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about the ghazals



Ghalib’s ‘traditional divan’ in Urdu forms the chief basis for this project. This traditional divan—his muravvaj diivaan —contains much less than half of his writing, however: it omits two major groups of his poems, and all of his prose. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the penumbra of other work that surrounds the poems presented on this site.

(1) UNPUBLISHED URDU GHAZALS:  Many of his Urdu ghazals that are well known from reliable manuscript sources are not included in the ‘traditional divan’. Four times in the course of his life (1841, 1847, 1861, and 1862) Ghalib oversaw the printing of his Urdu divan, but he never included more ghazals from his substantial body of very early manuscript material. Some of the unpublished material consists of variants of verses that he did publish, but others of the verses are unique, and are fully up to the standard of his best work. It is a mystery why he never chose to expand his published divan. I am including in the main commentary those of these unpublished verses from divan ghazals, and a few from formally identical unpublished ghazals, that are particularly recommended by S. R. Faruqi (the verses he includes in his own selection are starred on their verse pages). For further discussion see {4,8x}. Textual access is also provided through THIS INDEX to all Ghalib's unpublished ghazals, as presented chronologically by Kalidas Gupta Raza. They are numbered in alphabetical order on the basis of their rhyming elements; since the main divan ends with ghazal {234}, the unpublished ghazals begin with {235x}. Some commentary is also available, especially that of Gyan Chand, Abdul Bari Asi, and Zamin Kanturi.

(2) PERSIAN POETRY:  None of Ghalib’s Persian poems are in this collection, though he composed a large amount of Persian poetry and was particularly proud of it. It has of course been published, but has received much less critical attention than his Urdu poetry. In fact most of it is very much like his Urdu poetry: sometimes only a single verb, or some small grammatical particle, enables us to say whether a ghazal verse is in Persian or Urdu. For a look at some of his Persian poetry in translation, see Yusuf Husain or Russell and Adani.

(3) PERSIAN AND URDU PROSE:  Ghalib was also proud of his various Persian prose works. During the dark days of the Rebellion of 1857 he shut himself up in his house and wrote the most famous of them, Dastanbu [dastanbuu], an account of the events of 1857 in which he sought to use only old Persian words and avoid all Arabic ones (Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi has done a translation). In addition, he wrote a number of very elaborate, formally arranged letters in Persian. What people really loved, however, were his more casual and intimate Urdu letters, which he himself only gradually came to value. These were collected and published even in his lifetime. Nowadays, the best source for them is the four-volume work of Khaliq Anjum. Many have been translated in whole or in part by Russell and Islam and Daud Rahbar.




Within the ‘traditional divan’ are Urdu poems in four genres. In the latter part of the divan are found: five odes [qa.siidah] some worldly and some religious; seventeen verse-sets [qi:t((ah] of varying lengths, including the famous one in praise of a betel nut; and sixteen quatrains [rubaa((ii]—the genre made famous in English by Fitzgerald’s classic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Because life is short, all these as well we are going to ignore. (Though I did manage to smuggle in the betel-nut one in {95,1}.)

The heart of the ‘traditional divan’ is its 234 ghazals [;Gazal], which contain (by my count) 1,459 two-line verses. The shortest possible ghazal (called an 'individual') is one verse long, and there are 19 of them; the longest ghazal, the famous {233}, runs to 17 verses.

The ghazals are not presented in the divan in any thematic sequence. Nor are they presented in the order of composition. In fact, some of them are quite difficult to date with precision; but the work of Kalidas Gupta Raza enables us to make a reasonable chronology.

In many earlier ghazals, the poet used the pen-name of 'Asad'. When he discovered that another poet was already using it, he changed over to 'Ghalib'. Both pen-names thus appear in the divan.

