Resurrecting Amir Khusrau: Cultural Icon of India

Art Contributor

A young lady recently sent me a video of a lecture on feminism by an Indian professor. The lecture quoted noted Western scholars, Jacques Lacan, Virginia Woolf et al, to argue that societal relations in India needed to be re-understood. The lecture referred to the tones of such intellectuals to appreciate the essential nature of male chauvinism in Indian society. A little amused, I asked this friend if she had heard of Amir Khusrau? Of course, the great Sufi poet! And what else? I asked. Er… She clearly knew little beyond that. And certainly she had never heard these lines by Khusrau:

Kaheko bihaayi videsh, re lakhiyan babul mora

Bhaaiyon ko diye mehel do-mehelen, humko diye pardesh

Re lakhiyan babul mora

Hum to hain, bubul, tere khunte ki gaaiyan

Jid hanke hank jaye, re lakhiyan babul mora…

Written and set to music eight centuries ago by one India’s greatest polymaths, this song is sung even today in many parts of north India during marriage ceremonies. It’s a feminine narrative, meant to be sung by the female friends of the bride, as she prepares to leave her parent’s home to settle in her husband’s home in another place. A stunning piece of what in present-day jargon may easily be labelled as a feminist song, the lines are self-explanatory: ‘Why did you marry me off to a foreign land, O my millionaire father / To my brothers you gave your palaces, and me a distant land! / O father, I am like a cow in your stable / You drive me where you wish, O my millionaire father…’

His Legacy

Amir Nasir-al-Din Abu’l Hassan Khusrau was born in 1253 in Patiali, a town in north India. He passed away in 1325, and has been laid to rest, in the internationally famous Dargah, tomb of his Sheikh, teacher, the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Millions visit this Dargah every year, which largely keeps the name of Khusrau alive.

Unfortunately, however, much of his amazing contribution to Indian culture remains forgotten. Most, for example, are not aware of his magnum opus Nuh Siphir. According to India’s foremost historian Prof. Irfan Habib, ‘If we were looking for patriotic statements about India and its natural and cultural greatness, then, surely Amir Khusrau’s Nuh Siphir (1318) in Persian must be identified as the clearest and dearest of such statements… What makes Khusrau’s verses especially patriotic is his avowed argument of the precedence of India over other countries.’

Cultural Icon

Besides being the court poet of eight Sultans, and more importantly, a poet recognized by one of the greatest Persian poets in History Sadi Shirazi of Iran, Khusrau was a lyricist, and a music composer. Over centuries his name has been associated, even if without empirical evidence, with the creation musical genres such as the Qawali, the Tarana and the Khayal. His contribution can be traced with the innovative devising of musical instruments such as the Sitar and the Table, and composition of Indian vocal musical modes, Ragas, like Yaman, Sazgiri, Sahana and Barkhez. He was the writer of a versified collection of Persian and Hindavi words of his times, Khaliq Bari. In brief, Amir Khusrau is among the rare cultural icons of India.

Yet, of all his creations what touches and surprises me most is his decision to pen a large gamut of lyrics and poems in Hindavi, the lingua franca of North India, of his times. One wonders what prompted this celebrated poet to write and compose songs in the common man’s language, and create immortal gems like the marriage-song a snatch from which we I have quoted above. In these times, we must resurrect from oblivion this amazing man, known so aptly in his times as the Toti-e-Hind, the Parrot of India.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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