ḠANI, MOLLĀ TĀHER KAŠMIRI (d. 1079/1668-9): the most famous Persian-language poet of the region of Kashmir in South Asia. He practiced the “Speaking Anew” (tāza-guʾyi) stylistics of the ḡazal that had arisen across the Persian world in the early 1500s. In its intricate deployment of kinds of syllepsis, paronomasia, oronym and amphiboly—collectively termed ihām—whose non-salient (baʿid) meaning or meanings the poet privileged over their salient (qarib) ones, his poetry constitutes a highpoint of the polysemy and semantic density characteristic of Speaking Anew.
A scholarly controversy has surrounded the probable date of Ḡani’s birth, though it is certain he died in 1668-9 in Kashmir, most probably in the regional Mughal capital of Srinagar. Ḡani’s near contemporary and later biographers had long believed that he had died in his youth (Rāšedi, pp. 968-969, 972, 974, 983; Nājibābādi, pp. 23-4). Naṣrābādi (Rāšedi, p. 968), Lodi (Rāšedi, p. 971), Āzād (Rāšedi, p. 980), Šafiq (Rāšedi, p. 983) and Gopāmavi (Rāšedi, p. 988) interpreted this youthful death as the evidence of the precociousness of Ḡani’s Sufi and poetic accomplishments.
Ḡani, as some of his early biographers attest (Rāšedi, pp. 969, 983, 990), appears to have spent all of his life in Kashmir though one of his quatrains (robāʿi) complains of Mughal North India’s (Hendustān) heat (Ḡani, 1984, p. 225), suggesting he traveled to that region. In Kashmir, he studied at the Madrasa-ye Qoṭbiya in Srinagar with the litterateur Mirzā Moḥsen Fāni Kašmiri (d. 1670-71), who, in his turn, was known to have studied with Moḥebollāh Allāhābādi, a distinguished commentator of Ebn al-ʿArabi’s mystical teachings (Ḵošgu, p. 348; Lodi, p. 161). This pedagogical affiliation could account for the recurrent formulations of Ebn al-ʿArabi’s theory of hierophany (tajalli) in Ḡani’s poetry as well as in the preface to his Divān by his student and compiler, Moslem (Ḡani, 1984, pp. 53-6). Ḡani was also acquainted with some of the most famous Speaking Anew poets who had gathered in Kashmir in the courts of the region’s Mughal governors or accompanied the Emperor Šāhjahān (r. 1628-58) on his visits. Among these acquaintances were Ṣāʾeb-e Tabrizi (d. 1676), who passed through Kashmir in 1632 before returning to Iran; Abu Ṭāleb Kalim-e Kāšāni, the poet laureate at Šāhjahān’s court who spent the last seven years of his life in Kashmir and at whose death in 1651 Ḡani composed a chronogram (Ḡani, 1984, p. 249); Mollā Toḡrā, whom Ḡani reviled in a short verse (Ḡani, 1984, p. 234); and Moḥammad Qoli Salim-e Tehrāni (d. 1647).
Despite such evidence of his courtly connections, Ḡani seems to have kept aloof from the Mughal court in Kashmir, since he appears nowhere in contemporaneous courtly chronicles. This is probably why one of the earliest reports on him in biographical dictionaries (taḏkera) characterizes him as a Sufi who refused the imperial summons to court, preferring his ascetic love of God to imperial service (Rāšedi, pp. 968-969). This characterization seems borne out by a letter by Ḡani himself to an unnamed but probably courtly addressee, wherein Ḡani confesses his inability to both “adorn the new bride of poetry” such that it would appeal to discerning litterateurs as well as “fill the sea/meter of the praise of the choicest of the lineage of nobility and liberality” (Ṭabāṭabāʾi-Eṣfahāni, pp. 339-40). It would thus appear that he practiced poetry in a physical location separate from the court but was routinely visited by poets who attended it. This exposure to courtly literary circles perhaps accounts for the popularity of his poetry among the Mughal elite and for Ḡani’s own complaints across ten of his ḡazal distichs of the literary theft of his verses (Ḡani, 1984, pp. 61, 63, 142, 143, 162, 165, 192, 205, 210, 210).
