First Person: A ‘Sufi’ Basant in Nizamuddin
It is said Khusrow would sing and Auliya, who had no children of his own and lived with his adopted family from his sister’s side, would go into mystical trance
The day before Saraswati Puja this year, a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I continued working from home in the Delhi-NCR and taking in 10 hours of Zoom calls!
Growing up in Calcutta, Basant Panchami or Saraswati Pujo had a special appeal for the young, especially students. It was bliss with all text books offered for the goddess’ benediction during the day. Studies were taboo; there was no school and everyone dressed up in yellow or mustard-coloured saris and kurtas. On this day boys and girls could walk into any school, even exclusively girls’ schools, on this day marked for teenage romance, friendship and celebration. It continues to be called the “Bengali Valentine’s Day”.
Saraswati Puja had fallen on a Saturday this year and the only plan I had was to meet up with a friend from school. We had planned a whole day of “Delhi-darshan”. After wolfing some mutton nihari at Meena Market, we headed off to Humayun’s Tomb which we found was shut because of Covid restrictions. In order to kill time, we crossed the road from Humayun’s Tomb and arrived at Nizamuddin Basti. I wanted to show my visiting friend the tomb of Atgah Khan, which is almost a miniature of Humayun’s Tomb. The lane leading to the tomb through Nizamuddin’s Dargah was however unusually crowded with both men and women dressed in yellow. Had Saraswati Puja arrived in Nizamuddin, I wondered aloud! As we followed the crowd to the dargah instead of the tomb, I found my guess was not entirely misplaced.
Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the Sufi saint of the Chishti Silsila (order) with predecessors like Moinuddin Chishti, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Baba Farid, lived seven centuries earlier in his khanqah (monastery) behind where Humayun’s Tomb is today. Known for his knowledge, wisdom and geneorosity, he lived up to 90 years through the reigns of four rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, namely Ghiyasuddin Balban, Jalaluddin and Alauddin Khilji and even Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, spanning three dynasties.
He was known for his sharp tongue and shared a bittersweet relation with the illustrious rulers, blessing them and cursing them in equal measure, keeping the powerful and trappings of power at a distance.
Among his disciples and companions was Amir Khusrow, the poet laurate of the Khilji court, the creator of the Hindustani language (by fusing elements of Persian with Braj), inventor of the tabla, the sitar, of several ragas and the entire form of qawwali music! Indeed, more than six musical forms are attributed to his genius.
It is said Khusrow would sing and Auliya, who had no children of his own and lived with his adopted family from his sister’s side, would go into mystical trance. He was especially attached to his nephew, Taqiuddin Nuh, a boy of fifteen.
The legend holds that Taqiuddin caught a sudden fever and died within days. Hazrat Nizamuddin was inconsolable and went into mourning, stopped eating and meeting his disciples. He was withering away until Basant Panchami arrived.
That was when Amir Khusrow spotted some women dressed in yellow holding up some mustard or marigold flowers near the bank of the Yamuna. He asked them what they were doing, and they replied that the day was auspicious and if one wore yellow and prayed to the goddess that day, the wishes came true. Khusrow went back to the khanqah but this time draped in a yellow saree, with flowers in his hand and a dhol slung around his neck! He began to dance in the courtyard and on the spot made up the song “Aaj Basant manaley suhagan…” (Celebrate the spring, oh darling).
Hearing the commotion, Nizamuddin Auliya stepped out of his room, and saw his dear disciple draped in a saree, crooning and whirling in the courtyard. It made him break into a smile, lifted his mood and brought him out of mourning.
Delhi was orphaned in 1325 AD when two of its most illustrious citizens, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Khusrow, both died within months of each other. But for the past 700 years the tradition of Basant celebrations at Nizamuddin’s dargah has continued.
Every approach road to the dargah was draped with thousands of red roses strung together and throngs of people wearing yellow and with bouquets of flowers jostled to move forward.
I spotted several of the city’s heritage enthusiasts there. Anas Khan, Rana Safvi, Asif Dehlvi to name just a few. There were politicians, local toughs, devotees and an eclectic mix of people.
The main shrine was decorated with drapes and flowers, with the Nizami family (descendants of Nizamuddin Auliya) conducting the ceremony. The Nizamis could be easily distinguished from others in their crisp white kurtas, yellow waistcoats and overcoats, shining headgear and chiseled features. There were also a set of junior qawwals singing popular qawwalis; awestruck visitors whispered that the qawwals were direct descendants of the original twelve students of Amir Khusrow.
Amidst singing and incessant tossing of marigold petals into the air, the crowd meandered out of the dargah and passed various parts of the Basti. Well-dressed dignitaries offered prayers at what looked like walls of houses but were actually shrines which had got encroached over time!
The crowd then returned to the dargah and a yellow sheet of cloth was held out on which coins and currency notes kept being showered. The crowd passed the graves of who’s who of Mughal nobility, Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan; Mirza Nili, the son of Shah Alam; Akbar II, the second last Mughal; Mirza Jahangir and finally came to the tomb of Muhammad Shah Rangeela. The unfortunate emperor was buried between the master (Auliya) and his student (Khusrow).
There were more prayers near the dargah of Khusrow, more yellow flowers were strewn, more qawwalis were sung and more currency notes collected.
I did catch a familiar tune “Arab yaar tero Basant banaayo, rakhio jagat mein laal gulal” (Oh Lord, we celebrate your spring, keep this world happy and flourishing) Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad’s qawwali masterpiece 'Aadaam', penned by Khusrow himself, with both vocalists tracing their lineage from the lyricist. As the evening turned darker, the maghrib namzaz was conducted inside the Khilji Mosque adjacent to the shrine, a monument built by Alauddin Khilji himself.
Finally, the qawwals sat down and belted out one after another eclectic numbers, enthralling the audience. With concerts being a far cry for the past few years, the audience soaked in the rich, lilting rhythms, the only time of the year when music is allowed to be sung inside the dargah.
We finally left the intoxicating evening behind, still mesmerized. As we gobbled some final kababs from Ghalib Kabab Corner, not far from the poet’s grave, my friend turned and mumbled, “This might have been India if the British hadn’t played one religion against another for two centuries!”
I did not know how to react. All I knew was I wasn’t missing Saraswati Pujo anymore. I was humming to myself, “Yeh Delhi hai mere yaar, bass ishq, mohabbat, pyaar!”
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)
Published: 12 Mar 2022, 4:15 PM