Posts Tagged ‘Ghalib’

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

March 6, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut.

I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? (more…)

The Music of Poetry

January 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures they offer the listener. (more…)

Education: Humanities and Science

November 7, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion.

Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion. (more…)

Ghalib – 30: Similarities and Differences

July 21, 2009

Here we have another example of the ability of Ghalib to couch a very modern thought in a very traditional idiom while simultaneously subverting the intent of the tradition:

go vaaN nahiiN pah vaaN ke nikaale hue to haiN
kaabe se in butoN ko bhii nisbat hai duur ki

though they are not there, still that is where they were expelled from
these idols too have a distant kinship with the ka’bah

This is modern evolutionary biology – whatever our differences, we are descended from a common gene. (more…)

Ghalib -29: On Being Modern

June 28, 2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail:

kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab
aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii

Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer?
Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai

The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision. (more…)

Ghalib – 28: Who’s Afraid of Multiple Meanings?

June 17, 2009

We resume the series with a she’r that illustrates well some of the underlying beliefs of The South Asian Idea:

nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa maiN to kyaa hotaa

1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what? (more…)

Ghalib – 27: Rhetoric or Reality?

April 5, 2009

From resignation and withdrawal, Ghalib is rousing himself:

huuN giriftaar-e ulfat-e sayyaad
varnah baaqii hai taaqat-e parvaaz

I am captured by love of the Hunter
otherwise, strength for flight is still left

How appropriate then the ambivalence: Does the protagonist really have the strength for flight or is he deluding himself?

I suppose the reality of becoming captive is a gradual process. To start with, the feeling that one can resist can be quite strong and real. Over time, as one becomes enmeshed in the web, it can turn into a delusion. (more…)

Ghalib – 26: A Tale Told by an Idiot?

March 20, 2009

Last week’s selection is nicely followed up by the following couplet:

baaziichah-e atfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage

the world is a game/plaything of children, before me
night and day, a spectacle occurs before me

From resignation (ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa) to equanimity (hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage) seems quite appropriate. After all, how seriously can one (or ought one) to take what goes on in the world?

Take for example, the current events in Pakistan. Do they have any import? In its over 60 years of existence, how many leaders have come and gone whose names are virtually impossible to recall but who were so incredibly important in their own times?

How well Ghalib fuses into Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)

And yet, while the fools strut and fret and blunder their ways to dusty death, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, they still inflict tremendous damage on the poor country whose stage they occupy and whose audience they insult with their antics.

And for that reason, much as one might want to withdraw and muse over the spectacle as a spectacle, one needs to engage to ensure that the degree of foolishness declines over time.

And this brings us to some points to ponder:

Why has the quality of leadership declined so steeply in Pakistan?

Has there been a similar decline in the quality of leadership in other countries in South Asia? If yes, what are the systemic forces leading to this deterioration? If no, what explains the variations in the different countries?

Are there any reasons to expect the quality of leadership to improve over time?

See Mehr-e-Niimroz for a literary interpretation of this week’s couplet which is linked to our post on the Long March at the suggestion of Amit Basole.

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Ghalib – 25: On Resignation

March 13, 2009

Ghalib says in his letters that in moments of despair he was given to reciting this she’r:

raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN
ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa

night and day the seven heavens are revolving
something or the other will happen – why should we be perturbed

The meaning is open to interpretation and the reader is encouraged to refer to the commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz for more on the literary wordplay.

The most common interpretation is as an expression of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds that an individual feels powerless to confront (as, for example, the 1854 epidemic in Delhi that Ghalib refers to in one letter). And indeed, at such times, it is a great consolation to be able to leave one’s fate in the hands of a power greater than oneself.

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, note that Ghalib takes recourse to this remedy at the moment of his greatest helplessness – a time at which even the most unsentimental of critics would concede the laying down of arms. But what happens when the sentiment is the norm? What happens when in the best of times a society is prone to leave its fate to be decided by the revolution of the seven heavens?

In such situations, I would shift the stress on the words ghabraayeN kyaa differently. Instead of reading them as ‘why should we be perturbed’ I would be inclined to read them as ‘shouldn’t we be perturbed?’ Would I be wrong to feel that the prospect of the ‘something or the other’ likely to happen with such an attitude should be a cause of major concern?

Would readers consider this a commentary on the Pakistan of today and its predicament? Not for nothing have the faithful been advised: ‘Trust in God but tie your camel.’

Second, from turning to a higher power for solace in a moment of despair to believing that all fate is decreed by a higher power can seem an imperceptible extension but it is an extension with profound implications.

Doesn’t this take us back to Hobbes (1588-1679) and Leviathan (1651) in which Hobbes makes his momentous contribution – shifting the focus of deliberation from the heavens to the earth and outlining a theory of politics that rests on anthropology and not on theology?

Hobbes’ contribution is now known as the ‘Great Separation.’ Was it this conceptual and intellectual break that determined that the ‘something or the other’ that happened in societies that went different ways would be so radically at odds with each other?

For an excellent introduction to Hobbes and the Great Separation, see the lecture by Ian Johnston.

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Ghalib – 24: On Deceivers and the Deceived

February 26, 2009

Readers would be well aware by now that there is always more to Ghalib than comes across at the first encounter – therein lies one aspect of his genius. In this week’s selection Ghalib addresses the issue explicitly:

haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aatey haiN kuchh
detey haiN dhokaa yeh baaziigar khulaa

 

the stars/constellations are one thing and appear another
These conjurers/tricksters trick/fool us openly

At one level the meaning is obvious – things are not what they seem and we are being openly deceived. There are a few twists – Is Ghalib referring to the stars in the firmament or to the stars on earth and what exactly does the deception comprise of? These aspects are addressed in the companion commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Here we presume that Ghalib is referring to the stars on earth and explore a tangential thought – to what extent are we complicit in our deception?

This is a familiar trope in Urdu poetry when the reference is to the beloved – the lover revels in the deception, in agonizing over whether the No actually means Yes or the Yes, No. In fact, the lover would have it no other way – a predictable, honest-to-goodness beloved would be no fun at all. All the ecstasy of the lover actually resides in his pain.

So far, so good – we can understand this tortured relationship of the lover and the beloved. But how do we explain the same phenomenon in the realm of politics?

Take Pakistan, for example. Here are these leaders who have never ever spoken the truth, never ever come clean on anything (except when a gun is held to their heads). How can they continue to fool all the people all the time? How do people continue to have faith in their leadership?

Let us separate the population into two broad groups – the vast majority that lacks all power except the vote and those that belong to various segments of the power elite.

Of the first, let me try and capture a complex sociological phenomenon in an anecdote. I once asked a rural constituent why he was voting for a candidate whose rhetoric was in open contradiction with his criminal record. The answer was instantaneous: “Do you really believe a ‘decent’ man can provide us all the protection we need to survive here?” Let us leave it there for the moment and expand on the theme at another time.

What of the members of the power elite? It seems to me that often it suits many to go along with the deception and this is not unique to Pakistan or to South Asia. How many of the ‘best and the brightest’ went along with the lie that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction or was in league with Al-Qaeda?

There is a nice quote by C.V. Wedgewood that captures one aspect of this reality:

“Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right, rather than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.”

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