Larger than life

February 5, 2023

Popular persons tend to be elevated beyond the parameters of the human paradigm

Larger than life


halib’s life has been in the spotlight through movies and teleplays. It is difficult to think of another Urdu poet who has been written about and eulogised in the manner that he has been. Among short story writers, Saadat Hasan Manto has been the subject of many films and teleplays.

In Pakistan, Iqbal has been talked about and projected for ever, but despite many critical books having been written and published about him, no substantial drama or film has been made on him. This is not to say that no films or teleplays have not been made on him; but these have either been documentaries or, at best, hagiographical in nature and, thus, missing out on the human aspect of the drama that is the stuff of the arts.

Iqbal was popular during his lifetime, but acquired the status of a demigod after the emergence of Pakistan and was hoisted as the supreme ideologue; beyond reproach. This lifting of a person beyond the parameters of human paradigm pushes him/ her to the edges of sainthood and, thus, beyond criticism or any objective evaluation.

This has been the lens against which we see most of our famous personalities. The poets designated as sufis are a frequent victim of this. Their personalities and character thus go un-evaluated in context of their lives and times. They are glorified and any critical remark becomes a red rag that is attacked and mauled.

One of the most respected South Asian poets has been Rabindranath Tagore. He was also worshipped in Bengal and any adverse or human assessment was seen as an attack on his person. For many Bengalis, he was above reproach. The irreverent Khushwant Singh wrote on purpose an objective evaluation that caused much furore and bad blood in India. It was seen by some people as character assassination of one of the most respected men of the early Twentieth Century.

Ghalib must have been famous in his lifetime. According to his own confession, more notorious than famous (shaer to wo aacha hai, peh badnam bohat hai). However, he was also not seen as the most popular poet or the one who had patrons chasing him. He was steadily running after patrons and went all the way to Calcutta to fight for the right to pension from the East India Company/ the Crown.

He later rose in critical estimation and became the most admired poet during the course of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. His diwan was elevated to the level of a revelation by Abdur Rehman Bijnori. He was also published outside of India by the likes of Zakir Hussain.

The films and teleplays made on him in India and Pakistan have elevated him from the elite circles of poetry lovers to a much broader base a cult, a popular person much admired and sought after.

More space has been provided to him as a person and human than some others. He has been treated as a man with traits and failings that we engage in as humans. The absence of sainthood has saved him from being treated as above-reproach and thus allowed him to be a fertile subject for stage, film and television.

Top vocalists also contributed to his popularity, reaching out to those not exclusively into literature. In the Twentieth Century, when the word displaced the sur in music, it edged towards a more central position among the listeners who were bigger in number and much more diverse in their taste and background. It is very difficult to say which ghazals of Ghalib were sung earlier and were popular with the audience that visited the salons. Even the names of the vocalists who specialised in the singing of the ghazals are not recorded. Famous kheyal and thumri maestros were better known and documented. We know that the ghazal was sung along with the other lyrical forms in places that at best can be described as salons of dancing girls. The lighter forms of singings like the thumri and dadra always developed as concomitant to dancing. The salons run by women of great latent and artistic integrity were the hotbed of the emerging forms which probably did not find ready acceptance at the courts of various levels. Probably, it was a third tier after the central courts adorned by the shahenshahs or the mahabalis and those at the provincial levels by the nawabs and the rajas. It was also open to the public, albeit restricted, as compared to the courts where the attendance could only be by invitation. There was possibly a larger cross-section in the salons of the audience listeners than at the courts or sessions of the aristocracy.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Larger than life