Sunday, 6 April 2008

Ghalib - Naqsh fariyaadii hai kis kii shokhii-e-tahreer kaa

OK, this is where it all begins!

No, really - not to sound overly
dramatic, but this was the very first ghazal in Ghalib's published divan - and so enjoys a semi-legendary status in the annals of urdu poetry. The great man himself considered it among his best - which is why he chose it to open the published divan with, of course. The fame of the ghazal rests, to an extent, on its famous first sher, which was supposedly criticised, in Ghalib's time itself, as being too obscure for understanding. Ghalib is said to have reacted to this with customary disdain. Understandably - since it is truly among the classiest two lines ever composed. But, the other shers in the ghazal are no less of a treat either. Let's have a look.

naqsh fariyaadii hai kis kii shokhii-e-tahriir kaa
kaagazii hai pairahan har paikar-e-tasviir kaa

नक्श फरियादी है किस की शोखी-ए-तहरीर का

कागज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का

(Against) whose mischief-of-writing is the sketch a complainant?

"Papery" is the garment of every face in the painting

In the time-honoured calligraphic tradition of the Arab-Persian (as also the Chinese) world, writing and painting tended to merge into a single art form. Hence the 'tahriir' in the first line can more appropriately be thought of as 'draughtsmanship' rather than 'writing', although the word is more commonly used in the latter sense.

To unravel this deeply philosophical sher, one needs to be aware of a tradition common to Persian courts, wherein a member of the public wishing to complain against an injustice would make an appearance in the king's court, dressed in garments made of paper. The idea being, one imagines, to highlight the abjectness and distress of the aggrieved party.

With that in mind, let us look at the sher. In a painting drawn on paper, every figure, face or symbol may metaphorically be seen as 'dressed' in paper. Hence, by implicitly referring to the above custom, Ghalib is able to imply that the 'components' of a painting are united in complaint. The first line then rhetorically asks against
whose 'mischief' of writing/sketching this complaint is directed.

In classical Perian/Urdu poetry, it was customary for the first verse of a Poet's divan to be devoted to
praise of the Almighty. Ghalib shows his typical contrarian streak here, by opening his divan with a questioning of the motives of the Creator in designing the world. Clearly the 'picture' being evoked in the sher is the Universe as a whole, and the implied 'mischievousness' is a commentary on the capriciousness of the celestial artist. But, this being ghalib, the tone isn't directly accusing - instead, the rhetorical question of the first line deliciously suggests a barb, while the second line, by offering such obviously contrived 'evidence' in support of the accusation, immediately manages to rob it of offence, without diluting its palpable justification. And one is left with a poignant 'picture' of the meaninglessness and helplessness of human existence - condemned to follow the diktats of a script it has little control over.

Due to the special status it enjoys, this sher has almost been
over-analysed, with multiple paragraphs devoted to it by virtually every commentator. One point often emphasised is that 'shokhii' is meant to evoke a 'changeable, quicksilver' kind of naughtiness - hence the 'shokhii-e-tahriir' against which the denizens of the world are complaining is basically the transient, protean nature of existence. But the words themselves are general enough to allow us to evoke the perversity of the Creator in any of its forms, of course.

kaav-kaav-e-sakht-jaaniiha-e-tanhaaii na puuchh

subh karnaa shaam kaa laanaa hai juu-e-shiir kaa

काव-काव-ए-सख्त-जानीहा-ए-तन्हाई न पूछ

सुब्ह करना शाम का लाना है जू-ए-शीर का

Ask not about the (difficulty of) digging through the thick-skinnedness of solitude

To turn evening to morning is like bringing forth the river of milk

The expression 'Kaaw-Kaaw' is used to describe the act of laboriously digging or burrowing through something - or, metaphorically, for any kind of hard toil. 'Kaaw' itself is a diminutive of the Persian word 'Kaawish', which means an 'excavation' (or, metaphorically, an 'investigation') and is believed to share a common etymology with the English 'cave'. Kaaw-Kaaw is, undeniably, a very evocative expression, lucidly and onomatopoetically capturing the effort involved in digging through something hard and unyielding.

To understand the sher, one needs to be familiar with the Farhad-Shireen fable, which we've had occasion to refer to in the past. Farhad, a stone mason, is supposed to have glimpsed Shireen, the queen of King Khusrau, and fallen madly in love with her. The king, amused on being told of the lowly man's audacious ardour, perversely promises to hand Shireen over to Farhad if he is able to dig a channel through the insurmountable Koh mountain, in order to bring the legendary river of milk (that lay behind the mountain) to his kingdom. Farhad immediately sets to work, and such is his passion that he manages to reach almost the mouth of the river in a few years. Alarmed, the
duplicitous king sends word to Farhad that Shireen has died, on hearing which he splits his own head with his spade. In some versions of the tale, Shireen (who, in the interim, has also come to appreciate this exceptionally devoted admirer) rushes to the site on hearing of the King's plan, and on finding Farhad already dead, kills herself with the same spade. Farhad's herculean digging through the mountain to free the river of milk has come to epitomise a 'labour of love' in the poetic world.

Ghalib evokes the legend, and goes on to imply that clawing through an entire night of separation from the Beloved is no less onerous than digging through a mere mountain!

The 'sakht-janeehaa' of the first line would translate literally to 'toughness of life', meant to imply the difficulty of 'killing' solitude. However, 'thick-skinned' is probably a more accurate capture of the metaphoric sense implied in the sher.

jazbaa-e-be-ikhtiyaar-e-shauq dekhaa chaahiye
siina-e-shamsiir se baahar hai dam shamsiir kaa

जज़्बा-ए-बे-इख्तियार-ए-शौक़ देखा चाहिए

सीना-ए-शमशीर से बाहर है दम शमशीर का

(You) should see the uncontrollable determination of ardour!
the breath/edge of the sword is outside the chest/sheath of the sword.

