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Kehte Hain Ki Ghalib Ka Hai Andaz-e-Bayaan Aur: The Unique Appeal of Mirza Ghalib’s Poetry

July 28, 2017 | By

One of the most quoted poets in Urdu, the legendary Mirza Ghalib’s poetry was mostly in the form of ghazals. Ghazal enthusiast Niraj Shah takes you through a mesmerizing journey of not only Ghalib’s poetry but also shades of his life, his sorrows, his famous wit and his muse, stringing along a garland of oft-quoted shers, lesser known ghazals and misquoted shers as well.

Mirza Ghalib's sher

haiñ aur bhī duniyā meñ suḳhan-var bahut achchhe
kahte haiñ ki ‘ġhālib’ kā hai andāz-e-bayāñ aur (Pics: Google Image Search)

A person writing about Ghalib faces two major challenges – where to start from and where to stop! Ghalib’s poetry is like an ocean that is seen right upto the horizon, encompassing all directions, limitless! ‘Ghalib’, meaning ‘dominant, conquerer, victorious’ in English is the pen name of Mirza Asadullah Khan, and needless to say he is among the most dominant names in Urdu poetry ever.

Let’s start from his home in Old Delhi’s Gali Qasim, Ballimaran, which was at the heart of everything. Gulzar Saab, in his TV serial on Mirza Ghalib, wrote a beautiful ibteda…. lets first hear it.

Koi veeraani si veerani hai
Dasht Ko Dekh ke ghar yaad aaya.

(I wonder if any wilderness would be more desolate than this!
And then I remembered another of the kind – the home I’d left behind)

This verse is painted on the entrance of Ghalib’s Haveli at Ballimaran. With many shers painted on the walls, this haveli tells the story of Ghalib… his painful life… his frustrations.

Ghalib's haveli

Ghalib’s haveli (Pic: Google Image Search)

उग रहा है दर ओ दीवार से सब्ज़ा ग़ालिब
हम बयाबान में हैं और घर में बाहार आयी है

(Greenery is growing out of the doors and walls ‘Ghalib’
I am in wilderness and spring has arrived at my house.)

Beautiful play of words, expressing irony and sarcasm. When he was away for months together travelling to Calcutta to pursue his pension case with General Metcalfe, his wife went through a lot of hardships. Weeds grew everywhere in the house and he sarcastically, compared  it with spring in this couplet!

Ghalib was born on December 27, 1797 (Pic: Google Image Search)

I would call him a very miserly shayar as he could say so many things in such few words!

One would find his poetry so difficult and at times, completely simple. Sometimes his critics would joke on his use of difficult words saying ‘we have understood Sauda and Mir, but your lines, Ghalib, nobody can understand, only God and you!!’

He often used to compose his verses in the night under the influence of wine. He would tie a knot in his sash for each sher. In the morning he would recall each sher and write it down without any aid to his memory, except the number of knots!

Ghalib, born December 27th, 1797, was only 5 years old when his father passed away. He had a brother who developed schizophrenia at a young age and died in Delhi during India’s first struggle for independence in 1857. He was married and had children but his illness and upkeep of his family was an added burden on Ghalib.

Ghalib didn’t have the resources to get any kind of formal education. He learnt Persian and Arabic from Mulla Abdussamad, a friend of his father-in-law, who was his teacher. He never owned a book but read out of books borrowed from friends. He was good at chess and dice. He started to write from the age of 9.

He lived on the pension of his uncle, which was discontinued by the British. He took loans, hoping to repay when the pension was reinstated. At one point of time the loan amount reached a staggering Rs. 40,000, which was a huge sum during those days. He travelled to Calcutta to plead for his pension but did not get any relief from the British authorities.

Despite these hardships, he drank expensive French wine almost daily and loved to eat ‘bhuna gosht’ and ‘sohan halwa’. Inspite of various warnings he continued to indulge in gambling and was jailed for 6 months in 1847.

‘Ghālib’ burā na maan jo vaa.iz burā kahe
aisā bhī koī hai ki sab achchhā kaheñ jise

(Don’t feel low ‘Ghalib, if the priest defames you
There is no person who is ‘good’ in everyone’s view)

Ghalib was married to Umrao Begum at the age of 13. His wife was very religious whereas he never prayed in his life. He would walk to the mosque in the morning but never enter it. He didn’t ever fast during the month of Ramzaan.

