Friday, June 26, 2009

The vendors' 'intelligence' network: Indian samosa-seller

Though it may seem to be a joke, the fact is that the vendors seem to have an intelligence network of their own and that beats the cops and journalists.

A sudden demonstration, a gherao (laying siege) at a minister's bungalow, a protest in which an organisation decides to barge into the premises unannounced or a convergence of rally from rural areas to a particular locality in the capital--everything that may not be known to others, is known to the vendors.

Wherever there is a a gathering, the vendors do get air and often before the gathering begins, they reach there, hoping to sell off their goods quickly. The vendors selling samosas, moong-phali or chana-jor-garam snacks or those selling balloons and cheap toys manage to reach these places despite the fact that they don't have vehicles. [They don't have wireless sets either].

However, it's clear that they do have an awesome network. It may even seem mysterious at times. Call it sheer professionalism or the requirement of livelihood, that they either anticipate the place where there could be a crowd (even a place where trouble is likely).

Of course, they do have camaraderie, as one after the other, vendors of all kinds reach the place. After a brisk initial sale, they rush out if the trouble intensifies. Ask the cops and they will testify about the vendors.

If only the law-enforcers take a crash course from vendors, they might get to know more about criminals and troublemakers. Or at least they can pay them a stippend and enrol them as 'informers' for tips.

Basharat sells samosas that are filled with 'daal', sabzi and other spices rather than potato. His tray got sold out within hours of a sudden protest that was arranged by an NGO in the way of a VIP cavalcade. Youths and elderly participants who had been brought from faraway villages were hungry and tired.

The samosas were a sellout. Eighty-odd sold in less than an hour. Ask him the secret of how his nose smells the crowd and he sheepishly says, 'Sahab, pataa chal jaata hai'. In the past also, I have written posts on the roving Samosa-sellers, who fascinate me.

Earlier posts on Samosa-sellers at
1. Chacha's qeema-stuffed samosas
2. A samosa-seller's nap under a tree shade

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Chillas of Hazrat Ghaus: Islamic shrines in Deccan

A couple of years ago when I first visited Hyderabad, the chillas had caught my eye. In North India, I had never seen them nor heard about them.

But in Hyderabad, I found them virtually at every other corner in the Old part of the City. I asked a friend [who is not a Muslim] and he told me that the 'chilla' is a common Islamic shrine in this region. 

Apart from mosques, if something is perceived as an Islamic shrine, then it's a mazaar, dargah or tomb. Or perhaps a Sufi khanqah (hospice). The chilla was a discovery for me.

I was surprised and asked him to wait for a while so that I could take a look at the chilla. The gate had 'Ya Ghaus dastgir' written in nastaliq Urdu. I sensed that it was Sufi-inspired shrine a la mazaar though of a different kind.

There are dozens of them in dense localities in Old Hyderabad. What I could make sense of a chilla was that wherever there was a green flag aflutter with image of a tiger on the wall other than angels, it has to be a chilla. It doesn't need much space.

Later I asked Hyderabadi Muslims and came to know about chillas. The chillas are spaces in honour of the great Sufi saint of Qadiriah order of  dervishes, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, [also Gilani], who was born in 1078 AD, a venerable figure for Muslims, especially, in Central Asia and South Asia.

On the occasion of the anniversaries of the Saints, a fresh flag is unfurled amid much fanfare. Hundreds of chillas are waqf properties. The earnings in some cases are substantial and there also madarsas and charitable orphanages run on the premises of the chilla.

Also termed Sultan of Saints, he is commonly referred as Ghaus-e-Azam [highest in the hierarchy of Sufi saints] or the supreme helper. He wrote famous texts like Futuh-ul-Ghaib, Malfuzat and Al-Fath ar-Rabbani [or the sublime revelation]. 

He is held in great esteem and the Gyarahvin Sharif is observed amid much fanfare in some parts of the country. There is a famous story about his childhood. While leaving with a caravan, his mother had given him a few gold coins. When the robbers came and everybody hid their valuables, the Sardar of the robbers asked the young boy about his possessions.

Having told by his mother that one should never lie, the young Muhiuddin Abdul Qadir told the robbers that he had the gold coins sewn in his dress. Initially the sardar thought it was a joke but when he tore the coat and found the gold, he was impressed with the boy's truthfulness and returned all the valuables.

In the last couple of decades, there is a marked shift, especially among middle-class upwardly mobile Muslims, who don't believe in intercession..

The visits to mazaars are also seen as idolatory but these are all extreme reactions. It doesn't mean that respect for Sufis has lost favour among the masses. 
In fact, there is also an urban class that looks at Sufism as chic and fashionable and label themselves as followers of Sufism.

