The afterlives of Mirza Ghalib

Remembering the bard A scene from Sayeed Alam Alam’s “Ghalib”  

December 27 marks the 221st birth anniversary of legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). His admirers, in India and around the globe, will celebrate the poet’s timeless works through performances of plays based on life of the poet, recitations of his poetry in poetic gatherings and new publications dedicated to exploring his erudite personality and his prolific writings.

In a glowing tribute to Shakespeare, the 16th Century playwright, Ben Jonson, wrote that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”. Jonson’s statement appears to be valid for Ghalib as the poet’s work continue to resonate with each generation. More than 200 years have passed since Mirza Ghalib penned his last ghazal. Yet themes, imagery and melody of his poems are as relevant today as they were when the ghazals were originally recited before admirers or sung in mushairas and private poetic gathering in 19th century Delhi. The poet enjoyed fandom during his lifetime and is continued to be remembered, primarily, for his ghazals by dilettantes as well as connoisseurs of art and literature.

Ghalib’s worth as poet is recognised by many scholars and critics, though during his lifetime he, often, questioned the worth of his own position as a poet and a human being. He wrote, “Ghalib-e-khasta ke beghair kaun se kaam band hain/roiye zaar zaar kya kijeye haae-haae kyun” (rough translation: without worn-out Ghalib, what chances are closed off/ why would you weep and sob? why would you lament). What is it about a long-dead poet that makes him an indispensable part of the contemporary culture?

Possibly, there could be two kinds of opinions regarding Ghalib’s longevity: The first one is intrinsic to the universal appeal of the ghazal form. Though, originated in Arabia, the ghazal form has covered a long journey. It is not just limited to Arabic, Persian or Urdu literature but the form has been adopted and adapted by poets writing in English, German, Russian and other languages.

In semantically dense, rich and eloquent language, Ghalib delves deftly into shared human experience. His poems depict love, loss, betrayal, and tragedy and perhaps such wide-ranging poetic concerns give Ghalib a foothold in modern times.

Apart from the universality of form and themes of ghazals, one could also think about how Ghalib has been manufactured into what he is today through academia and popular culture. Ghalib was a man of his times and most likely, he would have never envisioned his works to be read in classrooms or adapted into other forms of art.

South Asian academia has played an important role in fuelling Ghalib’s popularity by thoroughly incorporating his works into the curriculum for university students. Apart from being an indispensable part of the curriculum of Urdu and Persian studies, Ghalib’s works has also found a place in the syllabus of Comparative Studies, Translation studies and English studies. For more than a decade, Ghalib’s letters and his poem “Chirag-e-Dair” is being taught, as part of Indian literature course, at the Masters level, at the department of English, University of Delhi.

Ghalib has left creative legacy of his writings that lives in contemporary South Asian visual and literary arts. In his afterlives, the poet has been established as an unequalled, rare literary legend whose work transcends time to express universal human truths about love, death, life and everything in between.

Non-fiction and fiction

The poet was immortalised by his disciple and poet, Altaf Hussain Hali, who wrote the very first biography of Ghalib titled “Yaadgar-e-Ghalib” in 1897. Hali’s book is a tremendous source of Ghalib’s scholarship and it familiarises reader to a famous, free-spirited, witty and prolific poet whose life was shaken by the aftermath of First War of Independence in 1857. The famous biographies: Ralph Russell’s “The Oxford India Ghalib” and Pavan K Varma’s “Ghalib: The Man, The Times” and more recently published Hasan Abdullah’s “The Evolution of Ghalib” cater to the needs of English reading circle.

Ghalib also appear as a character not only in Urdu fiction but also in Bangla and English fiction. Qazi Abdus Sattar’s Urdu novel “Ghalib” (1986) captures life of the poet in 19th century Delhi whereas Rabisankar Dal’s Bangla novel “Dozakhnama” (2012) revolves around an unpublished novel written by Urdu short story writer, Manto. Farid Mian, one of the character in the novel, hands over the manuscript to the narrator and informs: “Manto sahib used to dream of writing a novel about Mirza Ghalib” and “there were similarities between them”. Ghalib speaks to Manto, from his grave and through their conversations, they reveal about themselves and the times in which they lived. Ghalib informs his ‘Manto bhai’ about how Mughal Delhi was transformed into ‘Englishmen’s Delhi’ post the Mutiny of 1857.

