Understanding Mirza Ghalib

Those who’re not familiar with the name of Ralph Russell, have no right to call themselves the lovers and readers of Urdu literature, opined Khushwant Singh in 1997, when Russell visited India and Pakistan to deliver lectures on Ghalib’s bicentenary year. By the way, Ghalib was born on December 27, 1797 in Agra and breathed his last on February 15, 1869.

Scholars of Ghalib all over the world are unanimous that no one has ever explained and elucidated Ghalib’s persona and poetry as emphatically as Russell did.

While studying Urdu poetry and literature at the famed School of Oriental and African Studies, London, I was fortunate to have Professor Russell as my teacher. The way Russell would explain Ghalib’s rather recondite and abstruse poetry, every student would look forward to attending his lectures.

Oxford-based diminutive Bengali-English writer Nirad C Chaudhury would often say about Sir Russell, ‘’The man has drunk Ghalib to the lees.” Russell indeed drank Ghalib to the lees. Never did I see him refer to Deewan-e-Ghalib (Compilation of Ghalib’s poetry) because all 235 Urdu ghazals by the maestro were on Professor Russell’s tongue. Such was his love for Ghalib and mastery over Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian poetry.

His Urdu was simply impeccable and Persian was near perfect, though he had the magnanimity to admit that he often fumbled and faltered while explaining Ghalib’s Persian poetry to the students. That was his greatness and humility.

Russell had a unique style of teaching. He’d first give the background to a ghazal/couplet of Ghalib before enumerating upon it. He was pleasantly anecdotal and lively while teaching Ghalib.

Once someone asked him, “Given a choice between Shakespeare and Ghalib, who’d he opt for? “ The ever-modest Russell replied in his immaculate Urdu, “ Yoon toh har zarra apni jagah pe aaftaab hai, lekin sach poochhiye toh mera zehan Ghalib ki jaanib zyada raaghib hota hai “ (Though every particle under the sun has its own place but to be honest, I’m more inclined towards Ghalib).

Ghalib was Professor Russell’s life. In other words, Ghalib resided in Russell’s consciousness. No one, not even American scholar of Ghalib Dr Brian Quayle Silver or Shamsur Rahman Faruqi of India, could understand Ghalib so comprehensively as Professor Russell could.

He was a remarkable authority on Ghalib and will forever be remembered for his contributions to Urdu literature and poetry, especially for simplifying Ghalib for the scholars as well as students.

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Understanding Mirza Ghalib

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