Friday, December 29, 2006

A Tribute to Ghalib

It was Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib' s birthday on December 27th. Like a ritual, a few events were organized in the capital to commemorate the occasion. A series of events at Ghalib's old haveli at Ballimaran, a handful of hastily organized mushairas, a couple of programmes on TV - and we had done our duty of remembering one of the greatest Urdu poets ever (in my opinion, The Greatest).

For me, however, Ghalib is more than just a poet. He is responsible for my foray into the delightful world of Urdu Adab. I'm still a novice when it comes to the Urdu language, but whatever I know and whatever Urdu poetry I've tried my hand at, it's all thanks to Ghalib. It goes back almost two decades when I saw Gulzar's television serial on Mirza Ghalib (in that respect I consider Ghalib and Gulzar as my poetry gurus). At that time I did not understand, leave alone appreciate, Ghalib's poetry. But the serial had such an impact on me that I decided to learn the Urdu language. I did not have a formal education in Urdu though. It started off with a "Learn Urdu in 30 Days" manual, soon graduating to reading poetry and prose in Urdu, of course with the aid of a humongous dictionary.

Even now, when my Urdu vocabulary is better, I cannot claim that I have the wherewithal to understand the meaning behind Ghalib's verses. Most of the time, I 'get' the words, but to 'get' the meaning is an exercise in mental calisthenics. Ghalib's uniqueness lies in the fact that his verses can be deceptively simple and annoyingly abstruse at the same time. His penchant for Persianized word constructions, non-traditional metaphors, innovative imagery, and complex thoughts earned him the dubious distinction of being called a creator of 'meaningless' and incomprehensible verses during his lifetime. In a remarkable demonstration of wit (even at the risk of being misconstrued as ego and false pride), he has written many tongue-in-cheek verses where he taunts his critics and detractors. See these lines for example:

न सताइश की तमनना न सिले की परवा
गर नहीं हैं मिरे अश`आर में म`नी न सही

( I have) neither a longing for praise, nor a care for reward
if there's no meaning in my verses, then so be it

This brings me to the other person who made me look at Ghalib in a completely new light (and even helped me understand the 'skill' required for the comprehension of Ghalib's verses) - Frances W. Pritchett, professor at Columbia University. Prof. Pritchett is an American but she has completely devoted herself to the Urdu Language, and her mastery over the language can put many native Urdu speakers also to shame. In one of her brilliant papers - "The Meaning of the Meaningless Verses", she has this to say about Ghalib and his detractors:
"Muhammad Husain ‘Āzād’, author of the great canon-forming literary history Āb-e hayāt (Water of Life, 1880), conspicuously dislikes Ghālib, and never misses an opportunity to take potshots at him. Introducing the classical ghazal tradition, Āzād explains that Ghālib’s work has grave problems as compared to that of earlier ustāds....

"Poor Ghālib, what a piquant situation: because of his love of ‘meaning creation’, his poetry is attacked as flawed and even meaningless. The situation is so dire, in Āzād’s eyes, that only one or two hundred of Ghālib’s Urdu verses are really satisfactory....

"Certainly Ghālib had to endure the hostility of those who genuinely preferred a simpler and more colloquial style, and of those who preferred an emphasis on romantic emotion rather than a more cerebral metaphysics. In general, people who liked their ghazal verses to be flowing (ravāñ) and readily, colloquially, intelligible, ended up furious at him: he could write such verses brilliantly when he chose, as his dīvān amply demonstrates, yet he so often didn’t choose! Why didn’t the wretch write more verses like (quotes a verse apparently appreciated by Zauq, Ghalib's arch rival who was like Salieri to Ghalib's Mozart) ? Behind the mockery of his contemporaries one can sense the deep irritation of envious colleagues and frustrated connoisseurs who see a major talent being misdirected into folly..."
(If you want to develop a taste for Ghalib's poetry, I strongly recommend Prof. Pritchett magnus opus - an online collection of commentaries on Ghalib's Urdu Ghazals- A Desertful of Roses is still work in progress)

What I like about Ghalib's verses is actually their apparent incomprehensibility. Deciphering the meaning behind those verses is probably infinitely more satisfying than cracking the Da Vinci Code. And to top it all, just when you think you have 'got' it, it has this annoying, yet challenging, tendency to slip out right from within your grip...and then you get back at grabbing it all over again. And what you might 'get' next might be very, very different. Sounds complicated? How about calling his verses 'elusive and multidimensional'? That is more comprehensible, isn't it?

Let me end with a verse I wrote yesterday. I have tried my hand at some wordplay here....can't say how successful I've been, but it's my own personal tribute to Ghalib on his birthday.

हर्ब-ए-इदराक में कुछ कम तो मुहारिब न हुए
जाँ लगा दी मगर अफ़सोस कि ग़ालिब न हुए

(In the war of understanding there were many warriors
Alas, they gave their lives but could not be victorious)