nami danam che manzil bood shab jaye ki man boodam
baharsu raqs-e-bismil bood shab jaye ki man boodam
The first time I visited the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi was on an early morning in summer. I was supposed to go with friends who knew the place well, but I reached early and decided to go in ahead of them. I had perhaps expected a walled compound of tall minarets and stately domes, like the Jama Masjid in the northern part of the city. But there was nothing of the sort -- the tarred road changed almost imperceptibly into a labyrinthine paved walkway lined on either side by eateries and shops selling flowers, chaddars, CDs and other paraphernalia. I remember stumbling along this walkway, feeling a little dazed from the constant verbal assault of the shopkeepers on either side of me, hounding me to buy this or that, or leave my shoes in their safekeeping, until I suddenly found myself in the courtyard of the Beloved of God -- Mehboob-e-Ilaahi- - for so they call the man who has bestowed his enigma upon this place.
It is a walk that I have taken hundreds of times since then, like a personal ritual that affirms itself by its very immutability. Those of us who are in the performing arts -- we are forever seeking newness. What is old is also staid, is dying or already dead. In theatre, which is my domain, we are always looking for fresh, contemporary articulations of old texts -- newer experiments with space, new languages of the body, new metaphors. And this is as it should be, for otherwise a thing loses its vitality, its inner stream of life, and becomes a mere corpse. Yet there are human actions -- the steps of Kalaripayattu, a gesture of Kutiyattam, the choreography of a Santhali dance -- these things find flight liberation within structure. By their very precision, their repeatability, they continuously re-affirm their vitality, continuously renew that inner life stream. What sets these two dimensions apart? What connects them? That which seems a paradox -- is it really so? Or is that which I call new, merely a yearning to re-connect, re-member (as opposed to dismember) a connection with something that is so old, so ancient, that it is almost (but not entirely) forgotten?
pari paikar nigaar-e sarw qadde laala rukhsaare
sarapa aafat-e-dil bood shab jaye ki man boodam
Khuda khud meer-e majlis bood andar laamakan Khusrau;
Muhammad shamm-e mehfil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.
What is this place, amidst the urban sprawl of present-day Delhi, with its shops selling cheap VCDs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, its illegal money changers and travel agents? Its rosaries, basket upon basket of roses, rose-coloured slabs of meat, skull caps, ittar? Its impossibly narrow bylanes with their dark, angular corners and sudden turns, with offal strewn about and the crumbling multi-storied tenements on either side almost leaning into each other overhead? The little shops at every conceivable corner selling sickly-sweet tumblers of tea at all hours of day and night? More than anything else, this place is a marketplace. Here you won’t find any of the verticality, the clinical coldness of that modern-day temple -- the shopping mall, where everything has a fixed, labelled price tag which brooks no argument. In this horizontal marketplace, stories and insults are exchanged, it’s still possible to bargain, to hear the other person breathe, and things are bought and sold according to an ancient ledger book of commerce, kept in a dialect of camel trains and trade winds. In this marketplace you remember that even before the days of the Prophet (PBUH), Mecca was a caravan town with the Ka’abah as its warm stone heart, where the hagglings over silk and salt under the midday sun gave way to evening-song, the lashing of glances and the ululating voices of storytellers which drew the desert djinns closer to the human circle around the fires. Here is the bazaar of the heart, and here, in its centre, is the courtyard of memory.
Navishta bardar-e-jannat bakhatt-e-sabz-o-jaleel
Ali Imam-e-manasto manam ghulam-e-Ali
Hazaar jaan-e-girami fida ba naam-e-Ali
On one side of the courtyard lies the tomb of the Sheikh, and on the other, that of his murid, Hazrat Amir Khusrao -- poet, musician, diplomat, warrior, linguist, saint, and somewhere in the crowd of all those epithets, also a lover -- an ashiq. In between them, forever separating and forever uniting master and disciple, Lover and Beloved, lies the courtyard of memory where for the past seven centuries music, in the form of Qawwali, has been the bridge between Khusrao and Nizam, bringing the one eternally close to the other. No Keatsian frozen immortality, this, but a living, breathing, dynamic bridge over the river of humanity that has been flowing between them for all these centuries, through all the ebb and flow of history. The songs piped here are forever new, yes, but forever old, also. For Qawwali, a genre fashioned by Hazrat Amir Khusrao, derives its name from ‘Qaul’, which means, the words of another (specifically those of the Prophet of Islam), and a Qawwal is one who utters old words of memory, the words of others, remembering them through his breath, renewing them on his tongue. He gives up his own self, becomes only a medium, a container for the endless flow of stories, a conduit through which words flow from lips long stilled, to ears that are still listening, hearts that are still beating. It is this act of telling the story, of immersing in it, that is called Qawwali. This then, is music as memory-making.
Admittedly, it is a bit of an acquired taste. Though based on the same raga syestem as Hindustani classical music, the form has a unique, earthy structure that to some ears can sound raucous, maybe even cacophonous. Songs are like places, perhaps -- some are ancient forests, some windswept mountain peaks, while some are dark alcoves for quiet contemplation. Qawwali, then, is a marketplace -- a bazaar, with the pulse of give-and-take, call and answer. Delicate slivers of sound are what the Qawwals trade in, bargaining with each other over shape and texture, bringing out the inner luminescence of a phrase, by turning it round and round, from one tongue to another, much as caravan traders might hold up this precious jewel or that exotic rug for the buyers’ inspection. Like the bazaar, the music has its little alleyways and deviations, hidden passages of magic. But always, always, there is the straight path that returns to the heart of the music, a swirling, spiralling, upward motion that leads to the courtyard of the Beloved.
mohe apni hee rang mein rang de nizaam
tu saahib mora, main toree ghulaam
It is said the Hazrat Amir Khusrao formed the first ever group of Qawwals in the world, comprising a few youngsters he had personally trained -- the qawwal bachchein. A direct blood-descendant of one of these youngsters was Ustad Tanras Khan, the court-musician of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, and founder of what is known as the Delhi Gharana. Today, his mantle rests on the frail, octogenarian shoulders of Ustaad Meraaj Ahmad Nizaami, four generations down from the Mughal court musician. Ustaad Meraaj lives in a one-room shack somewhere inside the labyrinth, with three of his sons who have also followed in his footsteps. Your first impression of the Ustaad might be that of a slightly dotty old man, perched in a cot while the family goes about its daily business of living within the cramped confines of the room. His eyes don’t see too well, or perhaps they don’t see the inconsequential, the mundane that’s around him, fixed as they are on the unseen. The reins of his family are slipping through his twitching fingers -- he is no longer the one in charge, though they defer to him. He tries to keep a tab on what’s going on, from his corner -- his voice is quavering and can sound a little petulant, somewhat like a child’s who’s figured out that things are being kept from him. Now and then, you can hear him unabashedly break wind. Yet when they take him, even now, to concerts, a different, remembered body emerges. The eyes are now sharp, focussed, the voice still a little wobbly but precise, showering quicksilver bursts of repartee, in a mixture of Hindustani, stylised Urdu and classical Persian. Old stories crowd into his head, the long-stilled voices begin to whisper. Memory speaks, the notes swirls upwards -- he is now a Performer.
Arka Mukhopadhyay is a writer, theatre person and Sufi-practitioner, currently based in New Delhi.
The illustration is by Dyuti Mittal, an artist and illustrator based in Delhi.
Open Space, June 2011