Ghalib was born as Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan on 27 December 1797 in Agra, Mughal Empire & died on 15 February 1869 in Delhi, Punjab, British India, was a classical Urdu and Persian poet from the Mughal Empire during British colonial rule. He used his pen-names of Ghalib and Asad. His honorific was Dabir-ul-Mulk, Najm-ud-Daula. During his lifetime the Mughals were eclipsed and displaced by the British and finally deposed following the defeat of the Indian rebellion of 1857, events that he wrote of. Most notably, he wrote several ghazals during his life, which have since been interpreted and sung in many different ways by different people. Ghalib, the last great poet of the Mughal Era, is considered to be one of the most popular and influential poets of the Urdu language. Ghalib today remains popular not only in India and Pakistan but also amongst diaspora communities around the world.
Mirza Ghalib was born in Agra into a family descended from Aibak Turks who moved to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) after the downfall of the Seljuk kings. His paternal grandfather, Mirza Qoqan Baig Khan, was a Saljuq Turk who had immigrated to India from Samarkand during the reign of Ahmad Shah (1748–54). He worked at Lahore, Delhi and Jaipur, was awarded the subdistrict of Pahasu (Bulandshahr, UP) and finally settled in Agra, UP, India. He had four sons and three daughters. Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan and Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan were two of his sons.
Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan (Ghalib’s father) got married to Izzat-ut-Nisa Begum, and then lived at the house of his father-in-law. He was employed first by the Nawab of Lucknow and then the Nizam of Hyderabad, Deccan. He died in a battle in 1803 in Alwar and was buried at Rajgarh (Alwar, Rajasthan). Then Ghalib was a little over 5 years of age. He was raised first by his Uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan.
Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan (Ghalib’s uncle) started taking care of the three orphaned children. He was the governor of Agra under the Marathas. The British appointed him an officer of 400 cavalrymen, fixed his salary at Rs.1700.00 month, and awarded him 2 parganas in Mathura (UP, India). When he died in 1806, the British took away the parganas and fixed his pension as Rs. 10,000 per year, linked to the state of Firozepur Jhirka (Mewat, Haryana). The Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka reduced the pension to Rs. 3000 per year. Ghalib’s share was Rs. 62.50 per month.
At the age of thirteen, Ghalib married Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh (brother of the Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka). He soon moved to Delhi, along with his younger brother, Mirza Yousuf Khan, who had developed schizophrenia at a young age and later died in Delhi during the chaos of 1857.
In accordance with upper class Muslim tradition, he had an arranged marriage at the age of 13, but none of his seven children survived beyond infancy. After his marriage he settled in Delhi. In one of his letters he describes his marriage as the second imprisonment after the initial confinement that was life itself.
In 1850, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II bestowed upon Mirza Ghalib the title of “Dabir-ul-Mulk”. The Emperor also added to it the additional title of “Najm-ud-daula”. The conferment of these titles was symbolic of Mirza Ghalib’s incorporation into the nobility of Delhi. He also received the title of ‘Mirza Nosha’ from the Emperor, thus adding Mirza as his first name. He was also an important courtier of the royal court of the Emperor. As the Emperor was himself a poet, Mirza Ghalib was appointed as his poet tutor in 1854. He was also appointed as tutor of Prince Fakhr-ud Din Mirza, eldest son of Bahadur Shah II,(d. 10 July 1856). He was also appointed by the Emperor as the royal historian of Mughal Court.
Being a member of declining Mughal nobility and old landed aristocracy, he never worked for a livelihood, lived on either royal patronage of Mughal Emperors, credit or the generosity of his friends. His fame came to him posthumously. He had himself remarked during his lifetime that he would be recognized by later generations. After the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the British Raj, despite his many attempts, Ghalib could never get the full pension restored.
Ghalib started composing poetry at the age of 11. His first language was Urdu, but Persian and Turkish were also spoken at home. He received an education in Persian and Arabic at a young age. When Ghalib was in his early teens, a newly converted Muslim tourist from Iran (Abdus Samad, originally named Hormuzd, a Zoroastrian) came to Agra. He stayed at Ghalib’s home for two years and taught him Persian, Arabic, philosophy, and logic.