The critical edition of the Divān concludes with an untitled prose passage forty lines long wherein Ḡani defends himself against a charge of literary theft (Ḡani, 1984, pp. 257-59). The passage offers a rare window onto the relations between author and scribe in this literary culture. An acquaintance of Ḡani who was studying a copy of ʿAbd-al-Qāder Badāʾuni’s chronicle, the Montaḵab al-tavāriḵ, discovered in it a distich that had recently grown famous as Ḡani’s. The acquaintance alerted Ḡani to this discovery. At this, Ḡani resolved to compose no more poetry until his name was cleared of dishonor, for the distich was, he argued, his own. When Ḡani discovered an older copy of the Montaḵab al-tavāriḵ and did not find the distich in question in it, he summoned the scribe who had made the allegedly incriminating copy of the chronicle. The scribe confessed that the original copy he had copied had not contained the distich. The scribe was debarred from literary assemblies, and Ḡani—his name cleared of dishonor—concludes his piece by requesting his readers, who are explicitly addressed as practitioners of the Speaking Anew (tāza-guʾyi) stylistics of the Persian ḡazal, not to blame the poet for the scribe’s fault when they suspected “the interpolation of topos-theft.”
Ḡani’s only other prose text is the afore-mentioned letter to an unnamed addressee who was probably a nobleman who expected Ḡani to compose verse in praise of a member of the court. Ḡani’s defense of his inability to do so captures the tension that defined his social location as one that was caught between a Sufi aloofness from the court—an aloofness that may nonetheless have been as social in its hospice-setting as the court—and the court, where he had apparently found elite followers in Sufism as in poetry (Ṭabāṭabāʾi-Eṣfahāni, pp. 339-40).
The verse components of Ḡani’s relatively slim divān mostly comprise ḡazals, including several single distichs, followed by ninety-two quatrains (robāʿi), two maṯnavis, one twenty-eight couplets long satirizing a barber and the other thirty-eight couplets long describing the winter in Kashmir, a three-couplet inter-linear graft (tażmin) of a couplet by Ḥāfeẓ (d. 1398), a ḡazal fragment (qeṭʿa) commemorating the death of the poet Kalim-e Kāšāni, two separate ḡazal fragments in commemoration of the deaths of the poet Mir Elāhi and Eslām Ḵān, the governor of Kashmir, another ḡazal in description of winter, a fragment describing his bodily pain by personifying pain, and, finally, a couplet in condemnation of a barber.
The Dynamics of Ḡani’s Reception. The popularity of Ḡani’s poetry across what were, by his lifetime, the three cultural regions of Persian—Safavid Iran, Turān or Turkic Central Asia, and Hindustān or Mughal India—is evident both in the dispersal today of manuscripts of his ḡazals and Divān across these regions as well as in such reports as that of Šir Ḵān Lodi, who, in his prosopography Merʾāt al-ḵiāl (1690-91), observes that “whatever arose from his brilliant nature is today rumored and repeated across Iran, Turān, and the region of Hindustān” (Rāšedi, p. 972). However, by the time Persian texts first came to be printed in mid-19th-century British India the Neo-Classical movement of the ‘Literary Return’ (bāzgašt-e adabi) in Iran had already discredited the kind of semantic density that Speaking Anew and Ḡani excelled at. Ḡani’s public memory after this period therefore largely survived in South and Central Asia. The mid-18th-century Indian-Iranian courtly competitions over literary competency in Persian transformed his memory into an index of the shifting literary valences of ethnicity.
