Poet immortal

February 21, 2021

As Ghalib grew in popularity, myths started being spun and grew in proportion about his private life

By the middle of the 20th Century, Ghalib was a much sung poet. And through the course of the century, he was able to maintain that because most of the top-of-the-line vocalists wanted to sing his ghazals.

Ours is and was essentially an oral culture. The entire tradition of poetry is valued too because it was rendered in the spoken form and the relationship of the poet and the audience was established orally. The instant response was considered of greater value than the criticism developed in the academia in the course of the colonial rule. Musharia was a much prized institution and the poets, too, more often than not, recited their poetry. There were demands of “tarannum say” from the audience and it is said that Iqbal, too, was lauded more when he recited his poetry in tarannum.

It is very difficult to say today what the status of the ghazal as a form of music before the beginning of the 20 Century was. The same can be said of all kinds of music because it existed in time and there was just no way to document it before the advent of recording technology.

The only way to record music was to either write about it or to orally take the tradition of singing further. The latter, a much prized institution, the guru-shishiya parampara or the ustad-shagird pedagogical nexus in reality kept the tradition of music from running dry. It was carried forward from one generation to the next by groups of professional musicians who were supposed to do just that, and it became embedded in their genealogical makeup to almost become a sub-caste.

As a form of poetry, ghazal was an import. It was sung in the Iranian tradition where the poetical form achieved unprecedented heights and was then culturally transported to the Indian sub-continent where it was elevated by both the poets writing in Persian and Urdu. In Urdu, too, it has remained the highest form of poetical expression over the last couple of centuries, at least since the times of Wali Dakhani.

We know that the ghazal was sung along with the other lyrical forms in places which at best can be described as salons of dancing girls. The lighter forms of singing 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 various levels of courts. Probably, there was a third tier after the courts presided over 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 very restricted as compared to the courts, where the attendance could only be by invitation. There was possibly a larger cross-section of audience at the salons than at the courts or sessions for the aristocracy.

It can be guessed that Ghalib was not a favourite with the vocalists as he was known to be mushkil pasand. The poets liable to an instant understanding and more sentimental in their outlook must have been more sought after. There is a great likelihood that someone like Daagh was more sought after than Ghalib. It is possible also that poets who were more serious in their approach were wary of their ghazals being sung in the salons and appreciated in terms of monetary rewards in the shape of vails. Popular ghazals were also sung in stage plays and must have helped the art of ghazal singing mature because the actors were primarily vocalists and their rendition at times was considered an independent act irrespective of the on-stage flow of action.

It is very difficult to say which ghazals of Ghalib were sung first and became popular with the audience that visited the salons. Even the names of the vocalists specialising in the singing of the ghazals are not known like those of famous kheyal and thumri maestros that have come down to us. As Ghalib grew in popularity, myths started being spun and grew in proportion about his private life and person. Names of some female vocalists were romantically linked to him. This became the grist of the popular show business mill as films, television plays and serials were made, needless to say not as a faithful depiction of his life but as necessity of creating a drama.

Ghalib’s writings too can be seen as the legacy that influenced subsequent poetic endeavour. In one respect, he was extremely elitist and obscure because the Persian language that he wrote and took a great deal of pride in writing was phased out of the lives of the educated or literate Indians. Had he only written in Persian in this part of the world, Ghalib would just have been remembered by the academia and scholars, like Urfi, Nazeeri and Bedil. However, the singers made Ghalib a household name among the urban middle classes of North India.

It is very difficult to trace back the history of music because it only existed in time and all else is either hearsay or oral narration. It cannot be recalled for verification and authenticity. The actual history that can be documented started with the recording of sound. It is said that the recording of music in India started in the early years of the 20th Century. It is also said that the first vocalist to be recorded was Gohar Jan.

For record, we have a seventy-eight rpm disc of Gohar Jan: yeh na thi hamari kismet, keh wisal e yaar hota. Others of about the same era whose recordings have survived are Shamshad Bai Dilliwali: dost ghamkhwari main meri sa’ye farmain gay kiya and one Hujrowali: taskeen ko hum na roain jo zauqe nazar milay.

The vocalists who were valued and also sang Ghalib must have contributed to him being seen as a popular poet. Akhteri Bai Faizabadi, KL Saigal and Barkat Ali Khan not only sang Ghalib but also took the rendition of the form a couple of notches higher. Once this was achieved, then everyone sang Ghalib. Talat Mehmood, Malika Pukhraj, Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Ghulam Ali, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Jagjit Singh - you name it and it is there.

Now as we enter another phase of music history, this period is viewed by the younger generation as classical as very few actually recall dhrupad, kheyal and even thumri.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Ghalib: Poet immortal