Mirza Ghalib Calcutta’s Poetic

Joydip Sur

Mirza Ghalib Street stretches from Park Street in the south to Surendranath Banerjee Road in the north. It was formerly known as Free School Street. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation at its meeting held on March 31, 1969 decided to rename Free School Street as Mirza Ghalib Street in the memory of the renowned classical Urdu and Persian poet, Mirza Ghalib. This resolution was passed and notified to the public on October 14, 1969 as stated in Page 161 of the Calcutta Municipal Gazette dated November 8, 1969.

Like many other places in the city, Free School Street was a bamboo grove in 1780, frequented by jackals and the locals would steadfastly avoid the place once dusk descended. The name ‘Free School Street’ originated from the existence of a ‘free school’ on this very thoroughfare, which prior to its rechristening was known as Jaun Bazaar Fourth Lane.

Free School was established in the year 1790 in collaboration with the Mission Church and subsequently the street was renamed after the school in 1810. In 1880, Free School was merged with the Old Charity School which was established in 1809. About the same time, when the two schools were being merged, a house in Jaun Bazaar, once the residence of Justice Lemaistre (one of the judges who tried Nandakumar), was purchased for accommodating the new entity.

During the late 19th century, Free School Street was surrounded by vast stretches of open land punctuated with a few large and plush garden houses which were owned by wealthy zamindars.

Mirza Ghalib

Today, Free School Street is known as Mirza Ghalib Street. Mirza Ghalib was born Mirza Asaudullah Baig Khan on December 27, 1797 in Kala Mahal in Agra. He was a renowned classical Urdu and Persian poet and wrote under the pen name of ‘Ghalib’ meaning “who conquers all”. He is considered to be the one of the finest and influential poets of the Urdu language. Even to this day, Ghalib remains popular amongst Urdu speakers not only in India and Pakistan but also amongst the diaspora communities around the world.

Around 1810, at the age of thirteen, he was married to Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh Khan of Loharu. He had seven children, none of whom survived (this grief found a poignant echo in some of Ghalib’s ghazals). Ghalib witnessed the eclipse of the Mughal Empire by the Company’s rule and the first war of independence in 1857, ruthlessly put down by the British Empire. Many of his friends were captured, sent to gallows, their property confiscated for being sympathetic to the mutineers.

Ghalib lived on either state patronage, credit or the generosity of his friends and never achieved a secure livelihood throughout his life. He had deep rivalry with Zauq, the court poet and tutor of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar and came to be associated with the court only after the death of Zauq.  His fame came posthumously and he had himself remarked that although his contemporaries had ignored his greatness, it would be recognized by coming generations. He always considered his works in Persian to be superior to those in Urdu but Ghalib would be remembered not only for his poetry but also Urdu prose. Ghalib’s Calcutta connection occurred when he visited the city under the British, quite contrary to Delhi, still under Mughal rule, in 1828.

Mirza Ghalib died in Delhi on February 15, 1869. The house where he lived in Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi has now been turned into ‘Ghalib Memorial’ and houses an exhibition on Ghalib.