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India: Un-stirring the sugar in the milk

Monday 10 October 2022, by siawi3


Un-stirring the sugar in the milk

Jawed Naqvi

Published October 4, 2022

SHEER-O-SHAKAR’ is a lyrical Urdu phrase that literally means milk and sugar but actually describes a blending that’s impossible to un-stir. Once mixed, you can’t take the sweetness out of the milk, like it or not, hence the phrase. That’s how Nehru explained to an American journalist about more Muslims staying back in India after the partition.

It is Dussehra tomorrow (Wednesday). Effigies of Ravana, the 10-headed demon king of ancient Lanka will be reduced to cinders again. Up to a year after the advent of Narendra Modi as India’s ruler in 2014, there would be human interest stories, in what used to be a less polarised media, of Muslim artisans who assembled the paper-and-reed effigies that would be occasionally towering at more than 200 feet (approximately 60 metres). If Muslim artisans are still earning their seasonal income from the art of effigy-making for Hindus, there’s perhaps no one around to replace the skilful workers who travel distances to create the effigy of the demon king and his two brothers every year.

The duo Meghnaad and Kumbhakaran would flank Ravana come Dussehra, and they would be destroyed first before someone dressed as Lord Rama would shoot an arrow into Ravana’s navel and he would go up in flames amid exploding firecrackers placed around his body. The story goes that Vibhishana, Ravana’s younger brother, defected to Rama’s side on moral grounds, a story that could be the basis of the curious saying: “Ghar ka bhedi Lanka dhaaye” (Was a traitor that destroyed Lanka.) Did Vibhishana share the secret of his brother’s Achilles’ heel, the navel, for Rama to shoot at? Like scores of Rama stories, the version of Vibhishana helping his brother’s slaying is disputed. A feature of Hindutva is that, in the mould of the more puritan traditions of West Asia, it seeks to destroy alternative explorations of Hindu traditions and their multilayered lore. Respected historian A.K. Ramanujan’s brilliant collection of Rama legends in the Three Hundred Ramayanas, was attacked and its copies destroyed by right-wing hoodlums in the Delhi University. In Ramanujan’s collection, there are myriad versions of the Rama story, including the Jain and Buddhist variants, which can only be retrieved when bigotry is reined in.

As for the firecrackers that go off on Dussehra in Ravana’s effigy, it’s well known that gunpowder was invented in China and came to India likely with Mughal emperor Babar in 1526. It is clear at least that the noise and smoke in the evolving tradition, the source of considerable dispute and court orders for the pollution they cause in northern fog-clad seasons, were a recent addition. You could call it a Muslim contribution to India’s problem with air pollution.

A feature of Hindutva is that it seeks to destroy alternative explorations of Hindu traditions and their multilayered lore.

Of the three popular Hindu deities — Shiva, Rama and Krishna — Rama alone appears to have no musical instrument assigned to him. Shiva was an accomplished dancer and played the hand-held percussion, the damru, to entrance the listeners. Krishna played the flute to similar effect. Saraswati, Lord Brahma’s consort, too, excelled with the veena. And yet, Rama is the hub around which countless musical compositions have come into being. My very favourite is the South Indian Raag Kharaharapriya composed by the venerated 18th-century musician Thyagaraja, particularly the version rendered by Ustad Karim Khan.

It was purely by accident that one found the composition sung by the founder of the renowned Kirana gharana, a style of classical singing popularised among others by the legend’s daughters Hirabai Barodekar, Saraswati Rane and son Sureshbabu Mane. All three had a Muslim name each, which music critics usually shun. Roshan Ara Begum was Karim Khan’s disciple for 15 years and probably his cousin too. Bhimsen Joshi, Feroze Dastur and Gangubai Hangal were disciples of Karim Khan’s other famous pupil Sawai Gandharva. I’m not sure how many of them had the reach or the capability of Karim Khan to delve into the intricacies of Karnatic music, the exacting South Indian genre. The Kharaharapriya composition is a heart-tugging tribute to Lord Rama, which Karim Khan sang with devotion as only South Indian maestros could, which he wasn’t.

‘Ramani samanam evaru/ Raghu vamsoddharaka’. Roughly, the full verse says: “Peerless Rama! The Raghu race attained supremacy thanks to your advent. Your beloved Sita is like a tender and fragrant creeper on your bosom. You have brothers whose words drip with sweetness of honey. We are privileged to have you as our family (kula) deity. You are gentle and soft in speech.”

Another Karim Khan composition from the south is a song for the Marathi musical theatre, the Natya Sangeet. Listen to Chitti Babu’s veena playing Raag Devagandhari. And then hear the three-minute theatre song Chandrika hi janu in the same raag. It is said Karim Khan passed away on a railway platform in Pondicherry on his way to meet his muse, the dancer-singer Balasaraswati and her mother the great singer Dhannamal.

There’s no dearth of Muslim singers and poets who’ve embellished the Rama legend with their prowess. Hindutva seeks to undermine their work. Rasoolan Bai’s angst at the loss of the heroine’s very precious pearl is stark in the song — “Yehi thaee’n motiya herai gaeli Rama, kaha’n wahka dhoondoo’n?” The petition to Rama could not stop her house in Gujarat from being gutted in 1973 by tone-deaf bigots. Allama Iqbal’s tribute to Rama as the imam of India is brushed aside with an embarrassed silence. Likewise, with Sangeetha Kalanidhi Sheik Chinna Moulana, Karnatic music’s naadaswaram exponent. Gosaveedu Sheik Hassan Sahib, a former disciple of Sheik Chinna Moulana, served as the resident guru of Bhadracharam Sitarama Temple for about 45 years. Sitarama Temple! Bismillah Khan played the shehnai at the Varanasi temple, now a hub of Muslim-baiting. The poet and constituent assembly member Hasrat Mohani would visit Krishna’s Mathura every time he returned from Haj. Hindutva bigots are busy un-stirring the sugar in the milk there. It would, of course, need a miracle for them to succeed.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.