Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

By Anjum Altaf

In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut.

I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? I am faced with that challenge from a reader:

I would find it more interesting if you had tried to flesh out what it means when we say Ghalib is a better poet than Habib Jalib (a statement most diehard Jalib fans would even probably assent to) and what such assent means or indicates. To argue that rankings of the top poets is meaningless is rather easy, but it dismisses too easily why we think some art (or artist) is better than another work of art (or artist)… I still don’t have a clear picture of what makes an artwork (or an artist) better than another, but I am unwilling to simply say there no such thing as better.

I will come back to the specifics of Ghalib and Jalib after a few general comments, turning once again to a musical analogy.

It is not, of course, impossible to rank artists of any kind. When prizes are awarded in a musical competition, we are making a ranking, and an unambiguous, unequivocal one at that. Judges assign scores on a particular metric, and these scores then averaged to yield a final result. The metric itself need not be complicated; it simply comprises the set of attributes on which the performance is to be scored. Take, for example, a description of Ella Fitzgerald: “Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra.” One possible metric, therefore, could include vocal characteristics such as flexibility, range, fidelity, freshness, variety, and so on.

This is simple enough in theory and, in practice, routinely implemented. But there is an inherent complication: a ranking of performances, as happens in a competition, is not the same as a ranking of performers. A subsequent competition, or a competition using a different metric, is quite likely to yield a different ranking. The task of comparing artists over their entire careers is even more difficult.

A competition is also organized by categories – a ghazal singer would not, in general, participate in the classical category; Ella Fitzgerald would not compete with Maria Callas. Similarly, there is not much to be gained by trying to rank Noorjehan, Farida Khanum, Abida Parveen and Roshanara Begum: all are singers, but their genres, styles, characteristics, charms, and projects are completely different. This highlights a point made earlier – it only makes sense to compare like with like.

One could compare Noorjehan to Lata Mangeshkar, as both are renowned for rendering film songs, and this comparison is indeed frequently made. (I have written of this earlier to make the point that a lack of familiarity with the kind of metric described above reduces this competition to one of patriotism, the way most people root for their national cricket teams.) An attempt to rank the two in accordance with any given metric would, however, confront us with the inherent problem of such systems –Noorjehan is likely to rank higher on some attributes, Lata on others, the overall ranking then left to depend on the weight we give to the individual attributes. This is an inherently subjective exercise and we can rarely arrive at a ranking insensitive to this subjectivity and completely unambiguous.

This problem with rankings has been argued well by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent article (The Order of Things) in The New Yorker. He shows that it is not possible to arrive at a stable ranking even of things as similar, as measurable, as tangible as models of sports cars. The ranking keeps changing as one assigns different weights to the attributes under consideration – appearance, comfort, function and so on.

The urge to compare and rank is just as strong amongst poets and their fans as it is in music. Muhammad Husain Azad, in his classic Aab-e Hayat, records an oft-quoted incidence in the history of Urdu poetry that goes by the name ‘Two and three-quarters poets’:

In Lucknow someone asked [Mir], ‘Tell me, Hazrat, nowadays who are the poets?’ He said, ‘One is Saudā. A second is your humble servant.’ And after some consideration he said, ‘A half one is Ḳhvājah Mīr Dard’. Someone said, ‘Hazrat! And Mīr Soz Sahib?’ Frowning, he said, ‘Is Mīr Soz Sahib a poet?’ He said, ‘After all, he’s the ustad of Navab Āṣif ud-Daulah’. Mīr Sahib replied, ‘Well, taking this into account, there are exactly two and three-quarters. But among people of good family I’ve never heard such a pen-name.’

The poetic institution analogous to a musical competition would be the mushaira, in particular a version known as the tarahi mushaira. In this gathering, half a couplet is pre-announced, and participants then have a given amount of time in which to compose ghazals in conformity with the rhyme and meter of the misra-e-tarha.

In a mushaira, the audience is the judge, and applause and requests for encores constitute the vote. The phrase describing victory in a mushaira is evocative; one says “mushaira loot liya” (a very prosaic translation would be “to conquer the field”). But note that the same caveats apply as for a music competition – the ranking is good for one night only. Intizar Husain, in his wonderful book on the evolution of Urdu literature in Pakistan, ChiraghoN ka DhooaN, recalls a mushaira in Lahore in the early 1950s, in which Zehra Nigah, the youngest participant, a teenager making her first public performance, “conquered the field” so completely that the audience was unwilling to listen to the Meer-e-Mushaira, the most distinguished poet of the evening who, if I remember right, was the eminent Jigar Muradabadi.

(In passing, one should also make the point that though a tarahi mushaira has a competitive format, it imposes an artificial constraint on the composition of poetry – the restriction on time.  Some poets write once and are done, others agonize over their lines for months; time to completion is not an attribute of the metric of evaluation. One cannot pick a Grand Master from a competition in speed chess.)

