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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Jashn-e-Khusrau --- A Review

In a rare example of a fruitful public-private partnership, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Central Public Works Department and the Aga Khan Foundation have taken the Basti Nizamuddin area under their wing and initiated a remarkable series of small changes, each of which are beginning to show remarkable promise. What is more, these efforts – as part of a larger project of urban renewal of historic cities -- hold out enormous hope for cloistered communities such as the one in the Basti Nizamuddin area, a neighbourhood that for all its antiquity is cloaked in backwardness, neglect and apathy. One such effort is the Jashn-e-Khusrau, part of a five-year project called the Aalam-e-Khusrau funded by the Ford Foundation, and is meant to showcase the basti’s rich cultural traditions.

Home to the 13th-century Sufi master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, also known as Mehboob-e-Ilahi or Beloved of God, the basti (meaning ‘settlement) is a repository of a real, lived, ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. The first qawwwalis were composed here and it was here that Amir Khusro, the saint’s closest disciple, handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas – and trained them to sing in a new sort of way.  As a celebration of pluralism, the festival of Basant was celebrated with joy and the whole area decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day to mark the end of a bitter North Indian winter and the herald of a balmy though short-lived spring. During the Jashn-e-Khusrau Festival, this legacy of syncretism is remembered in different ways: through performances of qawwalis from qawwals belonging to different khanqahi traditions; discussions with the singers to explore the nuances of their repertoire which consists largely of the songs, qawwalis, poetry in Persian, Braj and Hindavi composed by Amir Khusrau; heritage walks in the historically-rich area by volunteers from among the basti’s youth; as well as academic discussions and paper presentations.

A handsomely-produced and profusely illustrated coffee-table book, Jashn-e-Khusrau: A Collection (Roli Books), brings together performers, academics, activists, conservationists, musicologists, historians. The first section, comprising a selection of three essays, focuses on: the literary aspect of Khusrau’s work; the musicology of the qawwali tradition; and the patronage of this centuries-old tradition by Sunil Sharma, Regula Qureshi and Irfan Zuberi, respectively. This is followed by transliterations and translations of the kalaam itself, presented with the girehs as sung by the qawwals.

However, what makes this book truly a collector’s item,  are the set of three Cds of qawwalis, each containing vintage sufiana kalam: Mun Kunto Maula, Tori Surat ke Balihari Nijam, Kahe ko Biyahi Bides, Teri re Main to Charnan Lagi, Eidgah-e Ma Ghariban, Chashm-e Mast-e Ajabi, Aaj Tona Main Aisa Banaungi… The CDs in themselves are enough reason to buy this book for where else do you get to hear such kalaam? What is more, where else can you get such a selection of qawwalis sung by the real qawwal bachchas now scattered in different cities, now belonging to different khanqahs.

When Nizamuddin Auliya died in 1325 at the venerable age of 87, mad with grief, Khusrau wrote:

Gori sowe sej par mukh pe dare kes

 Chal Khusro ghar aapne, rain bhayi pardes

(The beloved sleeps upon her couch, her face covered with her tresses

Come, Khusro, let us go home, for night falls in these strange lands)

Seven centuries later, the area around the hospice  continues to be venerated, people continue to flock to the bustling dargah that came up around the grave of the Sufi master  and to the small shrine of Amir Khusrau who lies buried nearby. What is more, Khusrau’s words live in the music of the qawwals. A book such as this is a fitting tribute to an enduring legacy of love and longing that transcends the here and now.

This review appeared in The Tribune, Chandigarh, 10 June 2012.


  1. I guess Ghalib's tomb too is somewhere in the same vicinity. Public-private initiatives like these are much needed to preserve and promote this very special form poetry :)

    1. Yes, Ghalib's tomb is there and is kept very neat and clean. The whole area is definitely worth a visit.