Completing his Kalemāt al-šoʿarā in 1703, Moḥammad Afẓal Sarḵoš wrote in his entry on Ḡani: “From the region of Kashmir, indeed from the land of India, nobody like him with such a superior imagination [ḵoš-ḵiāl], subtle composition [nāzok-band], and topos-discovering [maʿni-yāb] taste has arisen.” Sarḵoš also says of him in the same entry: “Most of his compositions deployed the technique [ṯarz] of ihām” (Rāšedi, pp. 970-971). He concluded his entry by recording second-hand a report that proved fateful for Ḡani’s subsequent canonization. This report states that Ṣāʾeb so envied a particular distich by Ḡani (whose second hemistich is dām ham-rang-e zamin bud gereftār šodam “the net was of the same color as earth, so I became entrapped”) that he exclaimed: “If only all that I have composed in this lifetime He gave to that Kašmiri in exchange for this one distich.” Sarḵoš notes that he and a courtly poet both composed distichs on the basis of the topos (maʿni) in Ḡani’s. In this report, Ṣāʾeb’s hyperbolic estimation of a distich by Ḡani singles him out as “Kashmiri” as well as valorizing him for the virtue of poetic compression. This estimation of Ḡani inaugurated eristic imitations of his distichs by Ḡolām ʿAli Āzād Belgrāmi around 1752 and of his whole Divān by Gorbaḵš-e Ḥoẓuri around 1723 (Šafiq, p. 57).
In the mid-18th century, provoked by the disparagements of India’s Persian philology, poetry, and Indian-born litterateurs by the famous Iranian émigré intellectual and poet, Moḥammad ʿAli Ḥazin Lāhiji (d. 1766) (Ḥazin, 1954, pp. 92-5; Ḥazin, 1998, pp. 228-31), some defendants of Indian-born Persian-language poets responded by hyperbolically inflating reports of Ḡani’s meeting with Ṣāʾeb and, in particular, of Ṣāʾeb’s anthologization of Ḡani’s distichs in his personal anthology (bayāż). In fact, however, Ṣāʾeb had copied no more than twelve of Ḡani’s distichs into his personal anthology. The implication of these inflations was that if no less an Iranian poet than the great Ṣāʾeb could acknowledge, steal from and even submit to the Indian-born Ḡani’s poetic authority then such mid eighteenth century literary Iranian disparagers of Indian birth as Ḥazin could claim no authority by virtue of their birth. So, Serāj-al-Din Ḵān-e Ārezu claimed in his biographical dictionary Majmaʿ al-nafāyes (1750-1) that Ṣāʾeb had copied two hundred of Ḡani’s distichs into his personal anthology, praising the former for his fair-mindedness (Rāšedi, p. 978). In 1748, Mir Ḥosayn Dust Sambhali said in his Taḏkera-ye ḥosayni that Ḡani had himself selected a thousand distichs from among one hundred thousand in his Divān and, handing Ṣā’eb this selection, had sunk the remainder in water (Rāšedi, p. 977). In this anecdote Ḡani rivals Ṣāʾeb’s reputation for copiousness and spontaneity of composition. In the 1770s, Qodratollāh Šawq declared in his prosopography Takmelat al-šo‘arā that Ṣā’eb had copied a few of Ḡani’s distichs into his anthology and sunk the rest of Ḡani’s Divān into water, condemning Ṣā’eb’s injustice (Ḡani, 1984, p. 11). The implication here was that the period’s most authoritative Speaking Anew poet, who was an Iranian, had risen to fame by maliciously ruining the prospects of an Indian one. However, as ʿAli Javād Zaidi, the editor of the 1984 edition of Ḡani’s Divān notes, neither of these events can have occurred, since Ḡani never compiled his own Divān in his lifetime and it was his afore-mentioned student Moslem who, within a year of Ḡani’s death, gathered Ḡani’s dispersed verses, compiled them into a Divān, and wrote a preface to it (Ḡani, 1984, p. 11-12).