Returning now to the question that motivated this article, I would refrain from comparing Ghalib and Jalib because neither could do what the other was good at – I do not see it as a comparison of likes. Let me illustrate this with an imagined application to the recent political situation in Egypt – Ghalib would make the audience see through the illusions in the concept of revolution, while Jalib would be at the forefront of the crowd, storming the barricades, marching on Parliament. One cannot imagine either in the other’s role. (To complete this picture, one can imagine Iqbal explaining to the Egyptians the causes of their degradation, Josh rousing them to action and, if the goal remained unachieved, Faiz giving them the strength to believe in another dawn.)

If forced, I might name Ustad Daman as a comparator for Jalib; Ghalib, of course, is forever being compared to Mir and Zauq. Take Zauq and Ghalib first, the two being contemporaries and tutors, one after the other, of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Ghalib is generally ranked higher than Zauq (though not by Azad). At the marriage of Bahadur Shah’s son, Javan Bakht, it was the privilege of Zauq, the tutor at the time, to write the sehra (prothalamion) or celebratory composition. It is said that because Zauq was unwell, the task fell to Ghalib who wrote a sehra that has gone down in the history of Urdu poetry for its concluding couplet:

ham sukhn-fahm haiN Ghalib ke tarafdaar nahiiN
dekhen is sehrey se kah de koii baRh kar sehra

we are connoisseurs of poetry not partisans of Ghalib
let us see if someone can come up with a better sehra

Word reached Zauq of the challenge implicit in the last line and from his sickbed he composed a sehra in response, concluding as follows:

Jis ko daava ho sukhn ka yeh bata de us ko
dekh is tarh se kehte haiN sukhanwar sehra

he who claims to be an artist let him know this
look this is the way an artist composes a sehra

Ghalib had to write an apology, which he did with an even more famous concluding couplet:

sadiq huuN apne qaul meiN Ghalib khuda gavah
kehta huun sach ke jhooth kii aadat nahiiN mujhe

I am true to my word Ghalib as God is my witness
I say truthfully that I am not given to lying

This clash of egos sent a tremor through the royal palace – it is recorded that the Crown Prince Mirza Fakhruddin (also a disciple of Mirza Zauq) exclaimed, “Ustaad ne maidan maar liya” – the ustaad has swept the field, another phrase common to such clashes.

Ghalib may be “ranked” higher than Zauq, but in these sehras, they were very much equals. This leads to another point pertinent to such comparisons. Is one ranking the art or the artist, and is there a difference? There is an equally well-known exchange between Ghalib and another contemporary, Momin. Amongst those given to orderings, no one ranks Momin above Ghalib, but consider this: It is said that the following couplet (untranslatable without losing its magic and multiple meanings) was recited in front of Ghalib:

tum mere paas hote ho goya
jab koii doosra nahiiN hota

Ghalib enquired about the author and, on being told, offered Momin his entire divan (collection) in exchange for that one verse. So, what should one be weighing when one ranks one artist against the other?

More so than music, listeners of Urdu poetry can tell a good line from one not so good. They can distinguish between the standout couplets in a ghazal and the fillers, the evocative term for which is bharti ke she’r or tukbandii. But this ability to make pair-wise comparisons is of little help in arriving at an unambiguous ranking of poets.

Of course, there is an aesthetic of poetry, just as there is of music. It is well illustrated by this comparison of Ghalib and Mir by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, one of the leading scholars of the aesthetics of Urdu poetry:

[I]n variety of language, extent of experience of life, and universality of temperament, Mir’s rank is higher than Ghalib’s. Only in intelligence and abstraction [tajriid] and ‘delicacy of thought’ is Ghalib’s level higher than Mir’s. There’s a difference in their imaginations, but the power of imagination is equal in both. That is, both are unlimited in theme-creation. Ghalib’s imagination is soaring, and Mir’s imagination is earthy– that is, one is more abstract and one more concrete. In meaning-creation both are equal. Indeed, Mir has one quality, mood, in a way that is very rare in Ghalib. Another excellence of Mir’s is that along with meaning-creation he creates mood as well. Both have many tumult-arousing verses. Both have a limitless interest in word-play.

In the light of all these considerations, and keeping in mind the fact that Mir composed in more poetic genres than Ghalib did, we can say that the title ‘lord of poetry’ [khudaa-e sukhan] is a fit adornment only for Mir.

We are back to the problem highlighted by Malcolm Gladwell – since neither poet dominates the other completely, the overall ranking is entirely dependent on the weights that we assign to the various attributes under consideration. To arrive at a consensus is impossible. Faruqi gives the deciding nod to the fact that Mir composed in more poetic genres than Ghalib (recall that I had earlier termed Mir a poet of both the drut and the vilambit while characterizing Ghalib as primarily a poet of the drut), but why should this attribute have primacy? Versatility is just another attribute for many lovers of poetry, with no particular claim over other attributes.