There are millions who irrespective of their religious affiliations have respect for the Sufis and follow their path towards God. It's immature to assume that all Muslims who visit mazaars, are idolaters. 
That's an extreme reaction--more due to lack of awareness, getting judgmental about others and sectarianism. These shrines attract devotees of all religious and sects. Many visit the shrines for mental peace. 

Chillas of Gharib Nawaz

Above the Vindhya ranges [in Northern India] I haven't seen the Chillas anywhere. In Southern India, they are common. The flag is unfurled when someone's wish is fulfilled. Others also visit, pay respect at the shrine.

In parts of Southern India, most of the Chillas are that of Hazrat Ghuas and Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz of Ajmer. Apart from the Urs, on the sixth of every month there is a 'taqrib'. During Urs, the new 'sehra' is mounted on the chilla.

The poor folk mostly gather, recite fatiha and the 'tabarruk' is distributed. In short, Chillas are the 'Memorials of Sufi saints'. Sectarian differences apart, they represent another unique, localised and distinct phenomenon that adds to the Indian culture, which is a blend of myriad religious practices.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Urdu Mushaira in Delhi: Enchanting couplets regale audience

Though litterateurs keep frowning over the decline in standards of mushairas, the truth is that nowhere in the world people still sit till 2 and 3 am in the night to listen poetry.

I had the opportunity to watch the Mushaira Jashn-e-Bahaar recently. And once again I was not disappointed, as several reputed poets recited their ghazals, Nazms and Qata'as.

Watching the most respected Urdu poet--ocatagenarian Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi Gulzar Dehlvi, [please don't confuse him with the other and equally respectable Gulzar who is known for writing songs also]--at the dais revived the old memories.

Many of the audiences were praying for his health and long life. I start with the couplets of the legendary Gulzar Dehlvi:

aaiin* to ham roz badal sakte haiN
aKhlaaq meN tarmeem** nahiiN ho saktii

ham roz naye mulk banaa sakte haiN
tahziib ki taqseem nahiin ho saktii

[* constitution, ** change ]

Yes, we can change the constitution as many times as we wish, we can carve out new nations but the 'tehzib' can't be divided, the culture remains composite. None but this Kashmiri Brahmin poet who is the reigning king of the Delhi school of Urdu poetry can say it.

Majid Deobandi is known for calling a spade a spade. His ghazals drew fulsome praise, specially the couplet:

kisii sile kii jo chaah hotii to maiN bhii shaayad
har ek masnad-nasheeN ko aalii-janaab likhtaa

For almost half-a-century, Waseem Barelvi has been the most prominent face of the lyrical Urdu poetry that haunts your imagination and keeps you in a state of trance. When he read out his ghazal, the audience burst in applause.

khauf ke saaye meN bachche ko agar jeenaa paDaa
be-zubaaN ho jaayegaa yaa bad-zubaaN ho jaayegaa

The couplet of Shakil Shamsi's ghazal also drew huge appaluse:

ghar nahiiN hotaa chhatoN se aur dar-o-diivaar se
do parinde shaaKh pe baiThenge, ghar ho jaayegaa

For almost a quarter century, Malikzada Manzoor Ahmad, has been conducting mushairas in the country and outside. At times, his poetry hits you straight and occasionally there are layers to get to the meaning. Here is one of the couplets from the ghazal that was liked by the gathering:

tark-e-mohabbat apnii Khataa ho aisaa bhii ho saktaa hai
voh ab bhii paaband-e-wafaa ho aisaa bhii ho saktaa hai

And when Alam Khursheed spoke about 'etedaal' ie moderation, one felt that the poetic evening had reached its pinnacle. It's not an easy task to keep passions in check, the heart doesn't listen to your head--an eternal subject of poetry but interesting nonetheless.

kahiN pe jism, kahiiN pe khayaal rahtaa hai
mohabbatoN meN kahaaN etedaal rahtaa hai

A unique poet of Nazm, Shahid Meer, is not just a rhymster but has understanding of music and all forms of arts. He rarely attends mushairas but when he does, he gets praise from those who appreciate true shaayri.

pahle to chhiin li merii aaNkhoN kii roshnii
phir aaiine ke saamne laaya gayaa mujhe

There were dozens of couplets that could be quoted. Some women poets also recited. Ambreen Haseeb's couplet, which he had earlier read at the AMU women college's mushaira:

ta'alluq jo bhii rakho soch lenaa
ki ham rishtaa nibhaana jaante haiN

Several other prominent poets rendered their ghazals. But it was an emotional moment when Shaharyar, who is not just an exceptional poet of ghazal and Nazm, but has also achieved fame outside the literary world, faced the mike and read out his ghazal. The couplet turned many an eyes moist.

aasmaaN kuchh bhii nahiiN ab tere karne ke liye sab tayyariyaaN kar li haiN marne ke liye

Jashn-e-Bahaar mushaira, which is organised by the Jashn-e-Bahar Trust and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) was a success. It's true that senior poets are dying, but still there is a galaxy of shaaers in India, that can hold any gathering spellbound for hours.

