The mockingbirds of Gujarat

A state determined to erase all traces of tolerance and syncretism

Mockingbirds are best known for mimicking the songs of other birds, often loudly and in rapid succession. They symbolise both gay abandon and innate mirth.

Harper Lee, in a celebrated novel, used the imagery to depict a black man as a veritable mockingbird in the racially segregated state of Alabama and his brush with death by an all-white kangaroo court on a false charge of rape. The unfortunate state of Gujarat has had its share of mockingbirds.

Gujarat is, after all, where Rasoolan Bai, Ustad Fayyaz Khan, Wali Dakhani and Ahsan Jaffri had sung paeans to syncretic icons like Krishna and Radha, Buddha and Meera. This is where Begum Akhtar gave her last concert and died clasping the harmonium amid a multitude of stunned listeners.

As with India’s other provinces, where music and art flourished under feudal patronage, the royal house of Baroda, now Vadodara, favoured the very best from across the country. Ustad Karim Khan founded the Kirana gharana of vocal musicians after coming here from Punjab. He married a Hindu princess of Baroda and settled down in Miraj where they produced the legendary singers Hirabai Barodekar, Saraswati Rane and Sureshbabu Mane.

But this is a tribute to just four of Gujarat’s countless mockingbirds that were humiliated or killed by the people they sang for. Every year in February, when newspapers begin to chatter about the arriving budget, the memory of Rasoolan Bai, Fayyaz Khan, Ahsan Jaffri and Wali Dakhani begin to haunt me. It was on a budget day that helpless women were being raped and murdered across Gujarat on February 28, 2002, with the approval of the state.

People have tried to explain the tragedy in the context of provocation and reaction, insisting that the murder of Hindu activists by a Muslim mob in a train in Godhra had provoked Hindu mobs to seek revenge on the Muslims. This is utter nonsense, all the more so because the same people had earlier justified the demolition of the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in similar terms. Only, instead of Godhra, the alleged antics of a Mughal emperor were held accountable for the criminal violence unleashed by ‘patriotic’ and ‘nationalist’ Hindu groups in December 1992.

The relevant question is: why did a mob burn down the house of Rasoolan Bai in Ahmedabad in 1969? There was no Godhra then for an excuse. So what could be the provocation for anyone to drive out an extremely gifted and popular Muslim singer from her adopted home in Gujarat? After her trauma, Naina Devi, herself a Hindu princess and a much beloved patron saint of music and musicians, nursed Rasoolan Bai to health, but she never sang again.

All the rioters and their neighbours can still hear Rasoolan’s thumri in raga Bhairavi on the Web. Would you believe what the words are? "Kaanha, visbhari basiya sunaai gaile na (O Krishna, please do not torment me any more with your mesmeric flute)".

Let me end this tribute to Gujarat’s lost mockingbirds with a note on Ahsan Jaffri who was brutally cut down by a mob along with several members of his family and neighbours who had tried to protect him. It is his little known flair for Urdu poetry that gives an insight into the man’s secular credentials, far removed from the culprits of Godhra the Hindutva mob may have been hunting

"Ab na bajao Shyam/ bansuriya na bajao Shyam/ (e ri) vyaakul bhaayi brajabala/ bansuriya na bajao Shyam/ nit meri galin mein aayo na/ aayo to chhup ke rahiyo/ bansi ki teri sunaiyo na (Play your flute not Shyam/ It perplexes my little heart/ Play not your flute Shyam/ Nor come round my street/ Come not, keep it down/ Play not your flute Shyam)".

In the 2002 violence, the mob in Ahmedabad destroyed the several centuries old grave of Wali Dakhani. The state government did one better. It flattened the grave to build a metalled road over it. Who was Wali Dakhani and why was his memory so viciously abused? The 17th century poet loved Gujarat and was an advocate of Hindu-Muslim cultural synthesis. Here’s a small sample from this mockingbird’s otherwise large repertoire, reflecting the earliest form of Urdu poetry.

"Kucha-e-ya ‘ain Kaasi hai/ Jogi-e-dil vahaan ka baasi hai/ Pi ke bairaag ki udaasi sun/ Dil pe mere sadaa udaasi hai/ Zulf teri hai mauj Jamnaa ki/ Til nazik uske jyun sanaasi hai (Shah Abdus Salam translates it thus: ‘Beloved’s lane is exactly like the holy city of Kashi/ My ascetic heart dwells therein/ Due to the sadness of the separation from the beloved/ My heart is always immersed in dejection/ Your tresses are the waves of Jamuna river/ And the mole next to the tresses is the ascetic on the bank’)".

The mob also attacked the grave of Ustad Fayyaz Khan, a scion of the Agra gharana of musicians. The ustad, honoured in the 1950s as Aftab-i-Mausiqi by popular consensus, had sung countless compositions to Krishna, the favourite icon of much of Gujarat and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. "Manmohan Brij ko rasiya", an early morning composition in raga Paraj, and "Vande Nand Kumaram", a late afternoon composition in raga Kafi, among other soul-searching bandish (compositions), were rendered as a full-throated celebration of Lord Krishna.

Fayyaz Khan’s grave in Baroda was razed unceremoniously during the fanatical mayhem. Now, we can’t just snuff out anyone’s memory at will. People have a right to know the tradition Fayyaz Khan represented. Legend has it that it possibly goes back to the Mughal court in Agra. Emperors Akbar and Jehangir were both lovers of music. There were 36 musicians in Akbar’s court, including Tansen, Baiju Bawra and Guru Haridas, but Tansen alone was among the famous ‘nine jewels’ of the court.

Ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade says that to understand the place of music in the Mughal court one must not only ‘see’ miniatures but ‘hear’ them too. In her fascinating study, Imaging Sound, she shows how the depiction of musical instruments in Mughal paintings also reveals the cultural synthesis that was taking place in that era; how the synthesis of Hindu, Muslim, Sufi and Central and West Asian musical traditions led to the emergence of a North Indian classical musical culture.

It is not clear when precisely the Agra gharana came into being – whether its origin dates to the 13th century, or to Haji Sujaan Khan, believed to have been a contemporary of Tansen and one of Akbar’s durbar musicians, or to Ghagge Khudabaksh who also came to Agra from Gwalior, about 150 years ago. Whatever the date of its origin, the gharana represented a sound Indian tradition of open-minded synthesis and assimilation.

Let me end this tribute to Gujarat’s lost mockingbirds with a note on Ahsan Jaffri. He was brutally cut down by a mob along with several members of his family and neighbours who had tried to protect him. Jaffri was a communist trade union leader before he joined the Congress party and won a seat in the Lok Sabha in 1977.

But it is his little known flair for Urdu poetry that gives an insight into the man’s secular credentials, far removed from the culprits of Godhra the Hindutva mob may have been hunting. Jaffri’s book of verse is called Qandeel (Lamp). Published in 1994, it is a collection of his poems from the time of his association with progressive writers. It has a foreword by Majrooh Sultanpuri, himself a notable progressive poet.

Here’s an example from several in the book which reflects Jaafri’s nation-loving personality and only heightens the irony of his lynching: "Geeton se teri zulfon ko meera ne sanwara/ Gautam ne sada di tujhe Nanak ne pukara/ Khusro ne kai rangon se daaman ko nikhara/ Har dil mein muhabbat ki ukhuwat ki lagan hai/ Ye mera watan mera watan mera watan hai (Meera adorned your locks with her songs/ Gautam called you out, as did Nanak/ Khusro filled colours in your frills/ Every heart beats here for love and tolerance/ This is my homeland, this is it)".

Courtesy: Dawn;





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