Faruqi here gives in to the ranking urge and crowns a khudaa-e-sukhan, but earlier in the same narrative, he suggested something which seems to me more useful: “To compare Ghalib and Mir, or to examine them together in order to shed light on one by means of the other, is not a mistaken endeavor. Rather, it’s really the first stage of appreciating the worth of both.”

So we can, and perhaps we even should, compare Ghalib and Mir, or Noorjehan and Lata – not to order them, but to appreciate each more sharply. For what do we get after we have done with the ranking? Is winning everything? Shall we never again read Momin, even though Ghalib himself would have exchanged his entire divan for a single verse?

There was a time in the cultures of Delhi and Lucknow when virtually everyone who was anyone was a poet of sorts. Most have disappeared from the records. In their case, we could perhaps say that they were unambiguously inferior to those who have survived the test of time, but after that there are no simple relations of dominance. Those poets whose work we still read cannot be ranked unambiguously.

Even here, though, there is a complication, described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan as a characteristic of the winner-take-all world he calls Extremistan and of our predilection to confer a retrospective rationale on our choices:

I would rather listen to Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein for $10.99 a CD than pay $9.99 for one by some unknown (but very talented) graduate of the Juilliard School or the Prague Conservatory. If you ask me why I select Horowitz, I will answer that is because of the order, rhythm, or passion, when in fact there are probably a legion of people I have never heard about, and will never hear about – those who did not make it to the stage, but who might play just as well.

Ghalib said it in his own way:

sab kahaaN kuchh laalah-o-gul meN numaayaaN ho gaiiN
khaak meN kyaa suurateN hoNgii kih pinhaaN ho gaiiN

not by any means all – some became manifest in tulip and rose
what faces there might be, that became one with the dust!


  • Shadabi davar
    Posted at 06:54h, 07 March Reply

    Really really enjoyed it, I’m pulling out my diwan e ghalib tonite!

  • Foqia
    Posted at 09:35h, 11 March Reply

    While reading this excellent article, I kept on wondering how few people are left in South Asia to write with such command over poetry and how few can write so lucidly!

  • Ammar
    Posted at 11:19h, 16 March Reply

    Thanks for this piece- which i really enjoyed reading. On the subject of comparison of poets- I think the most famous book written on two poets- specalists in the same genre- is Moazana-e-Anees o Dabeer. (Comparison of Anees and Dabeer) – by Allama Shibli Nomani. it is about the two most famous poets of marsiya in Urdu and written by one of the most respected authors. Although Shibli’s book shows Anees as a better poet than Dabeer, some commentators feel that Shibli was subjective in the sense that he chose the best verses of Anees on a topic and compared it with the weak verses of Dabeer and as a result Anees emerges as the better poet although the same exercise can be reversed as many of the verses in which Dabeer was much better than Anees could have been presented and the result would have been different.

    It is probably the best known book on comparison of poets who were contemporaries and excelled in the same genre. of course comparison or ranking or poets such as Ghalib and Faiz, for example, is compounded by the fact that they belong to different times and also address different topics.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:11h, 16 March

      Ammar: Thanks for the input. A good short (100-page) primer for readers is A History of Urdu Literature by T. Grahame Bailey. It was first published in 1932 and reissued by Oxford University Press in 2008. It mentions the rivalry between Anis and Dabeer and has interesting observations on some of the other famous rivalries between leading poets – Ghalib and Zauq; Atish and Nasikh; Insha and Mushafi; Sauda and Zahik.

      You are right to mention your reservation about the comparison of Anis and Dabir. As I mentioned in the article this limitation is inevitable when a comparison is based on more than one attribute – unless one contender is better than the other on all attributes. On Anis and Dabir, Bailey writes:

      “Anis was the greater and more natural poet of the two… He had a wonderful power of description. This is seen best when he depicts human feelings, especially pathos and bravery, or scenes of nature and fighting. He writes as if he had been present himself on the occasions which he describes and as if the people had spoken the very words which he has put down…”

      “Dabir showed more scholarship in his poetry than Anis, and in power of imagination was his superior; but his style was sometimes laboured, and he tended to use unsuitable or great swelling words which lack the vividness of an eyewitness.”

      It is therefore not surprising that Allama Shibli Nomani’s vote in favor of Anis in his justly famous Muazina drew a reply by Fauq called Al Mizan which argued for the cause of Dabir (see discussions in Bailey, pp. 65-66 and p. 87). This was much like the later split between Azad and Hali regarding the respective merits of Zauq and Ghalib.

      Bailey employs a useful approach in which he focuses his discussion on the attributes rather than on the poets thus educating the reader in the aesthetics of Urdu poetry. For instance, he writes the following (pp. 68-69) about Zauq: “he was certainly one of the greatest ode writers in Urdu; some critics would rank him first… He wrote also numerous lyrics [ghazals], but not with the same success… Zauq’s power of expression was greater than his poetic feeling, but he wrote with a great sense of harmony and considerable vigour.”

Post A Comment