The main source of information on Mir's life is his autobiography Zikr-e-Mir, which covers the period from his childhood to the beginnings of his sojourn in Lucknow. However, it is said to conceal more than it reveals, with material that is undated or presented in no chronological sequence. Therefore, many of the 'true details' of Mir's life remain a matter of speculation.
Mir was born in Agra, India (then called Akbarabad and ruled by the Mughals) ca. August or September 1723 in a family of Arab origins. His philosophy of life was formed primarily by his father, a religious man with a large following, whose emphasis on the importance of love and the value of compassion remained with Mir throughout his life and imbued his poetry. Mir's father died while the poet was in his teens. He left Agra for Delhi a few years after his father's death, to finish his education and also to find patrons who offered him financial support (Mir's many patrons and his relationships with them have been described by his translator C. M. Naim).
Some scholars consider two of Mir's masnavis (long narrative poems rhymed in couplets), Mu'amlat-e-ishq (The Stages of Love) and Khwab o khyal-e Mir ("Mir's Vision"), written in the first person, as inspired by Mir's own early love affairs, but it is by no means clear how autobiographical these accounts of a poet's passionate love affair and descent into madness are. Especially, as France W. Pritchett points out, the austere portrait of Mir from these masnavis must be juxtaposed against the picture drawn by Andalib Shadani, whose inquiry suggests a very different poet, given to unabashed eroticism in his verse
Mir lived much of his life in Mughal Delhi. Kuchha Chelan, in Old Delhi was his address at that time. However, after Ahmad Shah Abdali's sack of Delhi each year starting 1748, he eventually moved to the court of Asaf-ud-Daulah in Lucknow, at the king's invitation. Distressed to witness the plundering of his beloved Delhi, he gave vent to his feelings through some of his couplets.
His complete works, Kulliaat, consist of six Diwans containing 13,585 couplets, comprising all kinds of poetic forms: ghazal, masnavi, qasida, rubai, mustezaad, satire, etc. Mir's literary reputation is anchored on the ghazals in his Kulliyat-e-Mir, much of them on themes of love. His masnavi Mu'amlat-e-Ishq (The Stages of Love) is one of the greatest known love poems in Urdu literature.
Mir lived at a time when Urdu language and poetry was at a formative stage - and Mir's instinctive aesthetic sense helped him strike a balance between the indigenous expression and new enrichment coming in from Persian imagery and idiom, to constitute the new elite language known as Rekhta or Hindui. Basing his language on his native Hindustani, he leavened it with a sprinkling of Persian diction and phraseology, and created a poetic language at once simple, natural and elegant, which was to guide generations of future poets.
The death of his family members, together with earlier setbacks (including the traumatic stages in Delhi), lend a strong pathos to much of Mir's writing - and indeed Mir is noted for his poetry of pathos and melancholy.
"Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ka
poonchte kya ho un nay to
kashka khaincha dair mein baitha
kab ka tark Islam kiya"
What can I tell you about Mir’s faith or belief ?
A tilak on his forehead in a temple he resides, having abandoned Islam long ago
What Mir was practicing was probably the Malamati or “Blameworthy” aspect of the Sufi tradition. Using this technique, a person ascribes to oneself an unconventional aspect of a person or society, and then plays out its results, either in action or in verse.
Mir's famous contemporary, also an Urdu poet of no inconsiderable repute, was Mirza Rafi Sauda. Mir Taqi Mir was often compared with the later day Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib. Lovers of Urdu poetry often debate Mir's supremacy over Ghalib or vice versa. It may be noted that Ghalib himself acknowledged, through some of his couplets, that Mir was indeed a genius who deserved respect. Here are two couplets by Mirza Ghalib on this matter.
Reekhtay kay tumhi ustaad nahi ho Ghalib
Kehte hain kisi zamane me koi Mir bhi tha
You are not the only master of Urdu, Ghalib
They say there used to be a Mir in the past
Ghalib apna yeh aqeeda hai baqaul-e-Nasikh
Aap bey behrah hai jo muataqid-e-Mir nahi
Ghalib! Its my belief in the words of Nasikh*,
"He that vows not on Mir, is himself unlearned!"
*Shaikh Imam Bakhsh Nasikh of Lucknow, a disciple of Mir.
Some of his impeccable couplets are:
Dikhaai diye yun ke bekhud kiya Hamen aap se bhi juda kar chale''
(She appeared in such a way that I lost myself
And went by taking away my 'self' with her)
Looked as if rendered me unconscious
away went leaving me separated from me
At a higher spiritual level the subject Of Mir's poem in not a woman but God. Mir speaks of man's interaction with the Divine. What affect it has on man when God reveals Himself to man. Dikhaai diye yun ke bekhud kiya When I saw you God I lost all sense of self Hamen aap se bhi juda kar chale When You revealed yourself it separated me from myself
Gor kis dil jale ki hai ye falak Shola ek subh yaan se uthta hai''
(What heart-sick sufferer's misery is the sky?
an Ember rises hence at dawn)
Ashk aankh mein kab nahi aata Lahu aata hai jab nahi aata''
(From my eye, when doesn't a tear fall
Blood falls when it doesn't fall)
Bekhudi le gai kahaan humko Der se intezaar hai apna
(Where has selflessness taken me
I've been waiting for myself for long)
Ibtidaa-e-ishq hai rotaa hai kyaa Aage aage dekhiye hotaa hai kyaa
(Its the beginning of Love, why do you wail
Just wait and watch how things unveil)
Likhte ruqaa, likhe gaye daftar Shauq ne baat kyaa barhaai hai
(Started with a scroll, ended up with a record
How pursuit escalated the whole thing)
Deedani hai shikastagi dil ki Kya imaarat ghamon ne dhaai hai
(Worth-watching is my heart's crumbling
What a citadel have sorrows razed)
Baad marne ke meri qabr pe aaya wo 'Mir' Yaad aai mere Isa ko dawa mere baad''
(O Mir, She came to my grave after i'd died
My messiah came to my aid after i'd died)
Khushwant Singh's famous novel Delhi: A Novel gives very interesting details about the fictional life and adventures of the great poet. His fictional memoirs and confessions, especially those about his illicit relations with elite women, mainly with the wife of the aristocrat Rias Khan who employed him as tutor to teach his children, are not only very entertaining but also provide a lot of insight into his mind and heart.