What a brilliant sher this is! It hinges on typically Ghalib-ish word-play, because 'dam' which is commonly used to mean 'breath' (or, by implication, 'life') of a person, is also a word used to describe the sharp edge of a sword or scimitar. Similarly, 'seenaah' which describes a person's chest, would refer, in the case of a sword, to the sheath in which the weapon is contained when not in use.

To say 'the sword-edge is out of its sheath' has the ring of an ominous warning - of an imminent slaying to come. However the more common meaning of 'dam' makes the same line sound like the sword's breath is, literally, jumping out of its chest - a lucid picturisation of 'uncontrollable determination of ardour' in itself! For the 'ardour' of a sword is obviously directed towards the act of killing, and so eager is the sword to fulfill its ghoulish purpose that its 'breaths are literally on the edge' [sorry - couldn't resist it!] :)

aagahii daam-e-shunidaa.n jis kadar bichhaaye
muddaa ankaa hai apne aalam-e-taqriir kaa

आगही दाम-ए-शुनीदाँ जिस कदर चाहे बिछाए

मुददा अंका है अपने आलम-ए-तक़रीर का

intelligence spread (its) net of hearing however it likes

the meaning of my world of discourse is (like) the anqaa-bird

In arabic tradition, the mythical 'anqaa' bird is a fabulous creature that is impossible to catch - in fact, it is famous for its ability to dissolve into nothingness whenever somebody tries to grab it. Muddaa is an extremely multivalent word that can mean anything from 'meaning' or 'purpose', to 'intention' or 'point'.

Ghalib cutely uses the anqaa-legend to his advantage, to describe how elusive the hidden meanings of his verses can be. Probably anticipating that this particular ghazal, because of the obliquely allusive nature of many of its shers, would challenge the understanding of more than one listener, he tosses off a direct challenge to his critics - acknowledging unabashedly that his poetry is just as difficult to 'grasp' as the Anqaa, no matter how hard the members of the cognoscenti strain their understanding. ['Aagahee' can stand for intelligence, as much as knowledgeableness or vigilance]. Such mischievously masterful arrogance comes to but a few, doesn't it?

bas ke huu.n Ghalib asiirii mei.n bhii aatish zer-e-paa
muu-e-aatish-diidaa hai halkaa merii zanjiir kaa

बस के हूँ गालिब असीरी में भी आतिश ज़ेर-ए-पा

मू-ए-आतिश-दीदा है हल्का मेरी ज़ंजीर का

Inasmuch as, even in imprisonment, (I) am, Ghalib, (with a) fire beneath the feet
a link of my chain is (merely like) an ignited hair

A typically classy Maqtaa, typical of Ghalib in its ability to evoke a complexly picturesque image in the mind. In this case, the image is one of a hair that has just been ignited ('moo-e-aatish-deedaa' would translate literally as a 'hair that has seen a flame'). When a strand of hair is set alight, it tends to 'curl up' into ashen whorls that somewhat resemble the concatenations of a chain. Ghalib expertly uses this image - by making the protagonist say that even though he is in fetters, he retains such a fiery restlessness in his feet ('aatish zer-e-paa' is an expression meant to convey a similar sense as 'like a cat on hot bricks') that the links of the his chains have become as insubstantial as the whorls formed by burning hair-strands.

The 'bas ke' in the first line is a contraction of the colloquial 'az bas ke' which is used in the sense of 'to such an extent that'...


Musings of June said...

@Deewaan Saab

Allow me to quote Ghalib for YOU,

"मुददा अंका है (aapke) आलम-ए-तक़रीर का"

Each time I read your interpretations, I find newer inferred significance.Thanks.

Well, I was thinking what a conceited person Ghalib was, such pride in his own work, only the deserving and the worthy can claim to that value with no guilt and no contrition.How many people could do this in the world? He was such a proud artist, daring his readers to strip him. A true 'Anqaa'!

Regarding the sher "नक्श फरियादी है किस की शोखी-ए-तहरीर का
कागज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का".

It was so cleverly conceived and written by him.My whole shudders to think the depth of this sher and marvel at the mind who thought this.Can you imagine, questioning the fundamentals , the basic premises of life. He was so ahead of his time.Would you in any way consider him lesser than a scientist in search of the absolute truth? As if he knew what this cosmic matrix was all about.

I don't even feel like appreciating his work any more because it doesn't ask me to. It asks me think and unravel the mysteries of the eternal existence of the life and the universe. Leave alone appreciation, I just find myself speechless realizing the profundity and the wisdom of Ghalib that penetrates me and diffuses itself into each cell of mine.

I find your interpretations on one hand very delicate and at the same time overwhelmingly strong.Do keep up this quality work.Rare things are hard to come by and this site is one of such kind.

Thanks once again.

deewaan said...

Once again, many thanks june, for the encouraging words.
This one is a true classic, isn't it? Even if ghalib had written nothing but this one profound piece, he would have a fair claim to greatness!

Shantanu Khandkar said...

Hello! Long time fan, first time writer.

I have a question regarding the sher

"नक्श फरियादी है किस की शोखी-ए-तहरीर का
कागज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का"

I get how it would seem that since Islamic art is predominantly calligraphic, every word or character is seen to be dressed in paper, or euphemistically complaining about some mysterious affront. It was when you said that the sher referred to the universe as a whole and the affronting party is God. How do the 'paper clothes' come into the picture? I thought that metaphor would only work for a picture drawn on actual paper?