Monday, September 24, 2007

On Ghalib and Language

I started talking about Ghalib, the last time in explaining why I chose "mehr-e-niimroz" as a title for the blog. Ghalib is as good a candidate as any (and better than most!) to start the first substantive blog entry.

The range of thoughts and emotions that find expression in Ghalib's shairi is of course quite apparent to anyone who reads him. But a related thing that I find equally fascinating, in his Urdu shairi, is the range of language itself, from very simpe, colloquial Urdu (what we might call Hindustani) which is very similar to the street language often called Urdu in Pakistan and Hindi in India, to highly Persianized or less often Arabicized Urdu. To offer some examples:

Consider the following verse from the ghazal "koi umeed bar nahi aati":

ham vahaan hain jahaan se humko bhi
kuch hamaari khabar nahi aati

or a matla (opening verse) from another ghazal:

kab woh sunta hai kahaani meri
aur phir woh bhi zabaani meri

Or the famous and amazingly multivalent maqta from a different ghazal:

pooncchte hain woh ke Ghalib kaun hai
koi batlao ke ham batlaien kya

This verse can be interpreted in English as:
He/she/they ask who Ghalib is
Tell them for what can I say
Tell me what should I tell them?
Tell me, should I tell them?

For this and all verses, I highly recommend visiting Frances Pritchett's online project "A Desertful of Roses" ( which is an online annotated Divan where Pritchett (a Professor of Urdu at Columbia University, New York) collects existing commentaries on each verse of Ghalib's urdu divan and then offers her own commentary. Also on her website you will find some excellent articles on Ghalib in particular and Urdu poetry in general by both her and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Anyway, returning to our main point, all the above verses are in perfectly comprehensible everyday Hindi/Urdu. Khabar (in the first verse) and zabaani (in the second) are the only non-Indic (Arabic and Persian) words in the first two verses. The third one does not even have one.

Now contrast these verses with the following:
shua-e-aftab-e-subah-e-mehshar har taar-e-bistar hai

With the replacement of a single word (hai) with another (ast), this verse will become a perfectly respectable Persian couplet. And there are several such verses in thee Urdu divan.

And of course there is a range between these extremes wherein, probably most of his verses lie. Now the question that comes to my mind when I see this, is did Ghalib himself perceive this as something to be explained, or was it perfectly unremarkable for him to choose the words that best expressed his thoughts/emotions, with not much regard to their source/difficulty? Of course, in general Ghalib was thought to be a "difficult" poet and was well-known for using difficult language as well as complex imagery. There is also a belief among some that his early verses tend to be more Persianized than his later ones. But there are others who doubt this and I tend to agree with the later view. If time of writing is not an issue, what then explains the choice of extremely "simple" words at one time, and hugely "difficult" one at another? I put simple and difficult in quotes to remind us that it may the particular way in which Urdu and Hindi evolved in the 20th century, that may also play a role in what we consider difficult or simple. A phrase such as shua-e-aftab (ray of the Sun) is a perfectly simple Urdu phrase, albeit one that modern Hindi speakers may have trouble with.

I don't really have an answer to this (possibly ill-posed) question. I leave it there for the moment. But this isn't the last you've heard of Ghalib on this blog!

1 comment:

  1. Comment imported from Wordpress blog.

    An Urdu poetry lover | | IP:

    Don’t you think this was a game of linguistics in those times? The range of languages available to these poets was vast: Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Hindvi, and it was a sport to experiment with writing only in Persian or only in Hindvi-Urdu. Also, perhaps the choice of “language” (and our modern understanding of “language” is different from theirs) depended on the occasion for the verse? A verse to be disseminated throughout the streets was in Urdu, while, that for the royal court was in Persian.