Ghalib – 23: Mirrors and Mirrors

 

This week we engage with a complex she’r by Ghalib in an attempt to understand how we know what we know:

 

az mihr taa bah zarrah dil o dil hai aaiinah

tuutii ko shash jihat se muqabil hai aaiinah

 

from sun to sand grain, all are hearts; and the heart is a mirror

the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror

 

Given the complexity of this verse and the absence of punctuation in Urdu, numerous interpretations are possible. The reader is referred to Mehr-e-Niimroz to resolve some of these complexities.

 

From our perspective, the following are important in extracting the particular interpretation that we wish to present here:

 

  1. Whether the break in the opening line comes after zarrah or after the first occurrence of dil.
  2. The knowledge that in Sufi thought there is a very close relationship between the heart and a mirror and the metaphor of ‘the mirror of the heart’ is much used in Urdu poetry. Mirrors in earlier times were made by polishing metal till it could reflect and the human heart was to be polished in the same way so that it could reflect the truth of the Divine Beloved (God).
  3. Talking parrots were taught to speak by making them see their own reflection in a mirror while an unseen human voiced the words.
  4. The parrot is a metaphor for the poet.

 

We take the break in the opening line to be after the first dil and offer the following train of thought:

 

Everything is made of sand and every grain of sand is like a heart (here the imagery lends beauty to the words – the sun and sand-grains shimmer and seem to pulsate like a heart); and every heart is a mirror. Thus the learner (parrot/poet/human) is completely surrounded by mirrors and sees its own reflection everywhere.

 

We learn by looking at ourselves and into ourselves, by examining ourselves, and by reflecting on the world and external reality as it impacts our heart and its feelings. Knowing is a process of reflection, understanding and thinking.

 

Here we introduce a modern-day concern into this interpretation. Knowledge/learning is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the reflection of reality/existence in the human heart/mind. And this, in turn, is crucially dependent on the faithfulness of the mirror.

 

If the mirror is distorted, it becomes a completely different ball-game. And the question we are confronted with today in South Asia is whether the mirrors we are using to reflect reality are faithful or distorted?

 

What do you think?

 

Look at the textbooks through which we are reflecting history and facts into the minds of our young generation. Read a guest post on this blog for references to the teaching material being used (Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?). For a new report on secondary school textbooks in Pakistan see Producing Thinking Minds, an initiative by a group of concerned students.

 

From hearts and mirrors to smoke and mirrors is a short step. The point to ponder is whether we are raising thinking human beings able to comprehend the truth, whatever it is, or parrots regurgitating platitudes that their masters wish to hear.

 

Not to forget that even parrots trained through distorted mirrors can only take that much distortion without losing their minds and poking out the eyes of the trainers.

 

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26 Responses to “Ghalib – 23: Mirrors and Mirrors”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    I think it is wrong to use Ghalib for utilitarian purpose. Ghalib’s poetry is about aesthetic excellence, the moment we make use of it for making a political point, even if for a noble purpose, we still rob it of its spiritual aura. This multilayered she’r with flawless ravaangi even though laden with Arabic-Farsi words creates dazzling imagery with aaiinaah, pushing you into a surrealistic world. The she’r can be enjoyed without going into esoteric interpretation merely for the mesmerizing imagery of mirrors.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, I don’t think we can have one right or wrong position on this issue. This is a matter of personal perspective and choice. My own feeling is that you can do both things – enjoy the aesthetic excellence and also communicate the implications of the message. I would presume that Ghalib wanted his audience to understand the deeper meaning of his poetry and to think of related issues.

    We had started this series after reading a column by Professor Stanley Fish on how Milton is used to teach undergraduates in the West. I would be interested in your reaction to that argument. The column can be accessed here: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/07/15/milton-and-ghalib/

    One odd implication of your position would be that we set aside the most profound and powerful material we have for aesthetic pleasure and use second-best material for teaching. Would that be a fair interpretation of your argument?

