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Khusrau's Hindvi Poetry
An Academic Riddle?

Yousuf Saeed

Whether Khusrau composed any poetry in Hindi or not, and whether the riddles and other dohas ascribed to him are his or not, is a debate that may have begun in nineteenth century when scholars started collecting and compiling Khusrau’s poetry. So far no authentic document containing Khusrau’s Hindvi poetry has been found which would date back to earlier than 18th century AD, unlike those containing his Persian works which are as old as 500 years or even older. Though Khusrau himself has mentioned at many places in his Persian books that he loves writing in Hindvi and has dispensed with such works (of Hindvi poetry) amongst his friends, he himself probably didn’t bother to preserve them in any written form.

So where did this huge body of Hindvi verse come to us from? Khusrau's pahelis (riddles), dohas (couplets) and geets (songs) seem to have been orally transferred from generation to generation by Qawwals, mirasees (professional singers), bhands (stage performers), women-folk who were employed by aristocratic families to look after children and perform other daily chores, and of course the family members themselves. These verses have gone through much alterations and additions over the years - in many cases transformed entirely from the original in language and content. But the original spirit of playfulness, celebration, and surprise still remains.  

Ek thaal motiyon se bhara, sab ke sir par ondha dhara,
Chaaron oar woh thaali phiray, moti us say ek na girey.

One of the most prolific genres that Amir Khusrau is ascribed to have composed is Paheli (riddle). Pahelis are short pieces of verse with usually two or four lines in rhyme, using an array of similes, analogies and other symbols in a clever, tongue-and-cheek play of words to conceal their meanings or answer.

Pahelis used to be, and still are a part of grandma’s story telling sessions and many games played by children. Apart from the challenge they put to human mind, what makes Pahelis popular is their element of interpersonal communication, and flexibility of poetic form. Though many Urdu / Hindi children’s magazines still publish them, the interactive fun-sessions of Paheli-solving may be a thing of the past now.

In Sanskrit they were called Prahelika. Classical Sanskrit scholars have argued whether Paheli could be considered a serious literary form - Amar Kosh praises it, while Bhama in his Kaavya Alankar argues whether it should be given any place in Literature. Dandi describes sixteen types of Pahelis, and suggests that it should not have more than two to four lines each. He also cautions that romantic themes should be avoided in this genre, since it is fit only as a mental exercise. Another scholar Vishwanath, while mentioning Paheli in the list of literary genres, talks of its poetical limitations. This elitist attitude in Sanskrit was probably responsible for a general decline of Paheli tradition in classical literature. Though these must have existed in other folk languages such as Pali or Prakrits of India in 12th/13th century, but very little evidence of the same is available.

Amir Khusrau who had a special attachment with the common folk and their language of expression, may have started using this genre in his playful interaction with the people. In the present version of his riddles he seems to have toyed with words of Braj, Haryanvi and Khadi boli, blended a few phrases of Persian with some expressions of Sanskrit. The result was an endless number of playful riddles (some known as Keh Mukarnis, Dosukhnay and chaubolay etc.) in what he called Hindvi. Here are some examples:

Keh mukarni (literally meaning say-and-deny)

Jab woh moray mandir aaway, sotay mujhko aan jagaway;
Padhat phirat woh birah ke achchar, Aye sakhi sajan? Na sakhi machchar!

(Whenever he visits my place, wakes me up from the sleep,
he sings the song of separation; is it the beloved, oh friend? No, its mosquito.)

Another Paheli:
Ek kahani main kahun,
Tu sunlay meray poot;
Bina paron ke ud gayee,
Woh baandh galay mein soot
(Let me ask a riddle,
Listen, oh my son;
She flew without wings,
with a thread in her neck.)

