Like all poets of the ghazal, Mirza Asadullah Khan (1797-1869) is best known by his takhallus, Ghalib, the pen-name with which he signed his ghazals. He was born in Agra, moved to Delhi at an early age, and but for an absence of three years during which he visited Calcutta, he never left Delhi again, not even during the great rebellion of 1857.
Although the British became sovereigns of much of India by 1803, they found it useful to maintain a titular Mughal emperor in Delhi where he kept court, with some of its former trappings but powerless outside the walls of the city. The reign of the last of these Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar, produced a final but brilliant flowering of Urdu culture in India. Ghalib was the leading light of this Delhi florescence and in 1854 he became ustad or poet-mentor to the Mughal emperor who was an accomplished poet in his own right.
Ghalib is commonly regarded as the greatest of Urdu poets. He wrote much of his poetry in Farsi and believed this was superior to his work in Urdu. Nevertheless, although his Urdu ghazals were written mostly in his early years, many before he was twenty, his claim to fame rests primarily on his slim Urdu divan and secondarily on his Urdu letters. In a society that was outwardly ruled by the shariah, poets used the ghazal to celebrate love and longing, and, under the cover of symbols and metaphors, questioned, criticized, and even made light of the religious and social conventions of society. Ghalib covers these subjects in the most exquisite manner, bringing a new and sharper irreverence to his dissent, but nearly always his barbs are softened by his inimitable wit and humour.
Ghalib offers observations on life that anticipate the doubt, skepticism and angst that have come to define the modern age. For all these qualities, his ability to memorialise the varied moods of a lover, the breadth of his vision, his deep humanity, the unforgettable music of his lines, his use of new imagery and new uses of old imagery, all the nuances of meaning captured in his dictions, his wit and playfulness, and the multiple layers of meaning in his ghazals – and notwithstanding the difficulty of his diction and syntax – Ghalib remains the poet of poets as well as the common man. He is quoted by politicians and housewives, and his ghazals have been set to music by the best singers and music composers of the last few generations.
اناج وہ انف ںیم ایرد ےہ ہرطق تشرع
اناج وہ ود ےہ انرزگ ےس دح اک درد
A drop becomes bliss when it enters the sea.
In a night of excess pain rises to remedy.
After years I could play the right notes.
On our first tryst, fate changed the melody.
No one masters his soul without this.
Not love, only her sword will set us free.
So weary, my tears turn to sighs. I like
This crossing over from liquid to levity.
How shall I cleave flesh from my bone?
I am your touch: you dream inside me.
A lover sheds tears, clouds disperse in rain –
Till sorrows part, setting his spirit free.
Ghalib, dew-laden roses take us to discovery.
In every light discover – your eye in beauty.
ذکراس پریوش کا اور پھر بیاںاپنا
بن گیا رقیب آخر تھا جو رازداںاپنا
She has such beauty: and I had a way with words.
So I lost a confidant and he is courting her.
Give me a lofty perch clear beyond the sky:
And I will sketch a vista that soars still higher.
Be done writing your lovesick letters: go show her
Your bloodied pen and blistered fingers.
My rivals now will never squeal on me.
I got them to sign my screeds against her.
I had no lock on wit nor danced with charisma.
Ghalib, How did I offend the higher powers?
دل مرا سو ِز نہاں سے بے محابا جل گیا
It was a fire unlike any I have seen. It went
To work inwardly, the heat was extreme.
There was nothing I could save, a memory,
A face. I lost a whole life without any trace.
Every wound, every scar was a radiant star.
This festival of lights was lost in a blaze.
Ghalib, I seek solace in ruins and ashes.
Get me away from these false painted faces.
(Introduced and translated by M Shahid Alam)