A modest looking middle age man, dressed in white walked gently on to the stage. The stage, like the man, was frugal: no props, no music, no elaborate lighting. Just a small platform covered with white sheets and white pillows. At one corner of the platform were placed two steel water bowls for the artist to moisten his palate after a non-stop verbal performance and a peek daan.
This was Mahmood Farooqui, a man determined to bring back to life and popularity the lost art of Dastangoi, storytelling based on medieval Urdu tales, and to pass this ancient art form on to future generations.
Today he was performing ‘Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata’ with the focus on Karna, the underdog of Mahabharat.
Karna, in this composition, is showcased as the underdog who is discriminated against because of his so called ‘low birth’. In spite of a life of suffering and discrimination, this warrior hero, stays firm on his ideals and honor. Thus when breathing his last on the battlefield of Mahabharat, with his head resting in Shri Krishna’s lap, when he asks Krishna whether he would be as famous as Arjuna, Krishna replies that Karna’s fame would last longer than Arjuna’s.
Mahmood Farooqui’s version of Dastangoi is a class in itself. It draws on syncretic traditions, seamlessly weaving age old issues of dharma, caste discrimination, power struggle, dirty politics played by the rulers for the acquisition of power and wealth- issues which are still relevant and perhaps more so in the current socio-political scenario.
Farooqui draws from oral traditions of Mahabharat, extracts of poetry in Hindi, Urdu and even Persian, Sanskrit shlokas and Quranic ayaats to reflect on the human condition and the issues related to Dharma and Karma. His composition is the mirror of a pluralistic art form where the barriers of religion and language break down to reveal a seamless weave of tapestry that is India.
His delivery is flawless, it flows on waves of passion, rising and ebbing with the content in a seasoned voice, the likes of which are heard only among senior classical and qawwali singers !!
Using only his oratory skills, Farooqui held the audience spell bound for ninety minutes, quite an achievement in these times of short attention span !!
Farooqui’s rendition of ‘ Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata‘, proves that the idea and idol of India as secular nation embracing all levels of diversity in its fold, as envisioned by the founders of our Constitution, existed long before our country’s Independence. It was always there in its pluralistic traditions, art and culture.
Photo Credits: Rupa Abdi
Detailed information about the Dastangoi’s team and future performances can be found on their face book page:
While we Indians pride ourselves over the rich diversity of communities, race and religion that our country has, it also means dealing with differences and contradictions in the way we live, eat and pray. However there has always been a sense of, not just tolerance, but respect for these differences. This appears to be an intrinsic factor of Indian cultural ethos. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘we must respect other religions, as we respect our own. Mere tolerance is not enough’. There have been times when this sentiment could not hold up against hatered and violence however there were other times too when this sentiment flowered against heavy odds. Seventeenth century Maratha society was one such period in the history of this great nation.
It is a myth to presume that a society at confrontation with itself cannot find ways to co-exist peacefully. The Medieval period in the Maratha Empire saw three apparently conflicting forces at work, especially during the seventeenth century: there was religious as well as political conflicts among the Bahamani kingdom, the Mughals and the Marathas. With the consolidation of Maratha power in this century, the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Maratha society found innovative ways of co-existing with mutual respect and peaceful tolerance. There were instances of hate and intolerance, no doubt, but these were offset by numerous examples to the contrary. The people and the rulers, in their wisdom knew that the only way for a peaceful society was respecting and giving space to the ‘other religion’. Marathi writers and historian have cited numerous instances of this as depicted in the daily lives of administrators and rulers. Examples from which our present day society could learn a lesson or two.
Saraswati Gangadhar, author of Gurucharitra, a poetic work of the fourteenth century, mentions that Alauddin II (1435-57), of the Bahamani dynasty which ruled over much of Deccan India, including parts of present day Maharashtra between the 13th and 16th century, held great respect for Narsimha Saraswati, the hero of Gurucharitra.
Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1490-1510) another Bahmani ruler, tried to create cultural harmony among Shias, Sunnis and Hindus through the medium of Art. According to Chitnis (p48) he was a worshipper of Allah and a Hindu goddess. Both the Mandir and the Masjid were sacred to him. His official documents would begin with the words Az-puja-i Shri Saraswati. He built a temple at Bijapur dedicated to Lord Narsimha. He bestowed liberal grants to temples and safeguarded the rights of pujaris. Little wonder that he came to be known as Jagadguru.
