One of the best and prominent Muslim poets of the Indo-Pak Sub-Continent, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, was born in 1796 at Agra. His father Abdullah Beg Khan and uncle Nasrullah Beg Khan were in the army. He received classical Mughal education at Agra with Persian being one of the chief subjects. Ghalib once said that Mulla Abdus Samad Harmuzd was his tutor at Agra. Some writers opine that the tutor is just a myth. If so, then amazingly he seems to be a born genius as there is, indeed, vast knowledge of history, human psychology, ethics and philosophy which is reflected in works of Ghalib’s prose and poetry.
In 1810, he married an autocratic lady and moved to Delhi. Ghalib started writing poetry at an early age — the exact year is not known. Most part of his life, he lived in Delhi with short interludes of two years, which he spent in Calcutta (1830-32). His life earnings consisted of stipends granted to him by the Nawab of Oudh in recognition of his talents, and later on by the court of Delhi. Ghalib’s personal life was not a prim rose path. He lost his father at an early age of 5. The major part of life he lived from hand to mouth and his seven sons died in infancy. Therefore, his life was quiet and colorless. This train of events had deep impact on his writings. His attitude towards religion was cavalier and his tolerant attitude in this regard can be found in his intimate letters to Munshi Hargopal Tufta, and in the various similes, metaphors in his poetry.
Ghalib was always proud of his Persian poetry but his renown is due to his Urdu prose and poetry. In Urdu poetry his excellent work is his Urdu Diwan first published in 1841. It was later published in four editions, the last one in Ghalib’s own life in 1863. Mirza Ghalib’s poetry reflects the journey from nothingness to a totally human affirmation. Most of his gazals revolve around three fundamental questions: What is the nature of universe and man’s place in it? What is God? What is Love?
He revolutionized Urdu poetry by his marvelous and skillful use of words. He epitomized in his personality and works the splendor, richness, humanity and wisdom of the Mughal culture. According to a critic, “Ghalib gave brain to our poetry which was till then dominated by the people of heart. At first Ghalib used to have pen-name of asad but when he heard of another poet Asad, he changed his pen-name (takhallus) to Ghalib. In Urdu ghazals, along with the love and beauty Ghalib added all the facets of life. His way of expression was so unique and his flight of imagination was so lofty that he expanded the canvas of Urdu ghazl to the kaleidoscopic dimensions of life. Altaf Hussain Hali, who was Ghalib’s pupil and biographer, published his memoirs in 1897 containing many interesting remarks and observations about his ghazals.
He turned towards Persian writings in 1920 and wrote his Persian kuliyat consisting of Kasidas, ghazals, short mathnawis, kit’as, etc first published in 1845. Various works in Persian prose included in his kuliyat-I-Nasr were first published in 1868. It included the official history of the Mughal dynasty, a project titled as Partaristan. The work was consisted of two volumes but Ghalib completed the first one called Mehr-e-Neemroz, and the second could not be done due to the War of Independence 1857. Ghalib was not really part of the court except in its very last years. There was no intimacy between Ghalib and Zauq, Bahadarshah Zafar’s tutor in poetry writing. Even the king did not pay much attention to him and the same indifference evinced on the part of Ghalib for the king’s poetry. But after Zauq’s death the situation changed and Ghalib attained his due significance. After 1857, the pension by Royal Court stopped due to his much suspected activities during the 1857 War of Independence. He pleaded his case before the British officials but of no avail. His pension was restored after 3 years. But that was consumed in paying all the old debts. His views regarding War of Independence were summed up in Dastanbu (a series of letters which he wrote to his dear ones). The two famous collections of letters in Urdu were, the Ud-i-Hindi, first published in 1868 in Meerut, and Urdu-e-Mu’alla (472 letters) published only 19 days after his death in March 1869, in Delhi.
Ghalib stated that at first he was fascinated by Bedil and his difficult style, but afterwards he preferred more simple and lucid classical Persian. His Persian work is par excellence, but the dwindling fate of Persian language in the subcontinent in the subsequent history did undermine the popularity of his works.
However, not only Urdu poetry but also prose is indebted to Mirza Ghalib. He made his letters conversational by using words and sentences as if he is not writing but talking directly with the reader. According to some critics Ghalib would have retained the same place in Urdu literature even only on the basis of Urdu literature. His letters gave foundation to the easy and popular Urdu. Before Ghalib, letter writing in Urdu was highly ornamental. He introduced simplicity that became the chief characteristic of his Urdu letters. Thus his letters present unprecedented model of direct and unaffected expression.
Ghalib who was the greatest exponent of the Mughal way of life was born after the sun of Mughal glory had dwindled and he lived to see the exile of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Despite his meager financial resources, he was an institution in his own self. He maintained his stature and prestige and expressed through his poetry not only the spirit of Mughal culture but also a graceful and dignified way of life. The great poet who had been universally popular with all the people irrespective of their creed or color and whose poetry reflected a personality of broad sympathies, liberal views and profound human values died to be remembered forever on 15th Feb 1869.