The divan presents the ghazals in the traditional style: in alphabetical order by the last letter of the refrain [radiif] (or, if there is none, of the rhyme [qaafiyah]). However, within those last-letter groupings, the ghazals are not then arranged by next-to-last letter as one might expect. Their internal arrangement within each last-letter group is whatever order Ghalib himself chose for them; for all we know, he might have chosen according to some unstated scheme(s), or even randomly. Almost the only traditional requirement is that the first verse within the first last-letter group should be a praise of God; you can see for yourself how in {1,1} Ghalib only obliquely acknowledges this requirement.

Because of the complexities of the four different editions of the divan published in Ghalib’s lifetime—the various manuscript sources, the errors of calligraphy, the additions, the small discrepancies—nowadays the many printed editions of the divan are mostly very similar, but not quite identical. For example, the verse that some editions treat as {2}, an 'individual', is incorporated by others as the last verse of {8}; the longish ghazal that I call {15} is treated by some editions as two separate ghazals; the two separate ghazals I call {97} and {98} are treated by some editions as a single very long ghazal. And there are occasional very slightly variant wordings, as in {6,5}, {8,6x} (manuscript evidence divided), {19,7}, {29,4}, {41,3} (an error in Arshi); {46,6}, {50,1}, {50,2}, {77,8}, {96,4}, {98,8}, {110,8}, {115,6}, {133,5x} (an error in Arshi); {152,2}; {173,9}; {174,5}, {196,3}; {196,5}, {205,3}, {207,2}, {212,4}, {234,7}, and small rearrangements of verse order, as in {35}, {48}, {186}. Most of these differences are relatively minor (especially in modern editions), but they needed to be resolved in some coherent way, so I decided to make a clear choice of sources.



The textual sources I’ve relied on for this project have been basically two: Imtiyaz Ali Khan Arshi for the texts of the verses (with a single small disagreement in {170,3}), and Hamid Ali Khan Hamid (available on this site) for the ordering of the ghazals in the published divan. For the unpublished ghazals, I have relied on the chronologically arranged 1995 edition prepared by Kalidas Gupta Raza, also available on this site. All the textual sources for this project are listed in the Bibliography.

No scholar in the field will be surprised by my choice of Arshi; his comprehensive and authoritative work is in a class by itself, and it is a sad commentary on the state of Ghalib studies that it is so often out of print. We all owe a tremendous debt to Arshi's textual scholarship. Arshi does, however, arrange the ghazals in an idiosyncratic order, basically chronological (as far as he can manage) and unfamiliar to everybody except those scholars who use his edition.

Arshi also, alas, punctuates the ghazals, which in my opinion is a sad lapse of judgment. On the website I have eliminated his punctuation. Nowadays it seems that all editors feel free to impose their own choice of English-style punctuation on the texts of classical ghazals, as if they were English poems— except, of course, that imposing extra punctuation on an English poem would be an inexcusable editoral intrusion. Don’t let me get started on all this, it’s too depressing. (It shows how sadly our modern editors have misunderstood Ghalib’s techniques for 'meaning-creation'.) But do remember: in the case of Ghalib's ghazals (and classical ghazals in general), ALL ENGLISH-STYLE PUNCTUATION MARKS HAVE BEEN IMPOSED ONLY BY LATER EDITORS.

I wanted to present the ghazals in the traditional order that goes back to Ghalib himself. Of the several widely available modern editions that I could have followed (and that differ from each other only in small ways), I chose Hamid's partly for its fine calligraphy, but mostly for sentimental reasons: his edition was the one I first used when I began to study Ghalib seriously, in Lahore in 1979-80. During that year I bought so many paperbound copies of it that my bookseller finally let me have one of his few, hoarded, fancy hardbound ones as well. It is still with me, full of memories and notes. (It was losing its binding, and becoming a diivaan-e be-shiiraazah like the one in {18,5}; but I recently had it rebound.)

There is no tradition of numbering Ghalib’s ghazals consistently for easy reference. The numbers I’ve used are assigned only by me. I arrived at them by following the ordering of Hamid's edition (which is itself, like the rest, unnumbered).

