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“From Ilyich to Ilyich, no stroke, no heart attack”, the Ukrainian gentleman muttered. We were chatting at a wedding reception a few decades ago. He had emigrated from the Soviet Union, and somewhere along our conversation I had happened to mention Anastas Mikoyan. He was agreeably surprised. Everyone knew of Gromyko, the poker face of Soviet diplomacy from late Stalin to early Gorbachev; few outside the USSR had heard of the old-time communist from Armenia. But Mikoyan’s was the more eye-popping high wire act. The October Revolution, Stalin’s purges, Khrushchev’s housecleaning, and Brezhnev’s putsch – he had survived and flourished through them all. Whatever else changed in the Kremlin, whether it was VI Lenin or LI Brezhnev in the corner office, the two ‘Ilyich’s my Ukrainian acquaintance was alluding to, Old Anastas had remained a Soviet fixture.
Mikoyan, who somewhat resembled Walt Disney owing perhaps to the mustache, is long gone and little noted. I remembered him suddenly last week when reading about Amir Khusrau, a multifaceted genius from 13th century India.
Khusrau (1253-1325) was a Renaissance Man long in advance of the Renaissance. Credited by some historians with inventing the sitar and the tabla, he was also a fine poet, with compositions both in the high Persian of the court and in the rough Hindi of the North Indian countryside. Khusrau is also said to have invented qawwali, a unique style of singing popularized in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And he introduced the ghazal poetry form to India. Khusrau was probably a pioneer too in the art of the poem-riddle, called paheli. Some say he invented the khayal and tarana styles of singing. If true he laid the foundations of Hindustani music.
Nearly 700 years after he died, his name is recognized by millions and his songs endure.
A shade less known than the literary Khusrau is Khusrau the spiritual seeker. There lived in Delhi in Khusrau’s time a famous Sufi saint and mystic, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, known far and wide for his benignity and simplicity. Khusrau was his favorite acolyte, no doubt as much on account of his poetic and musical talent as his penetrating intellect.
The mysticism of Nizamuddin was crystallized into a simple prescription for mankind’s ills, Love. It was a message that would find an echo in the Bhakti movement in India some centuries on, with exponents like Meera, Kabir, Tyagaraja and others making it a permanent part of the Indian psyche via their songs and poems. So deep is this permeation that its presence may be seen any day of the week on India’s roads, emblazoned in bold letters on the front of every truck, proclaiming, ‘God Is Love’. (It is a different matter, perhaps even a commentary on the Indian mind, that the back of the same truck carries in equally strident font a refutation of sorts, ‘Nazar Lagane Wale Tera Munh Kala’ – you that are casting eyes, may your face be blackened – wedged between the mandatory, ‘Horn, please’ and ‘OK, Ta Ta’ above the rear tires.)
But to get back to Amir Khusrau. His genius can be gauged by his distillation of the Bhakti Yoga into one solitary Hindi couplet, in language accessible to the most illiterate denizen of the Indo-Gangetic plain,
Khusrau Darya Prem ka, ulti vaa ki dhaar
Jo ubara so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar
The River of Love, Khusrau, upside down is its process
He that swims goes under, he sinks in it that crosses
Aside from this general embrace, Khusrau wrote too of his abiding love for his spiritual master, Nizamuddin. In this vein Khusrau is portrayed as a bride whose heart, personality, and identity have all been surrendered upon a single glance by the groom, ‘Nijaam’. Somehow both the nature of the poetry, and the lack of mawkishness in the allusions, all suggest that this was nothing along the lines of the Catholic church’s travails in our time.
Besides, the mischief in Khusrau’s other poetry would indicate that he had plenty of to do without mixing spirituality and corporeal pursuits. Consider this:
Zabaan e yaar e man Turki, wa man Turki na mi daanam
Che khush boodi, gar boodi zabaanash dar dahan e man
My lover’s tongue is Turkish, and Turkish I do not know.
What a happy resolution, if her tongue were in my mouth!
Peeri o shaahid-parasti na khush ast
Khusrova taa ki pareeshaani hanooz
Old age and amorous worship go ill-together
Hey Khusrau, you still disturb this notion
Khusrau, as Nizamuddin, was from all accounts free from religious bigotry. Nizamuddin belonged to a Sufi spiritual order, and ran akhanaqah, or monastery, in what is now the heart of today’s New Delhi (the entire neighborhood is still called Nizamuddin). People from every faith thronged the shrine, as they do even today. Evidently Khusrau’s freethinking went well beyond traditional Sufi liberality. Consider these opening lines of the first poem listed on the Khusrau page in Wikipedia,
Kafir e ishqam musalmani mara darkaar neest
Har rag e man taar gashta haajat e zunnaar neest;
Love-worshiping-infidel am I, for Muslimhood I have no need
Every vein of mine girdles me, for the sacred thread I have no need;
It was perilous enough for a non-Muslim to declare that he had no use for Muslimhood; for a Muslim it was almost guaranteed to prove lethal. If in 21st century Afghanistan a man could be condemned to death on the charge of attempting to leave Islam, one can only wonder at Khusrau’s chutzpah in the early 14th. But he didn’t stop there. The final lines of the same poem reveal that it was not the prospect of democratic adoration that attracted him either. A general go-to-the-blazes spirit seems to have informed his attitude.
