May-Jun 2012: Essay: The Courtyard of Memory

by Arka Mukhopadhyay

khusrao dariya prem ka,
ulti wa ki dhaar
jo utra so doob gaya,
jo dooba so paar

khusrao, the river of love,
flows in a contrary way
one who wades in  drowns,
one who drowns willingly, gets across

~ Amir Khusrao


On your first visit to the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi, you might well arrive expecting a symphony in stone, with flowing minarets and arabesques that conjure up an impeccable image of piety, befitting the shrine of one of Southeast Asia’s most beloved Sufi saints.

But as you reach the intersection of Mathura Road and Lodhi Road, perhaps in the late afternoon or early evening, with the imposing spread of Humayun’s tomb on one side, you won’t find any such thing. If you ask for the Dargah, someone will tell you to walk into a narrow road adjacent to the police station.

At first, you won’t notice anything, but as you keep walking, you’ll suddenly wonder if you’ve stepped in through a time-portal into another age. There are the usual markers of our day, all right; cars (somehow squeezing their way through the impossibly crowded road), mobile phones, DVDs, but the spirit of the place seems to belong to an older, richer age.  The tarred road will imperceptibly give way to a labyrinthine paved walkway lined on either side by eateries and shops selling flowers, chaddars, CDs and other such paraphernalia. You’ll stumble along this walkway, feeling a little dazed from the constant verbal assault of the shopkeepers on either side, hounding you to buy this or that, or to leave your shoes in their safekeeping.

As you turn a corner in this bewildering maze, your ears will suddenly pick out a different sound amidst the chaos all around you, a sound travelling from an immeasurably far distance, or perhaps from somewhere deep within you. A high, clear, piercing song:

Gori gori bayiaan, hari hari churiyan
Bayiaan pakarh dhar leeni re, mose naina mila ke
(Fair is my wrist, adorned with green bangles,
It is as though you caught my wrist,
when you locked eyes with me)

The music will take you by the hand, its grip gentle yet compelling, and lead you along the many twists and turns, until you suddenly find yourself 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.

Factual history tells us but little about his life, except that his ancestors came from Bukhara, that he was born in Badayun in Uttar Pradesh in 1238, lost his father at five and was brought by his mother to Delhi, where he remained till his passing in 1325.

But listen hard, and the very air of this place will tell you other stories, stories that have been preserved not in books, but in hearts. It will tell you about a learned traveller who once turned up at the saint’s Khanqah and was astounded by the lavish spread that was being served to the mendicants who thronged the place. If beggars were being served such a king’s feast, he thought, then the saint’s own meal must be beyond imagining; and so thinking, demanded that he would only eat with the saint himself. The Khwaja’s disciples, and indeed the Khwaja himself, tried to dissuade him, but the more they tried, the stronger became his resolve. At length, he sat down to eat with the saint, and having said their prayers, he eagerly awaited the once-in-a-lifetime meal that would surely arrive. And indeed, it was an astounding meal, for the great master, in whose Khanqah beggars were served a king’s spread, himself ate only dried chapatis and bitter vegetables! Such was his utter detachment from all material comforts. The traveller went away humbled.
What is this place, you marvel, amidst the urban sprawl of present day Delhi, with its shops selling cheap pirated VCDs of early 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 by-lanes with their dark, angular corners and sudden turns, with offal strewn about and the crumbling multi-storeyd 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 the 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 that 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’bah as its warm stone heart, where the haggling 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.

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. ‘Tutiye-Hind’ they call him, ‘the parrot of India’, and it is customary to visit his grave first, before one pays homage to his master and beloved.

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 Khusrau 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 the ebb and flow of history.

The songs 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 from 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 raaga system 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 market place, a bazaar, with the pulse of give-and-take, call and answer. 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 it’s little alleyways and deviations, hidden passages of magic. But always, there is the straight path that returns to the heart of the music, a swirling, spiralling motion that leads to the face of the Beloved.

On that afternoon when you have come here, the courtyard is now in an ecstasy of music.

The qawwals sit facing the tomb of the saint, at once in this world and out of it. They are mindful of the money people offer them; it is their principal source of sustenance, as it has been for their forefathers for the past seven centuries, yet their gaze is fixed on the saint’s marbled grave.

All around them, you find a strange pastiche of humanity. The Euro-American faces greedily devour everything through expensive camera lenses, Central Asians from places out of stories, like Uzbekistan (where Hazrat Nizamuddin’s grandfather came from), Tajikistan, Iran, and then people from across the length and breadth of India, people of all faiths. Behind the qawwals, the Mughal princess Jahanaara lies buried, as per her own wishes, in a fakir’s grave. A little distance away lies the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah Rangeela. In between these pages of history, people from all ranks of society have come here; some to find solace for their sorrows and  some to offer humble thanks for a wish fulfilled, adding their own little drop to this ocean of stories, immersing in this sea of love.

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