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November 04, 2018


Two invasions had a profound impact on India — the Aryans who gave India Sanskrit and the Vedic religion, and the Muslims who established Indo-Islamic culture. While the political impact may have faded away, the two cultures have seeped seamlessly into the daily lives of Indians, both altering and being altered in the process.

Muslim expansion only took with it the Quran and Arabic, adapting and developing the existing cultures they found. India was no exception. As Reginald Massey puts it, the Lotus had met with the Rose.

Koine, a Greek word that means ‘common’ or ‘shared’, is often used to describe the cross-fertilisation of cultures in the Muslim world — soldiers and traders from different lands combining languages and lifestyles. Urdu emerged from a mix of Turkish, Persian, Arabic and now English, on a Sanskrit grammar base.

Muslim invaders brought Islam to India, but along with Islam they brought Chagatai, Persian and Turkic cultures which soon blended with local art and culture, much as the blue Kabul River eventually merges with the mighty Indus.

In the current ‘bad boy’ image of Islam, it is difficult to acknowledge that Islam also brought secularism to India.

In the current ‘bad boy’ image of Islam, it is difficult to acknowledge that Islam also brought secularism to India. Persian and Central Asian Islam was already removed from its Arab origins, and as Harbans Mukhia puts it, “Islam sat lightly on the Mughals”, who were eager to explore and celebrate what India had to offer.

Pre-Islamic India had sophisticated administrative, philosophical and artistic structures, all devotional in nature. The king was the shadow of Vishnu, with divine responsibility and authority. All art, architecture, music, drama and dance, even gems, scents and erotic art was devaloka — a plane of existence where gods and devas exist in heavenly harmony. The king’s palace could not be more lavish than the temple.

The Gupta period of the fifth century had advanced investigations into science, mathematics, statecraft, the arts and established shastra or theories which became immutable traditions for subsequent generations. Indian art had to “idealise and not rationalise.”

The discerning Muslim rulers recognised the potential of the highly developed crafts and arts, divested them of their religiosity and embarked on an aesthetic journey of exquisite elegance and style. Their cosmopolitan urbanism attracted visitors and diplomats from all over the Muslim world, China and Europe — each adding new knowledge.

Political, rather than religious, decisions determined statecraft. Alliances were made and rebellions crushed, whether Hindu or Muslim. Some temples were destroyed while others were venerated. Merit determined rank rather than religion. Akbar advised his son Daniyal Mirza: “Judge the nobility of anyone’s being and great lineage from the essence of his merit, and not from the pedigree of his ancestors or greatness of the seed.”

The Mughals achieved compliance by the awe of cultural grandeur. Abul Fazl notes: “When the veil of reverence had been torn, they became rebellious.” The court established a code of akhlaq or etiquette that filtered into society. Lavish clothing and accessories — zardozi, kamkhab, chikankari embroidery with silver and gold threads — exquisite shawls and carpets and Mughlai cuisine spread to regional kingdoms. The Hindu festivals of Holi, Dussehra and Diwali were celebrated alongside Eid, Nauroz and Gulab Pash (a Mughal court celebration where everyone was sprinkled with rose water).

Every aspect of court life was dispassionately documented, starting with Babar’s memoirs. Annemarie Schimmel writes, “No other Muslim empire has left so much documentation” — from recipes to the behaviour of elephants, magic, cloud formations, to matters of the court. Historiography changed from recounting religious legend to documenting reality.

A new urban and secular poetry developed. Ibn Shahr Ashub poetry depicted city life of merchants, professions, crafts, beautiful boys and the worldly love of the saqi (cup-bearer) and mehboob (lover). Sufis who flocked to India gave literary status to regional languages. Hindu Bakhti — or devotional poets — experimented with the new forms of ghazal and qasida (a laudatory or satiric poem). Amir Khusrau, in the late 13th century, paved the way for Urdu poetry which reached great heights in the 18th century, introducing the mushaira (a poetic symposium).

Khusrau is also credited with six musical innovations including qaul or qaawali, khayal (a kind of Indian classical vocal music) and tarana in which only phonemes were used rather than words. New musical instruments were introduced such as tabla, sitar, sarod, sarangi, shehnai and santoor. Yamani and kafi from Persia were incorporated in the raga system by Khusrau. Kathak dance replaced religious themes, with movements depicting flowers, fruits, birds and animals, performed with variations of rhythm, dramatic pauses and pirouettes (an act of spinning on one foot, typically with the raised foot touching the knee of the supporting leg) often using a single piece of music called lehra. A completely secular art for art’s sake was born.

Lavishly decorated secular buildings became the hallmark of Muslim empires — palaces, havelis, mausoleums, forts and gardens (some designed by the women of the palace). Women contributed to social cultural, literary, artistic and economic fields as well as politics. Artists in Mughal India were expected to depict visual truth. Portraits, flora and fauna, current political and social events were the themes of miniature painting. The introduction of paper allowed experimentation in art, brushwork and shading not possible in the earlier murals or palm leaf paintings.

As Modi removes the Taj Mahal from tourism booklets in his mission to ‘clean India’, does he remove Islam or secularism?

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018