Khalq migoyad, ki Khusrau butparasti mikunad
Aare-aare mikunam, ba khalq mara kaar neest.
People will say that Khusrau does idol worship
Yes Yes, I do, for people I have no use.
Though Khusrau is enormously popular among qawwali singers, and several of his songs are staple concert fare, the above song is one avoided entirely, for obvious reasons.
Another interesting poem by Khusrau, sung often enough, is Na mi daanam. The composition is sometimes touted as Khusrau’s picture of the afterlife. The impression I gained was quite different. Rather than heaven, Khusrau could well have been portraying the vicissitudes of earthly human existence.
Na mi daanam chi manzil bood shab jaay ki man boodam;
Ba har su raqs e bismil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.
Pari paikar nigaar e sarw qadde laalah rukhsare;
Sarapa aafat e dil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.
Khuda khud meer e majlis bood andar laamakan Khusrau;
Muhammad shamm e mehfil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.
I know not what place it was, where I was in the night;
All about me was a dance of the half-slaughtered, where I was in the night.
There were angel-faced sweethearts, of cypress-figure and tulip-countenance;
From top to bottom there were hearts in torment, where I was in the night.
God Himself was leading the ceremonies, amidst it all was a Khusrau disembodied;
Mohamed was the light of the gathering, where I was in the night.
This is Guernica in all of six lines. The attractions and the squalor of life are all sketched indelibly, along with the ultimate question that must vex the believer at least occasionally, what if God Himself had a hand in our miserable state of affairs?
As to the dance hall of the dead (or half-dead), some of it may well be from direct familiarity. We must now introduce the third leg of Khusrau’s existence: aside from being writer/musician/poet and seeker, he had an equally important prosaic aspect, perhaps the very basis on which he was able to sustain and develop his other two interests. For most of his adult life Khusrau was a noble in the Sultan’s court.
Muslim rule in India was then barely a century old. The late 13th and early 14th centuries were a torrid time in Delhi. Kings toppled often and heads rolled oftener, sometimes of the rulers themselves, but more frequently of nobles and officials. Trampling under elephants, putting out eyes, mass beheadings, infanticide, fratricide and parricide to ascend the throne, along with garden-variety court intrigue and old-fashioned murder, all of these are part of the history of Khusrau’s time as a Delhi courtier. Beginning in the reign of Sultan Balban of the Slave (Mamluk) Dynasty, he served two Mamluks, three Khiljis, and two Tughlaqs, variously as a court poet, soldier, royal historian and noble.
To paraphrase Khusrau himself, Islamic rule and mavericks of the faith are not known for their compatibility. Some four hundred years before but etched in popular lore, in 922 AD the mystic Al Mansoor was strung up in a public square in Baghdad and literally hacked to pieces for saying, “I am Truth”. You have to wonder how Khusrau, with his penchant for freewheeling expression, kept out of harm’s way. Certainly his proximity to Nizamuddin, whose popularity and rectitude allowed him sometimes to challenge the Sultan himself, could not have hurt. As to charges of apostasy, etc., Khusrau was also a theologian of some standing and composer of equally stirring poetry exalting icons of the Islamic faith. His ‘Man Kunto Maula’, his adrip-with-devotion paean to Ali, is justly one of the most riveting songs in the world of qawwali. He must also have been possessed of tact, common sense, and political judgment, all in sufficient quantity, aside from a native intelligence manifest in his writings. And luck. We will never know exactly. However it came about, his own line may apply unaltered to the paraphrase above – Khusrava, taa ki pareeshani hanooz. He died a natural death in 1325, just six months after Hazrat Nizamuddin died. The two are buried close to each other in Delhi.
Like Anastas Mikoyan, Amir Khusrau too was a great survivor. But unlike most men and women durable in their own times, he is a survivor in a deeper sense, counting among a small number in the long course of human history, for the products of his versatile imagination and sensibility that remain fresh centuries after his passing.
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a columnist and writer living on the West Coast. He is the author of Bantaism: the Philosophy of Sardar Jokes. His forthcoming book, ‘On the Other Hand’, is a collection of essays on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas in the context of current-day issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the translations in this article are by the author.