He never missed a chance to make fun of ‘traditions and practices’. Once a friend told him, “Allah does not listen to prayers of those who drink wine.” Ghalib’s response? ”My friend if a man has wine, what does he need to pray for?!!“

An atheist himself, he did respect all religions and celebrated all festivals. Although carrying an impression of having minimum interest in Islam, a skillful use of Sufi vocabulary in his poetry, shows that he had more than a superficial knowledge of mystical tradition.


Ghalib was married to Umrao Begum at the age of 13. His wife was very religious whereas he never prayed in his life. (Tanvi Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in Gulzar’s TV serial Mirza Ghalib) (Pic: Google Image Search)

Ghalib’s personal life was full of grief. He had 7 children but most of them died in infancy. The longest life one of his children got was just 15 months; many of them were born dead. He later adopted his wife’s nephew, who too died at the age of 35.

His ghazal, Dil hi to hai, na sang-o-khisht is one of those ghazals that reflects profound grief. He pleads to be allowed to cry his heart out. If the deep sadness in one’s heart – unrequited love – would be a piece of cloth, then Mirza Ghalib has pulled every single thread out of it and painted with the deepest of his emotions in this ghazal.

Steeped in the depths of sadness, when it has so much become a part of you, you forget that what you feel is, in fact, sorrow. It becomes easy. As Ghalib says in one of his shers –

Mushqilein hum par padee itni, ke aasaan ho gayein…
In this ghazal, he argues,’ It’s my heart, it’s my sorrow. I will cry all I want. So…… let me cry!!’

Dil Hi To Hai Na Sang-o-Khisht
Dard Se Bhar Na Aaye Kyon?
Royenge Hum Hazaar Baar
Koi Hummein Sataye Kyon?

(It’s only a (my) heart, not a stone or brick,
Why should it not be overcome with pain?
I will cry a thousand times,
Why should one torment (stop) me?)

Dair Nahin, Haram Nahin,
Dar Nahin, Aastan Nahin
Baithe Hain Reh-Guzar Pe Hum
Gair Hummein Utthaye Kyon?

Neither the temple, nor the mosque
Nor on someone’s door or porch
I lie waiting on the path where He will tread
Why should strangers lift me up(compel me to go)?

dil hi to hai

An oft-quoted sher of Ghalib

Qaid-e-Hayaat o Band-e-Gham,
Asl Mein Dono Ek Hain
Maut Se Pehlre Aadmi
Gum Se Nijaat Paye Kyon?

(This prison called life and the sorrow captive in it,
In reality are one and the same
Before the very end (death),
How can then one get free from it?)

Han Woh Nahin Khuda Parast
Jaao Woh Bewafa Sahi
Jisko Ho Deen-o-Dil Aziz
Uski Gali Mein Jaye Kyon?

(True he is an atheist,
So what if he is unfaithful
Dear to who is faith and heart
Why would you/he venture there?)

Ghalib-e-Khast Ke Bagair
Kaunse Kaam Band Hain?
Roeeye Zaar-Zaar Kya?
Keejiye Haye-Haye Kyon?

Without the wretched/devastated “Ghalib”
Has any activity come to a halt?
What then is the need to cry bitterly?
What then is the need to wail and brood?

Enjoy this ghazal  sung by Jagjit singh, sher by sher with meanings (compiled from various translations) as above.

Dil hi to hai na sang o khisht (Jagjit Singh)

Ghalib’s poetry was mostly in the form of ghazals. He is one of the most quoted poets in Urdu, like Shakespeare in English. Many attempts have been done to translate his works into English and these attempts were reasonably successful to make him popular in the western world. Still there is a feeling that the modern English diction did not do justice to the intricate web of thoughts in his poetry.

naseeruddin shah as mirza ghalib

Poetry during those times was first read out in ‘mushairas’ and public gatherings

Poetry during those times was not published directly. They were first read out in ‘mushairas’ and public gatherings. Only those poems or shers, that became popular, would then be published.

Ghalib’s poetry reflected a whole range of human experience. He poured his personal life experiences in his poetry but many of his lines would fit for various situations in anyone’s life.

A friend Haji Mir owned a book shop. This was the place where Ghalib spent most of his time reading books. Many times he would leave the sheet of paper with poetry written, with Mir Sahab.