  3. Anil Kala Says:

    Obviously I aired my own views. As regards Professor Stanley Fish, I am not inclined to agree that he speaks gospel truth besides inspired poetry, as a matter of fact, most works of art come into being on spontaneous egging of subconscious mind therefore the assumption Ghalib wanted it for some purpose is highly unlikely. I believe true art is created for the sake of deriving pleasure of creation, nothing else.

    Question simply is that by using the poetry to hammer home a valid political point, are we chiselling away its sparkle?

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, Four points come to mind for further discussion:

    1. The nature of a work of art. Suppose the Taj Mahal is used to teach some aspect of architecture or politics (as Sahir Ludhianvi did); does the Taj lose its lustre? Milton has been used to teach for centuries (according to Professor Fish); has Milton lost its sparkle?

    2. The nature of the artist. Ghalib was a very ‘of this world’ individual; he wanted to be understood, to be recognized and to be rewarded. He wrote qasiidaas (praise-poems) for his patrons (including the King) like all other poets of that time; the poems nonetheless remain great works of art. He wrote rubaaiyaat (quatrains) to complain about his pension woes; they also remain works of art that people read again and again. Fortunately Ghalib leaves behind a record of his thoughts, feelings and motivations in his letters that are themselves works of art. At the same time they are some of the most useful material to understand the socio-politics of the decline of Delhi and the history of 1857 (Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is an example).

    3. Ghalib’s greatness (like that of any other great artist) could simply lie in this phenomenon – their art is so great that it seems it could not have been produced for any worldly purpose (think of the commissions of the great European painters). And the sparkle of the art (as art) remains no matter what one does with it (think of the use of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to teach human nature).

    4. If great art is misused for partisan political purposes or commercial gain, it reflects poorly on the user not on the art. The question then becomes: What are the legitimate uses of great art? Professor Fish provides one answer to this question.

  5. Anil Kala Says:

    1. I don’t think Sahir used Taj as an object of art at all. He used it as a symbol of love and grandeur. If you use Taj for teaching architecture to students you will still not be using Taj as an object of art but when someone begins to flaunt its unsurpassed beauty to make political statement he may tarnish or enhance his own reputation depending on the perception of audience but he most certainly will make a dent in its pristine radiance.

    2. Let us make distinction between artists and art. Most artists are pretty ordinary people just as Mirza Ghalib was. I think Lata Mangheskar is also an average person; her singing though is great just as Mirza Ghalib’s poetry is great. And I also do not subscribe to view the art belongs to artist, it belongs to us. The art created for some purpose (qassidaas and rubaaiyaat you mentioned) hardly ever reaches the sublime status as spontaneously created work of art. The reason being artist himself is doing what we are arguing here.

    3. I don’t think Ghalib as a human being is any greater than you and me, his art is indeed great. Art’s political association dims its abstract radiance.

    4. I think the question itself is wrong. Art is not supposed to be used, it is to be appreciated.

  6. Amit Basole Says:

    Firstly, I do not think this is a debate that can be “settled” by argumentation. That said, a few thoughts follow.

    In my opinion the important question is not whether any one interpretation of Ghalib (or any other text) is legitimate or illegitimate, nor whether Ghalib “intended” any particular interpretation. With Ghalib, as with any text we read him from our socio-historic standpoint and we find a meaning in it also from that standpoint. Our interpretation falls or stands not by some objective relationship to the text, but rather by its resonance with the thoughts and feelings of our contemporaries. If our interpretation means nothing to them, then it does not matter if its the “true interpretation.” On the other hand if it does mean something, then again it does not matter it is not the “true interpretation.” So the reaction of the audience, in other words, decides if something takes on a life of its own, or quietly disappears.

    This appears as a wholly instrumental position with troubling implications. For one, it appears to take “audience tastes” as exogenous and given and interpretations of text competing for their preferences. For e.g. would I condone a use of Ghalib for sectarian or fundamentalist and violent purposes? The answer is no. Interpretation of texts seek to engage readers not only to win their appreciation or to “strike a chord” with them,” but to cause the reader to reflect and perhaps change in some way. This is where the values that guide an interpretation come in.