Cynics may dimiss the mushairas (and kavi sammelans) but the fact is that they remain a glorious institution despite all the shortcomings and the innovations that have crept up in the institution of mushayras lately.

Notwithstanding the presence of some 'performing poets' whose sole qualification is a good voice and who get couplets written from veteran poets, the mushairas play a major role in educating the young generation about the nuances of poetry.

Besides, their cultural significance in the present era remains indisputable.The mushairas have survived centuries. Over the years this institution that is unparalleled elsewhere in the world, has spread to smaller cities and towns and will surely flourish in future.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Habib Tanvir: 'Agra Bazar' and Indian Theatre


Dhuundhoge agar mulkoN mulkoN milne ke nahiiN, naayaab haiN ham.....

The doyen of Indian theatre, Habib Tanvir, was laid to rest at a graveyard in Bhopal.

The 86-year-old theatre legend was draped in national flag, with policemen lowering their weapons to accord him full state honours.

Tanvir was buried adjacent to his wife Monika Misra's grave. The representatives of state governments of MP and Chhattisgarh, ministers and hundreds of admirers were part of the procession.

In the same BJP-ruled state where he had been literally boycotted in his old age and had earlier faced opposition for his play 'Ponga Pandit', [which was written not by him by two Hindu writers], his demise forced even those officials to the Qabristan, who had closed the doors of multi-cultural complex Bharat Bhavan for him.

Tanvir was not even allowed to get possession of land, which was allotted during the earlier Congress-regime, for his Naya Theatre group. The artists of IPTA and leftist artistes recited two jan-geets at Iqbal Maidan where the body was kept for a while and tributes were paid to the departed soul.

Habib Tanvir lived a complete life. Death is inevitable but there shouldn't be any regrets for him. He lived life on his own terms and has left a rich legacy.

Rediscovering Nazir Akbarabadi through Agra Bazaar

duniaa men baadshaah hai so hai voh bhii aadmi
aur muflis-o-gada hai so hai voh bhii aadmii

zardaar, be-nawa hai so hai voh bhii aadmii
nemat jo khaa rahaa hai so hai voh bhii aadmii

masjid bhii aadmii ne banaai hai yaaN miyaaN
bante haiN aadmii hii Imam aur khutba-khwaaN

paDhte haiN aadmii hii Quraan aur namaaz yaaN
aur aadmii hi unkii churaate haiN juutiyaaN

jo unko taaDtaa hai, so hai voh bhii aadmi
yaaN aadmii pe jaan ko vaare hai aadmii

aur aadmii hii teG se maare hai aadmii
pagDii bhii aadmii kii utaare hai aadmii

chillaa ke aadmii ko pukaare hai aadmii
aur sunke dauDta hai, so hai voh bhii aadmii....

[Excerpts from Nazir Akbarabadi's long nazm Aadminama]

It was not an easy job to recreate era of the people's poet Nazir Akbarabadi on the stage but Habib Tanvir accomplished this feat without showing the poet, in his play Agra Bazar. The play is a masterpiece.

Nazir Akbarabadi was born in 1735 and died after 1835 when he was over a hundred years old. The play is set in 1810 when Mir Taqi Mir had passed away and Ghalib was just 14.

The Mughal rule had ended and Akbar [Saani] II who occupied the throne at Shahjahanabad had his writ barely running past the Qila-e-Moalla.

The country was facing unrest and economy was in shambles. The bookseller, kakdiwala, kiteseller, darogha, tawaif, the street performer, everybody wanted Nazir to pen a Nazm for him.

Laddoo-wala, madari, eunuch, kanmeliya [one who cleans ear], tarbooz-seller, poet, conjurer, faqir and vendors are all part of the enchanting drama.

Tanvir himself wrote that he didn't want to focus on Nazir's philosophy and tasawwuf but his humanism, harmony rich insight about diversity of Indian culture and his popularity among the masses.

Nazir was a poet of Nazm and chose topics that were never touched before him. He wrote on Indian seasons, Hindu gods, colours, flowers, sweets and every such subject that was deemed un-poetic until then. 'Aadminaama' and 'Banjaranama' are classics of Urdu poetry .

