Ameer Khusrau

Pioneers and Trendsetters

Ameer Khusrau

"Poet, musician, composer, scholar, historian, writer and a courtier, a warm hearted humanist, a Sufi mystic and an ardent lover of India, he stands out as one of the most versatile and outstanding names in the history of Hindustani music". This is how a learned author describes Ameer Khusrau.

Stamp on Ameer Khusrau

The Posts & Telegraphs Department (as it was known then) issued a commemoration stamp on Khusrau on 24th October 1975. It was in the denomination of 50 paise, and perf. 13. Colour: buff and red brown. It was printed on unwater-marked adhesive stamp paper at India Security Press, Nasik. The vertical stamp depicts a portrait of Khusrau in a sitting posture, holding a manuscript.

The stamp was issued in the "Personalities Stamps Series", the other stamps in the series depicting V.K. Krishna Menon and Bahadur Shah Zafar. All the three stamps had a common First Day Cover and a common cancellation with the words"Personality Stamps Series". Hence the cover and the cancellation are not reproduced here. (Readers may recall that we came across a similar instance while discussing the stamp on Vishnu Digambar Paluskar in Sruti 282. Incidentally, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last "Mughal Emperor" who died in exile in Rangoon in 1862, was also a poet, had mastery over Indian music, and is credited with several khayal-s. compositions, thumri-s and  dadra-s. "Zafar" was his sobriquet.)

Khusraus' biography

Abul Hasan Yameenuddin Khusrau, or Ameer Khusrau for short, was born in Patiali in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh in 1253. His father, Ameer Saifuddin Mahmood, Turkish origin, was in the military service of Shamsuddin Iltutmish. His mother was the daughter of a Hindu nobleman who had embraced Islam. Khusrau had two brothers.

He lost his father when he was eight years old; his maternal grandfather brought him to Delhi and lovingly provided him with excellent education. He was given personal instruction in theology and the Koran, besides regular lessons in the Persian language. He was also taught Arabic and logic, supplemented by instructions in music, poetry and calligraphy. As he was born in Etah district, Brajbhasha was his mother tongue. During his stay in Delhi, and later in Avadh and Punjab, he mastered Khadiboli, Hindi and Urdu. He also learnt Sanskrit. He was trained in martial arts and horse riding.

In 1284, Khusrau became an ardent"disciple" of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aliya (Chisti), the great Sufi mystic and saint. (It is however doubtful whether he was formally admitted to the Sufi Order, what with his calling as a courtier.) The saint was a passionate lover of devotional music. Khusrau was a born poet of the highest order, and his close association with the saint gave his poetry a divine glow.

His upbringing and participation in the company of the learned enabled him to listen to the intellectual discourses of scholars, the recitals of poets, and the repertoires of reputed musicians from all over the country.

Khusrau was a polished and accomplished courtier, and served a number of successive rulers, from Balban (1266-86) to Ghiyasud-Din Tughlaq (1320-26). For many years he had to stay away from Delhi with his masters. As an ameer (noble) in the court, he might have indulged in all sorts of material pursuits. And he had perforce to compose any number of verses flattering the reigning sultans, often resorting to hyperbole and exaggerated similes. However, from his writings, we notice that he observed a certain discipline in his personal life and enforced those norms on his immediate followers as well. If we believe his chroniclers, "he did not forsake the spiritual for the temporal advantage; he remained incorruptible".

His writings also reveal that he was happily married and had children, that he was affectionate to them and that he cared for his mother the most.

In 1325, Hazrat Nizamuddin breathed his last. At that time Khusrau was far away in Bengal on a royal mission of his patron Ghiyas-ud-Din. It is said that on hearing the news of the passing away of his spiritual mentor, he rushed back to Delhi, blackened his face, tore his garments, rolled in the dust in utter grief, and after reciting the following doha (couplet) impromptu, fell down in a swoon:

Gori sovay sej par/Mukh par daray kes;

Chal Khusro ghar aapna/Saanjh bhaee chahu des.

(The fair maiden rests on a bed of roses/ Her face covered with a lock of hair/ Let us, oh Khusrau, return home now/ The dark dusk settles in four corners of the world.)

