An Essay on Ghalib

An Essay on Ghalib

M. Shahid Alam  Raritan  Fall 2015

The Poet
Ghalib is the poetic name (Urdu, takhallus/تخللس) of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan. Unlike the pen name that commonly conceals a writer’s identity, the takhallus is chosen to reveal the persona of the poet. Ghalib’s first takhallus was Asad (lion); when he found that another poet was using this takhallus, he changed it to Ghalib (the vanquisher). More often than not, an Urdu poet is known by his/her takhallus.

Ghalib was born in Agra in 1797 to a family of mercenaries; his father and uncle died fighting for their paymasters. He was married at thirteen, moved to Delhi in 1810 and, except for an absence of three years that took him to Kolkata, he never left the city – not even during the rebellion of 1857 or its aftermath when the British excluded Muslims from Delhi for two years – and died there in 1869. As an aristocrat, he considered it below his dignity to hold a job, and his only steady source of income was his share of the pension his uncle’s heirs received from the British colonial rulers. Sporadically, this income was supplemented in his later years by the patronage of the last nominal Mughal Emperor and gifts from the Nawab of Rampur. His panegyrics to colonial administrators – and one to Queen Victoria – written in expectation of patronage were politely ignored.

His Poetry
Ghalib’s poetic reputation rests primarily on his slim Urdu divan or collection of ghazals (in Urdu script, singular, غزل , plural, غزلیں).This is ironic for several reasons. Muhammad Sadiq, author of A History of Urdu Literature (1964), has written with only slight exaggeration that Ghalib’s Urdu poetry “was merely an accident in his career and forms a very small fraction of his works.” Most of the ghazals in his Urdu divan were written in his teens; after 1821 he switched to Persian and wrote only occasionally in Urdu. Moreover, if we are to take Ghalib at his word, he tells his readers that his Urdu ghazals are “colorless” compared to the “colorful images” in his Persian ghazals. Fortunately lovers of Urdu, Ghalib’s poetic genius had blossomed very early – in his early teens – and, as a result, his early Urdu ghazals lose nothing in quality compared to his later writings in Persian or Urdu. In the decades after 1857, Persian quickly lost its official standing in India to English, and slowly Urdu and Hindi replaced it in literary discourse as well. Had it not been for his slim Urdu divan (consisting of some 1459 ash’aar, according to Frances Pritchett in Desertful of Roses) and his Urdu letters, Ghalib would have been no better known in South Asia today than the other great Persian poets of India, Nazeeri, Urfi and Bedil.

Underappreciated in his life, Ghalib’s standing among critics and aficionados of the Urdu ghazal continued to rise after his death. By late 19th century, he was being acclaimed by many as India’s greatest poet of Urdu and Persian. His letters in Urdu also brought him recognition as the greatest stylist of Urdu prose. In a poem he wrote in 1906, Muhammad Iqbal – the greatest poet of Urdu in the 20th century – compares Ghalib to Goethe. In 1921, Abdur Rehman Bijnori, a leading literary critic of the time, wrote, “There are only two divinely revealed books in India: the sacred Vedas and Divan-e-Ghalib.” Another critic, Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui, writes that the Mughals had bestowed three gifts on India, Urdu, the Taj and Ghalib.

Few literary forms in use today have a more ancient lineage than the ghazal. The ghazal first appeared as the amatory prelude to the Arabic ode – qaseeda – of pre-Islamic times. Over time, the ghazal acquired a life of its own and became the leading poetic genre in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. Only in Urdu, however, most major poets have continued to write ghazals, and this may be an important reason why Urdu poetry still retains a large following among broader audiences. Over the last few decades, the ghazal has become an important musical genre too as singers and composers have set ghazals to different styles of music.

A ghazal consists of an arrangement of very short poems (singular, sh’er, plural, ash’aar), each consisting of two lines, that are recited together by the poet. Characteristic of these ash’aar is the contrast between their prosodic unity and (nearly always) their thematic disunity.[1] All the lines in a ghazal have the same length and follow the same meter, while the second line of each sh’er ends in an identical refrain (in Urdu, radeef), consisting of a word or phrase, that is preceded by a rhyming word (in Urdu, kaafia). Both lines of the ghazal’s opening sh’er (in Urdu, matl’a) follow this pattern of refrain and rhyme. In addition, the poet incorporates his takhallus in the last sh’er (in Urdu, maqt’a) of the ghazal.[2]

