On Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, when Muslims take out huge processions all over India, Parvesh Verma, an MP of the Bharatiya Janata Party from West Delhi, called for an economic boycott of the community. Hindus listening to him did not respond immediately to this brazen appeal urging them to treat their neighbours as enemies. Verma had to exhort them to raise their hands to show agreement.
Just hours earlier, a completely different scene was unfolding in the nation’s financial capital. An audience of Muslims had just burst into applause at the naat (verse in praise of Prophet Muhammad) being recited: “Maghroor kayi Badr ki mitti mein mil gayein/Imaan hai jahaan kufr ki phir kya bisaat ho’’ (Many an arrogant idolator mingled with the dust on the battlefield of Badr/ Where faith resides what’s the power of idolatry?).
The occasion was a naatiya mushaira. The venue was Mumbai’s landmark Islam Gymkhana. And the poet reciting the naat was Madhav Barve “Noor”, technically an idolator himself.
Barve, 41, prides himself on his Chitpawan Brahmin identity and links to the Peshwe Bhat family. The Barve ancestral mansion in Satara, the erstwhile capital of the Maratha kingdom, was burnt down in the violence against Brahmins following Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
What was a man like Barve doing in a mushaira dedicated to Prophet Muhammad? He was attending a first-of-its-kind event where only Hindu poets had been invited to sing in praise of the Prophet.
Unnerved by the Nupur Sharma episode and the deaths that followed, a group of Muslims thought a way to counter the hatred could be to introduce the Prophet to non-Muslims. The naatiya mushaira was conceived as the grand finale of the “Prophet for All” campaign.
Hindus writing naats and other Islamic hymns is a tradition dating back to the 16th century that lovers of Urdu are familiar with. The poets who participated in this mushaira, all of whom write in Urdu, see themselves as doing something that is part of this legacy.
Indeed, Dr Laxman Sharma “Wahid” lamented that Hindu poets do not get enough opportunities to recite naats. “Many Hindu poets compose naats, but because a naat is only recited to start a mushaira, and invariably a Muslim is called to recite it, some have stopped writing them,’’ said the 62-year-old ghazal writer. Indeed, for three of the participating poets, this was their first invitation to recite naats, a chance for them to show their prowess at another genre of Urdu poetry.
While Barve was already familiar with the life of the Prophet, having lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and attended book fairs there (that is also where he learnt Urdu), the theatre artiste Anant Nandurkar “Khalish” did a lot of reading “to include references that would appeal to the listeners”. Content apart, the language, too, needed special attention.
“In a naat, we must be careful about which words to avoid, which words to use where; it’s a sensitive issue. We don’t want to hurt the listeners’ feelings even unintentionally,” said Sharma.
The poet Siddarth Shandilya wrote a naat for the first time for this mushaira. He said: “There is a difference in the way you address the Prophet and the way you speak to Allah. With Allah, you can use the pronoun “tu”. But with the Prophet, you have to be respectful.”
Familiarity with the idiom
In conversation, these poets use the same phrases for the Prophet as do Muslims: “Saheb”, “Huzoor”, “PBUH”. For some, this familiarity with the idiom comes from long contact with Muslims. Shandilya, 45, grew up in Muzaffarnagar and learnt Urdu from his childhood friend’s mother, and later from a maulvi in Delhi. Dr Sagar Tripathi’s connection with Muslims also goes back to his childhood days: one of the two women who looked after him was a Muslim.
Tripathi, now 73, who anchored the mushaira as the most senior poet there, recalled how his entire village, Gaura in Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, would get together to decorate the Muharram tazia. He said no wedding would be complete until the village’s respected elder, Yakub Chacha, attended it. Tripathi has always been fascinated by Islam. “There is something exceptional in this faith that originated in the desert and is now followed by a majority of the population in 50 countries,” he said. “Under Islam, for the first time daughters got rights.”
Tripathi, who has recited his devotional Islamic verses across the world, has read the Quran as many times as he has the Gita and the Ramayana and sees many similarities between Islam and Hinduism.
