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INDIAN LITERATURE – MIRZA GHALIB: Mughal-India’s Greatest Poet

The Mughals, who took over India in 1526 A.D., went on to establish their rule over the sub-continent that lasted over three centuries, that is, till it was dissolved and absorbed in the British Empire in 1858. During their long hold on India, the Mughals would go on to influence, in a dramatic way, every aspect of the social, economic and cultural life of the Indians in more ways than could be imagined. And the great poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), happened to live during that crucial period in India’s history. The mighty Mughal Empire was weakening under the onslaught of the British East India Company. Thus, looking back in time, we see poet Mirza Ghalib, who lived under the British at a time when the aura of the Mughal era was on the wane and the British dominance on the rise.  However, the Mughals’ passage in India, nevertheless, bequeathed to the Indian sub-continent, THREE significant legacies. That are apparent till to-day in India arts, culture and architecture. They are:

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(ii)The URDU language; and

(iii)The Poet MIRZA GHALIB himself.

The Taj Mahal, the iconic architectural masterpiece in Agra, is, as everybody knows, a mausoleum commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who passed away during child-birth. It remains till to-day the most significant and iconic visual symbol of India in the world. Whoever thinks of India, thinks of the architectural gem in Agra that is the ‘Taj Mahal’ — a symbol of pride and glory of its (Muslim) designers and builders. Indeed, the TAJ MAHAL remains, till to-day, an artistic jewel in the world second to none.

The second great legacy of the Mughals to India is the Urdu language, which, as the world knows, was a language that was born in India. It began, first, as a dialect in the Mughal soldiers’ barrack. The soldiers were mostly of Turkic descent and could not speak the local dialect and, necessity being the mother of invention, the Mughal soldiers, eventually, went on to create their own ‘camplanguage’Urdu – to be able to communicate with their fellow Indian soldiers. The new language comprised a blend of Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Sanskrit and Turkic words among others — although mostly Arabic, Persian and some Hindi — so much so, with the passing of time, the new language would evolve into one of the most sophisticated languages of India, emerging, in the process, as the language par excellence of the elite around Delhi, and also becoming a vehicle of choice for the expression of refined thoughts in terms of poetry including naats, ghazals, rubais … borrowing generously from the age-old Persian traditions.  And the credit for popularizing the genres, it is agreed generally, goes to Mirza Ghalib, who was the most eminent exponent of the language through his poetry or shaiyari. And, as can be surmised, Mirza Ghalib is the third formidable legacy the Mughals gave India.

“By remaining busy, you run the risk of being lonely, Ghalib; Building relations do not depend upon the time you give; rather it depends upon the attention you give.”
Eminent Urdu Poet of the Mughal Era: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, popularly known simply as
“Mirza Ghalib” (December 27, 1797–February 15, 1869)

Mirza Ghalib was a gifted poet with a sharp knack for using, with grace and elegance, the Urdu language in its diverse forms, whether in poetry or prose, such that, long after his demise, it was unanimously reckoned that Mirza Ghalib was, indeed, a Master in the Urdu language whether it was in prose or poetry. In fact, it is even suggested that had Mirza written only prose, which he did as a ‘letter-writer’, he would still have been as famous as he is as a master-poet, and would still be reckoned as an icon in Urdu in his own right.

Mirza Ghalib’s complete name was:  Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib but he would be known simply as Mirza Ghalib or just Ghalib. Much of his glory and fame came to him after his demise when it was truly realized what a genius and gifted-artist he was in the Urdu language and, when his contributions were assessed, it did not take the critics long to realize how his genius in handling the Urdu language, made him the greatest poet of his time in the language and thus, he came to be acclaimed by critics and admirers, as a great master in the language that became the dominant vehicle of communication among the elite of Mughal India. Indeed, Mirza Ghalib was acclaimed as an icon of Mughal India, which, as we well know, was going at the time through its last gasps as the British East India Company had been slowly tightening its grip on the Mughal realm and was preparing to take over the Empire and establish the British Raj. In fact, the long Mughal rule in India, after the “1857SepoyUprising,” was on its way out. After almost three and a half centuries of continuous rule, the Mughal dynasty would be no more.

Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah as poet “Mirza Ghalib” in the
classic TV Serial made by GULZAR in 1988, and aired on Doordarshan
network in India. It is said that actor Naseeruddin Shah literally lived the part of Ghalib in the serial, which is now hailed as a classic

However, the fame and glory of Mirza Ghalib would continue to grow – the more so after his death in 1869. And the more people read about him, the more they liked him. Indeed, his poetry became in vogue. His verses were often quoted in every day conversation by common folks and Mirza became an object of great admiration and respect. He was lauded for his lofty poetry, often sprinkled with doses of humour – which was his forte.   

Needless to say, that Mirza Ghalib, whose personal life was as unorthodox as was his religious life. Yet, he was a content man. He loved life and enjoyed his glass of liquour and was never abashed for drinking it.  He did not have an easy life. All his life he lived on government pension or on the generosity of friends and patrons. In 1857, when the last effort by the Mughals to drive the British out of India, dismally failed, and Muslims in India, were indiscriminately hounded and arrested and punished by the British by either being jailed or sent into exile or even hanged. As a matter of fact, Mirza happened to be arrested by the British at the time. When he was asked what was his religion, he was reported to have answered:

–“Half Muslim!”

–“What do you mean? Half Muslim?”

— He replied: “I drink! But I don’t eat pork!”

The officer laughed at his answer and let him go.

This episode was illustrative of Mirza Ghalib’s character. It is also related that in his final years, he happened to rent a house next to a masjid (mosque). And, only he, Mirza Ghalib, could see the irony and humour in that fortuitous choice that had become his!

“Masjid ke zere saya ek ghar bana liya hai!

Ek banda-e-kamina hamsaya-e-khuda hai!

(Under the shadow of the mosque, I have made my house;

And a scoundrel is the neighbour of God!)

Mirza Ghalib is rated as the top Urdu Shair (poet) of the Mughal era and his shayari (poetry) is among the most popular in India and wherever Urdu is spoken and learned but, unfortunately, the Persian script that was used to write the language, has of late given way, in India, to the Devanagari script. So much so, it is not easy for those not familiar with the Devanagari script to read Urdu in that script. However, in countries like Mauritius and elsewhere, where a good chunk of the population is of Muslim descent, they continue to learn to read and write Urdu in Persian script. Besides, even in India, I am told by those who know that the best writers in the Urdu language are not necessarily Muslims. In fact, some of the best-known Urdu poets and essayists are non-Muslims. A good Hindu friend of mine from India, who makes frequent trips to his homeland – especially in the Delhi area where he is from – assured me that the region is a strong Urdu-Speaking basti, where most of the residents love to watch Pakistani dramas, which are in Urdu and which are strong favourites with them.

Film poster of “Mirza Ghalib” movie by Sohrab Modi made in 1954

Mirza Ghalib’s colourful life as well as his ageless poetry that has defied time and continue to be as popular to-day as they have always been and, understandably, always arouse great interest in Bollywood film industry. In fact, in 1954, ace film-maker Sohrab Modi made a film on the life and times of Mirza Ghalib. The lead cast was headed by Suraiya and Bharat Bhusan. The ghazals of Ghalib were sung in the movie by Suraiya, Talat Mahmood and Mohammed Rafi in the movie.

Years later, well-known award-winning poet and lyricist, Gulzar, who is also a gifted Urdu poet in his own right, and an ace film-maker, made a very popular TV serial called “Mirza Ghalib” with popular actor Naseeruddin Shah in the title role. The series had a hauntingly soothing music score by the late ghazal singer Jagit Singh, who also sang all Ghalib’s ghazals in the movie. The series was a labour of love by all involved and it proved to be extremely popular and can still be caught online.

Mirza Ghalib, the last great poet of the Mughal era, remains an icon of the Urdu language and his countless admirers have never ceased to grow. It is a fact, that whoever thinks of the Urdu poetry, very likely often thinks of … Mirza Ghalib – the genius!


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