Although Ghalib himself was far prouder of his poetic achievements in Persian, he is today more famous for his Urdu ghazals. Numerous elucidations of Ghalib’s ghazal compilations have been written by Urdu scholars. The first such elucidation or Sharh was written by Ali Haider Nazm Tabatabai of Hyderabad during the rule of the last Nizam of Hyderabad. Before Ghalib, the ghazal was primarily an expression of anguished love; but Ghalib expressed philosophy, the travails and mysteries of life and wrote ghazals on many other subjects, vastly expanding the scope of the ghazal. This work is considered to be his paramount contribution to Urdu poetry and literature.
In keeping with the conventions of the classical ghazal, in most of Ghalib’s verses, the identity and the gender of the beloved is indeterminate. The critic/poet/writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqui explains that the convention of having the “idea” of a lover or beloved instead of an actual lover/beloved freed the poet-protagonist-lover from the demands of realism. Love poetry in Urdu from the last quarter of the seventeenth century onwards consists mostly of “poems about love” and not “love poems” in the Western sense of the term.
The first complete English translation of Ghalib’s ghazals was Love Sonnets of Ghalib, written by Sarfaraz K. Niazi and published by Rupa & Co in India and Ferozsons in Pakistan. It contains complete Roman transliteration, explication and an extensive lexicon.
Mirza Ghalib was a gifted letter writer. Not only Urdu poetry but the prose is also indebted to Mirza Ghalib. His letters gave foundation to easy and popular Urdu. Before Ghalib, letter writing in Urdu was highly ornamental. He made his letters “talk” by using words and sentences as if he were conversing with the reader. According to him Sau kos se ba-zaban-e-qalam baatein kiya karo aur hijr mein visaal ke maze liya karo (from hundred of miles talk with the tongue of the pen and enjoy the joy of meeting even when you are separated). His letters were very informal, some times he would just write the name of the person and start the letter. He was very humorous and wrote very interesting letters. In one letter he wrote “Main koshish karta hoon keh koi aesi baat likhoon jo parhay khoosh ho jaaye’” (I want to write lines such that whoever reads them would enjoy them). Some scholar says that Ghalib would have the same place in Urdu literature if only on the basis of his letters. They have been translated into English by Ralph Russell, The Oxford Ghalib.
Ghalib was a chronicler of a turbulent period. One by one, Ghalib saw the bazaars – Khas Bazaar, Urdu Bazaar, Kharam-ka Bazaar, disappear, whole mohallas (localities) and katras (lanes) vanish. The havelis (mansions) of his friends were razed to the ground. Ghalib wrote that Delhi had become a desert. Water was scarce. Delhi was now “ a military camp”. It was the end of the feudal elite to which Ghalib had belonged.
His original Takhallus (pen-name) was Asad, drawn from his given name, Asadullah Khan. At some point early in his poetic career he also decided to adopt the pen-name of Ghalib (meaning all conquering, superior, most excellent).
Mirza was born in Kala Mahal in Agra. In the end of 18th century, his birthplace was converted into Indrabhan Girls’ Inter College. The birth room of Mirza Ghalib is preserved within the school. Around 1810, he was married to Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh Khan of Loharu (younger brother of the first Nawab of Loharu), Nawab Mirza Ahmad Baksh Khan, At the age of thirty he had seven children, none of whom survived (this pain has found its echo in some of Ghalib’s ghazals). There are conflicting reports regarding his relationship with his wife. She was considered to be pious, conservative and God-fearing.
Ghalib was proud of his reputation as a rake. He was once imprisoned for gambling and subsequently relished the affair with pride. In the Mughal court circles, he even acquired a reputation as a “ladies’ man”. Once, when someone praised the poetry of the pious Sheikh Sahbai in his presence, Ghalib immediately retorted.
He died in Delhi on 15 February 1869. The house where he lived in Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi has now been turned into ‘Ghalib Memorial’ and houses a permanent Ghalib exhibition.
Ghalib’s closest rival was poet Zauq, tutor of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the then emperor of India with his seat in Delhi. There are some amusing anecdotes of the competition between Ghalib and Zauq and exchange of jibes between them. However, there was mutual respect for each other’s talent. Both also admired and acknowledged the supremacy of Meer Taqi Meer, a towering figure of 18th century Urdu Poetry. Another poet Momin, whose ghazals had a distinctly lyrical flavour, was also a famous contemporary of Ghalib. Ghalib was not only a poet, he was also a prolific prose writer. His letters are a reflection of the political and social climate of the time. They also refer to many contemporaries like Mir Mehdi Majrooh, who himself was a good poet and Ghalib’s lifelong acquaintance.
