Resurrecting poetry: Finally, a museum for Mirza Ghalib

ghalib1Down a quiet Ballimaran lane, in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, stands a haveli like many others in this historic part of the Indian capital. An old dilapidated structure that has housed a coal depot and a barat ghar (wedding hall) over the years. But this mansion was once home to Mirza Asadullah Khan, better known as Ghalib, one of India’s celebrated and most-quoted Urdu poets.
Finally, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), in association with the Delhi government, has turned this ancient building, on the brink of ruin, into a museum dedicated to Ghalib, with exhibits of his writings, photographs, documents and replicas of his belongings. The highlight is a special sound-and-light show of his works. Ghalib’s historic home, which is now a heritage site, has been refurbished to reflect the times in which he lived. The courtyard of the home has been covered to protect the collection from the vagaries of nature.
“There are two Ghalibs. One is the court poet who rubs shoulders with badshahs (emperor) and the other is a poor man,” says Suresh K. Goel, director general of the ICCR. “The campaign to resurrect the poetic legacy of Mirza Ghalib started with his haveli in the old Mughal quarters of the capital being restored to a semblance of their previous glory by the ICCR few years ago. The derelict mansion has been restored as a memorial and is an important marker on the heritage tourism trail of Delhi. The city was Ghalib’s home as well as his muse.”
The poet, who wrote in Persian and Urdu, adopted the name Ghalib, meaning ‘most excellent’. He moved to this house in 1860 — after the defeat of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the hands of the British — and continued to live here till his death in 1869.
For security reasons, the museum in Gali Qasim Jaan displays only replicas of Ghalib’s personal belongings: four books and cloaks worn by him and his wife Umrao Begum. The ICCR has also replicated pen holders, candle stands and a variety of board games from the by-gone era. A canopy with chandeliers has been added, along with new lamps and curtains.
“The objective was to showcase Ghalib at the height of his cultural power as a common man’s poet, even during changing times. Needless to say, this exhibition will definitely benefit the viewers and lovers of Ghalib alike,” says Goel.
It has been over a century and four decades since Ghalib’s death but his poetry continues to be relevant and finds space and resonance in common conversations even today. His ghazals are unique not only for the intensity of the emotions and thoughts that they express, but also for their timeless philosophy on life and the profound feelings they reveal.
The range and depth of sentiments in his verses is unmatched, together with his artistry. To keep his memory alive the local authorities plan to hold regular mehfils (poetry meets) at the museum, where lovers of poetry can appreciate the artist’s works.
This museum offers a sanctuary to those who wish to escape the ennui of the city and lose themselves, for a while, in a world gone by; a world steeped in melancholia, poetry and history, evoked by the immortal words of Mirza Ghalib.