The Mahanbhav Matha of Otur (Pune) received land grants from the Nizam Shahi rulers who ruled over large parts of Deccan (1490-1633) with their capital at Ahmednagar in present day Maharashtra. Chand bibi, the regent of Ahmednagar (1596-99) and sister of Hussain Nizam Shah I, sent a note to her officers to respect all such grants to Hindus and Brahmans. The priest of Pedgaon (Ahmednagar) too received land grant from Malik Amber (1549-1626) who was a very popular Siddi Prime Minister in the Ahmednagar Sultanate (Kulkarni p. 113).
Among the rulers of the Maratha Empire (1674-1818), Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhonsale was a disciple of the legendary Muslim saint-poet, Shaikh Muhammad, and when Maloji shifted to Nizamshahi (in Ahmednagar district) he brought Shaikh Muhammad along with him (Kulkarni p.110). Maloji also gave 12 bigha land to Shaikh Muhammad and built a math (hermitage) for him at Shrigonde (Dhere, p60). Ramdas, the great saint poet of 17th century, was a strong critic of the Muslim rule but a great admirer of Shaikh Muhammad (Chitnis, p110). Sant Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru.
Maloji Bhaonsale’s wife and Shivaji’s grandmother, Umabai, took a vow to Shah Sharif of Ahmednagar for a child and when she gave birth to two sons, they were named after this Pir : Shahaji and Sharifji, in gratitude for his blessings (Dhere, p.60). The dargah of Shah Sharif enjoyed two villages, Eklare and Konosi under the Marathas (Bendre). Mir Sayyid Sadi of Nasik and Mulla Hussaini Mosque of Rannebennur (Dharwad) received inam lands from Shahaji (Kulkarni p. 112). Shivaji held great respect for Baba Yakut of Utambar village near Kelashi (Ratnagiri) and Sambhaji undertook the construction of his dargah which eventually remained incomplete. Numerous Muslim holy men received allowances for maintenance and illumination of mosques from Shivaji, including the Pir of Sayyid Sadat Hazrat (Pune region). The Kazi of Indapur and the khidmatgar of the Bhambavade mosque received land and allowances from Shivaji. Many believe that Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji was victorious against the Portuguese due to the blessings of Pir Abdullah Khan and in return the Prime Minsiter, Kavi Kailash granted the Pir certain allowances. Shivaji’s grandson, Shahuji gave an entire village in grant to the Muslim saint Sayyid Ata-ullah of Shakarkoti of Loni in Pune. The Peshwas too were equally generous and benevolent towards Muslim holy men: Pirs Sayyid Sada and Shaikh Salah received grants from Peshwas for construction purposes. Even the dispute among them regarding who would lead the Muharram procession was settled by the Peshwas. Dargah of Shaikh Salah and Takiya of Angad Shah received one sher of rice and one paisa for Frankincense every day from the royal palace.
The village councils were called gotsabhas and enjoyed supreme positon in the society and state and it decided cases that effected the whole society. The Kazi and the Maulana had a seat in the gotsabha and in every village Got, the proportion of Muslim members was usually proportional to the Muslim population in that village. Both the Hindus and Muslims sat together in the temple village and settled disputes irrespective of caste or religion. Mulansara, a kind of tax originally introduced by the Muslim rulers for the maintenance of the village Maulana continued under the Marathas. Muslim Patils were not unheard of under the Marathas (Kulkarni p.115).
