Ghalib Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

Divan-i-Ghalib (poetry) 1841; revised editions, 1847, 1861, 1862, 1863

Kulyāt-i-Nazm fārsī (poetry) 1845, 1863

Panj ahang (poetry and handbook) 1849

Mihr-i-Nīmrōz (history) 1854–55

Dastanbu (memoirs) 1858

Kuliyat-i-nasr (poetry, memoirs, history, and handbook) 1868

Ud-i-Hindi (letters) 1868; revised as Urdu-i-moalla 1869, 1899

Makatib-i-Ghalib (letters) 1937

Khutut-i-Ghalib (letters) 1941; revised edition, 1969

Nadirat-i-Ghalib (letters) 1949

Ghalib ka nadir tahirin (letters) 1961

Dastanbūy: A Diary of the Indian Revolt of 1857 (memoirs) 1970

Ghazals of Ghalib (poetry) 1971

Urdu Ghazals of Ghalib (poetry) 1977

Urdu Letters of Mirza Asadu'llah Khān Ghālib (letters) 1987


N. N. Wig (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "New Evaluation of Ghalib and His Poetry," in Indian Literature, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1968, pp. 36–48.

[In the following essay, Wig attempts "to study Ghalib's life from a psychological point of view, in an effort to understand his complex personality and the way it influenced his poetry."]

The first centenary of Ghalib's death will be celebrated in 1969. Perhaps no other Indian poet in recent times except Tagore has won so much acclaim. Unfortunately, in Ghalib's case, most of it came after his death. There are more than 40 books on his life and works by different authors, apart from numerous articles and special numbers of magazines devoted to him.


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M. Mujeeb (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Personal and the Universal in Ghalib," in Indian Literature, Vol. XII, No. 2, 1969, pp. 5–14.

[In the following excerpt, Mujeeb provides a brief appraisal of Ghalib's career as a poet.]

Ghalib's biographer finds it difficult to identify any event that could be called significant in his life; it was so much a life of the mind. We cannot be sure even of the external circumstances that could have influenced him. He came of what was then considered a good family, and his own statement could be quoted to prove that he was proud of his family and his aristocratic connections. As against this we have the verse, hitherto overlooked, it seems, of his earlier...

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Ahmed Ali (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Ghalib's Thought and Poetry," in Perspective, Vol. II, Nos. 8 and 9, February-March, 1969, pp. 107-10.

[In the following essay, Ali provides a short overview of Ghalib's thought and approach to writing poetry.]

Ghalib died a hundred years ago in Delhi at the age of seventy-two, having lost his sense of hearing and all interest in life which, anyway, had not treated him too kindly. Not fully appreciated in his own day, he stands very high today wherever Urdu is read, including the Soviet Union. This should give us food for thought, not so much for the sake of Ghalib as that of poetry and ourselves. Whether we like him or not, whether we understand him or do...

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K. N. Sud (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Ghalib's Ghazals," in Eternal Flame: Aspects of Ghalib 's Life and Works, Sterling Publishers Ltd., 1969, pp. 57-77.

[In the following excerpt, Sud discusses Ghalib's contribution to ghazal writing through an examination of several ghazals, finding him the greatest of all poets of this genre in his originality, subtlety of thought, simplicity, and grace.]

Hain aur bhi duniya men sukhanwar bahut achhe
Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka hai andaz-i-biyan aur

(In the world are poets good, galore;
But different, they say, is Ghalib's style.)

The ghazal has not only taken pride of place...

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Ish Kumar (essay date 1981?)

SOURCE: "The Poet of Sorrow," in The Melody of An Angel: Mirza GhalibHis Mind and Art, Publication Bureau, Panjab University, 1981?, pp. 55-68.

[In the following excerpt, Kumar discusses how Ghalib expressed the grief, yearning, and regret in his own life in his poetry and how his poetry, in turn, helped him overcome his sorrow.]

Great art is mostly the product of frustration. Lips begin to sing when they cannot kiss.1 It is the sick oyster that is said to bear the pearls. The poets "learn in suffering what they teach in song."2 Keats went a step further:

"None can usurp this shade", returned the...

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Muhammed Sadiq (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Age of Ghalib," in A History of Urdu Literature, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 228-88.

[In the following excerpt, Sadiq stresses the less attractive side of Ghalib's character to bring to light those subconscious traits that largely determined his inner life and therefore his poetry.]


Mirza Asadullah Khān, sumamed Ghālib, was born on 27 December 1797, in Āgra. His father, Mirza 'Abdullah, an officer in the Alvar army, dying during a punitive expedition, Ghālib, who was then hardly five, became the ward, first, of his uncle Nasrullah Khān, a cavalry officer in the British army, and on his death, four years later, that of...

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Nairn (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Ghazal Itself: Translating Ghalib," in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1992, pp. 219-32.

[In the following essay, Nairn discusses five couplets belonging to a ghazal Ghalib wrote before he was nineteen, providing both the transcripted Urdu and free prose translation. The ghazal is considered a typical Ghalibean one and, in the earliest manuscript, an autograph.]

For centuries, the ghazal has been a major genre of poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. A ghazal usually consists of five or more couplets, sharing meter and rhyme. The rhyme itself may be in two parts: the qawāfi1 (sing., qāfiya), which are...

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Further Reading


Ram, Malik. Mirza Ghalib. New Delhi, India: National Book Trust, 1968, 93 p.

A biography of Ghalib and an assessment of his poetry.

Rushaid, H. E. Yacoub A. "A Centenary Tribute." In Ghalib's Passion Flower—Consuming, Flower-Fresh, Heady, by Satya Deo Misra, pp. 71-79. New Delhi, India: S. D. Misra, 1969.

A tribute to Ghalib, with translations of his poetry, on the centenary of his death.

Varma, Pavan K. Ghalib: The Man, the Times. New Delhi, India: Viking, 1989, 224 p.

Paints a...

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