Unchained melody

A truncated version of this blog first appeared in the Hindustan Times on March 16, 2008.

Delhi, sometime in the 14th century: Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya has just received word that emperor Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, alarmed at his growing popularity and influence, has vowed to finish him off. Auliya, who belonged to the Chishti order of Sufism, merely smiles and utters the immortal line “Hanoz Dilli door ast.” (Delhi is yet far.) Tughlaq, who is on a military campaign, never makes it back to Delhi. Depending on which version you believe, he was either murdered by his own son, Mohammad, or he died after a platform built for a public occasion collapsed on him.

Nizamuddin Auliya’s mausoleum, February 28, 2008: The saint’s tomb is today one of India’s most revered shrines. As thousands of devotees from every religion shuffle in and out of the dargah, the hum of whispered prayers permeates the air, drowning out the much louder calls of flower- and chaadar-sellers. It is an apt setting for devotion, prayer and a little bit of magic.

The final resting place of Nizamuddin Auliya, said to have been born near Delhi in 1238 in an Afghan family, is also the cradle of one of the most enchanting traditions of devotional music that India has nurtured — qawwali.

That is what drew me there that Thursday evening.
Thursdays, at the dargah, are always a celebration of the music that took birth in 8th century Persia but found a home 500 years later in India. As my companion buys the traditional offering of flowers and sweets, I recall reading that qawwali as we know it was created by the fusion of the Persian tradition with that of the Indian by Amir Khusro, the revered poet who was a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya. Fittingly, Khusro is buried just metres away from the saint.

Today, qawwals are prized artists and perform around the world, but the art on display at the dargah is always more humble and, therefore, more soulful. A harmonium and a dholak are usually the sole musical accompaniments.
As I walked down the long and winding corridor that leads to the saint’s grave, sounds of the qawwals warming up wafted through. A crowd gathered in the courtyard facing Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb as I paid my respects to the saint and found a seating spot.
And then it began. The qawwali started as a melodious drone, growing in volume and power. As the initial lines set the mood and tone, the handclaps kept rhythm and controlled the pace of the qawwali, picking up speed during the chorus and slowing down to a murmur as an important line was being delivered.
The setting sun coloured the sky in a million different hues as the balmy evening began turning into night. But nobody noticed.

Qawwali is often said to transport artist and listener alike into a trance-like state, bringing a realisation of the divine and liberating the soul of all that is merely earthly. I watched in wonder as devotee after devotee lost himself to prayer disguised as song.
Among the swaying, lost listeners were several foreigners who had come merely to take in some exotica but would leave touched by something greater.

Then, suddenly, the qawwals stopped. Just as they seemed to have the audience in their grip, they let go. “Will you continue after a break?” I asked a troupe member, my words more plea than query. “It’s time for prayer,” he smiled. “We’ll be back.”
Within moments, the azaan filled the courtyard just like the qawwali had. The faithful rose and bowed as one and everything else came to a standstill.

The qawwals returned just as the lights lining the dargah’s dome and walls were switched on, bathing the courtyard in a yellow glow. The troupe started with the popular Bhar de jholi meri, ya Muhammad… Not a listener moved as the vocalists took turns leading the qawwali.

Like many others, I lost myself, singing and clapping along. It was time to forget the world, and we did.

Two hours after the singing began, it was time to end.

The qawwals wound up their performance with a flourish — a traditional version of Dum a dum mast kalandar, made popular by Abida Parveen and turned into a pop hit by Runa Laila. To their credit, the troupe never wavered from the traditional version, not yielding to the temptation to deliver a better-known version.
Several devotees deposited money at the feet of the singers as they left the courtyard. Many went to pray at the tomb. Everybody walked away stunned by the power of Sufi music and poetry.

I left too, still living the music.

It strikes me that as we increasingly open our minds to new forms of music — fusion, electronica, remix and be-bop — we may be guilty of closing our minds to what we have for hundreds of years. It is not my case that we shun the new age and its melodies. It is my case that we never forget that which has been part of our lives and souls forever.

I wakled away from Nizamuddin Auliya’s abode with the lines of a qawwali ringing in my ears:

Ek nigaah pe thehra hai faisla dil ka… (A mere glance will seal the decision of my heart…)
Bhar de jholi meri, ya Muhammad,
(Grant me what I crave, O’ Muhammad)
Laut kar main na jaoonga khaali… (I know my prayer will not go unanswered…)

How do you explain Gandhi to a 5-year-old?


This blog also appeared in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, on  March 16, 2008.

I had an unusual experience this morning (Sunday, March 9). I had taken my daughter to the planetarium, but landed up early. Having bought the ticket, we had an hour to kill, so I took her to the Discovery Of India permanent exhibition at the Nehru Centre next door.

She was quite excited to see sepia-toned photographs of the freedom movement, old utensils, photographs of Nehru’s childhood and a pictorial representation of the jails freedom fighters were often incarcerated in.

Then, she came upon the photograph of a bald, gentle-looking, frail man in a loincloth. “Who is this?” she asked. “It’s Gandhiji,” I replied.

I knew the answer was inadequate because, to a grown up, the name Gandhi is enough to conjure up images of the Freedom Struggle, Satyagraha and a way of life that seems far removed from the consciousness of an India that’s setting the standard in economic growth. But, to a five-year-old, all this may as well be Greek.

My daughter, of course, wasn’t letting me get away with just telling her the name of the man in the photograph. A child’s curiosity isn’t that easily satisfied. “But why is he here?” she demanded to know.

I could have told her about the barrister from Porbandar, who studied in England, settled down in South Africa and whose life changed when he was thrown out of a train just because he was a coloured man with the right ticket in the right compartment.

I have recently read a superb biography of Gandhi’s by Louis Fischer, and I could have told my daughter about how he lived in ashrams, what he meant to our struggle to be free, how he refused to raise his voice or hand, or lift a fire-arm. Yet, he was among the bravest men who ever lived.

I could have also made the connection to Pune, where we spent a wonderful year. Gandhi had been imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace. It was where he lost his beloved Kasturba, whose own role in the liberation movement is rather underplayed by history textbooks.

But, I knew, none of this would make sense to my little girl. I was struggling to find a way to make Gandhi strike a chord, make him relevant to her. And then, inspiration struck.

“Gandhi is the gentle old man who helped Munnabhai, remember?” I said. Her eyes lit up. “Yaaay, Munnabhai!” she shouted. “Yes, Gandhiji told him to always speak the truth, not to trouble others and say sorry if he made a mistake.”

That day, though my daughter may not have been able to articulate it, Gandhi became simply the symbol of what it means to live right. It took Munnabhai for her to learn that.

Thanks, Mamu!