Ghalib was born in a period when India was passing through one of the most revolutionary and turbulent times of her history. The great Mughal Empire lay tottering and Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor, was a monarch in name only. The War of Independence in 1857 had shaken the fabric of the entire Indian society and served as death-knell to Muslim civilization in India. The British rulers tried to efface all traces of Muslim culture.
Born in Agra in 1797, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, originally of Tatar descent, later settled down in Delhi, the Capital of the tottering Mughal Empire.
He traced his descent from the House of Turan, son of Faridun. His grandfather had migrated from Transoxiana (Central Asia) to India and sought employment with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. His father, Mirza Abdullah Khan, had a chequered career, serving one royal court after another. He served with the Nawab of Oudh, the Raja of Alwar, and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Young Asadullah Khan was hardly five years old when his father died and he was brought up by his maternal uncle, Mirza Nasarullah Khan, a Risaldar in the British army. He was given good education by teachers like Moazzam and Nazir Akbarabadi.
At the age of 13, Ghalib was married to a noble lady of the Loharu ruling family. Born and brought up in a rich and cultured family, Asadullah Khan’s later life was far from happy.
India at that time was passing through the worst period of her history. The Muslims who had ruled for about a thousand years had reached the lowest level of their decadence. The last vestige of the Muslim power, the Mughal Emperor, was no better than the king of a chessboard.
The politico-economic condition of the Muslims had much deteriorated and the British were slowly but surely replacing the Muslim power in the subcontinent. In such an atmosphere, surcharged with uncertainty and economic depression, especially for Muslims, Ghalib had to struggle for the rest of his life.
Ghalib’s married life was not happy. His early marriage was followed by the death of several children in infancy. In the absence of his own children, he had developed great attachment to one of his nephews, named Arif. But, unfortunately, Arif, too died in youth. Ghalib wrote a touching elegy on his death which guided his disciple, Hali, to pave the way for the introduction of modern elegy in Urdu poetry as opposed to the conventional elegies on the martyrdom of Karbala, written by Mir Anees and Dabir and other Lucknow poets.
Ghalib’s domestic and financial worries kept on multiplying till his death; these shattered his nerves and eventually reconciled him to his fate.
His misfortune did not leave him alone. A pension of Rs. 500 per year granted by Wajid Ali Shah, the last Ruler of Oudh, was stopped two years after its inception due to the annexation of Oudh by the British. A personal brawl with a British Inspector of Police in Delhi landed him in prison for three months. He could not get a job as Professor of Persian in the newly-founded Delhi College as the British Secretary did not show him normal courtesy when he called on him for an interview. A salary of Rs. 50 per month granted to him by the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, for writing the history of the Timur dynasty was discontinued after the War of Independence in 1857.
The post-War of Independence period proved to be the culminating point of his miserable life-all his near and dear ones had perished, the Imperial city of Delhi was in ruins and the literary gatherings in the Red Fort of Delhi were no more. He struggled for life till his death in 1869.
Despite all these hardships, Ghalib never thought of stooping below his dignity. He bore these trials and tribulations cheerfully.
Ghalib was much influenced by the happenings of his time, which are deeply reflected in his poetry. Like Mir, he also passed a life full of woes and sorrows, but unlike him, he did not wail for his sufferings; his contentment and cheerful disposition enabled him to face all these miseries with a smiling countenance. He says:
(Sorrows disappear if one gets accustomed to them; I had to face so many troubles that these have ceased to be troublesome to me).
“No poet can ascend the summit of greatness unless he has a deep insight into philosophy”, says Coleridge. Ghalib is one of the two great philosopher poets that Urdu has produced. Iqbal is more a philosopher than a poet while Ghalib is more a poet than a philosopher.
Some westernized people have compared Ghalib with a host of European poets like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Milton, without reflecting deeply into his poetical attributes. Salahuddin Khuda Bakhsh has compared Ghalib with the German poet, Heine, who was simply a poet of love, while Ghalib depicts the multifarious phases of human life in his verses and soars high in the realm of imagination. Dr. Iqbal, being himself a great poet, has made in the following couplet a correct appraisal of Ghalib when he compares him with the celebrated German poet Goethe. Both have reached the limits of human imagination and have mirrored almost all aspects of human life.
Iqbal was a great admirer of Ghalib. He paid him compliments by placing him in Heaven along with Mansur-al-Hallaj. The famous Urdu critic and writer, Dr. Abdur Rahman Bijnori has equated Ghalib’s “Diwan” with Vedas, considering them as the only two Divine books in India. In his preface to his work on Ghalib, Dr. Bijnori says: “O Ghalib: if the art of poetry were a religion, this book would form the divine gospel of that religion”.
Ghalib had a singularly rich personality. It has many facets like that of the great German poet Goethe.
Aristotle considers poetry a sort of photography. Ghalib’s verses are matchless from this point of view and on every page of his Diwan, one comes across such lines which may be converted into living pictures and sketches. Ghalib has painted the sentiments of love in their most natural forms, which require a command over the language as well as a deep insight into human nature.
Nature is a hidden reality. The secrets of nature hidden from our eyes are exposed to the eyes of the poet who unfolds them in his verses. He sees a new light in every sight. Ghalib, like Wordsworth, observes life from different angles and paints it in all its varied shades. Like Shakespeare and Wordsworth, he sees nature through an imaginative eye and his natural scenes are marked with brevity.
Ghalib takes a non-materialistic view of life and the world around. He denies the existence of matter and in this respect, his philosophy is similar to that of Hume.
In Urdu poetry, metaphysical conceptions have hardly been so beautifully portrayed as in Ghalib. He says:
(Where is the second footstep of the heart’s desire, O Lord? This wilderness of being appeared to be a mere footprint).
He was an outstanding philosopher-poet who combined in himself the genius of a poet with the art of a skillful artist. He expresses the views of the celebrated Averroes in his couplet when he says that “one does not complain of the sorrows of life when the secrets of existence are unfolded to one’s eyes and he thinks life and miseries as two sides of the same picture”.
At times Ghalib has broken the bonds of grammar and let loose his imagination. But grammar is the objective phase of logic and poetry is free from logic. According to Abdur Rahman Bijnori, “Shakespeare and Ghalib are too great to care for the dogmatism of grammar and diction. Rather grammar should be molded according to their writings”. He has coined a variety of new words, phrases and idioms and made them vehicles of his lofty ideas. He was an expert in the art of forming beautiful phrases. He has maintained an individuality of his own, inventing new similes and metaphors. One great quality of Ghalib which is hardly found in any other poet is that some of his couplets contain a store of knowledge.
The poet had the real taste of life in love only.
In love I found the ecstasy of life, A remedy to my pain A remedy which is nothing But an eternal pain.
The entire edifice of his poetry stands on the foundation of originality, originality of thought and expression, similes and metaphors, allusions, and an array of words. This exceptional adherence to originality had made him somewhat unpopular in his days, but he never cared for it. Once he said:
I have neither longing for praise nor yearning for compensation. I do not care if my couplets are meaningless.
But the immense popularity of Ghalib among future generations has fully brought out the worth of his verses. Ghalib struck a different line for himself. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest poets of the world, who instead of being carried away by conventionalism, created a world of his own and influenced later poets. His departure from traditionalism in Urdu literature was followed by Hali, his worthy disciple, who incorporated these progressive ideas, in his famous work of Urdu criticism. An Introduction to Poetry, which served as a turning point in Urdu Poetry. Paying rich tribute to Ghalib for his sublimated thought, Iqbal says in Bang-i-Dara:
Your life clarified it to human thoughtHow far are the reaches of man’s imagination.