Mirza Ghalib was born on 27 December 1797 in Agra, into a well-to-do family of army officers. Mirza Ghalib family descended from Aibak Turks who moved to Samarkand(in modern-day Uzbekistan) after the downfall of the Seljuk kings.
Mirza Abdullah Baig (Ghalib’s father) married Izzat-ut-Nisa Begum, an ethnic Kashmiri, and then lived at the house of his father-in-law.
Nizam of Hyderabad employed him in his army. 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. His uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan raised him.
Introduction to Poetry
Mirza 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 Mirza 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 Mirza Ghalib’s home for two years and taught him Persian, Arabic, philosophy, and logic.
At the age of thirteen, Mirza Ghalib married Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh (brother of the Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka).
In one of his letters he describes his marriage as the second imprisonment after the initial confinement that was life itself. The idea that life is one continuous painful struggle which can end only when life itself ends, is a recurring theme in his poetry.
Rise of Ghalib
He soon moved to Delhi, along with his younger brother, Mirza Yousuf. He met powerful and accomplished people from different fields.
He developed a lasting friendship with many of them. Later when he was facing monetary problems, Bahadur Shah Zafar commissioned him to write the history of the Royal House of Timur at a salary of 600 per annum.
Mirza Ghalib produced works in both Urdu and Persian. Though his Urdu diwan has around 5,000 couplets, his writings in Persian, with around 11,000 couplets, are more extensive.
He also wrote numerous letters which were discovered after his death and have since become a part of various collections. He wrote book on Persian grammar and vocabulary called Panj-Ahang.
Mirza Ghalib also wrote book about history of Mughal dynasty called Mihr-i-nimroz. His most important book Dastanboo gives an account of Delhi during the mutiny.
Legacy of Mirza Ghalib
Although Mirza 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 Mirza 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.
In keeping with the conventions in most of Ghalib’s verses, the identity and the gender of the beloved is indeterminate. 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.
Disciples and Rivals
Mirza Ghalib’s closest rival was poet Zauq, tutor of emporer of India Bahadur Shah Zafar II. 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.
One of the towering figures in Urdu literature Altaf Hussain Hali was a disciple of Mirza Ghalib. Hali has also written a biography of Ghalib titled Yaadgaar-e-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.
Later Life and Death
During the anti-British Rebellion in Delhi on 5 October 1857, some soldiers climbed into Ghalib’s neighbourhood and hauled him off to Colonel Burn. He appeared in front of the colonel wearing a Central Asian Turkic style headdress.
The colonel, bemused at his appearance, inquired in broken Urdu, “Well? You Muslim?”, to which Ghalib replied, “Half?” The colonel asked, “What does that mean?” In response, Ghalib said, “I drink wine, but I don’t eat pork.”
Ghalib was open to western ideas, and so was never at odds with the British. He even showed a keen interest in learning the English language. Later in his life he worked in Rampur Darbar. Later in his life he had turned to mysticism.
He died on 15 February 1869 (aged 71) in Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk.
In the year 2000, Government set up a museum at the haveli of Mirza Ghalib at Gali Qasim Jaan, Chandni Chowk, to honour his memory.