Mir Taqi Mir

Mir wrote more profusely than Ghalib and much of it, like Kabir and Insha, in simple words. There are a number of ghazals in the long behr, but the most memorable ones are in the short.His stress on feminine beauty (or, in other words, formalism) unlike in Ghalib, lead the late Ali Sardar Jafri to observe that Mir had one foot in modern and another in what in Urdu poetry is derisively called kanghi choti ki shayari.

Some of Mir’s sheyrs are hauntingly simple and touching:

nazuki uske lab ki kya kahiye
pankhadi ik ghulaab ki si hai

yeh jo mohlat jise kahain hai hum
dekho to intzaar sa hai kuch

And my favourite ghazal (rendered memorably by Mehdi Hassan- and according to me the finest ghazal ever sung):

dekh to, dil ke jaan se uthta hai
ye dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai

gor diljale ki hai ye falak
shola ik subha yaan se uthta hai

khana e dil se zeenhara se na ja
koi aise makaan se uthta hai

yoon uthe aah us gali se hum
jaise koi jahan se uthta hai

Mir could cast aspersions at the mullah, but is rarely as caustic or as direct as, say, Ghalib or Iqbal could be.

mazhab se mere kya tujhe, tera dayar aur
main aur, yaar aur, mera kaarobaar aur

He employs a mesmerizingly mystic, almost surrealitic imagery in these couplets:

bikhre hai zulf, us rukh e aalam faroz par
varna, banaav hove na din aur raat ka

uske farog e husn se, jhamke hai sub main noor
sham- e- haram ho yaan ke diya Somnath ka


I took to Mir Taqi Mir after I had (I trust) picked some finer nuances of Urdu poetry- but I did not read Mir in the same manner in which I read Ghalib and Faiz, whom I devoured in states of frenzy, torment and tempestuousness.

Mir brought calmness.

He was Beethoven, not Mozart. Chekov, not Dostoevesky.

Ghalib’s certificate of greatness that he gave to Mir may also have led me to Mir, though. My first copy of Diwan e Ghalib is dated 24 Nov 1991. That of Diwan e Mir is over a year later, 14 June 1993.

raikhte ke sirf tumhi nahin ho ustad Ghalib
suna hai agle zamane main koi Mir bhi tha

The dramatic shift in the times may also have played a part. The ferocity of hatred post Babri Masjid demolition lead one to Mir and Kabir. Nida Fazli started writing dohas at that time. Poetry sought to become a balm on the times, and we turned to Mir and Kabir.

The “Low Tradition” that Mir represented consisted, among others, of Kabir and Ibne Insha in contrast to the “High Tradition” represented by the Trinity of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz- that often chose a more Persianized and more philosophical idiom.


Here are a few random selections, that have been marked on my copy of the Diwan, whose pages are now turning brown on the sides, much as my own hair is turning gray on the edges.

haath daman main terey maarte jhunjla ke na hum
apne jaame main agar aaj gharebaan hota

mir bhi dair ke logon hi ki si kehney laga
kuch khuda lagti bhi kehta, jo musalmaan hota

khula nashe main, jo pagdi ka peych uski mir
samand e naaz ko ik aur taaziyana hua

dekhiyo panj e mishgaan ki tuk aatash dasti
har sahar khaak main milte hain dur-e-tar kitne

hum mast ho kar bhi dekha, aakhir koi maza nahin
hoshiyari ke barabar koi maza nahin

And finally, a self description. Note how bombastic, arrogant and loud (nevertheless lovable) Ghalib sounds when he declares:

hain aur bhi duniya main sukhanwar bahut achche
kehte hain ki ghalib ka hai andaaz i bayan aur

as compared to Mir who submits much more subtly, softly:

Mir dariya hai, sune sheyr zabaani uski
allah allah re tabiyat ki ravani uski


The reason for this Proustian excursion into Mir today? Mohib’s insightful post on a beautiful couplet by Mir that is also his epitaph.

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The Lessons of Lula

The former industrial worker Luis Inacio Lula da Silva took over as the President of Brazil in 2002, with a resounding declaration: “I cannot fail. The poor in Brazil have waited 500 years for someone like me.” As Morales has made similar statements, and faces similar challanges, it is pertinent to remember the lessons from Lula’s three year old reign that is now under fire on corruption charges, besides not fulfilling its promises. The key, according to Sue Branford and Hilary Wainwright, is to trust its social base and not fall in the trappings of electoral rat race.