Contrary to the formal unity of a ghazal, each sh’er in the ghazal is a poem in itself that engages the interest, sensibility and imagination of the listener without support from the other ash’aar. Indeed, a sh’er creates its world of meanings not in relation to other ash’aar but rather by alluding to symbols, metaphors, motifs, conventions, folk legends, Qur’anic anecdotes, and values that together constitute the tradition of the Urdu ghazal. In general, the ghazal articulates in poetry various traditions of dissent in Islamic history, taking positions that are critical – even disrespectful – of religious orthodoxy and its representatives, while favoring sufi tolerance, pluralism, and even antinomianism. In other words, the ghazal represents a zone of free speech in societies where beliefs and behavior were expected to conform to the demands of religious orthodoxy and social traditions.

The sh’er in a ghazal often possesses an internal two-part movement. The first line establishes a tension by posing a question, raising an expectation, or proposing a riddle, which the second line then resolves or explains.[3] In order to heighten this tension, poets and singers repeat the first line of each sh’er multiple times; this repetition also encourages the listeners, as well as gives them time, to start making guesses about what the second line might deliver. A poet in the audience may attempt to complete the sh’er in his own mind or even say it out loud. It may be noted that the rhyme-refrain pattern itself encourages this kind of participation by the audience in the poetic experience of the ghazal. In the second line, the poet seeks to dazzle his audience by the manner in which he resolves the tension created by the first line. A sh’er may achieve its greatest force by the depth of the surprise delivered by the second line. This surprise may come in a variety of ways: in endings the audience could not have anticipated; by the music, word play, and artistry of the second line even when its meaning may have been obvious; by deepening the pathos of the first line; etc Audiences greet this poetic play with fulsome verbal applause (in Urdu, vah, vah) and demands for the poet to repeat the sh’er.

It is worth emphasizing that the ghazal belongs to an oral tradition of poetry. It was common for a patron, a king, prince or other notable, to convene a gathering of poets (in Urdu, mushaira) in the night at which each poet would recite or sing (without any musical accompaniment) his ghazal, more likely than not a ghazal composed for the occasion in the meter chosen by the patron. At these sessions, the audience including the other poets expressed their appreciation of a line verbally, through vah, vah, or by repeating the line. Sometimes, the audience demanded that the poet repeat the sh’er (in Urdu, muqarrar irshaad). Frequently, these sessions would continue into the wee hours of the night. This tradition is still alive in India, Pakistan and the Urdu diaspora.

In order to better appreciate the ghazal as a poetic genre, it is important to recognize its implicit and not-so-implicit dramatic qualities. Most importantly, the protagonist in a sh’er is often speaking to his/her beloved, who may be a woman/man, patron, friend or God. In addition to the beloved, the lover/poet may also address his adversaries, such as an overzealous mentor (in Urdu, nasih), censorious preacher (in Urdu, shaikh), or rivals in love (in Urdu, raqeeb). These exchanges are reflected in the etymology of the ‘ghazal.’ Edward William Lane, in his classic Arabic-English Lexicon, defines ‘ghazal’ as ‘the talk, and actions, and circumstances, occurring between the lover and the object of love.’ In other words, conversation or dialogue is central to the style of the ghazal. Sometimes, the ghazal may report an exchange between the lover and his (her) object of love; we find several examples of this in Ghalib.

The world of the ghazal consists of a repertoire of legends, characters in those legends, and anecdotes from the Qur’an. Most famously, these legends are about exemplary lovers and their beloveds, such as Qays (better known as Majnun, the crazed one) in Arabic legends of Layla and Majnun, or Ferhaad, in Iranian legends of Shirin and Ferhaad. Jewish prophets that are mentioned in the Qur’an, Islamic heroes, and heroes from Persian history and legend also form part of the dramatis personae of the ghazal. In addition to these personalities, the poet of the ghazal personifies physical objects or endows them symbolic meaning: most importantly, the flame of a lamp, the moth, the sun, moon, stars, the nightingale, rose, tulip, etc. Since his readers have knowledge of these legends and anecdotes, the characters and the situations in these legends and anecdotes, and symbols, the poet can quickly summon rich associations, and clusters of meaning, by quick mentions of the characters, symbols, or situations from these dramatic worlds. Thus, if Hamlet, the play had been a part of traditional world of the ghazal, a sh’er  could summon Hamlet to make some point about anger, vengeance, friendship, doubt, prevarication, or confused love.

