‘RASOOL Allah, pir nabi ke, kar do bera paar; hukum tihaaro deen duni ke, tum ho hazrat maula’ (You are the Messenger of God [PBUH], most exalted of the Prophets. Help me ford the river. Your word is supreme in the temporal world and for my spirit. Guide me, O learned one.)
It was one of those marvellous ironies last week. Irate Muslims were violently protesting in Islamabad and elsewhere against a hateful film on their religion. And in Delhi’s Chinmaya Mission auditorium a Hindu woman singer was striking serene adulation for the Prophet of Islam.
I doubt that Priyadarshini Kulkarni would have seen her rendition of the slow composition in Raag Poorvi as a counterpoint to the turmoil among incensed Muslim groups, if at all she were aware of the world outside the concert hall.
The raag she chose was composed by the 14th-century Sufi sage Hazrat Amir Khusro. It is possible he also wrote the words. The Jaipur-Atrauli school of music that Priyadarshini belongs to was founded by the legendary Alladiya Khan at the waning of the 19th century. And going by the available headcount, the ustad produced more Hindu musicians than disciples from his Muslim milieu.
His gems included Kesarbai Kerkar, Mogubai Kordekar and Mallikarjun Mansur. Priyadarshini has a long way to go to find a place in their exalted company. But when she began the afternoon raag, and as her eyes closed with devotion furrowed on her face, she was unconsciously making a point that is all too often missed. No religion can be the monopoly of its ascribed followers. And no believer can own his or her religion as a pot of gold.
For decades I have been listening to Kamla Jharia’s records. Her mastery of the Urdu language (as was the case with K.L. Saigal) is complete. She effortlessly defied the simp-listic Urdu-for-Muslims and Hindi-for-Hindus kind of silly stereotype. But listen to her two exquisite naats, celebrations of the Prophet, and you would quickly discard any lingering notions of religious monopolies.
‘Ya Shah-i-Arab Sayyed-i-Abraar tumhi ho, Makki Madani Hashemi, sarkaar tumhi ho’ is Kamla Jharia’s composition of a devotional tribute in the gentle morning melody of Raag Desi. Then there is the humbler cry for help in Raag Jogiya, another lovely morning pick-me-up. ‘Tumhre daya ki hai aas Muhammad; Aaya hoo’n tumhre paas Muhammad.’ I seek your blessings, O Muhammad, and here I stand in supplication so that you may bless me, sings the Hindu crooner.
It is said the loveable Indian poet and anti-colonial activist Hasrat Mohani would follow his annual Haj with a visit to Mathura and Benares where he saw among the Hindu devotees a reflection of his own faith.
But Gauhar Jan was a different singer from Calcutta. She had a run-in with Gandhi because he looked down upon her profession and wouldn’t let her ilk be involved with nationalist activism other than to collect funds.
She sang at least two amazing compositions that applauded the founder of Islam with Indian motifs.
In a Persian qawwali by Amir Khusro, God is assigned the role of ‘Mir-i-Majlis’, in a mehfil of raqs-i-bismil, a dance of ultimate devotion. And the Prophet is likened to a lamp in the august gathering, a symbol of enlightened presence.
Gauhar Jan’s maternal ancestors were Armenian Jews. Her father was an Englishman who deserted her mother and so a Muslim patron of music in Azamgarh gave her protection. She was the first Indian musician to cut a record with a European company.
The two naats were her way of honouring a religion whose follower, her adopted father, gave her shelter when others had all but wrecked her life. Purist Muslims would frown at this way of celebrating their faith. There are those too that would reject the use of music altogether as a means of supplication.
Others would find it disagreeable that ‘outsiders’ chant the names of their religious protagonists with what they consider to be un-Islamic idioms or phrases. The famous rivalry between the puritan Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and his eclectic brother Dara Shikoh comes to mind. Aurangzeb was tone deaf as far as music was concerned. Dara Shikoh was the quintessential patron of the arts and, perhaps that’s why, of religious accommodation.
It is this simple tenet of faith that has come under a test today. And while Muslims have picked up a large share of mindless violence, principally against each other, the tendency for bigotry is by no means their monopoly.
There was this self-styled Christian ‘visionary’ in Norway who sprayed innocent men and women with bullets. Remember the indoctrinated mob in India that spuriously claimed to represent Hindus and which burnt alive a well-meaning Australian missionary and his two young sons in a jeep in the forests of Orissa?
They are of a piece with the killer of the Punjab governor in Pakistan and the self-proclaimed Muslims who recently lynched American officials in Libya in apparent revenge for the film insulting to Islam.
This last event should not be left unchallenged because, like the Aurangzeb-Dara Shikoh dispute, it masks a more nuanced parallel narrative. I haven’t been able to fathom who decides which insult to one’s faith deserves an uprising. The Internet is crawling with sullen abuse by millions of puerile users every day. Which abuse becomes the trigger for violence?
And it isn’t that only Muslims are being abused. There is hardly a sect or cult of any religion that is spared. My own view is that the reasons for violence are being deliberately manipulated. The traditional secular struggle against colonial occupation of land and resources has been shrewdly dissipated into protests against assorted cartoons and hateful movies.
Once perverted into a religious harangue from an anti-colonial battle cry, everyone wants to enter a sanitised debate. President Obama will be thus bracing to tender advice on religious amity, dodging the trickier problem of political solutions. It’s probably just as well that Priyadarshini Kulkarni sang with her eyes closed.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.