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Happy Birthday to Mirza Ghalib, Woh Shayar Badnaam

Salgirah Mubarak, Asad!

Today is the 221st birth anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan ‘Ghalib’, who I believe is the greatest Persian and Urdu poet that has ever lived. Somewhere in the bylanes of Gali Qasim Jan, Ghalib is raising us a toast on his birthday, as I hear him murmuring, “Shayar to wo achcha hai, pe badnaam bohot hai…”

The self proclaimed “badnaam shayar” was born into an aristocratic family in Agra, descended from Aibak Turks. Ghalib lost his father, Abdullah Baig Khan, when he was only seven. By the time he was 11 his uncle, Nasrullah Baig Khan, who took charge of the family after his father’s death, died in a fall from an elephant while serving as a commandant under the Marathas at the Agra Fort. The aristocratic life soon faded as a long journey of hardship, longing and perpetual austerity awaited the young shayar.

When Ghalib moved to Delhi from Agra, he was just 15, and already married to Umra'o Begam. As a young poet, he copied the style of Persian poets like Bedil and wrote under the name “Asad”, before adopting “Ghalib” as his nom de plume.

The perpetual state of financial crisis and destitution, which followed him almost all his life, transformed him to a great degree. Ghalib writes:

'Ghalib' wazifa-khwar ho do shah ko dua

wo din gae ki kahte the naukar nahin hun main

(Ghalib you should praise the king, dependent that you are

you used to say "I do not serve", those were the days of yore)

Ghalib’s poetry departed from the conventions of the time, using a complex, somewhat opaque structure. His early poetry challenges received wisdom, asking metaphysical questions to understand the mysteries of the Universe. But to me, the genius of Ghalib’s poetry lies in the ghazals he composed in his later years. Although they speak of grief and helplessness, (I do believe his treatment of grief as a poet is unparalleled) they express longing and a sense of solitude that move beyond the pain.

1. Ishrat-e-qatra hai dar'ya mein fana ho jana

To compile a thousand emotions and desires in a single playlist, is like taking a drop from the vast and never-ending ocean of emotions and rhymes. Here’s one such drop, which itself carries multitudes:

Ishrat-e-qatra hai dar'ya mein fana ho jaana,

Dard ka had se guzarna hai dawa ho jaana

(The ecstasy of a drop is to annihilate itself into ocean

The pain going beyond bounds turns into its own panacea)

2. Yeh Na Thi Humari Qismat

Ghalib’s wistful yearning for the beloved and the pain of separation finds solace in the fact that there’s no escape from it, and perhaps the only way is to make peace with it. Had he not been drawn into the grieving of love, he would have been bogged down with the daily miseries of life.

3. Aah ko chahiye ek umr asr hone tak

When you know that eventually, destruction looms on the horizon, how would you live through it? Torn apart between restless yearning and the need to go on, how do you make peace with it? Ghalib asks these questions in this Ghazal.

Aashiqee sabr talab aur tamanna betaab

Dil ka kya rang karoon khoon-e-jigar hone tak?

(Love demands patience and yearning restless

How do I placate my heart till my destruction?)

4. Hazaaron khwahishen aisi

Desire, like the atom, is explosive with creative force. And of all the human desires, the desire to feel like you belong to a place, a moment, or perhaps, a person is the strongest. Ghalib evokes that sense of belonging coupled with infinite desire, when he writes:

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle

Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle

(A thousand desires, such that each one seems worth dying for

Many desires have been fulfilled, yet I yearn for many more)

5. Muddat hui hai yaar ko Mehman kiye hue

Another beautiful gem of a ghazal, which has been rendered by many stalwarts including Mehdi Hasan and Jagjit Singh. But this composition by Khayyam in Mohd Rafi’s voice and an opening narration by Kaifi Azmi in which he reads from a letter of Ghalib makes it unique.

Jee Dhoondhta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din

Baithe rahain tasavvur-e-jaanaa kiye hue

(The heart seeks emphatically that leisure, that night and day

When we would remain seated, contemplating the beloved)

6. Nuktam Cheen hai Gam-E-Dil

Like most of his ghazals, this one carries multiple layers and an incredible display of wordplay. And when it is coupled with the mellifluous voice of Suraiya, it turns into a desert full of roses. With the longing of the maashuq, the ishq and the helplessness of the aashiq, this ghazal challenges the standard notion of love and forces us to think beyond the obvious.

Ishq par zor naheen, hai ye woh aatish 'ghalib'

Ki lagaaye na lage aur bujhaaye na bane.

(Love is that kind of fire which is beyond control, oh Ghalib,

It is a fire you cannot kindle and also one, you cannot extinguish even if you want to).

7. Naqsh Fariyaadi hai kis ki Shokti-E-Tahreer  ka

The last in the list is perhaps the most special. What makes it special is the fact that this is the first ghazal of Ghalib’s first Urdu diwan (collection of poetry). Besides, in my opinion, apart from its literary brilliance, it’s a fine example of Ghalib’s philosophical musings.

Naqsh faryaadi hai kis kee shoukhi-e-tehreer kaa

Kaghazi hai pairahan, har paikar-e-tasweer kaa

(Against whose mischievousness is the image complaining?

Every figure is garbed in a paper robe’) 

In this couplet, Ghalib is referring to an ancient Iranian custom in which someone seeking justice would appear before the king wearing a paper robe as a symbol of protest against injustice.

Tune in to the playlist of all of Salik Khan's Sexy Saturday Songs here.

Salik heads the Social Media Communications (aka Ghalib-in-Chief) at Talk Journalism and he can be found tweeting about Poetry, Physics and Ghalib @baawraman

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