Translating Ghalib
Translating poetry is hard enough, but it gets harder when it involves languages belonging to cultural domains as different as Urdu and English. The intricate prosody of the ghazal poses an additional set of challenges: how much of its structure should one, or can one, transfer into English? On top of all this, the translator of Ghalib faces the intimidating task of conveying at least some of the multiple readings of a sh’er.

If these difficulties have not deterred translators, Ghalib is to blame. His best ash’aar continue to engage the reader long after he first encounters them, deepen as the reader grows and matures, revealing new meanings, delight with their playfulness, dazzle with their linguistic brilliance, intrigue with their daring skepticism, and linger in his memory. This poetic richness demands to be shared: and more than a few of his enthusiastic readers have been tempted to answer this call without adequate literary preparation for this difficult undertaking. With rare exceptions, these translators have not helped much to introduce Ghalib to Western audiences. Translators who are themselves poets of English have done a better job even when they do not have direct access to the original. In this list, I would include Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford – all three working from literal translations and notes provided by Aizaj Ahmad – Robert Bly, Jane Hirshfield, Jason Francisco, Andrew McCord, Vijay Seshadri, Sufia Saadullah, and Agha Shahid Ali.[4] It appears that the last four on this last have direct access to the originals in Urdu, and the last two are native speakers of Urdu. While the translators in the latter group often produce successful poems in their own right, sometimes this success comes at a price. They sacrifice the imagery of the original sh’er or the two-line structure of the sh’er, and they are even less concerned about respecting the other prosodic requirements of the ghazal.

So difficult are the demands that ghazals of Ghalib make on the translator, I will make no claims about greater fidelity to the originals for my translations of Ghalib; and success is in the eye of the beholder. I have tried to retain the imagery and conventions of the original ghazal, retain the two-line format of the sh’er, but make a variety of compromises with the rhyme-refrain requirement. I dispense with this in my first translation. In my second translation, I end each line with a common refrain: aa, bb and so forth. In the third translation, I sacrifice the refrain but retain the rhyme scheme of the original. Only Andrew McCord, in one of his several translations of Ghalib, succeeds in maintaining the rhyme-refrain pattern without this stilting the quality of his translation.[5] I can only wish McCord had given us more of these translations.

My translations do show a concern for the shape of the ghazal that is generally missing among the translators. On a page, the ghazal always has a compact look: this is easily achieved because the Urdu script allows individual letters to be stretched or compressed. A compact look does not agree with the poem as an object in English, even though this could be achieved by altering the scale and/or spacing of the font. However, I do try to approximate the compact look of the Urdu ghazal by choosing lines that are of nearly – but only nearly – equal length. In addition, the two lines of an individual sh’er are nearly always of somewhat unequal lengths. Altogether, I think this gives the translations an aesthetically pleasing shape. I feel a bit squeamish about a ‘ghazal’ whose lines are of visibly unequal length. Understandably, readers of English whose taste for shape of a poem have not been formed by immersion in the Urdu ghazal are unlikely to share my aesthetics of the shape of a ghazal.




[1]     A. J. Arberry (d. 1969) described a ghazal as “Oriental pearls at random strung.”

[2]     Many writers translate sh’er as couplet or distich. This is misleading since the two lines in a couplet or distich rhyme, and generally a couplet or distich cannot be read independently of the poem of which it is a part.

[3]     A variety of relationships may exist between the first and second lines of a ghazal. The first line may offer a general thesis which may then be illustrated with an example; the two lines may stand in no obvious relation to each other, challenging the reader to discover this relationship between the two; the first line may be a run-on line that is completed in the second line; etc.

[4]     Aijaz Ahmad, ed., Ghazals of Ghalib (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1994); Robert Bly and Sunil Dutt, The Lightning Should Have Fallen On Ghalib (Hopewell, NJ.: The Ecco Press, 1999); Jane Hirshfield’s translation appears in: Stephen Mitchell, ed., The Enlightened Heart (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993); Jason Francisco’s translations are posted here — <;; Andrew McCord’s translations are available on various websites on the web; Vijay Seshadri, 3 Sections (Minneapolis, MN.: Graywolf Press, 2013: 16, 18; Sufia Saadullah, Selected Verses from Ghalib (Beaconsfield, UK: Darwen Finlayson, 1965); Agha Shahid Ali’s translation of Ghalib appeared in New England Review (Spring 2000): 49-50.

[5] Agha Shahid Ali, Ravishing Disunities (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000): 62.


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