As you'll see, my own translations of the ghazals for this project are the very reverse of literary: they strive to reflect the actual text as faithfully as they can. They are designed not to give you a fine reading experience in English, but to help you get as close as possible to the Urdu. Translating the ghazals of Ghalib in a serious literary way is a doomed mission in any case; it's basically impossible. Not only can you not capture the wordplay and multivalence that are at the heart of Ghalib's genius— you usually can't even be sure how to assign the beloved a gender.




Ghalib has been called a ‘difficulty-loving’ [mushkil-pasand] poet, and not without reason. He is the only Urdu poet to have inspired a whole commentarial tradition. Over the past century, something like a hundred commentators have offered their services to help Urdu readers interpret his poetry. (A detailed list of them is given by Muhammad Ansarullah, and a critical study is provided by Muhammad Ayyub Shahid.) For many reasons, including my deep love of the poetry and my only slightly less deep irritation with most of the commentators, I am now joining their ranks. I am not the first English-language commentator—C. M. Naim (1970 and 1972) and Sarfaraz Niazi (2002) have preceded me—but I am the first non-South-Asian, and the first person who’s not a native Urdu speaker, to join the group. I feel both very much in the tradition, and very much out of it.

I incorporate into this project passages from some of the most important previous commentators. The Bibliography lists all the commentarial and reference materials used in this website. All translations are my own, and are as literal as I can manage to make them. The commentators are not always as helpful as one might wish; for examples of my problems with them, see {26,7} or {90,3}. I sometimes break their long paragraphs into shorter ones. Within translated commentaries, everything in parentheses comes from the original commentator; everything in square brackets comes from me. I will also gradually add more comments (and sometimes more commentators) to the ghazals as seems appropriate.

Please keep in mind that for years to come the whole website will be a work in progress, subject to change in every part as it grows and evolves. It will contain all the scholarly things I would put in a multi-volume work, as well as various informal and idiosyncratic things that I will add when it seems like the thing to do. Having my own handmade html pages, on my own website, is seductive. This project feels partly formal, but also partly like space for experimenting and thinking aloud— more like my own research notes than like a polished academic manuscript.

Here, in chronological order, are the commentators that might be considered significant for the purposes of this project. The numbered ones are those I've found to be especially thought-provoking and suggestive; their views will often be cited. If I include a commentator's words, it doesn't mean that I agree with them; it may mean just that I think them worth reflecting on, possibly for their very unhelpfulness. The numbered commentators are those I've used most consistently, but the rest are of particular historical or other interest.

(1) GHALIB himself has commented (before 1869) analytically, in his letters, on fourteen verses. He has also made more general mention of other verses; all such references have been incorporated, as translated by me, and parallel translations by Russell and Islam and/or Daud Rahbar have been indicated where they are available. The most reliable modern textual source for Ghalib's Urdu letters is Khaliq Anjum.

= AZAD gives us, from aab-e ;hayaat (1880) a few good anecdotes that are part of the energetic hatchet job he’s doing on Ghalib.

= VALIH gives us in vu;suuq-e .saraa;hat (1893/4) a very early but extremely compressed and rather minimalist commentary.

(2) HALI, Ghalib’s pupil and biographer, published his memoir of the poet in 1897. While this memoir is not formally a commentary, it contains many remarks and observations about the ghazals. Almost every relevant passage from it has been incorporated here; the translations are my own. (Hali is also the best source for anecdotes.)

(3) NAZM Tabataba'i, who published his work in 1900, was the most influential commentator of them all. I translate and incorporate a great many excerpts from his idiosyncratic, persnickety, often intriguing and insightful work. I’ve also made available an electronic version of this very central text, with the relevant page(s) linked from each verse entry.

= VAJID: Published in Hyderabad in 1901 (second edition 1902), Vajid’s commentary on selected ghazals and verses ending in alif is extremely rare and obscure. I’ve recently discovered an online edition, and have used it to make a single PDF for each ghazal; these are linked from the verses that Vajid discusses.