Both the Bhakti and Sufi movements were at their peak during this period, both sought to bring about socio-religious reforms in their communities. With their message of universal love and brotherhood, they placed the service of fellow humans above religious rituals. Muslims learnt Sanskrit and also studied the sacred poetry of Bhakti saints. The study of the ‘other’ religion promoted a better understanding of each other and helped in eradication of religious prejudices. The well-known Marathi saint poet of this period, Sant Eknath wrote his famous gatha – Hindu Turk Samvad which consisted of a dialogue between a Hindu and a Muslim (Turk) who, at the end of a lengthy dialogue, end up respecting each other as creations of Khuda. Sufis at this time made valuable contributions to devotional literature in Marathi. Shaikh Muhammad, the Muslim saint poet wrote Yoga Sangram (1645), Nishkalanka Prabodh, Pavan Vijaya and 300 abhangas (devotional poetry sung in the praise of the Lord Vitthal) in Marathi. Another Muslim saint of this period, Husain Ambakhan, who was a devotee of Lord Ganesh, wrote a Marathi commentary on the Bhagvatgita. Shah Muntoji Bhahmani, a Muslim saint of the seventeenth century, who hailed from the royal family of Bidar (Bahmani Rulers) was initiated into the Bhakti cult by a Hindu saint – Sahajanand Swami of Kalyan (Bijapur). Shah Muntoji wrote Panchikaran in Dakhani Hindi, outlining the common fundamental concepts in Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His contemporary, Shah Muni, a Muslim saint, lamented that the enmity between Hindus and Muslims was due to the absence of proper understanding of their respective faiths (Kulkarni p.111).
Time and again the people, the mystics and the leaders have proved that the essence of this land is peace and harmony in spite of differences and diversity. Let us sow the seeds of love again in the consciousness of this sub-continent.
References and Extra Reading:
Bendre, V S. Ed. Maharashtr etihasachi Sadhane, vols.1-3: part II vol II: 314,315
Chitnis, Krishnaji Nageshrao.2003. Medieval Indian History. Atlantic Publishers and Distributes. New Delhi
Dhere, R C. 1967. Musalman Marathi Sant Kavi. Padyagandha Prakashan. Pune.
Kularni A R. 1999. Social Relations in Medieval Maharashtra: Experiments in Living Together. In: We Lived Together. Eds. S Settar and P K V Kaimal. 1999. Pragati Publications. Delhi
Parasnis, D B (ed.). 1917. Peshwe Daftaratil Sanadpatratil Mahiti, Bombay
Potdar, D V. (Introduction) Aitihasik Samkeerna Sahitya, BISM Publication, Pune vol. 8 (ASS Vol.)
Rajwade, V K (ed.). 1908. Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane. Vol.15. Kolhapur.
For all those who equate organised religion to dharma and who, due to their narrow mind set, are compelled to box pluralistic saints like Kabir and Shirdi Sai baba into Hindu/Muslim categories, for them, Sant Eknath is an enigma, an embarrassment. His Guru – Swami Janardan, is claimed, by some scholars, to be a Sufi. Many of his bharuds (devotional songs) are in Hindustani and can often be mistaken to be written by a Sufi. He spoke of finding parallels in Hinduism and Islam, his followers belonged to different castes and creeds and according to one legend he even led Muslim armies on one occasion. Little wonder then that recent Marathi writers, have tried to recast him as a savior of Hinduism from Islam although available literature proves something altogether different!!
The story of sant Eknath is a story of a scholarly Brahmin whose compassion and wisdom allowed him to rise above caste distinction and even engage Muslims in his spiritual dialogues.
Sant Eknath (1533-99 C.E.) was born to a Brahmin family in the holy city of Paithan, known as the Benaras of Maharashtra, which stands on the banks of Godavari. He was the grandson of Sant Bhanudas- a devout Warkari sant who is credited with returning the idol of Vithobha from Hampi to Pandharpur, its original home. It had been taken from Pandharpur by Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar in 1951. Spiritually inclined from a very early age, Sant Eknath was allowed by his guru, Swami Janardhan to lead a life of a house holder. Sant Eknath carried forward the tradition of social reform of Sant Gyaneshwar and Sant Namdev by rejecting all distinctions of caste and creed and the relevance of ritual and rites. For this he won many opponents among the high caste Hindus.
He composed numerous religious songs in Marathi called abhangs, owees and bharuds. He wrote a commentary in Marathi on the Bhagvad Purana known as Eknath Bhagwat and also began writing Rukimini Swayamvara which, after his death, was later completed by one of his disciples. His works brought the highest of religious truths and moral guidance to the common people. He was a renowned kirtankaar giving birth to a unique style of Marathi kirtan singing called Eknath kirtan. He collected all the versions of Gyaneshwar’s Gyaneshwari and produced a critical edition of it.