Haji Mir helped to compile all his writings and took them to various publishers, hoping to get something published but there were no takers of Ghalib’s poetry at that time. Ghalib would often say that his work will be valued only after his death. His first ‘Diwan’ (collection of poetry) in Urdu was published in 1841 followed by Persian poetry in 1847. Many of his poems were lost in Mir Sahab’s shop when his shop was burnt down during the revolution in 1857.

Nawab Jaan (also referred as Chaudhvin), a courtesan (tawaif) who was a huge admirer of Mirza Ghalib, lived across the street, opposite Haji Mir’s shop. She would go to Haji Mir and ask to share Ghalib’s poetry and sometimes she would send a messenger to Ghalib’s house seeking a freshly written ghazal, which she would then sing in her mehfils. She invited him several times to visit her home once so that she could sing his ghazal for him but Ghalib never obliged.

ye na thī hamārī qismat ki visāl-e-yār hotā
agar aur jiite rahte yahī intizār hotā
(Mirza Ghalib, 1954) Ghulam Mohammad / Suraiya

Nawab Jaan never realized when her admiration for Ghalib turned into love. Once she saw Ghalib at a ‘dargah’ and told him that she has prayed to Allah to make him popular. Ghalib reportedly told her that if this happens then he will visit her and gift her a ‘dushaala’ (shawl).

Ghalib remembered his word and when he became popular he went to her home only to be told that she had left Delhi without informing anyone about where she is going. He could read his own shers at many places in her home.

On his way to Calcutta to meet Mettcalf, Ghalib stayed for few days at Benaras. During his time at Benaras, he accidently met Nawab Jaan’s mother. When he enquired about Nawab Jaan, her mother informed him that they had to leave Delhi because of the harassment from the ‘Kotwal’ who visited them daily and resented Nawab Jaan’s love for Ghalib and his ghazals. She said that Nawab Jaan waited for Ghalib till her last breath! Ghalib, shattered by this, visited her final resting place in a Benaras burial ground.

Dil e naadan tujhe hua kya hai (Mirza Ghalib, 1954) Ghulam Mohammad / Suraiya and Talat Mahmood

Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (Pic: Wikipedia)

Ghalib desperately wanted admission in the Mughal court but did not succeed initially. Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq, the poetical preceptor of the ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar, himself a poet of eminence, was one of the reasons.

The rivalry between Ghalib and Zauq is very well known and documented. Zauq respected the poetry of Ghalib but disapproved his conduct in public; his habits like gambling, drinking and the image of being against religious traditions. The most famous incident of rivalry between the two resulted in one of the finest ghazals that Ghalib wrote. Let me share with you the incident and the ghazal that emerged from it.

Ghalib was sitting with friends in the market place when the ‘palkhi’ of Zauq passed by. Ghalib taunted him saying, ‘Hua hai sheikh ka musahib, firey hai itraata’ (having become the king’s companion he moves around with arrogance). Zauq complained to the ruler and in the next mushaira at the palace, Ghalib was also invited. Bahadur Shah Zafar asked Ghalib if he had actually made this comment. Ghalib admitted its authorship but added that the comment was not on Zauq ; it was the first line (misra) of the last couplet (maqta) of his latest Ghazal. He was asked to recite the maqta. Ghalib obliged.

Hua hai sheikh ka musahib, phirey hai itraata  
Wagar-na sheher mein Ghalib ki aabroo kya hai

(Having become the King’s companion he moves around with arrogance
Lest what reputation does Ghalib command in the city?)

Ghalib’s poetry reflected a whole range of human experience. (Pic: Google Image Search)

He received a tremendous applause from the audience but Zauq understood that Ghalib had just come up with the second misra. He suspected that Ghalib was just trying to save himself. He insisted that Ghalib be asked to recite the entire Ghazal.

Ghalib as if reading out of a sheet of paper, that he pulled out of his pocket, read out the full ghazal. The fact being that there was nothing on the paper. The ghazal was composed on the spot!!

Har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ki ‘tu kya hai ?’
Tum hi kaho ki ye andaaz-e-guftgoo kya hai

(At every single utterance you retort “what are you?”
Pray, tell me, what is this style of conversation?)

Jalaa hai jism jahaan, dil bhi jal gaya hoga
Kured-te ho jo ab raakh, justjoo kya hai 

(Where the body has burned, even the heart would have
In search of what are you now raking the ashes?)

