Ghalib Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ghalib 1797–1869

(Pseudonym of Mirza Muhammed Asadullah Beg Khan. Also wrote under pseudonym Asad.) Indian poet, essayist, historian, memoirist, and handbook writer.

For additional information on the life and works of Ghalib, see NCLC, Volume 39.

Ghalib is regarded as the most important Urdu-language poet of the nineteenth century. Praised in particular for his artful use of the short lyric form known as the ghazal, he also wrote poetry in other forms, numerous volumes of letters, and a compelling account of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, an attempt by natives of India to overthrow British colonial rule.

Biographical Information

Ghalib was born into an aristocratic Muslim family in Agra. Orphaned at age five, he was reared with his brother and sister by maternal relatives. Ghalib started writing poetry in both Urdu and Persian as a child. At age thirteen, he married and moved to his wife's home in Delhi, where, except for occasional travel, he resided the rest of his life. In Delhi he made the acquaintance of several prominent and influential poets and wrote both occasional and lyric poetry for patrons at the Mughal court. In 1827, Ghalib made a business trip to Calcutta and met a number of writers and scholars in that city and in Lucknow, gaining him admittance to the literary world outside of Delhi. While in Calcutta, Ghalib observed the material prosperity of British civilization and attributed this wealth to English academic and legal innovations. Thereafter, Ghalib began to challenge Indian institutions, especially the practice of educating Muslims in an Indianized dialect of Persian that varied from the traditional Persian in both vocabulary and grammar; Ghalib argued that Indians should write Persian as native speakers wrote it, and he presented his ideas at a symposium held by the university at Calcutta. Ghalib's audience strongly criticized the unfamiliar style of Persian he was espousing, which prompted Ghalib to condemn his opponents in Calcutta newspapers. His challenge to Indian tradition and his outspokenness provoked animosity among many of Ghalib's colleagues and involved him in a lifelong controversy. However, the quarrel also brought Ghalib greater attention and the resulting correspondence with other

scholars established his reputation as both an innovative writer and an uncompromising scholar.

Major Works

In 1841, Ghalib published his collected Urdu poems, Divan-i-Ghalib. His next book did not appear until 1849, when he produced Panj ahang, a kind of handbook on the writing of letters and poetry interspersed with samples of his own work; throughout the next decade, he published only sporadically. In 1857, Ghalib was forced to reassess his great admiration for Western culture when the British rulers of India responded to the Sepoy Rebellion with violence, martial law, and the forced exile of Delhi's Muslim and Hindu populations. Eighteen months after the start of the fighting, he published Dastanbu, his memoirs of the suffering brought on by the conflict, and sent copies to various British officials, including Queen Victoria, both to plead for moderation in the treatment of Indians and to establish his own innocence in the rebellion. At this time, motivated by the realization that most of his unpublished manuscripts had been destroyed when the rebels and British alike looted the libraries of Delhi, Ghalib attempted to gather his remaining ghazals into expanded editions of his Divan. In the loneliness caused by the deaths and exile of many of his friends, Ghalib began to write several letters a day for solace; many of these were collected for publication. Despite rapidly failing health in his later years, Ghalib helped edit some of these collections and critiqued poems sent to him by poets all over India. He died in 1869.

Critical Reception

Although Ghalib wrote in several genres, his ghazals have generally been the best received of his works. Ghazals usually consist of five to twelve couplets linked by common meters and rhyme schemes, but not necessarily by subject matter or tone. They were common in both Urdu and Persian, although Persian poetry generally brought greater prestige. As a young man, Ghalib preferred to compose in Persian until he noticed a growing taste for Urdu verse among Delhi poets. From the 1820s onward, he composed increasingly in Urdu and now is remembered chiefly for his Urdu writings. Critics remark that Ghalib expanded the range of themes of the ghazal genre and utilized conventional Persian and Urdu poetic devices in new ways. For example, a nightingale singing in a garden for love of a rose was a common metaphor for a poet composing his works through the inspiration of a beloved, but unresponsive, woman. Ghalib used the same allusion to suggest his interest in progress and modernity: "My songs are prompted by delight / In the heat of my ideas; /I am the nightingale / Of the flower garden of the future." By identifying his symbolic beloved as a future age, Ghalib stressed his interest in change. He broke more strongly with established literary practice in his letters. Educated Indian Muslims usually wrote letters, as they did poetry, in Persian rather than in Urdu, while Ghalib wrote increasingly in Urdu. Moreover, in either language, letter writers customarily employed rhyming sentences and addressed their correspondents with flattering epithets. In place of such formality, Ghalib substituted colloquial language and nicknames or terms of endearment like "brother." His letters proved so popular that they were adopted as models by subsequent writers of Urdu.

Highly regarded for his contributions to the development of Urdu poetry, Ghalib was virtually unknown outside of Urdu-speaking communities for decades following his death. His work, however, came to the attention of Western readers as a result of the efforts of Indian and Pakistani scholars in the 1960s, and the centenary of his death in 1969 was marked by several volumes of English translations of his poems, with critical notes and biographical essays. Recent scholars have focused in particular on his handling of ghazal stylistic conventions and his contribution to the development of Urdu literature, and they agree that his extraordinary skill as a lyric poet makes him one of the most prominent figures in nineteenth-century Indian literature.