    It is the explicit aim of this particular project to use Ghalib as a starting point (not the last word) for reflection on contemporary society. Reflection that aims to be consistent with the type of humanity Ghalib appears to espouse in his poetry. I agree that Ghalib is first and foremost a poet, not a social commentator. If we wanted straightforward social and political commentary we could have stuck with Faiz, Iqbal or Akbar. But we were looking for a type of faithfulness to feeling and honesty of reflection, an open-endedness that Ghalib shows in plenty.

  7. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, we should pursue these questions further:

    1. It seems that I am not following the point you wish to make. Can you give an example of how, say, the beauty of the Taj can be flaunted to make a political statement? And how this would make a dent in its pristine radiance?

    2. How do we know whether a work of art is created spontaneously or deliberately? We can only judge it by the outcome since we have no way of knowing the intention or the process. As I mentioned before, many of the great masterpieces of European art were based on commissions.

    3. How would we deal with art that is explicitly created with a political end in mind where the artist intends a political use and not just appreciation? Take, for example, Swift’s satires, the literature of protest and revolution, the poetry of the bhakti movement, the later Iqbal, or Faiz and the progressive writers. How have Faiz’s political motives dimmed the abstract radiance of his poetry?

    4. What do we mean by appreciation? If art motivates the observer to think (take, for example, Picasso’s Guernica) is it not part of appreciation? So are we saying that if the observer thinks spontaneously there is no problem but if he/she is encouraged to think the art loses in value?

  8. Radhika Says:

    I would like to believe that we live in a time and world where we are free to form our own relationships with works of art and interpret them through the lens of our experience and emotions without detriment to anybody else. I am thinking of the swastika symbol- considered holy and auspicious by Hindus, misappropriated by Hitler and a hateful symbol to the Jewish. Does this erase the reverence that Hindus feel for this symbol? no. does this mean Hindus are anti-Semitic? no. Art is a symbol to the one who enjoys but it is not confined except in one’s own mind. I think Ghalib’s intentions are not as important as ours in interpreting his poetry as to put it bluntly he is dead and we don’t know him, we only know his work. Wagner’s music is reviled by Jews everywhere because it was the unfortunate choice of Nazi executioners but it is absolutely beautiful. I think if I could not listen, read, or feel on the basis of my own experience rather than wondering if my every action has a political consequence, why then it would be 1984.

  9. Anil Kala Says:

    When someone attempts to points out that Taj is actually an attempt at replicating heaven with its Chaarbagh, seat of God etc it loses some of its natural charm.

    It doesn’t matter if we know whether an object of art is created with some purpose. The purpose of artist in most cases is quite irrelevant except when it becomes totally incomprehensible. Since you raised the point that Ghalib perhaps wanted his poetry to be used in certain way, we are quarreling over the purpose of art. As Radhika says Ghalib’s intention are not important to us, if we have an alternative interpretation or no interpretation at all and still enjoy his poetry that’s the end of it. The moment there is realization that it is being used, it leaves a bad taste.

    If art is expressly created for a purpose then there is nothing to argue. It will come packaged with the drawback we are discussing though we will not know it.

    I think appreciation is merely a sense of exhilaration you get coming in contact with art. If art motivates an observer there is nothing wrong in it although if someone tries to motivate you through art it leaves a lingering sense of being used.

  10. Aakar Patel Says:

    Javed Akhtar had a problem with remixes of RD Burman songs. He said they blemished the originals. But did they? The originals remained intact for those who prefer to hear them without the dhinchak beat.
    Should the artist determine how (or whether) his/her art should be exploited? Clearly, yes.
    And if they’re dead?

  11. G. Seymour Says:

    Pink Floyd

    Us and Them
    (Waters, Wright) 7:40

    Us, and them
    And after all we’re only ordinary men.
    Me, and you.
    God only knows it’s noz what we would choose to do.
    Forward he cried from the rear
    and the front rank died.
    And the general sat and the lines on the map
    moved from side to side.
    Black and blue
    And who knows which is which and who is who.
    Up and down.
    But in the end it’s only round and round.
    Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words
    The poster bearer cried.
    Listen son, said the man with the gun
    There’s room for you inside.

