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Why this website? Why Amir Khusrau?

What could be the relevance of a classical poet and court chronicler for us, seven hundred years after his death? For me, trying to interpret Amir Khusrau and his times has been more than simply appreciating his poetry or music – it helps me understand the history of the subcontinent better, and clears some misconceptions about our past, besides, of course, raising many more doubts and questions that need to be answered. Let me present some of these here in case someone is interested in reading them.

Amir Khusrau's image today is multifaceted: as a saint in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin for the common people, as a chronicler of medieval India and classical poet of Persian for the scholars, as an innovator of Hindustani music for the classical and semi-classical musicians of north India, and as a lok kavi or the poet of the masses using their language and imagery to entertain them. To a large extent these images have remained, or have become, extremely disjointed from each other - as if four different strata of people have been pulling Khusrau in their own direction without knowing the existence of the other kind. As a result the legend of Khusrau has remained rather paradoxical so far – just like his riddles.

While on one hand, Khusrau has been projected as a harbinger of ‘National Integration’ (a term devised by the leaders of India to honor other leaders who integrated the nation) because of his playful Hindi poetry and music that talks of the celebration and love and equality amongst the people of different sects in India, on the other, some of Khusrau’s Persian texts have been subjected to a ‘communal’ interpretation.

It is true that in many of his typical chronicles which he wrote for the kings he was employed with, Khusrau has brought in some of his biases (or the biases of his bosses) against communities and cultures other than his own. In a true style of Arabic and Persian classical literature, he uses hyperbolic words, poetic license, and (sometimes bizarre) similes, to magnify an event to such an extent that the truth starts sounding fiction. For instance, when he is praising of the might of Alauddin Khalji against the defeated ruler of Chittor (or wherever), he goes out of his way to demean the opponent and his army, and exaggerates beyond recognition the valor of his employer (the way Doordarshan and PTV do today for their respective governments and opponents). Of course the biases against the opponents’ religion and culture too feature in Khusrau's texts. These, when seen out of context, especially in today’s times, can be interpreted as “communal”, and have been. (As an example of this sort of interpretation, please see this write-up). Interestingly, a few verses later in the same chronicle, Khusrau would go out of his way to praise the faith and practices of the Hindus, and finds them at par with Islam! Of course, the rest of the text would be full of vivid details of what all he sees and loves in this country, and why he thinks India is the greatest nation of the world.

Such contradictions abound not only in his texts, but also in his entire personality and times. One has to read his works in the context of 12th/13th century south Asia, to fully appreciate it. Khusrau was born at a time when there had recently been a great influx of people into India from central Asia, where Chengiz Khan and his Mongols armies had devastated much of the civilization from Russia till Turkey. Those who escaped to India were rulers, traders, artisans, musicians, mystics and soldiers. They brought with them a different culture and values that slowly started getting assimilated into the local Indian culture and civilization. There may have been fierce conflicts between the two, as well as friendly dialogues. Eventually, new composite cultural values started emerging. Of course by the time the Mughals were in power this composite tradition had reached its zenith. But Khusrau’s was the time of discovery and experiments, and therefore the apparent contradictions.

I became more interested in these themes while researching for a series of documentary films on Amir Khusrau. During my discussions with historians and students of mediaeval history, Sufi-Bhakti movement, and other related subjects (mostly in India) I realized the need to explore the mass media for advocating a sound historical sense amongst the lay audience. And this website, among other things, is a humble beginning in that direction. It is still evolving and needs much more to be done. It does not try to provide any kind of solutions to the problems, or give the whole truth, whatever that is. It simply invites the readers to look for more, and be critical in studying/understanding their past.

How does interpretation and perception of history shape our cultural identities?

The questions about communalism, cultural identity, India-Pakistan tussles and so on, have been troubling me and many others since a long time. I keep having dialogues with friends and history students, and also try to read a little in order to figure out this emerging separatist tendency in our society. Out of many complex aspects, one that strikes most is the way the history is being represented to the common people, and how this interpretation affects our cultural identities.

There seem to be two approaches to interpret history. (1) You say that at such-an-such time, your civilization/culture had reached its zenith in terms of technological, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual evolution, and was thriving peacefully in a sort of a geographical cocoon (an approach that some people hold about 'Vedic India'), until suddenly one day an outside force invaded it and 'polluted' the entire system. And since we are no longer 'the original' any more, we need to go back to it. (2) A more liberal approach is to look at a society as an open and receptive entity that evolved continuously as it gave and took cultural influences to and from all around - a place where conflicts and differences co-existed with similarities and dialogue between people of different cultural identities.

I would like to interpret/perceive India's past as of the latter kind, where conflicts and reconciliation were happening simultaneously, where cultural identities of most people were not rigidly divided as Hindu or Muslim, but were rather "multi-cultural" or "plural". And this is not wishful thinking - it is evident from a plethora of historical sources. A careful study of the life, works, and times of Amir Khusrau for instance, (or for that matter many other personalities of medieval India), shows us that this ‘plurality’ was not just possible but inevitable to survive in a culturally complex region like ours.

The obvious question that comes next is - why can't we live like that today? Possibly because, of late, we have been conditioned (consciously or unconsciously) to believe that the ideal past of India was of the former kind - the utopian Vedic period, and that the medieval India has been more of a hotchpotch of invasions that have ruined its glorious heritage. We  keep arguing endlessly whether a certain event in the history really occurred or not - to decide how to treat the people of a certain community involved with that event, or may be, to take an revenge for that long-forgotten event now. This sort of conditioning has largely been responsible in the formation of the separatist or purist cultural identities. 

What one gets to imbibe from Khusrau's life (and the life of many others like him - Kabir, Rahim, Mira, Lalon Fakir, Bulleh Shah) is that it is not only natural, but inevitable to have a 'plural' cultural identity in order to understand and live with your fellow citizens in a multi-cultural country like India - or for that matter anywhere in the world today. Retaining your unique identity as well as co-existing with others is not a challenge posed by today's globalization alone - it has always been there. I challenge the readers to bring me one example of a country/region (from any era in history) which did not get outside cultural influences, without becoming stagnant or extinct. Co-existing does not necessarily mean that one has to lose ones faith (and become a 'communist'), or forcefully mix up the practices of different faiths into one (which is probably what Mughal emperor Akbar tried). One can stick to ones own faith and religious practices, and at the same time 'participate' in others' culture. This may be difficult, since many of our political and religious institutions today are trying hard to polarize the communities on the basis of purist cultural identities, and dismantle all traces of a composite culture. But there is no harm in trying.

I am a pagan and a worshipper of love,
The creed (of musalmans) I do not need;
Every vein of mine has become taunt like a wire,
The (Brahman’s) girdle I do not need.

Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome.
Please help us build a better India, south Asia, world.
And we are against war. By whoever, on whomever, for whatever.

Yousuf Saeed
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