Walking Delhi with Himanshu Verma, an emerging arts curator, follows a trail where poets share top billing with rulers and religious leaders. Poets get prominent positions in India’s history – literally – with their shrines and tombs near those of emperors and saints across Delhi.
The place to be buried in Delhi from the 14th to 19th C was Nizamuddin, a village named after the exalted Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Not far away is a vast World Heritage site, the tomb of Humayun, the second of six powerful Muslim Mughals who controlled Northern India from 1527-1707. Eternity in the vicinity was a mark of status for nobles and warriors too. But who is buried closest to the white marble mausoleum of Nizamuddin who died in 1325, none other than his disciple and eminent Muslim poet Amir Khusrau, who died just six months later.
If all you know about Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the wrenching partition in 1947 and subsequent political assassinations, the relationship between this saint and poet and the broader culture is a good place to get perspective on why India is simultaneously the Hindu capital of the world and the second largest Muslim nation.
Most, not all, of the Islamic Mughals were tolerant of people of other faiths, including the indigenous Hindus. Khusrau was a cultural cross-pollinator, writing poetry primarily in Persian but also in Hindi. He drew on both languages for the first known printed dictionary. His poems take several forms, but Khusrau may be best known for expanding the development of ghazal. Khusrau mined ghazal for lyrics with his fusion of Persian and Indian musical traditions to create the Sufi devotional music, qawwali. Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, not to mention music lovers, still crowd the courtyard between the tombs of saint and poet for Friday afternoon qawwali.
The path to the tombs twists through narrow alleys and bazaars, a bustling Muslim marketplace since the Middle Ages. One route goes past a still-preserved sandstone step well built by Nizamuddin to provide water and a scenic meeting place in the neighborhood.
Then picture eight or nine singers and musicians, called a party, performing powerful poetic lyrics of love and longing. The intoxication with the beloved is understood to be the divine, but oh how well the metaphors work for the mere human as in a Khusrau excerpt below:
O sweetheart, why do you not take me to your bosom?
Long like curls in the night of separation,
Short like life on the day of our union.
Flash forward to Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), a master of ghazal, who was alive during the unsuccessful Indian rebellion against the British in 1857. Traditionally ghazal is a short poem of divine anguished love, in couplets all using the same rhyme, with the poet’s name in the last stanza. Ghalib expanded the focus to philosophy and the troubles and mysteries of life. For example, he compared his unhappy arranged marriage to a second imprisonment following the confinement of life itself.
Reading samples of Ghalib’s poetry at his tomb in Nizamuddin and his house in another old Delhi neighborhood invited comparisons to American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. His subject matter is as broad as Whitman, but his spot-on death metaphors more powerfully conjure up Dickinson.
In between chronologically is Rahim, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana (1556 – 1627). A Muslim who wrote Hindi couplets, Rahim was a powerful minister in the Mughal court of Akbar. The Hindu god Lord Krishna is often featured in his poetry. The marble and sandstone on his tomb in Nizamuddin were stripped off and recycled for an 18th C tomb elsewhere. The base remains intact as does respect for the wisdom of his couplets:
The tree does not eat its own fruit, the lake does not drink its water.
For the welfare of others, the good one accumulates wealth, so says Rahim.
Here’s my video of Verma reading Rahim. Verma runs several multidisciplinary arts initiatives, including Red Earth and 1100 Walks. (Don’t miss his food-centric street tour of Old Delhi if you’re in town.) Verma is himself a devotee of Krishna.
The thread of poet prominence continues in India’s modern political history. Nobel Laureate Tagore Rabindranath died in 1941 before independence but was an influential intellectual friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Tagore first called Gandhi a Mahatma, or great soul, and the name stuck. In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel prize, for a collection of poems Gitanjali in Bengali and English.
Words of the poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, songwriter, artist and educator pop up all over India. He even gets the last word at the Taj Mahal where a Tagore quote fills a huge wall near the exit and describes the marble marvel as a “tear drop… on the cheek of time for ever and ever… a garland that would blend formless death with deathless form.”
The experimental school Tagore founded educated Indian leaders in a variety of disciplines including Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist, and Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and the prime minister for 15 years. (She was lucky enough to get the surname Gandhi from her Parsi husband.) Gandhi kept a framed picture of Tagore with an English excerpt from Gitanjaliin her home study; words in a prominent vitrine in her museum that lead a mind without fear to “where the clear stream of reason/ has not lost its way.”