Where did the PT government go wrong? Most commentators agree that the rot set in long before Lula’s victory in October 2002. The party’s original base – the industrial working class – was weakened in the 90s by rocketing unemployment as successive administrations enforced IMF edicts. Instead of trying to build a new base among the unorganised rural and urban poor, the PT increasingly used the same methods for winning elections as every other party – even hiring the same spin doctors. This required money (hence the slush fund) and led to a concentration of power in a centralised leadership. The practice of involving the membership was eventually abandoned.

This growing obsession with electoral success at any price meant that the PT failed to prepare properly for government.

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Remembering Majaz

This year is the 50th death anniversary of Asrar ul Haq or Majaz. Today he may be better remembered as an uncle of Javed Akhtar, but he was one of the most powerful Urdu poet that the Progressive Writer’s Movement produced in the thirties and forties. His alma mater still sings the tarana penned by Majaz, and the rendition of ae gham e dil kya karoon can still be heard in the shimmering, silken voice of Talat Mahmood. Unfortunately, Jagjit Singh’s last memorable singing (for the serial Kahkashan) is not popular or easily available- it had included some excellent renditions of Majaz’s poetry.

Majaz’s life was short, he rose like a star but collapsed soon in his unrequited love for a married woman and alcohol.

Majaz’s poetry, in my humble opinion, was very rich in metaphor and his poetry was embellished with some of the finest metaphors in Urdu poetry after Mirza Ghalib. Sample the following from his most famous verse awaara:

ik mahal kii aa.D se nikalaa vo piilaa maah_taab
jaise mullaah kaa amaamaa jaise baniye kii kitaab
jaise muflis kii javaanii jaise bevaa kaa shabaab

Some of his qalam is avalable here.

One of my favourites is the ghazal with the following maqta:

is mahafil-e-kaif-o-mastii me.n is anjuman-e-irafaanii me.n
sab jaam-ba-kaf baiThe rahe ham pii bhii gaye chhhalakaa bhii gaye

His poem on a little girl visiting the temple with her mother is another favourite. Even as the five year old girl bows her head in prayer, her mind is occupied by the toys in the house. It is a beautiful poem striking in the portrayal of a child and her pre occupations amidst the life guided by older people. It is reminiscent of Tagore’s numerous poems on the theme in Gitanjali.

Majaz was one of the poets in the famous scene in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa along with Majrooh and Jigar Moradbadi. In fact, he recites one of his ghazal (roodade-gham-e-ulfat), as does Jigar recite a couplet as well (kaam akhir jazba). Guru Dutt captured both art and life in that one memorable scene.

Some of his poetry, or at least his radeefs were used (plagiarized?) by other lyricists like Hasrat Jaipuri. This may remind you of a popular Rafi number Chalkey teri aankhon se sharaab aur ziyada.

He drank himself to death, and in that he was typical of a generation of Muslim Urdu poets who found themselves lost in the decades that brought about the partition. Most of them were typically leftists and found themselves kafirs in Pakistan and their language treated as that of the mlechhas in India.

Today, Majaz is remembered merely as an uncle of the lyricist (and an average poet) Javed Akhtar. Whether that is heartening or merciful is difficult to say. Some people are just born on the wrong side of history.

You may like to read this English translation of Madhav Moholkar’s memoir as well.

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Amrita Pritam

Surjit Pattar, perhaps the finest Punjabi poet and writer today on the east of the border, remembers Amrita Pritam:

Amrita Pritam is no more. It’s as if the five rivers of Punjab are dead – Ravi is no more, nor is Chenab. Amrita Pritam was like the five rivers which make Punjab. She made Punjabi literature.

Her name, those two words – Amrita Pritam – will always be music to the ears of Punjabi literature lovers. When it comes to 20th century Punjabi poetry, we can debate who should be the sun but when it comes to the moon, there is no discord. Amrita Pritam, who passed away quietly in her home at Hauz Khas, New Delhi, is undoubtedly the moon of the 20th century Punjabi poetry, and this moon never needed to borrow someone else’s light. She had so much light of her own that many like us glowed in it.

