Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ghalib and the Stars

चर्ख-ए-सुखन जिस से मुनव्वर है ये वो नज्म-ए-शिमाल
तालिब जो हैं उर्दू ‘अदब के उन का मुर्शिद भी वही

(चर्ख-ए-सुखन = firmament of language; मुनव्वर = illuminated; नज्म-ए-शिमाल = North Star; तालिब = seekers, students; मुर्शिद = guide)

Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ – the North Star illuminating the firmament of language, the spiritual guide to the students of Urdu language, the brightest star among the constellation of poets. On his birth anniversary today, I didn’t find a better way than to write an ode to his greatness in the form of a couplet.

Talking of stars, almost every Urdu poet of renown has written about stars. Ghalib is no exception. As one would expect, he hardly uses stars in conventional metaphors and descriptions. There aren’t many ‘starry’ couplets in his deewan (collection), but whenever they make an appearance it is in a very unique fashion. Not many poets would refer to stars in the manner Ghalib has done in his poetry. Though the couplets themselves are very unidirectional and straightforward, the beauty lies either in the visual nature of the imagery, the usage of unprecedented words, or a subtle twist to a conventional metaphor.

I am taking three couplets from his deewan to demonstrate my point.

First of all, let’s look at a conventional metaphor i.e. counting of stars, a pet pastime of someone who cannot sleep at night for some reason.

किस तरह काटे कोई शबहा-ए-तार-ए-बरशकाल
है नज़र ख़ू-करदह-ए-अख़तरशुमारी हाए हाए

(शबहा-ए-तार-ए-बरशकाल = dark nights of the rainy season; ख़ू-करदह-ए-अख़तरशुमारी = habituated to counting stars)

Let’s look at the language first. The usage of Persianized plural (शबहा) for nights is very Ghalibian. Not that other poets have not used it, but Ghalib has used this more often than others. Even the usage of relatively rare words like बरशकाल and ख़ू-करदह is very true to Ghalib.

Let’s turn our attention to the meaning now. When one is unable to sleep, the best way to pass the night is to lie down facing the sky and count the stars. One will either fall asleep during the exercise, or at least the night will pass. But what does a habitual star-counter do when there is an impediment to this exercise? Nothing, but lament (हाए हाए). How this impediment appears is the crux of this she’r. At the very literal level, the impediment is external i.e. the rainy season itself play spoil sport. The sky is covered with clouds, so the stars are not visible and the night is completely dark. What does one count? But there is a very subtle alternate interpretation as well. The impediment is internal, where the ‘rainy season’ is a metaphor of incessant crying. One’s vision is impaired because of being misty eyed, no stars can be seen, so how does one accustomed to counting stars spend the night?

Now for the second couplet, where stars are indeed the protagonist but not in the usual way one would expect. The words used are rare and unique.

थीं बनात-उल-न`श-ए-गरदूँ दिन को परदे में निहाँ
शब को उन के जी में क्या आई कि `उरयाँ हो गईं

(बनात-उल-न`श-ए-गरदूँ = Daughters of the Bier of the Sky, a name for the Ursa Major constellation; निहाँ = hidden;`उरयाँ = naked)

Now this is truly unique! Bringing an entire constellation to the fore, instead of a mere star. The Great Bear is called the Daughter of the Bier because it looks like a rhomboidal bier with the three stars forming the ‘tail’ appearing like pall bearers. The uniqueness of this couplet is just in the usage of the words. The meaning is pretty straightforward. The poet is simply stating a natural fact in the form of a rhetorical question. Stars are only visible at night, and since we’re referring to ‘daughters’ here it is an interesting analogy to equate hidden with the purdah and visibility with nakedness. Apart from this, there isn’t much layering in this couplet (at least not that I could fathom).

Finally, a couplet that can be considered a fine example of visual poetry

शब हुई फिर अन्जुम-ए-रख़्शिन्दः का मंज़र खुला
इस तकल्लुफ़ से कि गोया बुत-कदे का दर खुला

(अन्जुम-ए-रख़्शिन्दः = shining stars; मंज़र = scene; तकल्लुफ़ = ceremony; गोया = as if; बुत-कदा = an idol-temple)

I do not count Ghalib as a ‘visual poet’. His poetry is idiosyncratically nuanced, philosophical, multi-layered, and what not, but examples of couplets that paint a visual picture are very few. This is one couplet that draws strength only from the visual similitude it creates. Imagine the ceremony of opening the gates of a temple. Imagine the countless lamps illuminating the temple precincts in and around the idol. Aren’t they like the stars that illuminate the night sky? Again, a very straightforward couplet relying primarily on visual poetry. One could stretch it a bit and equate the idol in a temple to a beloved and assign the stars the role of lamps illuminating the thoughts of the beloved at night. But still, it lacks depth in meaning. This is totally compensated by the beauty of imagination of the poet.

Before I end, I must reiterate that Ghalib’s poetry is like a bottomless ocean. Each reading can reveal a new dimension. So, it is very possible that when I revisit the above couplets I might have a different way of looking at them.