Sant Eknath’s abhang recited by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi:
However his unusual contribution to Marathi Bhakti literature is his empathy with the dalits. Out of the three hundred bharuds (drama poems) that he has written, about fifty are from the perspective of a Dalit. In forty seven of which the protagonist is a Mahar and in one a Mang is the central character. Both these castes are considered among the ‘lowest’ in Maharshtra and elsewhere in India. These characters in Eknath’s drama poems, preach morality, the righteous path, the importance of a Guru and how the Bhakti marg liberates us from the cycle of death and rebirth. He mocks at the so-called learned Brahmins and fake gurus in the following Bharud:
“They say ‘we have become saints’
They put on garlands and sandal paste.
Taking a lamp in their hands
They cry udo,udo….. !
They do kirtan for the sake of their stomachs
They teach the ‘meaning of all’ to the people.
They cheat their ignorant devotees.
They do not know the meaning of kirtan…….
Do the one kind of Bhakti.
Don’t wait for anything else.
Good and bad come in their own way.
They are the proof of past deeds…..”
Like his predecessors of the Warkari Bhakti movement, Eknath, in his following Bharud preaches that all humans can experience nearness to God irrespective of caste and creed:
God baked pots with Gora
drove cattle with Chokha
cut grass with Savata Mali
wove garments with Kabir
dyed hide with Ramdas
sold meat with butcher Sajana
melted gold with Narhari
carried cow dung with Jana Bai
and even became the Mahar messenger of Damaji
There are numerous stories of Eknath being ostracised and punished by the Brahmins for his proximity and social interactions with the so called ‘untouchables’.
Eknath is also credited with contributing to the religio-cultural pluralism of the Deccan in the sixteenth century. He lived during the rule of Ahmednagar Sultanate. Apart from being an ancient capital, the sixteenth century Paithan was a major trading center and Eknath had the opportunity to interact with people of all castes as well as Indian Muslims and Arabs.
His guru, Janardhan Swami, was a saint as well as in charge of the Daulatabad fort. Janardahan Swami was the disciple of Chand Bodale, also known as Chandrabhat, who was a Vaishnav and yet a follower of the Kadri or Qadarriya Sufi path and dressed like a faqir. At one time, it is believed, Eknath took his guru’s place to lead the Muslim army when the fort was attacked, as his guru was in deep meditation at this time!! According to Rigopoulos (p.160) Eknath disguised himself as his guru and in the process acquired all his strength and defeated the attacking army. This phenomenon of the disciple (murid) completely absorbing himself into the personality of his master (shaykh) is known as fana-fi-sh’shaykh among Sufis.
The Sufi influence on Eknath is further indicated by the number of Persian and Arabic words found in his Bharuds. While recently many right wing ideologist have tried to cast Sant Eknath as a saviour of Hinduism from the ‘hated’ Muslim tide, numerous scholars, both Hindu and Muslim, concur that medieval India was an era of tolerance, participation of Hindu subjects in the Islamic government and cultural interaction and influence among the two communities. Eknath’s bharud titled, Hindu-Turk Samvad sums up the situation aptly:
Eknath: The goal is one, the ways of worship are different.
Listen to the dialogue between these two!
The Turk calls the Hindu ‘Kafir’!
The Hindu answers: ‘I will be polluted, get away!’
A quarrel broke out between the two,
A great controversy began.
Muslim: O Brahman! Listen to what I have to say:
Your scripture is a mystery to everyone,
God has hands and feet, you say.
This is really impossible!
Hindu: Listen you great fool of a Turk!
See God in all living things.
You haven’t grasped this point
And so you have become a nihilist…….
At that moment that saluted each other.
With great respect, they embraced.
Both became content, happy.
‘You and I quarreled to open up the knowledge of high truth,
In order to enlighten the very ignorant.
In place of karma-awakening!!’
Pemmaraju G. The Mystic Circle: Sufis, Sants & the Songs of the Deccan
Ahmend S A. 2011. A Comprehensive History of Medieval India: From the Twelfth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century. Dorling Kindersley. New Delhi .
Prasoon S. 2009.Indian Saints and Sages.Hindology Books. Pustaka Mahal, Delhi.
Novetzke C L. 2008. Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India. Columbia University Press. New York
Sadangi H C. 2008.Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Isha Books. Delhi
Rigopoulos A. 1998. Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Character of a Multi-Faceted Hindu Deity. State University of New York Press. New York.