Ghazal 1, Verse 1


naqsh faryaadii hai kis kii sho;xii-e ta;hriir kaa
kaa;Ga;zii hai pairahan har paikar-e ta.sviir kaa

1) the drawing/picture is a plaintiff-- about whose mischievousness of writing?
2) of paper is the robe of every figure of the picture


naqsh : 'A painting, a picture; portrait; drawing; a print; a carving, an engraving; a map, or plan'. (Platts p.1145)

sho;xii : 'Playfulness, fun, mischief; pertness, sauciness; coquetry, wantonness; forwardness, boldness, insolence'. (Platts p.736)

ta;hriir : 'Setting at liberty, manumission; --writing elegantly and accurately; writing, description'. (Platts p.312)

paikar : 'Face, countenance, visage; form, appearance, figure; resemblance, portrait, likeness'. (Platts p.300)


ta.sviir : 'Picture; drawing; sketch; painting; portrait; an image'. (Platts p.326)


[1865:] First listen to the meaning of the meaningless verses. As for naqsh faryaadii : In Iran there is the custom that the seeker of justice [daad-;xvaah], putting on paper garments, goes before the ruler-- as in the case of lighting a torch in the day, or carrying a blood-soaked cloth on a bamboo pole [to protest an injustice]. Thus the poet reflects, of whose mischievousness of writing is the image a plaintiff? --since the aspect of a picture is that its garment is of paper. That is to say, although existence may be like that of pictures, merely notional [i((tibaar-e ma;ha.z], it is a cause of grief and sorrow and suffering.
==Urdu text: Khaliq Anjum vol. 2, p. 837


The author's meaning is that in life, we become separated and divided from the True Source, and separation from that Beloved is so grievous that even a figure in a picture complains about it. And after all, the existence of a picture is no existence! But it too longs to become lost in God: it laments its life.

The suggestion of the paper dress of a plaintiff is present in Persian too, and in Urdu in the poetry of Mir Mamnun, and I've seen it in the poetry of Momin Khan too. But the author's saying that in Iran there is a custom that the justice-seeker puts on paper robes and goes before the ruler-- I have never seen or heard any mention of this anywhere.

As long as in this verse there's no word that would make manifest an ardor for becoming lost in God, and a hatred for worldly existence, we cannot call it meaningful. Nobody deliberately composes things without meaning. What happens is that because of the constraint of scansion and rhyme, there was no scope for some necessary words, and the poet considered that the meaning had been expressed. Then, however many meanings have remained in the poet's mind, they should be called [in Arabic] 'meanings internal to the poet' [al-ma((nii fi))l-baa:tin ash-shaa((ir].

In this verse, the author's intention was that the figure in the painting is a plaintiff about an insubstantial, unworthy existence. And this is the reason for its paper robe. There was no scope for 'insubstantial existence' because it was awkward, and his purpose was to compose an opening-verse. In place of 'existence' he put 'mischievousness of writing', and from this no presumption about the cutting out of 'existence' was created. Finally, even to his face people said, 'This verse is meaningless'. (1-2)

== Nazm page 1; Nazm page 2


Urdu text: Vajid 1902 {1}

Bekhud Dihlavi:

The meaning is that existence is a cause of pain and suffering because of its instability and mortality. The commentary is that the world-- that is, the population of the world-- is a plaintiff, about the Eternal Engraver's mischievousness of writing. (The dress of a plaintiff, according to an ancient custom of Iran, used to be of paper, the way in Hindustan those with complaints used to carry a lighted torch in the day, or in Arabia they used to put a murdered person's clothing on a spear and go to seek vengeance.) The meaning of 'mischievousness' is 'not to stay fixed'. And 'not to stay fixed' is already proved, because of the picture's having a paper robe. That is, the common custom is that a picture is made on paper, and paper is a thing that gets ruined quickly. By 'every figure in the picture' is meant the totality of animals and plants. And all these things are destined for oblivion. The only difference is that a flower withers in the course of a day; for a human's death, no [fixed] interval has been decreed. Even things made of wood, stone, metal finally become useless and broken. When all the things in the world are in this state, then for an image of existence to be a plaintiff about its instability and contingency, is a complete proof of the poet's lofty imagination and uncommon inventiveness. In my opinion this verse is meaningful, and the thought is one heretofore untouched. To call this verse meaningless is to do violence to the claims of justice (9).