Ghalib composed this ghazal on the spot in response to Zauq

Rahi na taaqat-e-guftaar aur agar ho bhi 
Toh kis ummeed pe kahiye ki aarzoo kya hai

(The strength in my speech is no longer there and even if it is
With what expectation shall I express my desire?)

Rago’n mein daudte phirne ke hum nahin qaayal 
Jab aankh hi se na tapka to phir lahoo kya hai

(We do not believe in its running in the veins
Till it does not drip from the eye, it is not blood)

The audience was mesmerized and gave him a standing ovation. It is reported, though unsubstantiated, that when Ghalib recited this couplet, Ustaad Zauq forgot his grievance for a moment and himself showered praises on Ghalib.

Enjoy this incident and the ghazal, beautifully picturised by Gulzar Sahab in his serial Mirza Ghalib.

Zauq and Ghalib (Mirza Ghalib)

After Zauq’s death, Ghalib was appointed at the court as the ruler’s Ustad and bestowed with titles like Najmuddaulah, Nabeer-e-Mulk, Nizam-e-Jung and Mirza Nausha. He was also appointed as a historian of the Mughal court in 1855. This gave him some financial stability.

He was arrested after the revolt in 1857 on charges that he sided with the Mughal emperor and fueled unrest. He was brought to the officer who asked him whether he was a Muslim. He replied that he was ‘half Muslim’. Amused, the officer asked him to explain. Ghalib replied, ‘I drink wine but I do not eat pork.’ The officer released him saying, ‘You cannot be a betrayer’. His pension was finally restored by the British in 1860.

Aah ko chahiye ek umar asar hone tak (A ghazal of Mirza Ghalib by Begum Akhtar)

Ghalib’s biggest contribution to Urdu as a language were two collections of letters, namely O’od-i-Hindi and Urdu-i-Mu’alla. He decisively influenced the development of Urdu prose, through his letters. They were written in a charming, colloquial style that set a new model of prose writing. He combined wit and a sharp eye with a charming talent for playing on the various levels of words combined with a skillful use of every shade of its meaning. These letters are the most perfect expression of the conversationalist character of the Mughal society.

Many films continue to use his ghazals and entire films have been created on his own life story as well. Who can forget the delicately crafted musical Mirza Ghalib (1954), starring Bharat Bhushan and Suraiya in the lead roles, ably supported by Nigar Sultana, Ullhas, Durga Khote, Murad, Iftikhar, Mukri. Enjoy this beautiful ghazal by Suraiya.

nukta-chīñ hai ġham-e-dil us ko sunā.e na bane
kyā bane baat jahāñ baat batā.e na bane (Mirza Ghalib, 1954) Ghulam Mohammad / Suraiya

Ghalib is the most quoted ‘shaayar’ and his shers are often quoted in various contexts. However, there are many shers which are famous in the name of Mirza Ghalib but scholars deny their authenticity as they are not part of Ghalib’s Diwan.

Misquoted in the name of Ghalib

Here, we list out some of the most famous shers which are often mis-quoted in the name of Mirza Ghalib when, in fact, they are not his.

Khuda ke waste parda na kabe se utha waaiz
Kahin aisa na ho yaan bhi wahi kaafir sanam nikle

The above sher is sung by Jagjit Singh as a part of Ghalib’s ghazal but actually this sher is not to be found anywhere in Ghalib’s Diwan.

The tomb of Mirza Ghalib
(Pic: Nomu420 CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Some other such shers are:

Chand taswir-e-butaan chand haseenon ke KHutoot
Baad marne ke mere ghar se ye saamaaN nikla
Zaahid sharaab peene de masjid men baiTh kar
Ya wo jagah bata de jahaaN par KHuda na ho

Dil khush hua hai masjid-e-veeraaN ko dekh kar
Meri tarah khuda ka bhi khaana kharaab hai

(This sher, though famous as Ghalib’s sher, is actually by Abdul Hameed Adam)

Jis meN laakhoN baras ki hooreN hoN
Aisi jannat ka kya kare koi

This surely proves as Ghalib acknowledged in one sher

Hain aur bhi duniya meN sukhar-var bahut achchhe
kahte hain ki Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaaN aur”

By the time he reached the age of 70, his memory had weakened, he had lost his hearing ability and his hands trembled but he was still very alert mentally.

Go haath ko jumbish nahīñ āñkhoñ meñ to dam hai
rahne do abhī sāġhar-o-miinā mire aage

(My hands are weak but my eyes are still powerful
Let the glass and goblet remain, I will drink  with my eyes)

Mirza Ghalib died on 15th February, 1869 in Delhi. His tomb is at Chausath Khamba, Nizamuddin area, New Delhi.

