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Mainstream, VOL L, No 40, September 22, 2012

Amir Khusrau — A Hero for Our Times

Friday 28 September 2012, by Ashok Celly

Amir Khusrau is one of the most amazing personalities of India’s cultural history. For Khusrau, there was absolutely no conflict between being a Muslim and being an Indian. In fact, he quotes Prophet Muhammad to the effect that patriotism is an essential ingredient of religion. As Khusrau saw it, it was Islamic to be a patriot. Such intellectual clarity and moral courage as Khusrau showed as far back as the 13th century would be rare even in our times.

Khusrau loved India in all its aspects—its flora and fauna (the presence of peacocks here sent him into ecstasy), its cultural legacy—music, maths and chess, and its awesome linguistic diversity. He himself knew several languages including Sanskrit. When a literary snob tried to ridicule his poetic aspirations, he proudly declared that he was an Indian Turk and makes replies in Hindavi. In one of his verses, he describes himself as a parrot of India. “Question me in Hindavi that I may talk sweetly.” The eminent Hindi poet Ramdhar Singh ‘Dhankar’, in his book Sanskriti ke Char Adhayye—a book that deserves to be better known—makes a very apt observation: “Had India projected Khusrau as the role model for Indian Muslims, she would have had fewers problems.”

Perhaps Khusrau’s greatest contribution to India’s culture was the creation of a new linguistic medium. While the Hindu poets were writing in Prakrit and Muslims in Persian and content to please small elitist sections, Khusrau had the creative instinct and the courage to express himself in a language used by ordinary men and women in and around Delhi—a language that came to be knwon as Hindavi. This again speaks for his love of India and its people. So intense was his love for India and its people that he must express his thought and feelings in their language. His Hindavi compo-sitions are so remarkably free from pedantry and so very reader-friendly with a touch of the colloquial that one finds it hard to believe they were written six or seven hundred years back. They cover a wide range of emotions, rasas. Some of them are playful—the paheliyans (conundrums) largely belong to this category. His babul compositions are full of pathos and show great empathy for the bride who has to leave her father’s home and his most famous composition —chaap tilak is a supreme example of mystical feeling. His immense popularity with the women of his times speaks for his remarkable communication skills and makes him a precursor of poets like Sahir Ludhianvi and Gulzar. “Khusrau was indeed a pioneer, a path-
breaker,” Prabhakar Machwe, the well-known littérateur, pays him a handsome tribute. Khusrau gave to Hindi its first Khari Boli compositions. It was his tradition which was followed by Rahim or Girdhar or all the poets in Khari Boli in 19th and 20th century upto Maithlisharan Gupta and Bachchan. That the first poet of Khari boli happens to be a Muslim—a language which with the passage of time acquired enormous political and cultural significance is a great tribute to our composite culture.

THIS is not all. Khusrau was a multifaceted genius. Apart from being a great linguist and a creative writer of considerable merit in both Persian and Hindavi as mentioned earlier, he made significant/several contribution to Indian music. (Probably, the Muslim romance with India music begins with Khusrau.)
He invented the Sitar synthesising the Hindu Veena with the Iranian Tambura. Also musical forms like qawwali and tarana originated with Khusrau. He was indeed a rare musical genius who contributed both in creating musical instruments and musical forms. Amir Khan, the great musician, rated his musical genius higher than Tansen. Chaap Tilsk Sab Cheeni... is probably the oldest qawwali ever composed and is popular to this day which speaks volumes for Khusrau’s communication skills. His literary and musical creativity is strongly reminiscent of Tagore. He enriched the cultural life of north India just as Tagore was to do much later in relation to Bengal.

Khusrau is probebly the first and finest representative of our composite culture—a culture which is imperilled today by fanatics on both sides. Surely Khusrau’s life and work needs to be better known especially among the youth of this country. To engage with Khusrau is to know—not just in the head but also in the heart, not just intellectually but also emotionally —the finest values India has aspired for and at times accomplished.

A word about how history is taught in our colleges and universities may not be out of place here. We seem to have made a fetish of specialisation. Whatever its uses in social sciences like sociology, political science and economics, it is so very alien to a discipline like history whose forte is its holistic spirit. Specialisation divides history into ancient, medieval and modern periods and subverts the great humanistic enterprise which is concerned with understanding the past—our collective self—so that we can have a better present. Musn’t a student of history be concerned with the significance of Ashoka’s ethical-political vision just because his area of interest is medieval history or a student of modern history be supremely indifferent to the greatness of Akbar or Amir Khusrau?

The author, currently a freelancer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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