Mirza Ghalib's Struggle to Regain His Status

Ghalib was not a sycophant in the courts of the Nawabs or the British. Poets of that age were expected to couch their words in hyperbole.

“Ghalib was a sycophant in the court of Nawabs and the British,” Baba used to tell us. For us youngsters, newly drunk on Ghalib’s ghazals sung by Jagjit Singh, it reduced the great poet, as we watched Gulzar’s serial, ‘Mirza Ghalib’.

Baba, my cousin’s grandfather, was a renowned academician. So he must be right; or maybe, as a communist, he looked down upon Ghalib’s association with the courts of kings and colonialists. The words rankled and remained with me for years.

Researching the cultural history of Rampur, I came upon Ghalib’s letters to the Nawabs of Rampur over his nearly eleven-year association with their court, in Maulana Arshi’s seminal work, Makateeb e Ghalib, and was reminded of Baba’s words.

Also Read: A Priceless Pearl: Ghalib’s Persian Divan

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) belonged to a proud lineage of Aibak Turks of Samarkand and his wife, Umrao Begum, was the niece of Nawab of Loharu and Jhirka. Ghalib was intensely proud of his antecedents, his learning and his position as the Poet Laureate (1854-57) at the Mughal court. The poet was a famed literary egotist, often frustrated at not having achieved the recognition he deserved.

He writes:

Bandagi mein bhi vo azaada o khudbeen hain ki hum,
Ultey phir aaye dar e Kaaba gar vaa na hua.

Even in subservience I’m so self respecting that
I shall turn back if the door of Kaaba did not open for me.

When he was advised by a well wisher, Sayed Abdullah Khan, to write a qaseeda (panegyric) lauding the persona of the new Nawab of Rampur, Saeed Ahmad Khan in 1840, he replied in a letter:

If the world was filled with riches, I would not be its slave and sell my iman and talent.

It is a sad comment on his times that in 1855, he was driven to sell his words in the hope of rewards and salary at the Rampur court.

Ghalib’s association with Rampur began when he tutored young Yusuf Ali Khan in Persian while the latter lived as a student in Delhi. However, it took two years of requesting letters and the persuasion of Maulana Fazl e Haq at the court for Nawab Yusuf (1855-65) to re-employ him as his tutor in February

In an era when literary pursuits were greatly valued by rulers, Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan was a talented poet. It was Ghalib who suggested that he change his takhallus (pen name) from ‘Yusuf’ to ‘Nazim’. From July 1859 till Ghalib’s death in 1869, the court of Rampur gave him a salary of 100 rupees per month and he functioned as a court poet in absentia for all practical purposes.

The salary was sent as a hundi to Delhi in a personal letter by Nawab Yusuf. From December 1863 till December 1864, Nawab Yusuf sent his writings every month for corrections. Ghalib wrote the Urdu word ‘suad’ as a measure of approval. Some couplets earned three suads, Ghalib commenting on Nawab’s royal (hukmrana) style; sometimes he suggested an alternate phrase or word as being more appropriate. The poet wrote three qaseedas on his patron.

The new assignment, several notches below the status he deserved, was more of monetary necessity and had important payoffs. His pension from the British was reinstated, he was restored the Robe of Honour and ceremonial place in the Governor General’s Durbar.

Pawan K. Verma in Ghalib: The Man, The Times attributes these favours to Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan’s good rapport with the British. For Ghalib, it was a psychological fulfillment and reaffirmation of his status in the new socio-political order.

Nawab Yusuf wrote six letters to Ghalib in 1859, entreating him to come to Rampur. But Ghalib was awaiting judgment on his case of reinstatement of pension by the British. After losing the case, Ghalib finally arrived at Rampur in January 1860 with his two young grand nephews and was received with honor.

There is a tone of resignation as he leaves for Rampur:

Rampur zindagi mein mera maskun aur baad e marg mera madafn ho liya.

Rampur has become my habitat in life and will house my grave after death.

Nawab Yusuf, keen to extend Ghalib’s stay, doubled his stipend if he was stationed at Rampur. Even so, Ghalib took leave of the Nawab after two months, writing glowing tributes on the River Kosi and Rampur, comparing the literary accomplishment of the people to that of Shiraz and Isfahan.

