Saturday, March 21, 2009

For Ghalib the world is merely children at play

This week we proceed from last week's mood of resignation and defiance combined, to a mood of bemused indifference towards the goings-on in the world. Here it is:

बाज़ीचा-ए-अत्फाल है दुनिया मेरे आगे
होता है शब-ओ-रोज़ तमाशा मेरे आगे

baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage

1) the world is a game/plaything of children, before me
2a) night-and-day is [habitually] a spectacle, before me
2b) night and day, a spectacle is [habitually] before me
(Translation: FWP)
Commentaries on Desertful of Roses and parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

This is a justly famous verse from a justly famous ghazal. The various commentaries collected by Prof. Fran Pritchett offer the agreed-upon reading of it. It is indeed a relatively simple yet powerful verse. Though as wee will see it is not without its hidden meanings. As far the language itself goes, the only phrase likely to pose some difficult is baaziichah-e a:tfaal, for which here are the meanings:
baaziichah : 'Fun, play, sport; wagering; toy, plaything'. (Platts p.122)
a;tfaal is the Arabic plural of tifl which means child.

The clear reading is that this temporal world is merely a children's game or plaything as far as I am concerned (mere aage = in front of me, or in my estimation). Note that "dunyaa" is a loaded word and evokes the meaning of this material/temporal world as opposed to the next immaterial/eternal one (diin wa dunyaa). And how do I know that the world is a mere plaything? Well, night and day there is a spectacle in front of me. The word tamaashaa is used brilliantly here and again contains more possbilities than conveyed by "spectacle." It has the sense of something fake or theatrical, as in, when someone is said to be doing tamaashaa we mean that they are creating a scene or behaving in a manner that is not only undignified but also shallow ("creating a scene" perhaps). This entire range of commotations is appropriate here. We of course do not know what sorts of tamaashaas Ghalib had in mind when he said this, but as the post on The South Asian Idea notes, contemporary politics often provides us with plenty of opportunities to remember this verse.

There is a second meaning in the verse which is not mentioned by any of the commentators. This meaning is allowed by the grammatical structure of sentences in Hindi/Urdu and Ghalib uses it very often. Any line that says "A is B" can equally well be read as "B is A" in Hindi/Urdu. Thus baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa can be read as "the world is a plaything of children" (or "the world is merely children at play"), which is the favored reading here, or it can also be read as "plaything of children is a world" ("or "children at play show us a world"). The second reading adds an entire new dimension as we consider below and provides a delightful new angle to the verse, since we now see the playing of children as a metaphor for the material world just as the world reminds us of children at play.

What does it add? Coming back to the idea of dunyaa as speciafically the material world, we can also see why activities in this world are like children at play. Because, just as children at play are in their own play-world and oblivious of the "real world" (i.e. for them their toy world is the real world), but we who are adult or grown-up see them as being in error or just being children, so also those who possess knowledge of existence beyond the material world consider those whose thought is limited to the temporal/material world, to be in error. Thus "children" are a metaphor for spiritually unaware people.

As always a seemingly simple verse hides a world of meanings (alaam-e-ma'ani).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pakistani classical vocalist Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana

An absolutely stellar performance from Karachi-based Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana, trained by Munshi Raziuddin and by the descendants of Tan Ras Khan, Bahadur Shah Zafar's music teacher. This was performed at the All Pakistan Music Conference in 2006. Hindustani classical has many excellent practitioners in Pakistan, another in a long list of shared cultural traits between India and Pakistan, that deserves far greater awareness. So we may counter the virulent logic most recently articulated by Varun Gandhi, who appears foolish and immature and yet only strongly vocalizes that which many softly mutter.

Ustad Naseeruddin Saami from Tasawwuf on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ghalib trusts in the Seven Heavens


raat din gardish me;N hai;N saat aasmaa;N
ho rahegaa kuchh nah kuchh ghabraa))e;N kyaa

1) night and day they're in [a state of] revolving/turning/wandering, the seven heavens
2) something or other will end up happening-- why would/should we be perturbed/agitated?

Commentary on Desertful of Roses and parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

A FWP notes, this was a verse Ghalib often quoted in his letters. It is an excellent verse to keep handy in difficult times or when the heavens really seem against you. A defiant yet humble verse. Defiant because we refuse to be intimidated by circumstances, yet humble becuase really we know out own efforts are small compared to the movements of the heavens.

