Ghalib Criticism

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N. N. Wig (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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.

The amazing fact about this poetic genius is that much of his popularity rests on only one slender volume, Diwan-i-Ghalib, in Urdu, containing 185 Ghazals. Perhaps no other poet in history can claim such abiding popularity for such a slender work. This is not surprising; rarely has there been a book in the world literature which contained such breadth and depth of human emotions, from utter despair to the height of ecstasy; such wit and humour; such wisdom and insight expressed in unmatched lyricism and poetry.

What was the personality of this man who has stimulated and delighted countless generations of poetry lovers? Though there is no satisfactory definition of a genius, every individual is essentially a product of hereditary and environmental influences. In this article an attempt is made 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.

Ghalib, whose original name was Asad Ullah Beg Khan, was born in Agra in December, 1797 and had a Turko-Persian ancestry of which he was very proud. His grandfather Mirza Quqan Beg migrated to India in King Mohamed Shah's time and came from a family of warriors. Ghalib's father held minor jobs with various princes and eventually died in a small battle when Ghalib was only about five years old. Ghalib's uncle, Nasar Ullah Beg Khan, took up the burden of bringing up his brother's children, but he too died a few years later when Ghalib was only nine. Nasar Ullah Beg Khan was quite a successful army officer and in appreciation of his services to East India Company he was given a 'Jagir' by the British. After his death, the 'Jagir' was taken over by the Government and a small annuity bestowed upon the bereaved family, including Ghalib. The legal battle over the recovery of the full estate dominated a large part of Ghalib's life.

Ghalib's mother belonged to a rich aristocratic Muslim family of Agra and his father probably lived with his in-laws most of the time. Ghalib, born in his maternal grandfather's house, was the second of three children. The eldest was a sister and the youngest a brother, Yusuf Ali Khan, two years junior to Ghalib. It is recorded that this brother developed mental illness at the age of 29 which persisted till his death in 1857 during the days of Mutiny.

Unfortunately, not much is known about Ghalib's childhood. He was brought up at his mother's place, and by all accounts his early life was spent in luxury. His pet name in childhood, which remained popular among his friends throughout his life, was 'Mirza Nausha' or the Young Bridegroom. Death of father and later of the uncle probably added to the laxity of discipline and soon Ghalib drifted into an easy life of leisure, which was typical of rich aristocracy in the nineteenth-century North India. Spending time in kite-flying, cock-fighting, gambling or in the company of dancing girls was the accepted mode of behaviour among such class, to which Ghalib was no exception. He picked up the habit of drinking quite early, and could never leave it.

Writing verses was also considered fashionable for the leisured class, which is probably how Ghalib's early forays into poetry began. It is possible that had his father not died so soon as he did and had Ghalib not been brought up in such luxurious...

(The entire section is 38,529 words.)