Bekhud Mohani:

I am entirely astonished at Janab [Nazm] Tabataba'i's words. Five objections to one verse, and those objections too such that a sound taste puts its finger to its teeth [in amazement]! The aforementioned gentleman doesn't find any word in this verse that expresses aversion to insubstantial existence. Although in the first line, not to speak of aversion, a powerful word like 'plaintiff' is present. And the complaint too is such that the plantiffs, like those seeking vengeance for the murder of an innocent, have donned paper robes. 'Aversion' was a commonplace word; so in such a place why would a pulse-taker of words and meaning like Mirza have selected it? After a look at what I have submitted, probably [;Gaalib;an] it cannot be said that the verse is in the realm of 'meanings internal to the poet'. And it hardly depends on my reply. Mirza himself has given a response: {13,1}.

As for the claim that people told Mirza to his face that this opening verse was meaningless, in my opinion it's not necessary to give a reply, because the aforementioned gentleman has not given any source for this information. But it’s necessary to say this much: that if such a thing happened, it’s no cause for astonishment. There are many such 'connoisseurs' today; nor were they few in Mirza's time either....

I am astonished at Janab [Nazm]'s presumption-- that he didn’t even reflect that Mirza chose this opening-verse for the opening-verse of his divan. He ignored the fact that the rank Mirza held as a poet, he also held as a judge of poetry. The pitilessness with which Mirza made a selection from his own poetry [for publication]-- such examples are not to be seen even in the case of the Persian purists. Then, those venerable elders who were destined to have the honor of taking part in the making of the selection-- in that day there was heartfelt acceptance of their understanding of poetry, their grasp of subtle points; and even today people don't dispute their decisions. Everyone also knows that Mirza's divan was published in his lifetime. Even after the publication of his divan, Mirza lived for some time. It's astonishing that he never had the suspicion, 'My opening verse is meaningless!'. [Arabic:] 'Take heed, you who are insightful'. (1-3)


Except for [Nazm] Tabataba'i, all the commentators call this verse meaningful. (7)


Naushervan the Just hung a chain outside his bedchamber; on the bedchamber end a bell was tied. Seekers of justice used to come and pull on that chain, and used to wear clothes of paper. Naushervan used to call them in and provide them with justice.... Jahangir too had this chain copied. He called it the Chain of Justice. Naushervan was its inventor.

[Information about the history of paper at various times and places, and then brief paraphrases of Nazm's criticisms.] The word ta;hriir , which has had to come in as the rhyme, is the worst disrupter of the meaning.

I am applying a canvas patch to satin. If the possessors of accomplishment should approve, then that's fine; otherwise, I mean no disrespect:

naqsh faryaadii hai kis hastii-e ;Gam-taa;siir kaa
[the image is a plaintiff of whose grief-affecting existence?]

naqsh faryaadii hai kis kii duurii-e dilgiir kaa
[the image is a plaintiff of whose heart-seizing distance?]

naqsh faryaadii hai kis ke ;hijr-e daaman-giir kaa
[the image is a plaintiff of whose garment-hem-grasping absence?]

I don't mean one of these very lines-- but rather, that there should be some well-formed line expressing this thought. (91-93)


Some say that this verse is nonsensical. But this is entirely an injustice. Mirza [Ghalib] Sahib says in a style of feigned ignorance, 'Who has, through his artisanship, displayed so much mischievousness in the image of every creature, that each individual is unable to endure that mischievousness, and can be seen to make a complaint?' In the second line is the verbal device of 'elegance in assigning a cause'. The clothing of a picture is of paper. Mirza takes that clothing to be the clothing of plaintiffs. 'Mischievousness' refers to the coming into being, and destruction, of substances, and thus to the various types of events that keep erasing one creature after another. (49)


The words of the verse hint at still another meaning, and in this connection Ghalib's commentary guides us. The key question of the first line is 'whose': that is, as yet it has not been proved which being it is against whose 'mischievousness of writing' the image is a plaintiff. In other words, this verse is indeed about the transience of existence or its inescapable grief and suffering; but its fundamental question is, who is that Power before whose might and grandeur everything is helpless? The first line's 'whose' is more interrogatory than astonished: it is possible that if 'whose mischievousness of writing?' can receive a true answer, then the 'figure in the picture' can seek justice. The 'image' is, in truth, man, who is speechless like a picture, and who in a language of speechlessness is making the complaint, 'who ensnared us in suffering?'. Consider this point also: that the image is speechless, and its very speechlessness is the proof of its being a plaintiff. Ghalib was very fond of this kind of paradoxical utterance.

