Amir Khusrau was the creator of ghazals, hamds, nazams, qasidas, thumris and riddles in a vast assortment of amazing contributions that still hum in the ear on solitary evenings.
As the qawwalis at recent Nizamuddin Urs and the one at the Ajmer dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti showed, the legacy of Amir Khasrau, which dates back to the 13th century, when he introduced qawwali into India, still inspires present day exponents of music. Isn’t it a wonder that even 700 years have not diminished the appeal of a genius who served seven kings and is credited with inventing as many musical instruments. His singing mesmerised not only monarchs, nobles and common people, including village belles, but also such a renowned saint as Hazarat Nizamuddin Aulia, who came out of depression following the death of his beloved nephew because of the web of mosiqui (music) woven to arouse him from the depths of gloom by Amir Khusrau.
Such musicians as Tansen and Baiju Bawra couldn’t have achieved the fame they did had it not been for Khusrau’s everlasting Kalaam that is manifest at the Nizamuddin Urs year after year. His legacy is also manifest when the sultry Runa Laila sings “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” or Prabha Bharti offers a hand or the shy Sultana croons a mukhra, one is transported on the crest of melody to earlier times, in which other practitioners of the art of mosiqui charmed both hearts and minds. Among them were Umrao Jaan Ada, Janet Jan, MalikaJaan , Gauhar Jaan and some lesser known ones like Rukia, Tabassum, Shehnaz and Amino Bai Lachakti Qamar (the one with the springy waist).
The celebrated Umrao Jaan, besides being a high-profile courtesan, was also a poetess of note and hardly needs an introduction. Janet, an Anglo – Indian of the “Mutiny” era, not only sang ghazals but wrote them too and came to be known as Jamiat, a corruption of her name. Janet’s voice held North India and the area right up to Calcutta in thrall, so much so that even British troopers swore by her, and one of them, a major, eventually married the singing sensation.
Gauhar Jaan, if memory serves right, sang up to the infant years of the last century. Rukia, whose real name was Rukhsana, got the sobriquet because she always sang ghazals jotted on little slips of paper (rukka). Tabassum, the cruelly smiling one, Shehnaz, the voluptuous siren, and Amino were small-time dancing girls, who attracted people from the so-called lower strata. Amino’s waist inspired an aging butcher to have a gharara made to her measurements hung inside his shop, much to the amusement of his customers and the annoyance of the boy who had to sit under it the whole day making mince.
The older folks will remember Jaani Babu, who became a legend in his short life. His fame disturbed the dancing girls, who feared for their livelihood and the rest is a mystery. Of lesser caliber was Ram Babu, who was administered some concoction in his drink, which made him first lose his voice and then wither away. Badshah, the blind minstrel, lived to an old age as also Nawab of Bhaduay laggee na chootey fame, but Jaami died young of consumption induced by alcohol. His boozing partner, Chand Mian Qawwal, however survived.
One particularly relished the Qawwalis sung not at the mazars but at weddings by the dazzling Tara. She used to come from Firozabad, as much famous for its bangles as its randis, the highest order in the hierarchy of prostitutes. Tara was as much a favourite with men as with purdah women who cajoled her from behind the flimsy partition of their sitting apartment to render some heart-wrenching numbers. She naturally reserved the naughty ones for the zenani mehfil (ladies assembly) after dinner.
Those who sang at the shrines were not all famous qawwals, though even the ordinary exponents knew how to instill the sama (atmosphere) conducive to an enthusiastic rendering. Among them was a family of singers.
Every evening the three men could be seen sitting at the shrine opposite the Red Fort in Delhi. They added to the religious aura of the place by singing devotional songs, which breathed a new life into the still long evening that stretched far in to the night. Ibrahim, Munoo and Chunoo sang of the birth of Islam, the glories of Kaba, the teachings of the Prophet and of the 22 Khwajas or divines, who had lived and died in the Capital. The brothers are now dead, but sometimes you still hear a melancholy voice singing, “Bula le Madina mujhe”. How reminiscent of Amir Khusrau, the creator of not only ghazals, hamds , nazams , qasidas , thumris and riddles in a vast assortment of amazing contributions that still hum in the ear on solitary evenings.