Though the idea in Khusrau’s riddles is not just brain-teasing or fun and games. These Pahelis were first of all, fine examples of poetry in a newly emerging language, and furthermore, they contained messages of mystical love, and a history of peoples’ lifestyle and culture. Very often, the imagery he uses in his Pahelis seem laden with symbolism. Some scholars have tried to trace his imagery to the contemporary traditions of Nath Panthis, Jogis and other mystic sects. One author, Mujib Rizvi, has even pointed out that through these Hindvi couplets, Khusrau may have tried to interpret to the common people the complex mystical teachings of his guru Nizamuddin Aulia. Rizvi's Urdu book Khusrau Nama discusses this hypothesis by giving many examples.

The supporters of his Hindvi poetry have also argued that Khusrau himself mentioned his love and pride of Hindvi language in preface to one of his Persian divans Ghurrat-ul-Kamal. Interestingly one may find in his authentic books, many Persian couplets that have Hindvi words in them – not just simple nouns, but actual phrases – most of them very cleverly having meanings both in Persian and Hindvi. Here is a famous example :

Raftam ba tamaasha-e kanar-e ju-e,
Deedam balab-e aab zan-e hindoo-e;
Guftam sanama baha-e zulfat chi bu-ad?
Faryaad bar aavurd ke dur dur muye.

(I went to enjoy the beauty of the river-side and saw an Indian lady at the ghat. “Oh, idol of mine,” said I, “what is the price of your tresses?” and she replied, dur dur muye- ‘go away you wretch’ (so in Hindi) or ‘every single hair of mine has pearls in it’ (so in Persian). (dur dur muye is a popular abusive word still found in much of north India)

There are many similar examples which show that Khusrau knew Hindvi to the extent of composing in it. Some less reliable sources claim that his Hindvi Kalaam was numbered between four and five lakh couplets. Unfortunately, none of it could be preserved in original manuscripts. Only lately - towards the end of 19th century - some of his Hindvi Pahelis, Mukarnis and Dohas etc. were collected from oral traditions and published in Urdu and Hindi. But even these, the scholars claim, contain an extremely modern form of Hindi. 

In a recent development, a set of manuscripts belonging to the 18th century royal library of Awadh (Topkhana library), containing about 150 of his Pahelis has been made available in the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek), Germany. In this case, Alois Sprenger, the German scholar, who carried the manuscript from Lucknow in 1752, claims that “nine-tenths of these riddles ascribed to Khusrau could be of very recent origin” (Gopi Chand Narang, 1992). This may illustrate as to how much had Khusrau's heritage been magnified over the years. The reason why people could use his poetry as a cultural mode, may be an interactive, open-ended structure of these forms. One can always put new words and imagery into the previously existing structures or skeletons of these couplets, as has happened over the years. Bhartendu Harish Chandra (19th century) composed some modern Keh-mukarnis on Khusrau formulae:

Teen bulaye terah aaway,
Nij nij bipta roye sunaway;
Aankhon phootay bhara na payt,
Kyon sakhi sajan? Nahin, Graduate!

(Invite three, will come thirteen;
Each telling his tale.
Sunken eyes, underfed. (Guess who?)
Well, is it the beloved, oh friend? No, a graduate.)

It is true that the poetry of most classical Hindi poets such as Kabir, Mirabai, Surdas, Dadu, Rahim and others has come to us through the oral tradition. There are almost no written documents available except maybe some circumstantial evidences. While Khusrau’s Persian divans may be preserved in museums and libraries, his Hindvi Lorees (lullabies), Pahelis, Dohas and geets have been retained by the common folk and orally transferred from one generation to another, of course with the possibility of some of the contents being lost, transformed or even enriched by these people from time to time, and place to place. 

But more than seven hundred years after, Khusrau’s Hindvi heritage still requires proper documentation, greater appreciation and wider popularity. It is a mine of information that could - with a better analysis and interpretation - provide clues to our complex cultural and historical processes.

The riddle at the beginning of this article means: "Its a giant saucer full of pearls, kept upside down on everyone's head; In all four corners the saucer moves - not a single pearl ever falling down". 
Could you guess it? Yes, the sky full of stars. Try some more of Khusrau's fascinating Hindvi Pahelis and Dosukhnay?

  Poetry in Devanagri script  Evolution of Hindvi: Turkish Influence

Yousuf Saeed, 2001-2003