    “I mean, they’re not gunna kill ya, so if you give ’em a quick short,
    sharp, shock, they won’t do it again. Dig it? I mean he get off
    lightly, ‘cos I would’ve given him a thrashing – I only hit him once!
    It was only a difference of opinion, but really…I mean good manners
    don’t cost nothing do they, eh?”

    Down and out
    It can’t be helped but there’s a lot of it about.
    With, without.
    And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?
    Out of the way, it’s a busy day
    I’ve got things on my mind.
    For the want of the price of tea and a slice
    The old man died.

  12. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, This discussion has split in a number of directions. You and I are having a fairly simple conversation. Amit, Radhika and Aakar are putting more complex thoughts on the table but not yet engaging with the others, and Seymour has made an abstract input that no one else has figured out yet.

    Let us continue with our conversation:

    1. Your concrete example has helped me conclude that the first point is simply one of personal preference. Your appreciation of the Taj is affected by the mention of the fact that it might be modeled on a concept of heaven; I take it as just another input. So we can treat this issue as resolved.

    2. On the issue of the artist, we have moved back and forth. You first say that the purpose of the artist is irrelevant. But then you state that if the art is created for a purpose it is plagued with a drawback. We need to resolve this issue.

    3. You make a very strong claim that if art is created for a purpose it will be devalued though we will not know it. Here you are leaving no room for argument. If I claim that it is not devalued for me you will say that it is but I just don’t realize it. Is there any way you can change this into a testable proposition?

    4. Your point about appreciation and motivation is a very fine one. It seems your objection is to a third party coming between the art and the observer. If the art motivates on its own, it is acceptable; but if the art is used to motivate, it is not. Once again this is a personal preference on which we can agree to differ.

    5. One of the principal objectives of this blog is to promote critical thinking and our target audience is college students. We are relying on art to encourage students to think. How do we resolve the dilemma that you have posed – that we are devaluing the art in the process? Teaching, by definition, brings the teacher between the content and the student. What kind of pedagogy should we employ to circumvent your objection?

  13. Radhika Says:

    The question of the role of the teacher mediating between the content and the student is a very interesting one. Art classes in school in india in the 70s and 80s were based on doing not on thinking critically about the art itself-I do not have experience with other school systems so I can’t comment on those. I would say it depends on the training of the teacher, their exposure to worldwide influences, their reading of history, literature and philosophy, science even. In India art as taught in elementary and high schools seemed to be divided from other fields of endeavour as though it existed in a vaccum. Proximity to art objects and frequency of interaction is another aspect of exploring art that is quite neglected in india in schools. Curriculum also hampers the teacher. For example we are told about the Taj Mahal ad nauseaum but nobody bothered to mention miniature painting to us. Also if you weren’t taking art classes by choice in school then that was the end of your learning. For me, it took 2 survey of western art classes, and attendance at the Smithsonian’s history of art certificate in my late 20s to begin thinking of art and begin looking critically at art, indian or otherwise.

  14. G. Seymour Says:

    I didn’t mean the input to be abstract and obscure. What I meant to convey was that some of the finest works of art are about politics. Picasso’s Guernica was already mentioned. The anti-war song I input is one of Pink Floyd’s better known songs. Instead of making a direct argument that art is not devalued by being put to some purpose, I thought it might be more effective in our current world situation to show by an example that political art can be quite effective.

  15. kabir Says:

    As a student of the performing arts, I feel that we do ourselves a huge disservice if we put art in a seperate category that is only for aesthetic appreciation but has no substantive content (or the substantive content doesn’t matter). Artists don’t create art in a vacuum, and classic works of art are those that speak to the conditions of the time or to the human condition in general. Since my focus is theatre, I will use examples from that discipline. Some of the most famous “political” plays are those of Bertolt Brecht. Another more recent example is Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” which deals with themes of imperialism and identity. Finally, in yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about a proposed New York production of Caryl Churchill’s new ten minute play about Gaza entitled “Seven Jewish Children”, this has provoked some interesting commentary on art and whether it can be censored, etc. Interested readers can check it out on “The Lede” which is one of NYT’s blogs.

