All along the walls on one side of the room, the Qawwals sit lost in song. ‘Yaheen-wohee wohee yaheen re’, they sing – this is that and that is this, this is that and that is this, go the voices, imbuing the air with something narcotic. In the little space between the Qawwals and the cenotaph, a woman is turning. Her skin is white, her features are Slavic, and she is dressed in a resplendently white Salwaar-kameez. She is turning and turning, a white falcon in response to some unseen falconer whose call only she can hear. A gentle smile plays more in her eyes than on her lips, her head is raised slightly to some point just beyond the farthest edge of the universe, and she is turning, her arms outstretched, feet keeping perfect time to the music with all the muslin grace of a highly skilled Kathak dancer, except she goes on longer, far longer than any Kathak dancer ever would. I sit there for well over an hour and in all this time she does not stop turning, nor does she fall or show the least sign of dizziness or tiredness. I do not have the ‘right’ religious identity to be here, I ponder, suddenly and quite meaninglessly. As I watch her spin, from somewhere I remember a sign I saw far away in the south of India, within the precincts of that most magnificent of temple towns – Sri Rangam. There, at the entrance to the samadhi of Andal, it said ‘Only Hindus Allowed’. I do not know why I suddenly think of Andal as I watch this seemingly Russian woman, who may be a Muslim, or perhaps a follower of Inayat Babu’s universal Sufism. As she whirls on, the chief Qawwal’s voice suddenly breaks through my consciousness. ‘Mujhe us muralidhar ki murali pasand hain’, he is singing – ‘I like that flautist’s music’.
2. Munnabhai and the parrot
Munnabhai never went to medical school. Perhaps he has heard of Gandhigiri, perhaps he hasn’t. He makes his living running a little tea-stall, strategically positioned near the entrance to the inner shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah. Cheek by jowl with shops selling skull caps, ittar, various religious paraphernalia, roses to be offered up at the saint’s tomb, or offering to safeguard your footwear for a price, his little tea-stall is almost an aberration – a quotidian spaceship lost in a sea of esotericism. I have often tried to find a word for the expression on Munnabhai’s face as he serves up endless cups of tea in the same metronomic rhythm – it is a mixture of amused tolerance, faint exasperation and a certain unnamable something else, expressed only by a crinkling of his eyes or a slight crease on his ample cheeks. It is the look of someone who has seen too much and too deeply into humanity.
He has always refused to charge me for the tea and biscuits I religiously have at his stall on every visit to the shrine. I do not know the reason for this. Our conversations are brief, barely going beyond a polite ‘khayriyat?’ Mostly, I have sat and watched him ply his trade and carry on shop-talk with nearby stall owners, peppering his conversation with the occasional ‘motherchod’ or ‘lauda’ to convey especial disagreement with somebody. On the few occasions we have had meaningful conversations, he has displayed an engagement with historical names and the often mythical anecdotes connected with them that is altogether different from the history of text books and PhD theses. But such conversations are few. Ours is mostly a language of habitual familiarity. I drink my regulation cup of strong, thick, almost sickly-sweet tea and then go onwards, towards the main shrine.
It is customary to first visit the grave of Amir Khusrao before one goes to his master, Nizamuddin Auliya. Tutiye Hind, they call him – the parrot of India. Every year, in October, they celebrate his Urs here. The courtyard fills with the liquid sounds of Qawwali. The Qawwals come from all over north India – from Badaun, from Rampur, from Agra, from Ajmer where Khwaja Muinuddin lies sleeping. Some of them are bent under the weight of a lifetime’s music, some are barely five year old, standing on their father’s lap to reach up to the microphone. For three days and three nights, the music does not stop, except for a brief two hours early in the morning. In their varied voices and cadences, they sing of Khusrao’s love for his Sheikh, until the very walls seem to be made of songs, so that when the last notes dim on the third day, you almost hear someone saying, ‘Mun tu shudam tu mun shudi,mun tun shudam tu jaan shudi, Taakas na guyad baad azeen, mun deegaram tu deegari’ – I am you, and you are me; I am body, you are soul, such that none can say anymore, that I am one, and you another.
3. It is all yellow
It is the day of Basant. Once, the story goes, the Khwaja sat grieving over the death of his young nephew, Noor. So intense was his grief that the world faded from his eyes and he sat night and day by the young man’s grave. None, not even Khusrao could reach across through his grief. It was spring, and one evening Khusrao saw some native Hindu women dressed in yellow, carrying mustard flowers, going down the village streets in a exuberant, singing, dancing procession. He asked them what they were up to, and they told him it was the day of Basant Panchami, when they put on yellow and sang and danced in front of their god to please him. Minutes later, the strains of music reached the Khwaja’s grief-numbed ears. Looking up, he saw Khusrao, bedecked in a sari and yellow mustard flowers, singing and dancing in front of him. A smile, they say, broke through the lines of his sorrow. And down the centuries, the Qawwals have gone around the Nizamuddin village on this day, wearing yellow headbands and making the narrow lanes resonate with Khusrao’s words – ‘Khusrao Nizam ke bal bal jaiye/ Mohe suhagan Keeni re, mose naina milaike’ – O Khusrao, go close to Nizam, who has turned you into a bride, when he locked eyes with you.
This Basant day, there are a few unusual visitors. It is a motley bunch – well-heeled foreign tourists with slightly befuddled expressions, some jet-setting artists, and academicians with cameras glued so intently to their faces that they scarcely have the time to see with their eyes. They are led by the owner and curator of a well-known gallery, and they go down the streets along with the procession of Qawwals, but quite oblivious to everything around them. Their journey has started from the plush environs of the nearby India Habitat Centre, and will end there in a cocktail dinner. Watching that procession of various expensive perfumes and accessories,, stories of Khwaja Nizamuddin’s Langar come to my mind – how the Khwaja himself ate last, after all the wandering mendicants had been served a sumptuous repast, and ate only dry chapatis. How Khusrao cleaned used plates with his tongue. Words of a pop song start forming in my head, though a little altered – “Calling Khusrao – is anybody home? Did he leave the building? Or can he come back to the phone? Calling Khusrao – I am here all alone”.
4. The Rock of Truth
Somewhere, sitting on that plush lawn in Delhi, I begin to hear the one-stringed drone of a Baul’s ecstasy. Inayat Khan’s words come to my head unbidden, swirling through my mind – ‘Shatter your ideals on the rock of Truth’.
(-- Arka Mukhopadhyay was the joint 3rd prize winner of the Open Space writing contest 2010.)