Amrita Pritam represented both the Charhda (Indian) and the Lehnda (Pakistan) Punjab. Her poems gave voice to the pain of women who had hitherto woven their sufferings into folk songs sung softly behind voluminous veils. She was also the pathos of Partition. No poet could parallel her when it came to pouring ts agony into words . Her lines Aj akhan Waris Shah nuun, kitho uth kabran cho bol… have been immortalised in both the Punjabs.

Nirupama Dutt sums up the life and art of Amrita Pritam:

In her lifetime, Amrita authored over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biography and essays. In one of her last poems written from the sick bed, she consoled her love Imroz by saying, ‘Main tainu phir milagi…’ (I will meet you yet again). This is the promise she made to her soul mate but she will yet meet us all again through her writings. For today on Divali eve she has passed out of history into legend to stand in the row of poets like Meera Bai, Rabia and Lal Ded.

A very comprehensive compilation at indianwriting.

Review of The Famous Ghalib by Ralph Russel

The Famous Ghalib
Selected, Translated and Introduced By Ralph Russell
Roli Books, New Delhi Rs. 295 (HB), Pages 192

Ralph Russell came to India as a British soldier during World War II and went on to join the Department of Oriental Studies at Cambridge. His previous works over the years, mostly written along with Khursidul Islam, have made him known as an authority on Urdu literature especially on Mirza Ghalib.He remarks that, “If his (Ghalib’s) language had been English, he would have been recognised all over the world as a great poet long ago. My translations are an attempt to present some of his poetry in English so that English speakers may be able to judge the work for themselves.” However, the book caters well even to those already familiar with the poetry of Ghalib, this is so both in the selection and translations of the poetry and in the accompanying essays.

The sheyrs and ghazals translated into English are followed by the original in Urdu and the transliterated versions in Roman and Devnagari. An essay on ‘Getting to Know Ghalib’ serves as an insightful introduction to Ghalib, his poetry and the milieu that it grew on. Another essay ‘On Translating Ghalib’ brings forth the problems and techniques of translating from Urdu to English. These essays help to supplement and explain the translations. They weave together the translated sheyrs into a cohesive whole.

The current translations are marked by a stress on the literal meaning of the sheyrs, though there are some sheyrs and ghazals where the translator has tried to practically recreate both the meaning and the form in English. This is not a mean achievement and as compared to the other two significant translations (one by Qurrat-ul- ain Haider and another edited by Aijaz Ahmed), Russel has attempted -and achieved- much more. One hopes that it will encourage the reader to read the original.


Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as contemporaries, he rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of 25, Ghalib refused to consider any criticism of his poetry. Consider the following sheyr:

Bandagi men bhi vuh azada o khud-bin hain ki ham
Ulte phir ae dar I kaba agar va na hua.(We serve You, yet our independent self regard is such
We shall at once turn back if we would find the Kaba closed)

This assertion of the self was to reach its crescendo in Iqbal (with the development of the concept of khudi) and still later metamorphosed into the collective individual in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Aur raaj kareygi khalaq-e-khuda,
Jo main bhi hoon, aur tum bhi ho(And the Creations of the Lord, which is you and me,
Shall rule the world)

Russel’s selection rightly brings forth this aspect of Ghalib’s poetry. One cannot stress this enough as the traditional ghazal form does not facilitate presentation of the poet’s world- view in a systematic form. Each sheyr is a complete poem in itself, and it is not necessary for a ghazal to express the same mood in all the sheyrs- in that sense it can be said that the form tends to dominate the content. The exposition is, therefore, disparate and scattered in sheyrs across different ghazals. One has to wade through to pick and choose and then reconstruct- a difficult and onerous task.

Understanding Ghalib requires that one understands not only the literal meaning of a verse, but also the allusions that occur in them. Ghalib wrote from within the Muslim tradition and it is therefore necessary to understand that tradition, the religious concepts, references to aspects of the Muslim way of life and so on. Russell explains some of these and illustrates the usage in some sheyrs.