  16. Anil Kala Says:

    I think my objection has been taken completely out of context. This is the best I can do:

    1. If art is created with an express purpose it will not be a work of spontaneous burst of creativity, the artist will not be working in complete freedom therefore it will be lacking something. It does not mean the work of art will be bad or substandard. Can we say with authority that Picasso started work on Guernica with a set of preconceived notions? It is much more likely that it was a free expression of a deeply disturbed Picasso.

    2. There is no problem with art motivating or becoming symbol of a political expression on its own. However laboured attempt to do so will make it lose some or more of its sheen.

    3. To appreciate art it is neither important nor necessary to know what the artist is expressing (I wrongly used the word purpose earlier). For the consumer of art his own interpretation or lack of it is sufficient. Sometimes knowing other interpretations help sometimes they don’t.

  17. Anil Kala Says:

    “Your appreciation of the Taj is affected by the mention of the fact that it might be modeled on a concept of heaven; I take it as just another input. So we can treat this issue as resolved.”

    It is an input for me as well albeit a loaded input. A clandestine attempt at peddling an obscure tenet.

  18. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, This comes down to the atomistic level of very personal reactions where it becomes impossible to generalize. The same input can bounce off different individuals at very different angles without being right or wrong or in need of explanation.

    I have no way of knowing what in your life history would make you interpret the remark as a clandestine attempt at peddling an obscure tenet. I would look at the Taj again to see if the description made sense or go back to the Shahjahan Nama to check if he actually made the comparison. I might look at the Taj in a different way but it would not effect my appreciation of it. It could very well improve it.

    As I said, there is no need to try and explain these personal reactions except as path-dependence but since you are fond of evolution, let me make a light-hearted attempt.

    Given the hazards to primitive live, an attitude of scepticism or caution or suspicion must have made more sense than one of trust. Even though 99 perecnt of garden snakes are harmless, it would be advisable to avoid one than to play with it. So, a cautious attitude must have been favored by evolution and survives even when it is no longer quite so warranted.

    The bottom line is that your personality-type is more likely to survive the next round of the reality show than mine. The Taj will survive both of us, hopefully.

  19. Anil Kala Says:

    This reaction does not pertain to the subject of Ghalib but since we are on Taj Mahal let us see……

    Should Taj Mahal be preserved?

    Some years back I was watching this documentary in discovery channel about Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia. The initial pictures of discovery of the temple complex by the French showing a giant head peering at you through the thick canopy of tropical trees was breathtaking. Gradually they showed deformed edifice of temple heaving in sigh at the upheaval caused by the growing roots and branches of trees, the cracks in the walls with lush Peepul jutting out of those cracks making my imagination go wild. I wondered what the original temple would have looked like, awesome! Unfortunately the clinically restored temple did not meet my expectation, I longed to see that hidden piece of debris decaying gradually in the wilderness. I realized that restoring or preserving an historical monument is a bad idea.

    We should let the Taj wither naturally. Let wild trees grow around it and in time let the minarets crumble naturally, its edifice turn and twist with every move of the roots of large trees deforming it irrevocably. Let the shining dome be partial hidden behind the thick foliage and snakes, scorpions make home in the cracks of those beautiful walls. The best strokes of genius are the strokes of nature and imagination always better than the real thing.

    Let us allow these monuments live their natural life without any interference from us and then disappear. We will create new monuments in time and the cycle will continue. Every space deserves vibrant renewal.

  20. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, Can I try and bring this back on topic?

    Can I consider this use of the Taj as a clandestine attempt to peddle a primitive Rousseauesque fantasy? Should I allow it to lessen the charm of the Taj for me? Would I ever be able to think of the Taj again without imagining a huge banyan tree growing through a dome splattered with the droppings of upside down bats? Give me back the model of heaven.

    On another plane, why should we desire this only of the Taj if it is so attractive? Why don’t I stop brushing my teeth, taking a shower, changing my clothes and letting the pigeons nest in my hair? (But please don’t take away my blackberry.)

    Just some jet-lagged thoughts to keep our conversation going.