He was 72 then, and had no desire to live after the passing away of his preceptor. His condition started deteriorating, and in a few months he followed his spiritual master. Sadia Dehlvi, a Delhi-based writer and author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam, says "Hazrat Nizamuddin loved Khusrau and called him `My Turk", admitting, `Khusrau is the keeper of my secrets. And I shall not set foot in paradise without him. If permissible by Islamic law, I would have willed that Khusrau be buried in the same grave as me. Khusrau's body was laid to rest outside the cupola of the former's grave. Dehlvi adds:Whenever Khusrau travelled out of town Nizamuddin wrote him affectionate letters, addressing him as `Turkullah, God's Turk. As willed by Khusrau, these letters were placed in his shroud and entombed with him. His death anniversary (urs) is known as the satrahvin sharif  (Holy Seventeenth) as it is celebrated sixteen days after Eid. The 706th Urs of Khusrau fell on 28 September 2010.

The graves of the saint and his faithful disciple have since become places of pilgrimage for their followers who are in legion. They visit and worship the shrines by strewing flowers and lighting lamps on them.

On Vasant Panchami day, Khusrau's followers gather at his tomb wearing yellow scarves. They offer yellow mustard flowers on his grave and sing his qawwali-s. They perform this every year to commemorate what Khusrau is supposed to have done to cheer up Hazrat Nizamuddin who had been grieving for his nephew's death. This colourful and vibrant tradition is still followed.

Prolific poet

Khusrau was a prolific and versatile poet. He started composing verses from a tender age, but the best of them were written when he was around sixty. Many of his poems contain his thoughts about common people and day-today matters.  Indeed they cover every aspect of their lives. Quite a large number of the verses are full of Sufi mysticism, which has much in common with Indian philosophy and the concept of bhakti. A deeply allegorical and philosophical thread runs through his devotional compositions.

He has also composed hundreds of songs dealing with love, the seasons and playful riddles. These are generally sung in the ghazal mode. According to one estimate, the total number of his verses runs into five lakhs.

Besides poetry, he also compiled prose works. Over 20 of his works (prose and poetry) are available to us. They are in Persian and Hindi ("Hindavi“ a combination of the local Bhojpuri and Persian, also known as Zaban-e-Dehlavi).

As noted earlier, Ameer Khusrau spent all his life in Delhi, the capital of the Sultanate, serving successive rulers. He had opportunities to witness historic events, and was also present in some of the military campaigns. He was even imprisoned while participating as a soldier in a war against the invading Mongols, he managed to escape. In some of his works, he has given vivid descriptions of those events. He hated the marauding invaders.

In one of his Hindi poems he states with pride that he knew Hindi better than Arabic. And so great was his admiration for Hindustan, his motherland, and her culture, that he proudly called himself Turk-e-Hindustani.

Musician and composer

His writings disclose that Khusrau was a connoisseur of music who knew the Persian and Indian systems well and perhaps practiced both. One of the chapters in his work jaz-i-Khusrawi deals with music, musicians and musical instruments of his time. In Nuh Siphir (The Nine Skies) he proclaims that the Indian system of music was far more developed than, and superior to, the music of any other country. He also put forward several arguments to prove the superiority of the knowledge of the Hindus.

His qawwali-s

The genre of qawwali originated as a song in praise of God with lyrics relying on sayings or aphorisms from the Holy Koran. In India its form stabilised around the 13th century and the Sufis adopted it in Persian medium for propagating their philosophy. Khusrau has written a large number of qawwali-s, and many of them alternately contain Persian and Brajbhasha lines.

Well versed in the subtleties of Indian and Persian poetry and music, Khusrau boldly introduced many far reaching innovations in music, including incorporation of elements of Persian music into the Indian system. In course of time, some of them were integrated in Indian music. His followers became specialists in singing his qawwali-s, using a mixture of Indo-Iranian melodies. Some of the delightful raga-s of Hindustani music are believed to be the offspring of the artistic synthesis of the two systems.

Ameer Khusrau is one of the iconic figures in the cultural history of India. He was a poet of the masses (lok kavi). He is remembered for his scholarly poetical works, innovations in music and poetics and, above all, for his message of universal love and tolerance, catholicity, humanism and brotherhood which runs through his works.