Nazir also wrote Nazms like 'Mahadev ka Byaah', 'Baldev ji ka Mela' and 'Krishan Kanhaiya ka Balpan'. Sample:

...ek roz muNh meN kaanha ne maakhan jhuka diyaa
poochha Jasoda ne to vahiiN muNh banaa diyaa
muNh khol teen lok kaa aalam dikhaa diyaa
ek aan meN dikhaa diyaa phir bhulaa diyaa
aisaa thaa baansurii ke bajayyaa kaa baalpan
kyaa kyaa kahuuN maiN Krishan kanhaiyya ka baalpan.....

With folk artists like Gyarasa, a nutt, street acrobat teenager Sangeeta, two real faqirs of Ajmer Ashfaq-Ishtiaq who played iron rings and sticks while singing the nazms and artists from rural parts of the country, Tanvir staged the Agra Bazar in Okhla. It was an instant success.

The Kakdi-wala is sad that nobody is buying the cucumber. Like tarbooz-wala and laddoo-wala, he also follows suit and gets a nazm from Nazir.

The poem for the cucumber-seller:

farhaad kii nigaaheN, SheeriiN kii haNsliyaaN haiN
majnuu kii sard aaheN, laila ki ungliyaaN haiN
kyaa khuub narm-o-naazuk is Aagre ki kakDii....
....koii hai zardii-maail, koii harii bharii hai
pukhraaj munfail hai, panne ko thartharii hai
TeDhii hai so to chooDii voh Hiir ki harii hai
siidhii hai so vo, yaaro, Raanjhaa ki baansurii hai.....

The Kakdi-wala happily goes back and as he gives a call to the buyer, singing the nazm, his basket gets emptied fast.

It is an experience of lifetime to watch Agra Bazaar that became a landmark in Indian theatre. Over the years, the cast changed and there were a few modifications in the drama, but it remained one of the most popular plays ever and wherever it was staged, it drew jam-packed audiences.

The vocabulary that has now become extinct, the interesting conversations, the variety of articles at every shop like the patangbaaz naming dozens of varieties of kites--ranging from kajkulah to chamchaqa and manjhdar, the selection of artists who looked so real that the you also found yourself sent into the era, turned Agra Bazar a magical masterpiece.

Habib Ahmad Khan, who wrote poetry under the pen name Tanvir, was born in 1923 in Raipur in undivided India. He had begun his career as a journalist. He even acted in movies and was editor of various magazines. He later switched to theatre. In his long career, he achieved awards and wide acclaim.

Agra Bazar was first staged in 1954, not in an auditorium but a bazaar. The cast comprised untrained actors. He evolved himself as a playright and a director and later allowed folk artistes to speak their own tongue, Chhattisghari, rather than Hindi. It was another milestone for Tanvir.

His other famous plays include Charandas Chor and Mitti ki Gadi. By experimenting with Pandvani, a singing style which is part of temple ritual, and later the Nacha style, Tanveer emerged as a towering personality in Indian theatre by mid-70s.

Musicologist Bhaskar Chandarvakar likens Habib's music to Bhakti movement, with its commitment to humanism and social change through deep thought conveyed in a simple style. Critic and famous theatre personality Kavita Nagpal says that by avoiding adherign to people's music and rooting it in a social context, Tanvir always made a political statement.

She says that Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre is the only company in the world to stage Shakespeare, Becht, Moliere and Sanskrit classics with folk actors who can't read and write.

Shyam Benegal said that Habib Tanvir was 'unquestionably one of the greatest theatre producers, directors, actors and writers and a pioneer of Hindustani theatre.

His passing ends an entire era of Hindustani Theatre. I worked with him but never tried to make his plays into films because they were so good, it would have been a sacrilege'.

After his wife Monika died, Tanvir was feeling lonely. He is survived by a daughter Nageen. Though he has another daughter, Anna Tanvir, a lovechild born of his relationship with French theatre artist Gill. Anna is a harpist. Habib sahab had a contented life and has left deep imprints on Indian theatre.

....laakhoN hii musaafir chalte haiN, manzil pohaNchte haiN do ek
aye ahl-e-zamaana qadr karo, naayaab na hoN kamyaab haiN ham.....

Khuda Hafiz, Habib Sahab.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Jinnah in Indian Parliament

How many of us know that a Jinnah had recently entered the Indian parliament?

A few months before the Lok Sabha elections, this elderly man got entry into the Upper House of Indian Parliament--the Rajya Sabha.

The news didn't catch much attention though and just a few papers, mostly in South India, published the news about Mr AA Jinnah, who belongs to Tamil Nadu.

