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Mission Ghalib

In late December, 19th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib will finally lie in a resting place worthy of his iconic status

entertainment Updated: Nov 25, 2009 21:06 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi

It will all be simple and elegant,” says Mohammad Shaheer, a landscape architect, of his latest charge — Mirza Ghalib’s tomb. The greatest flagbearer of Urdu poetry has been dead for 140 years, but his grave is at the centre of a revival plan, one that hopes to transport the visitor “to a pool of peace”, as Shaheer puts it.

The tomb complex covers an area of 3,500 sq ft and is tucked away in Nizamuddin Basti, a densely populated 14th century Delhi village. Like other places of historical significance, it has seen far better days. But the makeover will be drastic. “We are trying to restore the dignity of Ghalib’s tomb,” says Ratish Nanda of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an international foundation that is doing the restoration in partnership with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

Located on the principal street to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s sufi shrine, Ghalib’s tomb usually goes unnoticed. “The white marble tomb is a well-kept structure,” says author William Dalrymple, “but the courtyard is tatty.” An understatement. Originally commissioned by a Nizam of Hyderabad, it was like a badminton court with its paved sandstone and marble strips. The entrance was merely a grilled gate. There was no wall to hide the butcheries, kebab stalls and open drains of the street opposite. The iron grill made the place resemble a jail, not a poet’s grave. “[Now] we’re creating something to suit Ghalib’s status,” says Shaheer.

That seems impossible — the Mughal-era poet’s stature is far too majestic. With his verses figuring in Bollywood chartbusters, bestselling books, and Prime Ministers’ speeches, the poet is a popular cultural icon. But Ghalib, a lover of wine and women, died in poverty and his last haveli in Ballimaran, Old Delhi, was converted into a coal depot for some time. The tomb must fare better.

“The new-look tomb will give a sense of the times Ghalib lived in,” says Shaheer. To revive the romance, the courtyard is being paved with red sandstone, white marble inlays and ornamental patterns. There’ll be benches, trees and sweet-smelling shrubs favoured by the Mughals. (The tomb is next door to Chausath Khamba, a beautiful Jehangir-era monument.) The jail-like grill has been removed; a delicate hand-carved stone lattice screen is coming up. Through these jaalis, you will see the street but hear no street noise. A Ghalib couplet will be inscribed on a marble slab.

A board displaying the tomb’s new design is hanging out in the street. “There was nothing to see in the tomb. Now people will notice it,” says Kabiruddin Nizami, a local resident. “Visitors will realise that a great historical person is buried here.” There are fears, too. “Yes, it’s looking good,” says Naseeruddin Qureshi, a butcher. “But the flowerwallahs outside may lose their livelihood. You might have to pay money for entry tickets.”

In Iran, the grave of Persian poet Hafiz lies in the middle of a landscaped courtyard, with historically appropriate plantings and elegant, handcrafted building elements. It is a major tourist attraction. Ghalib’s resting place, too, deserves that distinction. For his restorers, that’s the challenge.