Ghalib himself, however was hardly a ‘good’ Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known. He did not keep fasts or say his prayers or go on pilgrimage. In this he follows other Urdu poets who stand on the verge of transgression or beyond. For instance, Mir had said:

Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko, ab poochtey kya ho, unney toh
Kashka khaincha, dair main baitha, kab ka tark islam kiya

(Do not ask what Mir’s religion is, he has
Put on the sacred mark on the forehead (tilak), sits in the idol house, and has given up Islam)

Ghalib wrote much that ridiculed and often put to serious cross-examination many of the religious and Islamic concepts. One of his somewhat cryptic posers is:

na tha kuch, toh khuda tha, na hoga kuch toh khuda hoga
duboya mujhko hooney ney, na hota main, toh kya hota?(When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,
My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been? )

Regarding the references to idol- worship and Hinduism in Ghalib’s poetry, Russell observes that Hinduism was the nearest religion outside Islam known to Ghalib. He points out that the practices of Hinduism afford a vivid symbol of the worship of God through the worship of beauty. “The idol is the symbol of the irresistibly beautiful mistress you ‘idolise’ and adore… All these concepts make ‘Hinduism’- that is, Hinduism as a symbol rather than actual Hinduism- the expression of one of the mystics’ key beliefs.”

Ghalib was aware that the milieu in which he grew up was in its twilight and was being replaced by a more advanced civilization. At the same time, he saw the emerging world from the framework of ‘medieval ways of thought and shared many of the attitudes of his eighteenth century predecessors in poetry.’ Hence, the conflicting pulls in the following sheyr:

Iman mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr
Kaba merey peeche hai, kalisa merey aagey(My faith restrains me while the lure of unbelief attracts me,
That way, the Kaaba, and this way, the Church before my eyes)

It was the spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. “If you are to experience life to the full, you must not confine yourself to actions approved by the virtuous”, remarks Russell. This recalls to mind a Punjabi Sufi couplet:

Jo had tapey so auliya, behad tapey so pir
Jo had, behad dono tapey, us noon aakhan fakir

(The one who crosses all boundaries attains the exalted title Auliya, the one who crosses non- boundaries becomes the Pir,
The one who crosses both boundaries as well as non- boundaries, becomes a Fakir)

And Ghalib, of course, prided himself on being a fakir. He remarked:

Banakar fakeeron ka hum bheys ghalib,
Tamasha-e-ahl-e-karam dekhtey hain(Taking on the garb of a fakir, Ghalib
I watch the goings on of the world with a detached air)

Russell points out that Urdu poetry, unlike poetry written in English, is meant to be primarily recited and not read. “It is significant that in Urdu idiom, you don’t write verse; you say verse; and the poet who ‘says’ it presents it to his audience by reciting it to them. Only later does it appear in print… Clearly, poets who compose in this tradition need qualities which those who compose for a tradition of written transmission do not need at all….”

“The mushaira is a long- drawn out affair and the poet’s main enemy is monotony. If they are to participate effectively in a mushaira, which will perhaps last for hours together, they cannot hope to do so without resort to variety. The audience knows as soon as the first couplet has been recited what the metre and the rhyme scheme are. Unless the ghazal is one of quite exceptional force, uniformity of tone and emotional pitch are likely to pall.”


The present selection has a number of sheyrs from what is considered to be one of the finest ghazals that Ghalib wrote in Urdu and whose matla is:

Muddat huee hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye hue
Josh-e-qadah se bazm chiraaghaan kiye hue

Russel has translated this as:

(An age has passed since I last brought my loved one to my house
Lighting the whole assembly with the wine- cup’s radiance)

One would only have appreciated if the author had included the ibtidaayi (first) ghazal of Diwan-i- Ghalib. It provides the poet’s own introduction to his diwan, despite it being a little complicated for a beginner:

Naqsh fariyaadee hai kiskee shokhee-e-tehreer ka
Kaaghazee hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka

Ali Sardar Jafri wrote that visionary is the one who sees and speaks to the future. It is to this exalted group of remarkable men that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib belonged. In his own time, he had rued:

Today none buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow old
To make the senses reel in many a drinker yet to come
My star rose highest in the firmament before my birth
My poetry will win the world’s acclaim when I am gone

Urdu poetry, Kaifi Azmi once remarked once in an interview, will keep the Urdu language alive. In the last one-decade or so, interest in Ghalib’s poetry has seen something of a revival with the increasing presence of audio and visual mediums in addition to print. While the TV serial ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and the rendering of his poetry by a variety of singers have increased the reach of his poetry, one still has to turn to the written word to drink deep and not merely taste the Pierian Spring. This is clearly illustrated by the book under review- a masterly introduction to the Urdu language’s greatest poet.

April 3, 2001
Published: The Tribune 20 May 2001