  21. Anil Kala Says:

    You appear to be very angry

  22. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, On the contrary, I am having a lot of fun with one thing leading to another. I am sorry if it came across otherwise.

  23. Anil Kala Says:

    Actually I am very serious about these things. I am not saying that these monuments should be pulled down but I want them to be left alone.

    Will we be depriving our children of these glorious works of art? No, we will leave them something to fantasize.

    In fact this whole multi billion dollars art business is phoney. A five hundred dollar good fake of Rembrandt or Monet or Cezanne, which even top art critics find difficult to tell the difference, will provide same sense of exhilaration and satisfaction as the original whereas ten million dollar original ensconced in a bullet proof glass strung high on wall is useless for art aficionado. Why spend millions on restoration when we can have the same sense of enjoyment from good copies? At the core of art business is this obsessive desire for exclusivity and it has nothing to do with art.

    Earlier arrangement of patron-artist was far better; an artist was paid for his effort and the art slips in public domain. When art was in public domain, everyone could touch them feel them and appreciate them. As soon as a price tag was attached to them, we have assured their destruction or irrelevance.

    I am sorry I have drifted into completely unrelated territory.

  24. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, There is some point you are trying to make that is not coming across to me.

    Most people today actually see the great paintings via reproductions. Very few get to see the originals that are in museums or in private collections. From this it does not follow that there is a need to destroy the originals. If some people are willing to pay very high prices for the originals, should that be disallowed? If so, we can discuss the implications of that policy which really pertains to capitalism and property rights and not to art.

    The point you are making applies only to paintings. There is now a copy of the Taj in Bangladesh and every city can make a copy if it so desires. But I doubt people who can afford it would stop wanting to see the original by the Jamuna. You wish it to decay. Some will agree with you, others not – I am not sure how this can be resolved.

    Take the case of music. Do you not regret that the original voice of Tansen could not be preserved? I can fantasize all I want but that does not satisfy my sense of deprivation. Of course we can differ on this with you preferring the limitless imaginative scope of the fantasy and I wishing to know exactly how the music sounded.

    I also asked you the counter question in seriousness. Why should we not let our own bodies decay instead of trying to maintain them as long as we can? Why not put an end to our lives as soon as our children are born so that they can fantasize about us? I am sure the fantasy would be more flattering than the reality. Nowadays we can even leave them with photographs in case their capacity to fantasize is limited.

    Finally, there seems to be a contradiction in your position about the creation of art. Earlier you favored spontaneity and argued that if art was produced for any material reason it was devalued. Now you indicate that the patron-artist arrangements were better – this too needs to be resolved.

    I would like to invite you to write a longer post elaborating your argument and we could start an exclusive discussion related to that since here we are encroaching on Ghalib’s territory.

  25. Radhika Says:

    I am not standing in for Anil here, South Asian, but I must answer the point about why one even bothers to take care of oneself since death is always just around! We are often in love with things that remind us of death – memories, dead roses, old photos, cooked food (yes, that is a way of tasting death!), tea (withered leaves!) and our fascination with ghost stories. Even the newborn is fascinating because he/she just arrived from other side and is much closer to that side than to us the living! for our own death – we like to dress up and welcome it in style and what better style than to have lived well! The Taj may well crumble but until it does let it be in it’s solitary beauty without vines and creepers….in this context Tagore’s poem is a unique take on how the Emperor Shah Jahan leaving behind the memorial that is inconsolable being left behind and looks for him .

  26. SouthAsian Says:

    Radhika, I was trying to explore the logic of Anil’s argument by posing a hypothetical question. Anil said that the Taj is so beautiful that we should allow it to wither away – we should not attempt to preserve it. My question was: We consider ourselves to be very beautiful too – so why do we try and preserve ourselves?

    Are we in love with things that remind us of death or of those who have died – two different things because we can hate death for taking away the ones that have died. All the things you mention are cherished because of their association with a dead one we might have loved. And do we really think of a newborn as being close to death and therefore fascinating?

    Something in the last sentence of your comment must have gone awry – Tagore’s meaning is not clear to me.

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