Gardish is again a very multivalent word. According to Platts:
gardish : 'Going round, turning round, revolution; circulation; roll; course; period; turn, change; vicissitude; reversion; --adverse fortune, adversity; --wandering about, vagrancy'.

Ghalib uses it here in the sense of eternal or perpetual movement of the stars (the "seven heavens" of Aristotle). Elsewhere he has used it in the sense of a frightenning perpetualness of motion as in:

kyuu;N gardish-e mudaam se ghabraa nah jaa))e dil
insaan huu;N piyaalah-o-saa;Gar nahii;N huu;N mai;N

Why would this perpetual motion/circulation not terrify the heart
I am human, not a glass and flagon (wine pitcher)

Anyway, returning to the present verse, it is a great example of one of Ghalib's inshaiiyah verses, i.e interrogative, exclamatory, rhetorical versesm, as opposed to ;xabariyah (informative) verses. The meaning itself is straightforward. There are no profundities or paradoxes here. "Merely" a well-put summary of the human condition: eternally hopefully yet eternally powerless also. We get the feeling that many things are happening outside our control. Ironically, not only do adverse things happend witohut our permission, but as Ghalib puts it, even solutions appear by themselves. ho rahega kuch na kuch, has an excellent idiomatic feel that conveys the sense of "something is bound to happen one way or another. "Thus "aasmaaN", the heavens are our friends as they are our enemies. So contrast this "heavans as friends" verse with an explicit "heavens as enemy" take:

ham kahaa;N ke daanaa the kis hunar me;N yaktaa the
be-sabab hu))aa ;Gaalib dushman aasmaa;N apnaa

What kind of wise men were we, in posession of what unique skill
Without cause, Ghalib, the heavens turned against us/became our enemy

This verse also relies on ordinary Urdu vocabulary ("baazaar-haaT language"), showing that Ghalib is quite capable of stating things in a simple straighforward manner if he wishes. Contrast this with some of the heavy duty Persianized verses (See for e.g. this one and this one) we have blogged about in the past.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ghalib is openly deceived

This week,s verse reaches outside the usual compilation of ghazals in Ghalib's divaan. It is from a qasiidaa (panegyric) in the form of a ghazal.

ہیں کواکب کچھ نزر آتے ہیں کچھ
دیتے ہیں دھوکا یہ بازیگر کھلا

हैं कवाकिब कुछ नजर आते हैं कुछ
देते हैं धोका यह बाज़ीगर खुला

haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aate haiN kuchh
detey haiN dhokaa yeh baaziigar khulaa

1. The stars/constellations are some [one] thing and appear another
2. These conjurers/tricksters trick/fool [us] openly

Acc. to Platts:
A کواکب kawākib, s.m. pl. (of kaukab), Stars; constellations.
P بازي बाज़ी bāzī, vulg. bājī (see bāz, 'playing'), s.f. Play, sport, game, trick; game of chance, hazard; gaming; stake (at play), wager, bet:

This verse does not appear in Desertful of Roses. The translation is ours. Please visit the parallel entry on The South Asian Idea, placing the verse in contemporary social context.

It is a charming verse which exploits the power of the simple yet multivalent word "kuchh" which can mean both "something" and "a few things." The rhetorical power of the verse also derives from the idiomatic use of "khulaa dhoka dena" (to trick or cheat openly).

In one reading here we can imagine the word "aur" at the end of line one. Then the verse reads straightforwardly as the stars are open tricksters because in full view they appear as one thing but are actually something entirely different. Of course we don't know what precisely Ghalib has in mind. Is he talking about real stars in the sky which appear as tiny twinkling spots but are really immense, fiery balls spewing gas plumes?

Or less scientifically and more poetically is he referring to the stars on Earth, the beautiful ones who appear sweet and innocent but really are heartless killers who won't think twice about trampling on lovers' hearts. They trick (play with the lover's heart) openly, in full view of the world. The word "baazigar" is more complex than "trickster," carrying an implication of someone who gambles on love or plays with one's affections.

This verse also sustains a nice socio-political implication if we think of baazigar also as siyaasatdaan (politicians). The post of South Asian Idea explores this connection further.