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Alternate Ghalib

art-and-culture Updated: Jul 23, 2010 23:23 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Hain aur bhi dunya mei sukhanwar bahut achay... kehte hain ke Ghalib ka hai andaz-e-bayan aur. (Although there are many other poets in the world, nobody tells it the way Ghalib does, they say.)

Zauq, his contemporary and object of ridicule, arguably had greater literary merit, but Mirza Asadullah Khan, known to millions of admirers as his nom de plume Ghalib, left an enduring imprint on popular culture.

Now playwright M Sayeed Alam of Pierrot’s has come up with a unique take on the legendary poet, that of the great survivor. “Notwithstanding his poetic brilliance, at one level, Ghalib was extremely manipulative. Till 1857, as Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court poet after Zauq’s death he was writing paeans for the monarch. After Zafar was imprisoned he immediately did a U-turn and published a book eulogising Queen Victoria and Lord Canning."

That the play, to be performed at the Shriram Centre this Sunday, is being held in Ghalib’s own city is highly satisfying for Alam. “It was the city that the Agra-born made his own at 13 and refused to abandon even in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion when his pension was revoked and some of his relatives massacred.”

Playing the complex poet is the thespian Tom Alter. Calling Alter the only Urdu-speaking gora Indian, Alam says Ghalib had developed a proclivity for all things Angrezi (including English liquor that the bohemian bard imbibed by the gallon, on credit).

For Alter, who grew up reading Ghalib and has impeccable talaffuz (pronunciation), getting into his skin wasn’t tough. What he likes most about his poetry are the layers of meaning and the inimitable streak of wit that runs through most of his couplets. “Ghalib ka sher samajh mein aa jaaye to maza deta hai, na samajh mein aaye to aur bhi maza deta hai. And this is why he is the most quoted poet, despite being the most complex one.”

Sample this complex and beautiful couplet:

Saabit hua hai gardan-e-meena pe khun-e-khalq,
Larze hai mauje mai tiri raftaar dekh kar.

(The murder of mankind stands proved on the wine-flask, the wave of wine trembles, seeing the beloved’s gait.)

The play is not a larger-than-life portrayal of the poet, says Alam. “It differentiates between Ghalib the person and Ghalib the poet and recreates the cultural milieu of 19th century Delhi through ghazals, concerts and original compositions.”

One for the poetic Dilliwalla!