Indian Cinema has paid a tribute to the legendary poet through a film (in sepia/black and white) named Mirza Ghalib (1954) in which Bharat Bhushan plays Ghalib and Suraiya plays his courtesan lover, Chaudvin. The musical score of the film was composed by Ghulam Mohammed and his compositions of Ghalib’s famous ghazals are likely to remain everlasting favorites.
Pakistani Cinema has also paid tribute to the legendary poet through another film also named Mirza Ghalib. The film was directed by M.M. Billoo Mehra and produced as well by M.M. Billoo Mehra for S.K. Pictures. The music was composed by Tassaduq Hussain. The film starred Pakistani film superstar Sudhir playing Ghalib and Madam Noor Jehan playing his courtesan lover, Chaudvin. The film was released on 24 November 1961 and reached average status at the box-office, however, the music remains memorable in Pakistan to this day.
Gulzar produced a TV serial, Mirza Ghalib (1988), telecast on DD National that was immensely successful in India. Naseeruddin Shah played the role of Ghalib in the serial, and it featured ghazals sung and composed by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh. Serial’s music has since been recognised as Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s magnum opus enjoying a cult following in the Indian subcontinent. The serial was colored by contemporary Indian nationalism, and Ghalib’s persona was frequently a vehicle for propaganda in favour of national unity.
The Pakistan government in 1969 commissioned Khaliq Ibrahim (died 2006) to make a documentary on Mirza Ghalib. The movie was completed in 1971-72. It is said, that the movie, a docudrama, was historically more correct than what the official Pakistan government point of view was. Thus, it was never released. Till this date, barring a few private viewing, the movie is lying with the Department of Films and Publication, Government of Pakistan. The movie was made on 16 mm format. Ghalib’s role was played by actor Subhani Bayunus, who later played this role in many TV productions.
Ghalib must be the only Poet who had biggest number of Stage portrayals. Various Theatre groups have traditionally staged plays related to the life of Mirza Ghalib. These have shown different lifestyles and the way he lived his life.
Starting from the Parsi Theatre and Hindustani Theatre days the first phase of his Stage Portrayal culminated in Sheila Bhatia’s Production which was written by Mehdi Saheb. Mohd Ayub performed his role so many times that many theatre goers used to know him as Ghalib. Sheila Bhatia Production was basically celebration of his famous Ghazals which used to be presented one after another. Ghalib’s character lacked required nuances and was shown philandering with the Courtesan played famously by Punjabi singer Madan Bala Sandhu. Later Begum Abida Ahmed wife of late President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed supported many very costly Productions. This was perhaps the golden period of Ghalib productions as many other Productions also were done including Surender Verma’s Play which was done by National School of Drama. Qaid-e-Hayat (Imprisonment of Life, 1983) written by Surendra Verma talks about the personal life of poet Ghalib, including his financial hardships and his tragic love for Katiba, a woman calligraphist, who was working on his diwan. Over the years, it has been directed by numerous theatre directors, including Ram Gopal Bajaj in 1989, at the National School of DramaThis period also saw numerous College and University Productions done by Students’ Groupes. The writers whose scripts were more popular during this period were Jameel Shaidai, Danish Iqbal, Devender Singh and few others.
In recent years Dr Sayeed Alam’s ‘Ghalib in New Delhi’ started another phase with contempoarary fun & frolic. Sayeed Alam has had more than 250 shows around the world. Danish Iqbal’s Play ‘Ghalib-e Khasta ke Baghair’ was staged in Aurangabad, Aligarh and at few other places on the occasion of 150th year of India’s first war of Independence. Sayeed Alam also wrote a non-comic version of ‘Ghalib’ played by veteran actor Tom Alter, this Play is also a well known Production which is frequently staged.. and written by Dr Sayeed Alam was staged many times in Delhi.
Another Play ‘Main Gaya Waqt Nahin Hoon’ written by Danish Iqbal, provides a fresh spin to the never ending spin to the character of Ghalib. Sayeed Alam’s new Production is inspired from the famous letters of Ghalib and presents the recipients of the letters only, showing the other sode of the picture.
Late Sheela Bhatia started this trend on Ghalib., Delhi.
An animation film on Mirza Ghalib is telecast on Zee Cinema.
Ghalib is still very popular today, and his poetry is well known. Many singers from all over South Asia have sung many of his ghazals.
When the late Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru watched the film Mirza Ghalib and heard the Ghazals of Ghalib sung actress-singer Suraiya, he praised her by remarking, “You have put life into the soul of Mirza Ghalib”.