Saturday, April 29, 2006

khusro nijam pe bal bal jahiye

a first draft, hurriedly written, to read here.
much of the resources taken from here. (Thanks Yousuf, for this among many generoisities of spirit.)

They would have been up all night. They would have stood, the next morning, on the low roof of that stone and mortar building, before it sprouted so many graves. I imagine the weather to be like it is now, days of furnace heat still unguessed at in the coolth of dawn. The sun would have risen saffron across the river, ripples turned to flame, where now run the railway tracks. A cool breeze would have blown across the water to the terrace where the two men stood looking at a scene so out of a thousand Hindi films.

Men and women standing waist deep in the cold water, silhouetted by the rising sun and the ripples dancing gold around them, cupping their sieve hands full with flowing water, offerings to the sun. Praying to the East, exactly opposite to the direction in which the men were accustomed to turn when they prayed.

The older man, the one who wore his cap off kilter, at an angle, is said to have turned to the younger, and said,

Har qaum raast raahay, deenay wa qibla gaahay
(Every sect has a faith, a qibla which they turn to.)

I imagine the younger man, the one he called the ‘Turak’ and the Parrot of Hind, blushing, or is that just the colour of the morning sun? Hesitating perhaps, even as the ready repartee comes to him with a fluency he wishes would sometime desert him, leaving him tongue tied…

Men qibla raast kardam, ber terf-e kajkulaahay.
(I have straightened my qibla in the direction of this crooked cap)


I was twenty years old when I first heard the Turak’s poetry sung, and straight as the proverbial arrow, no crooked caps for me thank you. But the old qawwal’s cracked voice bouncing off the marble was a woman’s now. The voice of a woman weak in the knees with desire, ravished by one glance from her lover. There was violence in the song and it was happening to me, the green bangles breaking as he grabbed my hand and pulled me down, my bindi smudged into non-existence, my jewellery lost somewhere as I danced, wanton with the wine from the distillery of love.

For the first time in my life, my self/other subject/object co-ordinates had gone for a toss.

Chaap Tilak sab chhini re mose naina mila ke. My most erotic moment yet and there was no ‘me’, no self I could differentiate from the woman, the qawwal, the Turak. The song ended, and my self tried to get back in charge again, sat down gingerly in my still whirling head, cleared the metaphorical throat for an inner monologue, and began discoursing. The keywords flashed in discreet italics – syncretic; subversive; Totally Awesome, dude!

Hazrat Amir Khusrau, courtier to seven Sultans, to whom we attribute the language we speak; writing in the voice of a woman to express his love for Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Beloved of God, the most important Muslim divine in the history of Delhi. The song had come from seven hundred years ago and blown me off my feet.

(You have to understand, this was a year before Jahaan e Khusrau happened and Sufi music became ‘cool’.)

They have kept all of this out of the text-books. All the examples of Shringar Ras, the erotic register of Hindi poetry, that actually made it to the poetic canon were vapid lists of normative attributes- nose like a parrot, waist like a lion, boring like the history they teach you in schools. It’s not that they don’t tell you about Amir Khusrau. They tell you that he invented Hindavi, the sitar and the tabla. They miss out the details.

They don’t tell you that if Dilli has a great love story, it is the story of Khusrau and Nijam. Of course, we can’t be sure that any of this really happened, if Khusrau really wrote the songs that are sung every Thursday in the small courtyard between his grave and Nizamuddin’s, if the riverside exchange ever happened on that long ago dawn. But then we can’t be sure about the sitar either.

What matters is that the stories are told. That like the fragrant sheets woven from strings of rose and jasmine, these stories have come as offerings to their memory; stories whose fragrance lingers in the places associated with their life, and death. My favourite Khusrau-Nijam story is this one –

Nizamuddin was once so grieved because of the passing away of his young nephew, that he withdrew himself completely from the world for a couple of months. Either he would lock himself inside a room, or when no one else was around to disturb his sorrow, he would sit by his nephew’s grave. Khusrau, who could not bear with his absence any longer, started thinking of ways to brighten him up.

One day Khusrau met a few women on the road who were dressed up beautifully, singing and carrying colourful flowers. He asked them what they were up to. The women told him it was Basant Panchami, and they were taking the offering of Basant to their god. And of course, on Basant Panchami, the offerings are/were made to Kama, the god of love. Khusrau smiled and said, "Well, my god needs an offering of Basant too.”

Immediately, he dressed himself up like those women, took some mustard flowers and singing the same songs, started walking towards the graveyard where his pir would be sitting alone. Nizamuddin Aulia noticed some women coming towards him - he could not recognize Khusrau. And then, presumably as Nizamuddin was about to bawl them out for disturbing his reverie, he recognised Amir Khusrau, courtier to Sultans, dressed in ghagra choli and carrying a basket of bright yellow mustard, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Laughed, I like to imagine, till he cried again, and then laughed again, embracing Khusrau dressed in, well, drag.

He wanted them to be buried in the same grave.


They still celebrate Basant at Nizamuddin dargah. People dress in yellow and bring mustard flowers as offering, rather than the more usual roses. The yellow hatted management of the dargah, have taken to denying the cross dressing story in the past couple of years. It is too risqué for contemporary religious taste.

But then most of the popular work attributed to Khusrau is all a little risqué. Like the kehmukarnis, double entendre which say and yet deny, bursting with the joy and erotic possibilities of playing with language, and identity.

Aap hilay aur moye hilaaye, Wa ka hilna moye mun bhaye;
Hil hil kay woh huva nasankha. Aye sakhi saajan? Na sakhi pankha!

Sej padi moray aankhon aaya,
Daal sej mohay majaa dikhaya,
Kis say kahun ab maja main apna.
Aye sakhi saajan? Na sakhi, Sapna!

Or this one

Bakhat bakhat moye wa ki aas, raat dina oo rahat mo paas;
Meray man ko sab karat hay kaam. Aye sakhi saajan? na sakhi, Ram!


The world of the keh-mukarni, like much of the world Khusrau and Nizam are remembered as having inhabited as well as created, was a world in which if boundaries existed at all, they did so only to be transgressed. A world in which neither love, nor faith, had predictable answers.

Har qaum raast raahay, deenay wa qibla gaahay
What Nizamuddin said sounds sort of predictable today - all communities do their own thing, let’s be tolerant. It was Khusrau’s repartee which turned things on their head – it turned faith away from the qaum, from communities of belief, to a deeply personal blasphemy. Men qibla raast kardam, ber terf-e kajkulaahay.
(I have straightened my qibla in the direction of this crooked cap).

For me, that moment by the river represents the beginnings of a thematic that I see running through much of the history of belief and faith and being in India. A refrain passing through much of the Bhakti and Sufi literature from then on is about a refusal to be defined. ‘Not Hindu, not Turak’ they all say - You can’t tell me how to pray. And with men writing of desire in the voice of women, with women writing of God in the language of desire - You can’t tell me how to love either.

When Nizamuddin died, Khusrau was in far off Bengal, on Sultanate business. He rushed back as fast as he could, but Nizamuddin had already been buried. He sat by the earthen mound that covered his friend, in the courtyard where they had spent so many happy hours together, an old man in his seventies, mourning another old man. In his grief he recited these lines –

Gori sovee sej par , much par dare kes

Chal Khusrau ghar aapne, Rain bhayee chahun des.

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