= HASRAT MOHANI (1905) offers very brief notes, and on only some selected verses

= NIZAMI BADAYUNI (1915) provides extensive introductory material, then a full commentary.

= SUHA (1923): another rare commentary, also available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

(4) BEKHUD DIHLAVI, who published his work in 1923-24, represents the reliable, common-sense, bread-and-butter commentarial mainstream. He's on the concise and prosaic side, and frequently copies from Hali and Nazm. He must not be confused with his colleague, Bekhud Mohani.

(5) BEKHUD MOHANI, who also published his work in 1923-24, shouldn’t be confused with his colleague Bekhud Dihlavi. Bekhud Mohani, for whom I’ve gained a special respect over time, illustrates, embroiders, tries multiple perspectives—and ignores Hali, and constantly argues with Nazm.

= SAIDUDDIN (1926): thanks to the good offices of the Ghalib Academy, a reprint edition, generously scanned for us by Satya Hegde, is now available on this site.

= ASI (1931): this valuable and often-quoted, but very rare, commentary is now available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site. Indexed with it is Asi’s even rarer commentary on the unpublished verses; this includes only selected unpublished verses, not every one.

= ZAMIN (1934): this commentary, published only in 2012, seems to be the only one that integrates published and unpublished verses.

= BAQIR (1939) is especially useful to students because he synthesizes many other commentators’ views; several reprint editions are available.

= SHADAN (1946) is both disarming and exasperating; he’s a devoted admirer of Nazm, and also specializes in rewriting Ghalib's verses for greater clarity.

= JOSH (1950) writes very briefly, but can be helpful on occasion.

= ABD UL-HAKIM (1954) comments on selected Urdu and Persian verses from a mystical point of view; the work is indexed on this site.

= ASAR LAKHNAVI (1957): this rare commentary is now available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

= ARSHI (1958) suggests useful parallels between verses (he’s also of course my primary textual authority, as described above)

= CHISHTI (1959) writes as an academic, with many theoretical observations

= VAJAHAT ALI SANDILVI (1964) focus his attention on sixty especially problematical verses; his work is available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

= MIHR (1967) is still in print today, and offers accessible help for the modern beginner

= NATIQ (1968): this rare commentary is now available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

(6) C. M. NAIM’s two brief but thoughtful commentaries (1970 and 1972) cover only a small number of verses, but they are of special value because he wrote them in English; thus he can speak for himself without my interposition. I have included substantial excerpts from every instance of his commentary.

(7) GYAN CHAND (1971) comments only on unpublished verses; for these verses I’ve presented much of his commentary; the text is available on this site.

NIYAZ FAT'HPURI (1972) devotes his commentary to the 'difficulties' of Ghalib; his work is now available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

(8) NAIYAR MASUD is better known as a fine short-story writer, and has only commented (1973) on a handful of verses—though most of them he has treated in fascinating detail.

SHAKIL UL-RAHMAN is the author (1987) of an unusual work that puts Ghalib within a context of 'Indian-Mughal poetics'; his work is now available, thanks to Satya Hegde, on this site.

(9) S. R. FARUQI's very valuable commentary (1989, with a revised and expanded second edition published in 2006) includes only certain verses that he thinks other commentators have misunderstood; I have included excerpts from every instance of his commentary. He has also, however, compiled a selection from the divan and the unpublished verses, identifying those verses he considers especially excellent. I have marked these verses with an asterisk following the verse number, on the verse page. I have also used his recommendations of other good unpublished verses to include in my commentary; for details see his selection. Elsewhere in his numerous books and articles he has discussed other verses, and I hope eventually to include some of these discussions as well. He has also sometimes answered my questions personally by giving his views about particular verses; all such informal, unpublished contributions by him are identified and dated, and are included in my own commentary. He’s also my Ustad and good friend, so his presence certainly hovers over this website. For his view of me as a commentator, see {178,8}.