Witness as he was to the mid eighteenth century disputation between Ḥazin Lāhiji and Ḵān-e Ārezu over the authority of Indian-born poets to practice exemplary innovations (taṣarrofāt) in poetic Persian, Sambhali also introduced into the archive on Ḡani a report that became, in the course of the twentieth century, a famous local legend in Kashmir formulating patriotic pride in locality. This report states that, after Ṣāʾeb heard a Persian couplet by Ḡani that contained a word in the Kashmiri language—krāl-pan for ‘potter’s thread’—he set out from Iran for Kashmir to ask Ḡani its meaning (Rāšedi, p. 977). The 1984 critical edition of the Divān does not contain the reported distich. That Sambhali’s report is improbable only confirms that in his text Ḡani’s memory and this apocryphal meeting with the Iranian Ṣāʾeb served as evidence—counter to Ḥazin’s ethnically biased contentions—of Indian poetic authority in Persian. The authorizing functions of this anecdote are corroborated by its conformity in plot to an equally apocryphal but better-known report from Šams-al-Din Aflāki’s (d. 1360, Anatolia) Manāqeb al-ʿārefin wherein Saʿdi, on failing to understand a verse by Rumi, traveled to Anatolia to query him on its meaning.
Through the second half of the nineteenth century, the debates related to this ethnic criterion for literary authority in Persian were mostly forgotten with the demise in India of Persian itself as a prestigious literary medium. However, since the death of Persian in India seems to have been inversely indexed in the explosion of Persian lexicography and commentary, Ḡani’s memory came to be re-evaluated in the Reformist terms of the Urdu literary criticism composed by the period’s Muslim Reformists. Akbar Šāh Ḵān Nājibābādi, one such intellectual of Kashmiri origin, implied in his Savāniḥ-ye Mawlānā Ḡani (1919) that Ḡani was an exemplary bourgeois Muslim subject in being an exception to his age’s decadent late Mughal obsession with amorous topoi, since he deployed mystical topoi of spiritual poverty instead and refused to pay court to the Mughals (Nājibābādi, pp. 22-23).
In 1924 the poet and philosopher of Kashmiri origin, Moḥammad Iqbāl, related in his Persian maṯnavi Payām-e mašreq an anecdote originally illustrating Ḡani’s Sufi virtue of relinquishing attachment to personal property (Rāšedi, p. 990). In this anecdote an acquaintance asks Ḡani why he leaves the door to his house open when he is not at home and closes it when indoors. Ḡani replies that, since he is the only valuable commodity the house contains, he closes the door when at home and leaves it open when not. Iqbāl, who contributed to his period’s worldwide consolidation of the popular and superficial dichotomy between West and East as corresponding, respectively, to materialism and spirituality, assigned this originally Sufi memory of Ḡani the historically new and exemplary Reformist significance of Eastern spirituality.
Ṭabāṭabāʾi Eṣfahāni, Jalāl-al-Dīn Moḥammad, Majmuaʿ al-afkār, MS 8708, Ketābḵāna-ye Majles-e Šowrā-ye Eslāmi, Tehran, Iran.
Idem, Divān-e Ḡani, Srinagar, 1984.
Moḥammad ʿAli Ḥazin Lāhiji, Taḏkerat al-moʿāṣerin, Tehran, 1954.
Idem, “Resāla-e vāqe‘āt-e irān va hend,” in Rasāʾel-e Ḥazin Lāhiji, Tehran, 1998.
Bindrāban Das Ḵošgu, Safina-ye Ḵošgu, Patna, 1958.
Amīr Šīr-ʿAli Ḵān Lodi, Merʾāt al-ḵiāl, Bombay, 1906.
Akbar Šāh Kān Nājibābādi, Savāniḥ-ye Mawlānā Ḡani, Lahore, 1919.
Sayyid Ḥosām-al-Din Rāšedi, Taḏkera-ye šoʿarā-ye Kashmir, Karachi, 1968.
Šafiq, Lachmi Nārāyan, Gol-e raʿnā, Aurangabad, 1969.
Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: July 22, 2013