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Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

On the Creativity of Indian Muslims

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Ashok Celly


One of the most amazing phenomena of our cultural history is the extraordinary creativity of Indian Muslims. They have made outstanding contributions not only to music—something which is generally acknowledged—but also to literature, theatre, films and painting etc. Their contribution is out of all proportion to their demographic presence—a bare 10 per cent of the total Indian population. And this (their enormous contribution) holds true not only of the period before indepen-dence but also of post-partition India when the elite—the crème de la crème of the Muslim community—had supposedly migrated to Pakistan.

In classical music, for instance, there are giants like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Allauddin Khan and the Dagar brothers. In film music we have had maestros like Sajjad Husain, Ghulam Haider, Naushad Ali and, more recently, Ismail Darbar and A.R. Rehman. Then there have been illustrious film-makers like Mehboob Khan who gave us the great epic of Indian cinema, Mother India, K. Asif, the maker of Mughal-e-Azam, and the great poet of the celluloid, Kamal Amrohi. In historionics we have an embarrass des richesses from Madhu Bala to Shabana Azmi, from Dilip Kumar to Naseeruddin Shah (not to forget the three Khans). In theatre we have veterans like Ebrahim Alkazi and Habib Tanvir who between them cover a wide spectrum. In painting there is, of course, the grand old man, Maqbool Fida Hussain, who is forced to live in exile, and highly gifted individuals like S.H. Raza and Ghulam Shaikh.

WHAT accounts for this extraordinary creativity? Isn’t it strange that the otherwise scholarly and perceptive commentators like M. Mujeeb and Akbar Ahmed have very little to say on this most wonderful phenomenon of Indian history? This article may be viewed as a brief, and somewhat tentative, attempt to understand this unusual phenomenon.

It seems that the Muslims, who belonged to an austere and monotheistic culture, found India with its infinite variety, its sensuousness and, above all, its pluralism extremely fascinating and seductive. It seemed to unleash their creativity. (Probably there was an element of the forbidden fruit in this encounter, for music is forbidden by Islam, and interestingly enough the greatest achievements of Indian Muslims are in music.) M. Mujeeb in his definitive book Indian Musilms mentions an incident from the life of Nizamuddin Aulia which is quite revealing. According to Mujeeb, while the recitation of a Persian poem had no effect on him, “as the singer began a Hindi song, Sheikh Nizamuddin was so deeply affected that he began to dance… On yet another occasion, Sheikh Nizammuddin became ecstatic on hearing a refrain sung by a man drawing water from a well.” This episode should give us some idea of the romantic nature of the Muslim encounter with the wonder that was India. Amir Khusro’s life is the very epitome of this romance. This aristocrat of the spirit falls in love with India, its flora and fauna, its people and, above all, its language (which came to be known as Hindvi) and wrote verses in it. Verses which endeared him to the people and made him a matinee idol of sorts.

The great Indian romance continued from Amir Khusro to Akbar the Great, from Dara Shikoh to Wazid Ali Shah. Akbar’s grand essay in a new religion Din-e-Ilahi, Dara Shikoh’s fascination for the Upanishads, Wazid Ali Shah’s love of Brij Bhasha and Kathak are all part of this romance and, in our times, the devotion of the Dagar brothers to Dhrupad, the most pristine of our musical forms. In a sense the saga that begins with Ami Khusro culminates in Habeeb Tanvir romancing Chhattisgarhi dialect in his plays.

Then the partition of India must have been a very traumatic event for the Muslims who had chosen to stay back. It marginalised them in a country where they had been rulers once. What is more, it made them suspect in the eyes of the majority community and they were expected to prove their loyalty every now and then. Add to it the relative scarcity of bourgens avenues. So the hurt and humiliation and perhaps a sense of guilt caused by the partition and the non-availability of material opportunities made them—at any rate the more sensitive of them—turn to art with all the intensity at their command both as emotional catharsis and creative accomplishment. The situation of the Muslims in India is somewhat similar to that of the Blacks in America (Jazz, we would do well to remember, is primarily a Black creation). Could it be an accident that both the tragedy king (Dilip Kumar) and the tragedy queen (Meena Kumari) of Hindi cinema belong to the Muslim community?

SURELY, at the back of this all was the rich cultural heritage of Islam. Akbar Ahmed, the eminent Pakistan scholar, observes in his book From Samarkand to Stornoway: Living Islam, “Anyone acquainted with the work of the great Persian poets (Hafiz, Sadi, Firdausi), the travelling scholars writing in Arabic (Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta, Ibn Khaldun) or the Mughal rulers (Babar, Jahangir) will have discovered something of the richness and complexity of Islamic culture.”

The Mughal princes were great bibliophiles and highly cultivated individuals. This was also true of their queens. An instructive example of their (Mughal rulers) enlightened approach and their sensitivity to the feelings of the Hindu community was Babar’s decision to ban cow-slaughter immediately after he became the emperor. And the ban continued throughout the Mughal rule. Sensitivity to the feelings of the other community is a sure sign of culture. What a pity we have forgotten this today in these democratic times! Also, Islam places utmost emphasis on ilm (knowledge). The world ilm (knowledge) is supposed to figure three hundred times in The Quran, something both the Muslim fanatics and Islam-baiters would do well to remember.

The author, now a freelance writer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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