(10) MEHR AFSHAN FAROOQI has recently (2013) begun a project of commenting on some of the unpublished ghazals. Her comments will appear on this website, linked from the Ghazal Index. They have generally appeared in Dawn (Karachi) as well, along with other work of hers.

I am glad also to have as a collaborator and commentator Owen T. Cornwall; I also quote some other 'occasional' commentators, people who have offered their own thoughts after visiting this site. These have included Vasmi Abidi (to whom I'm grateful for many useful error-corrections as well), Mat Ansari, Mohsin Naquvi, Ali Shirazi, and other members of the Urdulist whose help has been much appreciated. I've also profited greatly from the thoughts of my students, especially the Ghalib classes of spring 2009 and spring 2013.

If you're interested in small details, you’ll notice that for the first hundred or so ghazals, I used different combinations of commentators, as I experimented with them and explored their work. After that point, I decided that each verse needed, as a rule, a minimum of three commentators, apart from me. And I settled on Nazm and the two Bekhuds as my mainstay choices to represent the earlier commentarial tradition. For the unpublished verses my mainstay is Gyan Chand, accompanied by Asi (where available) and Zamin.



The system of transliteration that I devised to show the precise Urdu sounds and spellings in ‘plain roman’ is academically satisfactory, in that it uniquely encodes every letter of the Urdu script. But esthetically it’s of course clumsy. It was designed to use only the characters on an ordinary keyboard, so that it could be displayed properly on all possible monitors. It was also designed to create no special character-sequences that could be mistaken for ordinary English letter sequences, so that it could permit global search-and-replace operations.

Please note that I don't mean for my online transliteration to be any kind of authoritative text, as far as historical detail goes! For example, I usually spell the Persian prefix bah, 'with', as a separate word; whereas some texts at some times prefer to reduce it to a b and join it to the next word. I often display a compound word in a hyphenated way that clearly shows its two component parts, even though some texts write the two together. I want it to be easy for students to tell how the words are built up.

The ‘plain roman’ transliteration that I’ve typed in supports the Urdu script, Devanagari, and diacritic displays that have now been put into place. The SCRIPT BAR with its menu of choices should be visible near the top of every ghazal page and verse page, and at the bottom of almost all other pages.

Here is an account of the basic ‘plain roman’ transliteration system used for this project. This account tries to clarify the Urdu script, Devanagari script, and diacritic display versions available for the Urdu text parts of each page.

Here is a page on Sean Pue’s website, for further technical information.

For Urdu readers: The Urdu script fonts now available are not what I’d ideally want; they’re mostly forms of somewhat curvy nas;x, rather than the elegant nasta((liiq of my dreams. But there is one lovely one available now: ‘Nafees Nastaleeq’, available from Sean Pue’s page indicated above. We can hope for even more improvements in the future, and since we are in Unicode, it should be possible to adopt them without redoing the whole site.

For Devanagari readers: Here is a special note explaining some of the oddities of spelling that you’ll notice. Please remember that the Devanagari is, like the roman, a transliteration of the Urdu letters, and is not intended to reproduce modern standard Hindi spellings. Instead, it’s intended to bring you as close as possible to what Ghalib actually wrote.



The Urdu metrical system is very lucid and refreshingly rational, once you know it. It’s much easier to learn than English meter, because it’s much more systematized. And it’s far more useful, because the classical ghazal poets all agreed on it and were extremely careful to use it precisely. I have indicated the meter in a brief but accurate way for every ghazal. Here is a description of the metrical code I have adopted for identifying the meters.

Meter sometimes affects the spelling of words in metrical lines. For example, mere aage may be scanned (and thus spelled) as mire aage in order to shorten the first syllable. I've generally shown such scansion-based spelling changes in the texts of the ghazals. I discuss different metrical issues in the various verses in which they occur.

If you’d like to know more about the Urdu metrical system, here’s just the thing: *Urdu Meter: A Practical Handbook*.


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