He writes:

Rampur ahl e nazar ki hai nazar mein wo shahar,
Ke jahan hasht bahisht aake huey hain baham.

In the eyes of the discerning, Rampur is a town
Where the seven paradises have converged.

The death of his patron and friend, Nawab Yusuf, once again found the poet financially precarious. He wrote a ‘Tahniyat’ condoling the demise to his successor, Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan (1865-1887), with the hope that his stipend would continue.

Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan invited him to his coronation ceremony. Ghalib, not in the best of health, aware of his position of subservience, left for Rampur in December 1865.

He writes in a private letter:

Main nasr ki daad aur nazm ka sila mangney nahin aaya, bheek maangney aaya hoon.

I have not come (to Rampur) to ask for rewards for my compositions in prose and poetry but to beg for alms.

Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan received him with courtesy housing him in the magnificent ‘Jarnail Kothi’. As a writer of prose dastans, he asked Ghalib to correct his prose and his salary continued as before. Ghalib wrote two qaseedas in his honour and was rewarded 250 rupees for each.

Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad writes that the association, which lacked the closeness of his relationship with Nawab Yusuf, was marred by a difference of opinion over Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan’s usage of a certain Persian word.

Ghalib disagreed vehemently even after the Nawab gave the reference of Ghayas ul Lughaat, the Persian dictionary written by the Nawab’s ustad, Maulvi Ghayasuddin. Sensing the Nawab’s displeasure, Ghalib curbed his literary arrogance and the tone of his letter is intensely servile as he concedes the usage:

Main to Huzoor ko apna ustaad, apna murshid, apna aaqa jaanta hoon…

I consider you (Nawab) as my teacher, my spiritual guide and my God…

Maulana Abul Kalaam’s lament is quoted in Makateeb e Ghalib:

‘The person who never bowed before any Persian master except for (Amir) Khusrau, who disregarded Faizi and Abul Fazl, prostrated with folded hands before Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan, called him khudawand e neymat and stopped his literary investigations.’

Maulana Arshi narrates in his Makateeb e Ghalib, that once the Nawab was leaving station and said to Ghalib, “Khuda ke hawaley” (I leave you to the care of God). Ghalib replied, “Khuda ne to mujhe aap ke supurd kiya hai aap phir mujhey khuda ko supurd kartey hain.” (God has entrusted me to your care and now you are entrusting me back to his care!)

Ghalib often used his masterful repartee to bridge the gap between the ruler and the supplicant: a position that continually wounded his ego.

Also Read: Ghalib and the Art of Conversion

His association with the Rampur court was the greatest financial support for Ghalib after the devastation of Delhi following the Revolt of 1857. It also earned him the dubious title of being a sycophant, for he wrote hyperbole laden qaseedas and odes in honor of the Nawabs.

Hounded by creditors, fearful of dishonour and wracked by illness, Ghalib repeatedly wrote to Nawab Kalbey Ali Khan requesting the settlement of his debts and funds for his grand nephew Husain Ali’s marriage. He writes with pitiful desperation from his deathbed in 1869:

Haal mera tabah hotey hotey ab ye naubat pahunchi hai…aath sau rupey hon to meri aabroo bachti hai…bas mera yehi kaam hai yaad dila doon. Aagey Hazrat maalik hain…

My situation is such that I am on the brink of devastation…If only I could have eight hundred rupees to salvage my honour…It is my job to send reminders. Rest, you are my saviour.

An amount of six hundred rupees from the Nawab reached Ghalib only after his death. His widow was given a pension which continued for Husain Ali Khan after her death. Maulana Arshi estimates that a total amount of 16,725 rupees was granted to Ghalib over the years by the Rampur state.

Pavan K. Verma writes in Ghalib: The Man, The Times of the qaseedas that Ghalib wrote for the Nawabs and British officials: “it did not necessarily indicate servility; it was more an instrument of introduction, a customary peshkash…”

Qaseedas couched in high flown hyperbole was expected of poets of the time. Ghalib through his panegyrics was petitioning for and struggling to win back the status and honor he deserved in the new literary and social scenario.

Tarana Khan is a writer and cultural historian based in Rampur.