Finally, here is a ghazal, also in the voice of Jagjit Singh,  which has many of his most popular shers.

Beckon me with benevolence whenever you wish
I am not time elapsed that can never return (Pic:

In Ghalib’s own words,

mehrbāñ ho ke bulā lo mujhe chāho jis vaqt
maiñ gayā vaqt nahīñ huuñ ki phir aa bhī na sakūñ

Beckon me with benevolence whenever you wish
I am not time elapsed that can never return

Ghalib’s admirers still call out to him with love, celebrate his poetry, remember him fondly. He is still here living on in the hearts of millions of admirers. He never left us.

More to read in Ghazals

Remembering Jagjit Singh: The Music Of Poetry, Life, And The Soul

Baat Niklegi Toh Phir: The Unforgettable Voice and His Musical Journey

Gulzar: Redefining Poetry and Purpose In Cinema

Sahir’s Poetry Awakens Me From My Slumber

Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet

Niraj Shah, is a Civil Engineer by Profession but is passionate about poetry. He writes ghazals and Nazms. ‘Safha-e-Dil’, Page of my Heart, is his Facebook Page, which is dedicated to ghazals and shayari in general. He is passionate about Urdu poetry and its history. He has written articles on the similar subject in Mid-day, a tabloid published in Mumbai. Currently, he is researching on great poets starting from early 18th century and is working on his first book on ghazals.
All Posts of Niraj Shah

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8 thoughts on “Kehte Hain Ki Ghalib Ka Hai Andaz-e-Bayaan Aur: The Unique Appeal of Mirza Ghalib’s Poetry

  • Manek Premchand

    Very well written, on the greatest Indian poet of them all! Just wish instead of two songs by Jagjit and two by Suraiya, if there had been at least one by Talat – the king of ghazal singing – from Mirza Ghalib the film. And perhaps one from Begum Akhtar or Rafi. Just my thoughts, but otherwise a nice essay 🙂

  • Antara

    An excellent essay… opens new vistas of understanding Ghalib!
    Each ghazal discussed has been painstakingly translated to help us readers understand the difficult Urdu words… a special thanks for that!

    The handpicked collection of ghazal videos is top order too… we’ve grown up on them!

    I am reminded of a personal favourite by KL Saigal ‘Main unhen chhedoon aur kuchh na kahen‘ – composed by the legendary singer himself.
    I am told he repeats the first line 3 times in the original 78 rpm while in this YouTube video we hear it twice. A unique experimentation but then with Ghalib you got to have excellence in every note.

    Thank you Niraj Shah for this poetic trip through Ghalib’s gems!

  • Peeyush Sharma

    Well written Niraj ji.
    Ghalib Is evergreen, for all times.

    He was simply put, gifted. He suffered all his life in pains of all various kinds only to be revered after his demise. His thought, language, concept, structure of his couplets and their reach is unparalleled. None prior to him and no one after have achieved it in reference to Urdu poetry.

    He may have been satirical but his understanding of religions and their theory was unique and complete. How else could he in one line state; Na thha kuchh to Khuda thha, na hota kuchh to Khuda hota, as if stating straight out of the 10th Chapter, Naasadiya Sukta of Rig Veda. Or as if in the very words of Lord Krishna; Baazichaye atfaal hai duniya mere aage, hota hai shab-o-roz tamasha mere aagye. His thought process was gifted and highly philosophical.

    One can read him every day and realize something unique.

    Kehte hain ki Ghalibn ka hai andaaze bayan aur… Thanks Niraj ji.

    One point though; in the penultimate couplet you have used above, it should be “GO” haath mein jumbish nahin (implicating, even though) .
    Best wishes on your book.

    1. Niraj

      Thank you so much for your kind words sir.
      I stand corrected on the couplet. Have requested Antara to correct the mistake and she has quickly responded and done.
      I agree with your thought on his theory of religion. I feel an atheist is not always non religious but can be ‘practically religious’.
      Also very true that one can read his work again and again and learn or discover something new every time.
      Thank you once again._()_

  • Peeyush Sharma

    Thanks Antara for adding the KL Saigal piece. Saigal was probably among first to popularize ghazals among common music lovers.
    Each of his ghazals are fabulous.

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