In addition to the affinities ('image', 'writing', 'of paper', 'robe', 'figure', 'picture') Ghalib has also taken good care in this verse to have harmony of sound ( faryaadii , kis kii , sho;xii , kaa;Gazii hai pairahan har paikar ) [in which ii occurs four times, ai and ar three times]. In the second line there is a special emphasis on har , which knocks against the two r's of paikar-e ta.sviir and increases the elements of intensity and mystery in the line.

The first line is also constructed as inshaa))iyah , that is, interrogative. Interrogation is Ghalib's special style. It's possible that he learned the art of interrogation and other interrogative principles from Mir. But the first verse of the divan, the theme of which ought to have been founded on praise of God, calls the arrangement of the two worlds into question. This mischievousness, or free-spiritedness, or lofty-mindedness, is Ghalib's special style. Mir too has called the arrangements of the Creator of the Universe into question; for example, in his very first divan he says,


Seeing the word 'mischievousness' the suspicion arises that Mir's verse might have stuck in Ghalib's mind. But to use the theme of the mischievousness of the Creator of the Universe, and on top of that to turn that mischievousness into a subject for question and place such a verse at the head of the volume-- this mischievousness was possible only from Ghalib. (1989: 22-24) [2006: 24-26]


WRITING: {7,3}

Carla Petievich suggests 'caprice' as a translation for sho;xii , and I like it a lot. Only 'capriciousness' would be even more accurate, except that it doesn't quite sound as if it does the harm that 'mischievousness' actually does.

We can also take ta;hriir to mean 'setting at liberty', as well as 'writing' (see the definition above). For it works excellently with the law-court imagery. We can think of it as spoken by the 'plaintiff' somewhat sarcastically: the figures in a picture may look as though they inhabit a luxurious world, but of course they can't even move around in it, and they haven't been 'set at liberty' in any sense at all-- despite their 'liberation' they remain helpless like prisoners (and like us humans in our 'free' lives?).

Prashant Keshavmurthy points out (Dec. 2008) that in the preface to his Persian divan, Ghalib describes mystical lovers as 'paper-shirted like pictured figures, silent at the astonishment of being' [kaa;Gazii pairahanand chuun paikar-e ta.sviir az ;hairat-e vaaqi((ah ;xaamosh], and as 'torch-bearers, clad in black like lightning from heart-smoke'. So it's clear that this image was meaningful to him in more than one context. But did he even believe that there actually was any such (implausible-sounding) custom in Persia? Who can say? And does it matter? In the world of the classical ghazal, verisimilitude is not exactly anything anybody aims for.

There has been a great deal of commentarial controversy about this verse, stemming first from Nazm's notorious claim that it is meaningless (despite his then immediately proceeding to explain its meaning), and then secondarily from the strong reaction he provoked-- at great length from Bekhud Mohani, but in one way or another from virtually everybody else. Nazm makes a similar claim of meaninglessness about {5,3}, {17,5}, {28,1}, and {223,1}, among other instances.

But look at how Ghalib begins his own analysis, in a letter to a friend written only a few years before his death. Why does he say 'listen to the meaning of the meaningless verses' [ma((nii-e abyaat-e be-ma((nii suniye]? Along with this verse, he explains two others: {6,1} and {6,2}. I've written an article about the commentarial tradition, using this verse as a particular example: "The Meaning of the Meaningless Verses".

Harish Trivedi suggests a mention of the fact that Faiz took the title of his first volume of poetry (1943) from this verse. Not only that, but Faiz inserted an i.zaafat into it, making it naqsh-e faryaadii , which could mean something like 'the complaining image' or 'the image of the plaintiff'. (From this phrase, by an act of very free transcreation, Agha Shahid Ali took the title of his book of Faiz translations, The Rebel's Silhouette.)

“A Palace Complex with Harem Gardens,” India, Faizabad or Lucknow; c. 1765, perhaps by Faiz Allah. From the David Museum.