Celebrating Ghalib’s 225th Birthday Through Rare Artifacts

Celebrating Ghalib’s 225th Birthday Through Rare Artifacts
Recently, the 225th birth anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, the greatest of classical modern Urdu poets, was celebrated in both India and Pakistan on 27 December. For this occasion, electronic and print media paid tribute to the eminent poet through short documentaries and special feature articles. Also, many literary institutions had held events to discuss Ghalib’s contributions towards the Urdu language and its promotion. Likewise, this time the Lahore Museum has organised a special exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia including the letters written by Ghalib himself, artwork by prominent artists on Ghalib’s poetry, different versions and compilations of his published poetry, etc. Such historical objects play a significant role in understanding the life and works of Ghalib, besides expounding his tall stature in Urdu to the general public.

Sadequain’s calligraphic scroll

Born to Mirza Abdullah Khan Baig in Agra in 1797, Mirza Asadullah Khan became an orphan when he was only five years old. Later, he and his brother Yusuf came under the care of his uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig, who enjoyed the governorship of Agra under Maratha rule, and later was appointed to a senior rank in the imperial forces under the British. As he died issueless, so he had left his nephew with a fairly big estate that was enough for his subsistence in many years to come. However, he had to fight hard to claim for the estate by filing petitions and knocking the doors of the British bureaucrats.
A considerable portion of the exhibition is covered by several pages from a copy of the petition submitted by Ghalib to Mr. Murdock, Secretary to the Government of India in 1840, to request for the continuation of his family’s pension and reclaiming their assets

After his uncle’s death, he went to live with his mother’s wealthy family in Agra. At the age of thirteen, he got married to the daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh of Delhi, and later settled in Delhi. There, he was soon accepted as a part of the elite group of scholars, poets and cultivated nobility, among whom he spent his time in leisure and a carefree environment with the privileged gentry by writing poetry, having group discussions and befriending new people. But soon all those happy times would turn around and he had to find himself in a challenging situation where he was surrounded by financial difficulties that demanded that he make efforts for retrieving his family’s pensionary share and other assets. For this purpose, he had to travel to Calcutta to personally present his case to the Governor-General.

A later edition of Ghalib’s Oud-i-Hindi (1900)

Later on, he received a job in the court of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, as his poetic mentor and also the court historian, in 1850. There, he was given the titles of “Dabir-ul-Mulk” (Secretary of the State) and “Najmud-daulah” (Star of the state) by the emperor himself.

In 1857, the failure of the great mutiny or War of Independence and its subsequent events destroyed the social fabric of a once culturally thriving climate of Delhi. The British victors inflicted indescribable atrocities on their subjects and reduced the once bustling and cheerful city of Delhi to mere ruins. Adding to this grief, he also had to suffer from the death of all seven of his children in their infanthood. He adopted his wife’s nephew, who also died during his youthful years.

Facsimiles of Ghalib’s application to the British authorities

Ghalib had begun writing poetry at an early age, and adopted the pen name “Asad,” but later changed that to “Ghalib.” He experimented with his poetic skills in the three fields of poetry: Ghazal, Masnavi and Qasidah. He wrote in both Urdu and Persian, but is famous in the present times for his thin compilation of ghazals in Urdu that present a rather confined composition of rhyme and metre. Ghalib holds the distinction of freeing ghazal from the confines of customs, traditional usage and literal embellishments while using it as an instrument for expression of his own abstract ideas and sentiments. His poetic oeuvre consists of ideas such as seeking God, imprisonment of life, slavery of grief, yearning for solace, questions about life’s reality and a wide range of philosophical and intellectual thoughts.


His contributions to Urdu can be witnessed from his letters, that put together an abundance of anecdotes and witty conversations in colloquial speech using the common people’s style, by departing from the usual ornate style of prose writing that had been in fashion in those times. His pupils and friends knew the value of those letters, and later had them compiled and published in two successive books titled Oud-e-Hindi (1868) and Urdu-e-Mualla Aahang (1869). He compiled his first ‘diwan’ or selection of his Urdu poetry at the age of 24. A collection of his Persian prose was published with title of Panj Ahang along with a commissioned work on Mughal history written by him under the name “Mehr-e-Afroze” in the same time between 1850 and 1857.

Even today, Ghalib remains a prominent figure on account of the timelessness and ever relatability in his poetry. The vastness and immensity in terms of meaning bring value to his couplets, that sculpts new meanings out of his verses every time when one reads them. They don’t get restricted within the bounds of time and space. That is why his poetry is loved and appreciated by the masses, irrespective of ages and borders.


