Mystics & music

Print edition : December 12, 2014


The books take the reader to the heart of the Sufi tradition and reveal its little-known musical forms.

Chu man tuti--ye hindam ar raast pursi/Zi manh hindui pursi/zi manhindui purs ta maghz guyam (As I am a parrot of India, to speak truthfully/Ask Hindu’i of me, so I speak beautifully.)

LITERATURE on Amir Khusrau is plentiful, yet sparse. Writings for the lay reader are common; competent studies are few. Eighty years ago, Dr Mohammed Wahid Mirza’s definitive biography of the genius was published. Entitled The Life and Works of Amir Khusrau it was reprinted in 1974 by Idarah-I Adabiyat (2009, Qasimjan Street, Delhi-110006) by its dedicated founder Mohammad Ahman. He published excellent works at inexpensive prices to promote knowledge; not to make financial gain. The book had an instructive chapter on Persian poetry in India before the time of Khusrau, a biographical sketch and brief studies of his poetry and his contribution to music.

“The popular melodies qaul and ghazal were first introduced into Indian music by Khusrau. He was an innovator in the field of music and introduced compositions which are still sung by qawwals when they sing his verses.”

Born in 1253 at Mominpur in the district of Etah in Uttar Pradesh, his versatile gifts won him fame. But his devotion was reserved exclusively for the saint Nizamuddin Aulia. He died in 1325, the very year the saint died. On his return from Lakhnauti, he learnt of the master’s death, went near the grave of the great saint and, in a state of unspeakable grief, the following Hindi doha trickled down from his lips:

Gori sowe sej par, much par dare kes,

Chal Khusrau ghar apne, rain bhai sab des.

(The fair one lies on the couch with her black tresses scattered on her face: O Khusrau, Come home now, for night has fallen all over the world.)

He is said to have predicted that his own end was near and that he would not survive him. He was laid to rest at the foot of his master’s grave in the Nizamuddin Basti in New Delhi.

Khusrau did not shun princes; Nizamuddin Aulia did. Sultan Ghyasuddin Tughlak was on good terms with Khusrau, but hostile to the saint. He sent a stern warning to him to leave Delhi before he arrived there. Hazrat Nizamuddin’s famous reply is still recalled as a retort to threats: Dilli dur ast (It is a long way to Delhi yet). The Sultan died before Tughlak could reach Delhi.

This rich heritage demanded an appropriate work to celebrate it. Jashn-e-Khusrau fully lives up to that demand. Published in India by Roli Books, it is produced and designed by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture as part the Humayun’s Tomb-Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project in collaboration with the sponsor, the Ford Foundation, India.

The illustrations alone make the volume not only a feast for the eyes but stimulate the reader to learn of the genius, his work and his times. Shakeel Hossain’s editorial introduction, with its notes and references, initiates the reader to the genius and his muse. It is followed by informative essays. Sunil Sharma, Assistant Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University, writes on “Literary Aspects of Amir Khusrau’s Poetry”. Irfan Zuberi writes on “Art, Artists and Patronage: Qawwali in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti”. He is a scholar as well as a musician. He plays the tabla and is committed to dhrupad. Regula Burchahardt Qureshi writes on qawwali on which she is an acknowledged authority. Her book Sufi Music of India and Pakistan (OUP, Karachi) was reviewed by the writer in Frontline (January 2, 2009). As she points out, qawwali is Sufi music. Uniquely, it aims at a unison between the singer and his audience, committed as both are to Sufism. To cap it all, 20 of Khusrau’s famous poems, which qawwals commonly recite, are reproduced in the volume in the Persian and Roman scripts with English translations. Peter Pannke is a German scholar in Sinology, Indology and Comparative Religion as well as a musician with more than CDs and LPs to his credit. Having studied dhrupad, he created a personal style of singing and founded a band of Turkish, Syrian and Indian musicians, “Troubadours United”. This equipment and extensive travels in Pakistan enabled him to write this fascinating volume profusely illustrated with photographs by Horst Friedrich with informative notes on various schools of music and two CDs of music none too easy to come by. Together they take the reader to the heart of the Sufi traditions.

Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, Professor on Islamic Studies at the University of Munich, has done, year after year, extensive field work in Pakistan. His books deal with various aspects of Sufism. While Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis deals with some little-known musical forms, Journey to God is a brief and competent survey of the Sufi orders.

Bulleh Shah's mysticism

Bulleh Shah (1680-1758) received an orthodox religious training but wrote heterodox poetry in the tradition of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). Khaled Ahmed can be trusted to reject hagiographic accounts of this great poet of Punjab. His 30-page introduction to Taufiq Rafat’s English translation of Bulleh Shah’s poems is a delight to read; extremely informative with original insights. He is one of Pakistan’s most fearless and erudite writers with a strong commitment to secularism. His introduction takes in its stride bhakti (devotional) poets in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

He writes: “The scholarly probing into the origins of Bulleh Shah’s mysticism has become a bit of a bore over the years. Dr Lajwanti began this most self-defeating and colourless exercise by categorising the various phases in his poetry as Islamic Sufism, Bhakti Vaishnavism, and triumphantly discovered the apex of his poetic genius in the achievement of monistic Advaita in such kafis as ‘ Ranjha Ranjha kardi’, Paehli pauri prem di’ and ‘ Bhavain jan na jjan’. She claimed that in ‘ Ki janam main kon’ Bulleh Shah finally broke with his Islamic background of Advaita, unaware that the kafis were literally inspired by Rumi’s ghazal ‘ Cheh Tadbir ai musalmanan’. Muslim authors, their hackles up, just as assiduously pushed him back into the Islamic fold by pasting on him the exclusive label of Ibn Arabi’s ‘Wahadat-ul-Wujud’. But beyond and above this communal humbug, Bulleh Shah seems to incorporate and transcend all the contemporary influences till only a voice remains, the essential and irreducible inflection of the speech of the common man living under the yoke of political and religious tyranny.” Contemporary relevance is evident.

Bulleh Shah was steeped in the Sufi tradition. “The obverse side of Bulleh Shah, to this studiously cultivated roughness, becomes manifest in the breadth of learned reference in his poems. Like Rumi, who is doubtlessly the biggest influence, his erudition in the Quranic and mystical lore is extraordinary. All of Rumi’s favourite references are there: the story of Yusuf and Zuleikha, which holds up the parable of Divine Beauty, comes at the top; Mansoor Hallaj, the mystic-martyr, executed in A.D. 922; Prophet Moses and Mount Sinai as symbols of direct mystical experience; Christ and the Cross; Bayazid, the famous mystic of Khurasan, hero of mystical stories, who died in A.D. 874; Junaid, the chief of the Sufis of Baghdad who died in A.D. 910; the martyrdom of Husain as vindication of mystical truth, Shams-i-Tabriz, the beloved of Rumi; the parables of Nimrod and the Pharaoh; Solomon and his power of mystical speech.”

Khaled Ahmad notes that “another poetic influence to which Bulleh Shah makes no direct reference is Kabir, but it becomes most obvious in the kafis written in the idiom of Kabir, the Hindustani or khari boli which demonstrated a popular mix of Persian and Hindi literary traditions. The Vaishnava vocabulary is used in the manner of an adept. The lover as a thief is taken from the parable of Krishna, who appears now as ‘Kahna’ of Mira Bai playing his flute, now disporting himself with numerous gopis as the immanent manifestation of a single Godhead. His kafis ‘Yeh dukh kahoon kis kay agay’ and ‘Bansi Kahna uchraj bajai’ are in the tradition of Kabir and Mira Bai. Bulleh Shah acknowledges the influence of this north Indian off-shoot of bhakti by making a direct reference to Tulsidas. Parallel to his symbolic employment of local romances of Mirza Sahiban, Sassi Punnoo, and the romances of the Arabic cultural background are references to Kurus and Pandus of the Mahabharata and the Rama-Sita story of the Ramayana in which Ravana and Hanuman figure as two poles of mystical knowledge.”

Bulleh Shah could not have wished for a better introduction to his thought and his verse.

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