:

Intelligence unconcerned Is caught in the great despair Of encirclement, and man’s Image remains imprisoned In the mirror of the world.

Ghalib’s poetry reflects the movement of thought, and his passion creates an imagery that is both picturesque and startling in its suddenness. His poetic experience was more conscious than intuitive, presenting an object after the idea of it, as in ”The heat engendered by thought is indescribable; / I had just thought of despair when the desert went up in flames.”

This quality of his thought is so breathtaking that he remained beyond the reach of the average critic of his era. Yet his intensive mind needed a new diction and grammar to express itself: ”Where is, O Lord, the other foot of Hope? / I found the desert of contingent existence a mere footprint.” From this to the opening poem of his Divan, ”Of whose gay tracery is the picture a complainant?,” is only a continuation of the great leap forward, where the style is highly elliptical and the meaning seemingly incomprehensible, as words and images are strung together pell-mell, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins (a contemporary of Ghalib). Ghalib’s elliptical style is indeed as startling in Urdu as Hopkins’s is in English:

No, it was not these.

The jading and jar of the cart,

Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease

Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,

Nor danger, electrical horror; then further it finds

The appealing of the passion is tender in prayer apart.

The elliptical fourth line is less complicated and breathtaking, however, than:

The joy-of-creation-of-image-producing-Coquetry-of-expressing-The-intense-desire-of-being-killed. In the furnace-of-fire is the hoof Of the prey from the beloved’s scimitar.

The first three lines here are a series of ellipses, constituting a single emotive state. This is wit, conceit, hyperbole, all in one. Ghalib created metaphors out of the conditions of his mind and feeling. It is a complex, composite picture of overlapping and interlinked states in the devotional opening poem, where words and grammar, image and idea, fact and fiction, intellect and emotion, all play their part singly and collectively, transcending the realm of words to form an imagery of abstractions; if John Donne could find a parallel between a pair of lovers and a pair of compasses, Ghalib could find ecstasy in the way to the altar of sacrifice itself: ”With what joy in front of the executioner I walk / That from my shadow the head is two steps ahead of the feet This was an idiom his contemporaries and the generations that followed could not understand, so that between 1892 and 1972 at least 54 keys to his she’rs (unit of two lines) were published. It was not until the 1960s that Ghalib could find his rightful place in the ranks of the world’s great poets.

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