The Enduring Popularity of Mirza Ghalib

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Ghalib is a people’s poet, a commentator’s poet and a critic’s poet

By Soumya Duggal

GHALIB is a name we are all familiar with. The sender of a flirtatious “goodnight” text, though she might be unaware of the poet’s disdain for Urdu, knows how to deploy a suitable couplet. A politician retorting to an accusatory comment, though she might be oblivious to the presence of abstract thoughts in concrete images, knows which shi’r would turn the tables on the opposition. A friend teasing a budding poet mockingly calls him Ghalib, though she may never have held an edition of Divan-e-Ghalib. A participant in a tamseeli mushaira certainly knows a lot about the poet’s work and tries to embody his self-confidence (or borderline narcissism) and exact style of delivery. A person from an Urdu speaking household delights his listeners by sharing the famous mango anecdote and a scholar points out that Ghalib’s poetry is not difficult but ambiguous. The point is if one has any semblance of exposure to literature, especially to Urdu literature, one would’ve heard the name Ghalib, if not much more.

The posthumous popularity of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, through the twentieth century to contemporary time, has been immense. It is well known that in his own time, the poet was accused of using convoluted metaphors and a highly Persianised diction, which rendered his Urdu verse difficult, nay, “meaningless”. Moreover, being primarily a ghazal poet, he devised no new styles to overcome the recognised constraints of the literary form and in that sense remained forever bound by the literary conventions of his own age. Yet, his popularity with and relevance for both the masses and the critics, the laymen and the learned, continue till date in the subcontinent, and more so than that of any of his contemporaries or even many of his legendary predecessors. To explain this paradox, let us enlist the help of the celebrated Urdu writer-critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, whose work has contributed towards cementing Ghalib’s ‘greatness’ in the field of literary studies.

But before delving into his analysis, the idea of the popularity of art or literature must be touched upon, albeit briefly. What does it mean for poetry to be popular? And with whom must it be popular: the masses, huge in number but inadequate in knowledge?; or the scholars, a small group of educated and ‘cultured’ elite? The common man who claims to appreciate Ghalib’s poetry after all recognises only a handful of shi’rs, which are simple to understand and easy to remember, and mistakes them for a complete representation of the actual content of the vast Urdu diwan. Does the ‘popular’ image of Ghalib in the minds of the masses bear any resemblance with the image produced by Ghalib’s critics, who have devoted myriad hours to the in-depth study of most of his creative output, in their contributions to literary criticism? But how popular is a poet if his popularity is restricted to a select club of admirers? Perhaps these questions are not perplexing at all. Perhaps popularity translates to varying forms of presence across social and intellectual stratifications. So, Ghalib is a people’s poet, a commentator’s poet and a critic’s poet. Different readers share different relationships with the poet, producing different Ghalibs, as it were. A coming together of literary stalwarts and mass entertainment technologies must also be credited with making Ghalib a household name. The 1953 movie Mirza Ghalib made by Sohrab Modi and the later eponymous TV serial directed by Gulzar, truly popularised Ghalib amongst the public at large. Jagjit singh’s melodious songs based on the poet’s ghazals have made some of his shi’rs “the most popular shi’rs from Ghalib’s diwan” as we know them.

To return now to the question of the ‘canonical Ghalib’, let us look at Faruqi’s views to discern in what ways he explains the poet’s ‘greatness’ to establish cause for his continuing popularity.

In his essay titled, ‘Ghalib, the Difficult Poet’, Faruqi takes up the oft-repeated characterization of Ghalib as a difficulty loving poet who wrote “meaningless” poetry and offers the explanation that it is the ambiguity of his verse that readers/listeners mistake for difficulty. In his view, difficulty is achieved by a mere use of words or of poetic allusions unknown to the readers; while on the other hand, ambiguity is produced by Ghalib by way of a harmonious marriage between the complexity of language and the intricacy of thought. So, while the latter produces a multiplicity of meanings and is proof of a poet’s refined poetic skills, the former offers a riddle-like situation where only one right solution is possible to the poetic problem posed in the verse.

Is ambiguity a more difficult difficulty? Does Faruqi create an artificial divide between the two so as to defend Ghalib against the charges traditionally levelled against him? No. The point being made here is that while a difficult verse demands of the reader a laborious attempt to figure out the meaning of the poem as intended by the poet, an ambiguous Ghalibian verse allows her to find meanings, numerous or few, thoughtful or superficial, complex or simple, as per her aptitude and convenience.

The second constituent of Ghalib’s distinct style, according to Faruqi, is his “natural” proclivity for uniqueness. Of all the literary styles available to him, that is, Mir’s, Zauq’s, Momin’s, Insha’s etc, Ghalib chose to follow none. Except perhaps Bedil’s, whose influence he had renounced only to get away with never really giving it up, but even of Bedil he was never a mere imitator. The essence of Ghalibness therefore lies in being like no one else. Interestingly, this assertion helps place the poet in the classical tradition without tying him to any era of that tradition through association with a particular group of poets.

The third and final constituent in Ghalib is an intellectualism which makes him unique in comparison not only to the poets of his own location, but also to the likes of Baudelaire and Keats. Intellectualist realism as opposed to madness on the part of the poet means here that Ghalib does not get carried away, even while talking about subjects like death, and is able to maintain a witty tone, an inventive language and a logical approach while creating “the world out of practical thought”.

Clearly, we will never know who the real Ghalib was. To say the least, he was an object in human history over whom time was the real Ghalib (victor), a genius flawed by his own idiosyncrasies as the commonest of men are. The “real” Ghalib, is a multifarious literary entity, an author authored by those critics who followed him in the history of time. The ‘real’ Ghalib is perhaps the most special one, for he is borne out of the reader’s own consciousness, a cloud that continues to burgeon till such time as the reader explores the vast output of its poetic genius, and one which contracts into a single drop of that one shi’r which touches her heart the most. Even as one partakes of the collective Ghalib in a classroom or a mushaira, the ‘real’ Ghalib is who one actually converses with in the solitude of one’s mind.

  • The author can be reached at soumyaduggal@gmail.com

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