“Islam has no connection with violence; in fact, the Prophet’s message is brotherhood, no different from our motto of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” he said. Tripathi wrote his first naat 20 years ago; that was also the day he first kept a roza during Ramzan. He now has a book of naats, Sayaban e Rahmat. to his credit. “I don’t charge for the book. Instead, I ask the recipients to spend on charity; that’s the best way to honour the Prophet.”
Like Tripathi, Uddhav Mahajan “Bismil”, too, believes that Prophet Muhammad’s message is for all, not just Muslims. The award-winning poet from Pune, who taught himself Urdu after his retirement as a teacher, has written a book of 54 naats titled Muhammad Sab ke Liye, which won an award from the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Akademi. The National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language bought 300 copies of the book. Mahajan has not only read the Quran, but has gone to masjids with his ustad to listen to sermons.
Do these poets live in a bubble, unaffected by the growing polarisation on religious lines in the country? “If you don’t reciprocate such attitudes, they won’t affect you,” said Anant Nandurkar. Hailing from Amravati, Mahararashtra, where Muslims constitute 25 per cent of the population, Nandurkar, who also writes in Marathi and Hindi, believes India is like a garden of different flowers. “We have to live in it harmoniously. Besides, poetry can’t divide, it can only unite people.’’ Writing a naat, he said, felt no different from composing a bhajan. “You remember the Divine while composing both.”
Richa Sinha echoed his words. Asked if anyone had objected to her writing naats, she laughed. “Of course not. I’ve written hymns in praise of Bhagwan Ram, Shivji, Bhagwan Krishna too. Don’t Muslims write doheys (couplets) on Hindu gods and festivals?’’Alka “Sharar”, Rekha Sinha, and Richa Sinha are rare instances of women in a traditionally male preserve.
While few outside their literary circles know that these poets write naats, it is their writing in Urdu that has drawn criticism even from friends. Alka “Sharar” has faced this. “‘You’ve become a mulli!’ they said,” she said, still smarting at the memory. “As if Urdu has anything to do with Islam! I told them, ‘I was a Hindustani, and I remain a Hindustani.’”
Sharma, who sometimes wears a topi to mushairas, often hears, “You’ve become a Muslim!” Said Sharma: “I’ve never had a negative experience with Muslims. Knowing that I’m a pure vegetarian, often the mushaira hosts serve only vegetarian food, or make sure I’m served first.’’
The real name of the legendary Urdu poet Gulzar Dehlvi, who passed away in 2020, was Anand Mohan Zutshi. If this Hindu happened to see Muslim boys listening to a naat bareheaded, he would go around draping handkerchiefs over their heads. This anecdote, recounted by Madhav Barve, epitomises the composite culture that was attempted to be projected by the naatiya mushaira.
‘Prophet for all’
The mushaira was part of a campaign created by a group of Mumbai Muslims who are keen to counter the toxic atmosphere generated by the Nupur Sharma episode in June (wherein the former BJP spokesperson insulted the Prophet on TV and later two Hindus who supported her were killed in retaliation). Called “Prophet for All”, the mushaira introduced influential sections of non-Muslims to the Prophet’s life.
Did it succeed in its aim? The surcharged atmosphere through the mushaira, where Hindus sang “La Illaha Il Allah”, “Nabi Nabi Nabi Nabi”, and “Ya Rasul Allah” and the Muslim audience asked for more, left no space for hatred.
As Alka asked: “Kavi sammelans start with the Saraswati Vandana and the lighting of a diya; mushairas start with naats and the lighting of a candle. What’s the difference?”
Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.
- A naatiya mushaira in Mumbai, a first-of-its-kind event where only Hindu poets had been invited to sing in praise of the Prophet.
- It was conceived as a way to counter hatred by introducing the Prophet to non-Muslims.
- The naatiya mushaira was conceived as the grand finale of the ‘Prophet for All’ campaign.
- Hindus writing naats and other Islamic hymns is a tradition dating back to the 16th century.