The Union government website doesn't have much information about the MP 'Shri AA Jinnah' though it gives his phone number and address.

Amir Ali Jinnah was candidate of Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's DMK and entered the Parliament sometime back, when a seat from Tamil Nadu fell vacant.

The elderly man, who is also a lawyer by profession, was not active in politics either. In fact, it was decades ago that he had actively participated in the movement for rights of Tamil language. Karunanidhi remembered him and sent him to Parliament.

Though there is nothing wrong if someone has a sunrname Jinnah. But it is surely interesting. Sangh Parivar sees red at the mention of the name. There are not much reasons for Indians to like him though there is also a section of Indians who are ambivalent.

MA Jinnah played a role in dividing India and though we are told that he was secular, things didn't remain the same after his death in Pakistan. Still, the surname invites extreme reactions.

Nobody knows it better than LK Advani who fell out of favour with RSS for his speech in Pakistan in which he had termed Jinnah as a secular leader.

I am sure that no other party in India, especially in North India, can think of sending a Jinnah to parliament. Only Kalaignar could do it. And it's not just AA Jinnah. In fact, two Jinnahs had fought the Lok Sabha elections from Chennai.

One of them who contested on 'Amma' Jayalalitha's ticket, lost by a narrow margin. Else we might have seen an AIADMK's Jinnah in Lok Sabha also. So how come so many Jinnahs suddenly appear?

I found that one of them was named Jinnah because he was born in pre-independene era and the father named sons after famous personalities and gave full such names like Abul Kalam Azad etc.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Should there be more Muslim ministers in cabinet?

For the last couple of days, there has been a clamour among sections of Muslim intelligentsia and Urdu press regarding the poor representation of Muslims in the cabinet.

In 'letters to editor' column of half-a-dozen odd Urdu papers published from Delhi , there are readers expressing their dissatisfaction over the lack of Muslims in cabinet. I don't agree with this demand for more Muslim faces in the ministry.

Agreed that Muslims did vote for Congress and that in the last cabinet we had several senior Muslim leaders, but I don't think it's so important to have more Muslim faces in the cabinet.

I would any day prefer a visionary minister who is able to conceive schemes for wider public interest and is able to implement them, rather than having a duffer minister who is sole qualification is that he belongs to my caste or community.

Yes, many young Muslims have been elected to the Lok Sabha. Someone complained that just like Agatha Sangma, the other young girl from Maldah, Musam Benazir Noor, could also have been given a ministry or Qaiser Jahan from Uttar Pradesh.

But shouldn't these newly elected representatives first work in their constituency? They are novices and should first go to the constituency and try to develop it, or at least, understand the constituency, the problems of the area and make efforts to bring developmental projects.

An MP who works in a constituency is more needed in this country that has a plethora of problems at every level. It will be helpful to the politician also, in the long run. We have had dozens of Muslim MPs in parliament and non-performing Ministers in the past parliaments. But till date the socialist Congress leader Rafi Ahmad Kidwai is remembered for his role as agriculture minister during the food scarcity, a crisis which he efficiently sorted out.

If someone is as efficient then it's prudent to push his case. In fact, it's mostly non-Muslim leaders and MPs who spoke and took initiatives for the overall good of the community. I would any day prefer a Pranab Mukherjee who represents the Muslim-dominated Jangipur (West Bengal) who tried to understand the problems of bidi workers and saved nearly 4.5 lakh jobs (mostly Muslims), over any other Muslim MP or minister.

And what would an ordinary citizen (or even Muslim) get if a Muslim becomes a Minister and the figures goes up from 5 to 6-7 or even 10. No riots, development for all, pro-poor policies irrespective of caste or community, justice and equality is what is needed. Not creamy ministries for a few.

Due representation as per population is a factor for every group of populace but those raising the issue should rather focus on 'representation' when it when it comes to school enrollment, jobs and opening of primary health centres in Muslim-dominated areas (where the imbalance is much more severe and needed).

Interestingly, many of the turncoats who were out of touch with reality lost. Shahid Siddiqui tried to spread the canard that Indian Muslims were against Nuclear deal. However, he lost the election from a constituency that has over 40% Muslims apart from a huge Dalit electorate, though he was fighting on BSP ticket.

There are five Muslim Ministers in the central cabinet including Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Salman Khurshid, Sultan Ahmad and E Ahamed. Three of them are seasoned politicians, two of them having served in the cabinet before. Let's see what they are going to do.

Meanwhile, my earlier post on 'Less Muslim MPs but no regrets' published on this blog a fortnight back (on May 18) has found resonance elsewhere. Telegraph published a similar story a few days later (on May 24), 'Fewer MPs, but minorities' don't mind'.