The most interesting intervention in this tradition is Neeraj Pandey’s “Ghalib Danger” (2013). The novel is about a gangster who believes that the solution of every problem is in Ghalib’s poetry. To give glimpse of Ghalib’s personality, the narrative, in both the novels (”Dozakhnama” and “Ghalib Danger”), is sprinkled with many well-known couplets of the poet.

The legendary influence of Ghalib has cast its spell on various cinematic and theatrical performances. Ghalib’s life has been adapted into films and television serials. The trend of cinematic adaptation started with Sohrab Modi’s black and white film, “Mirza Ghalib” (1954).

The story of the film was written by Sadat Hasan Manto and the film revolves around Ghalib’s relationship with a courtesan (played by Suraiya). In 1961, a counterpart was directed by Ataullah Hashmi in Pakistan. The film received a lot of critical attention in Pakistan.

Bharat Bhushan in Sohrab Modi’s “Mirza Ghalib”

Bharat Bhushan in Sohrab Modi’s “Mirza Ghalib”   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The most popular adaptation of Ghalib’s life was Gulzar’s “Mirza Ghalib” which was screened on Doordarshan in 1988. The television series gained so much popularity that for the viewers, Naseeruddin Shah, with his iconic role, has become an alter-ego of the poet. The connecting thread between all the cinematic and television adaptation is the use of Ghalib’s ghazals. From Bharat Bhushan and Suraiya, Noor Jahan and Salim Raza to Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, everyone’s rendition of Ghalib’s ghazal has given a new lease of life to the poet.

In the world of theatrical performances, the famous theatre artist and director, Dr. Sayeed Alam of Pierrot’s Troupe, has created a renewed interest in Ghalib’s life and times with his three celebrated plays based on the poet: “Ghalib in New Delhi”, “Ghalib ke Khat” and “Ghalib”.

The poet also appears in Alam’s “Lal Qile ka Akhiri Mushaira”. The play, through the depiction of the last mushaira that was held at the Lal Qila, gives a glimpse of literary ambience of 19th century. It shows Ghalib in company of Bahadur Shah Zafar and other important poets of contemporary Delhi. Alam’s “Ghalib” deals with the life and times of the poet. The playwright attempts to recreate Ghalib’s Delhi with inclusion of anecdotes, music and poetry.

“Ghalib Ke Khat” is Pierrot’s Troupe’s one of the more recent productions. The play is a dramatic version of the letters that the Ghalib wrote to his friends, relatives, government authorities, acquaintances and admirers. It is a lesser known fact that the poet, himself, claimed to have initiated a new way of writing letters. The play is also appears to be a dedication to Ghalib’s excellent prose writing. The play introduces the audience to Ghalib’s family and friends: his wife Umrao, domestic help, Wafadar and Ghalib’s friend Munshi Hargopal ‘Tufta'. With the presentation of Umrao, Tufta and discussion on the poet’s letters, the play offers an alternative reading of Ghalib’s life.

In sync with present

With more than 400 performances, “Ghalib in New Delhi”, has established itself as one of the most successful running theatrical performances in India. It is a satire in which Ghalib is reborn in contemporary New Delhi. At the end of the play, the city transforms the poet and he is depicted as one of Delhi’s denizens. He, now, wears a tee with bermuda shorts, drinks Coca Cola and is friend with famous celebrities. The bold and multifaceted personality of the Ghalib gives the director of the play, an opportunity to comment on the national politics, governance and social relations in contemporary society.

Ghalib’s enduring popularity proves that even more than two centuries after his death, he continues to inspire his readers to search for solutions of some of the most difficult questions pertaining to love, life, humanity and society. He does not tell us what to think; he persuades us how to think and to questions our own assumptions and beliefs.

Of all the poets in Urdu, it can be said that Ghalib would have made a brilliant fortune teller. He knew that posterity would judge him better than his contemporary audiences. He, in a prophetic voice, predicts afterlives of his poems in one of his Persian verse: “Shuhrat-e sheram bageeti baad-e man khwahid shudan” (The renown of my verse will come after I am gone).


(The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, University of Delhi.)

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 4:53:48 PM |

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