Keeping in view the importance of Ghalib as the greatest of the Urdu poets of all times, the Lahore Museum, one of the most important museums of South Asia, has recently held an exhibition of the memorabilia and artifacts associated with Ghalib. They have organised this exhibition with the collaboration of Punjab Archives that itself houses a treasure of documents and artifacts belonging to the different eras in the history of the Indian subcontinent. The Artifacts play an important role for scholars and students of history as the primary sources of knowledge. They help a researcher to better understand history, when a written record does not exist and supplement the available literature. Even for the general public, the display of artifacts, relics and antiquities contributes towards awareness about their own history and culture. The restoration, preservation and exhibition of such antiques – that may include statues, coins, pottery, written records, printed documents, artworks, fossils and other items – conveys the seriousness of a nation in paying respect to their own history.

Paintings from Muraqqa-i-Chughtai

The exhibition on Ghalib has been held in the Miniature Paintings Gallery that can be reached by entering through the main entrance and going straight while passing under the domed vestibule. On arriving at the gallery, one first sees a large calligraphic scroll with a poetic verse by Ghalib on it, surrounded by a fence. This scroll is among the numerous calligraphic works that the celebrated calligrapher and painter Sadequain had painted and donated to the Lahore Museum in the early 1970s.

As we move on, we see a painting by the national painter of Pakistan Ustad Abdur-Rahman Chughtai and a book illustrated by artist Aslam Kamal – both of them on the themes derived from Ghalib’s poetry. Moving forward, we see some postage stamps in showcases issued by Pakistan Post. Next to them are a number of original letters written by Ghalib himself, carefully preserved and exhibited in protective cases. When observed closely and carefully, one can know about the language being used by Ghalib to address his friends and acquaintances. If you know ‘Graphology,’ that is the analysis of a person’s character by studying their handwriting, then you will be able to peek into Ghalib’s personality using such letters. In those letters, Ghalib shares his daily experiences, his personal thoughts and his observations on various matters with his close friends.

One of Ghalib’s letters (1863) in which he shares his pensionary details

Going a little ahead of the letters, we find a number of books placed inside glass cases. Upon closer look we find that each of these books have their own significance. For instance, many copies of the book Muraqqa-i-Chughtai can be seen. This Muraqqa – originally meaning an album in book form that contains miniature paintings side by side by specimens of Islamic calligraphy – was produced by Abdur-Rehman Chughtai in 1928, in which he illustrated a number of verses from Diwan-i-Ghalib and published them alongside Ghalib’s ghazals written in exquisite calligraphy into a magnificent masterpiece.

Next to that, we see a number of editions of Diwan-i-Ghalib or the collection of Ghalib’s poetry published in different years, but one important edition among them is the Nuskha-i-Hameedia that was originally composed by Ghalib in 1821. It was later lost and rediscovered by Professor Hameed Ahmed Khan from a library in the Bhopal state in 1919. It was later published in 1921 and named as Nuskha-i-Hameedia in the name of the ruler of Bhopal Nawab Hameedullah Khan. It was reprinted and published by Majlis-e-Taraqqi-e- Adab Lahore in 1983.

Another important compilation of Ghalib’s ghazals in the exhibition is the copy of Nuskha-i-Shirani that was produced in 1867 during the life of Ghalib. It was present in the book collection of a notable Indian researcher and professor at Islamia College Civil Lines, Lahore – Hafiz Mahmood Sherani. It was later donated to the Punjab University Library. Upon looking closely, one can notice that the position and placement of ghazals is different in this volume.

A considerable portion of the exhibition is covered by the several pages from the copy of the petition being submitted by Ghalib to Mr. Murdock, Secretary to the Government of India, in 1840 – to request for the continuation of his family’s pension and reclaiming their assets. All of the content of this application is written in the English language by someone else, and the only thing on the part of Ghalib is a small seal bearing his name, imprinted at the end of those applications.

Another interesting piece is a 1900 edition of the compilation of Ghalib’s letters to his friends, originally published in 1868 and titled Oud-i-Hindi. Those letters are considered as a source of insight into the life of Ghalib and his relationship with his friends. They are also said to have revolutionised the art of letter writing in Urdu, with the usage of a simple instead of elaborate and flamboyant version of language by Ghalib.

From the sight of these rare artifacts, one can get a sense of the importance of Mirza Ghalib and his role in the transformation of Urdu from the language of the imperial court to the tongue of the masses. The efforts made by the scholars in gathering his letters and poetry and putting them together into volumes of books, the endeavours of artists in expressing his poetry into their artwork, the creation of ‘art books’ such as Muraqqa-i-Chughtai based on Ghalib’s poetic works and its high collectors’ value and special arrangement by big institutions like Lahore Museum in organising this wonderful exhibition – highlights for us the distinction achieved by Ghalib, setting him apart from all other Urdu poets.

Even today, researchers are studying various aspects of the life of Mirza Ghalib. His life’s events are celebrated every year. He is – and will be – honoured for many years to come.

ہیں اور بھی دنیا میں سخنور بہت اچّھے

کہتے ہیں کہ غالب کا ہے اندازِ بیاں اور

(There may be many outstanding versifiers out there

But Ghalib’s style of diction stands unparalleled)

The author is pursuing a PhD in Art History from Punjab University