ہلکا ہلکا سرور

نہ نماز آتی ہے مجھ کو نہ وضو آتا ہے
سجدہ کر لیتا ہوں جب سامنے تو آتا ہے

میں ازل سے بنداعشق  ہوں
مجھ زہد  کفر  کا غم  نہیں
میرے  سر  کو  ر تیرا مل گیا
مجھے اب تلاش حرم نہیں
میری بندگی ہے وہ  بندگی
جوبہ قید دیر و حرم  نہیں
مری ایک نظر تمہیں دیکھنا
بہ خدا نماز سے کم نہیں

∫∫∫

ना नमाज़ आती है मुझ को ना वज़ू आता है
सज्दा कर लेता हूँ जब सामने तू आता है

मै अजल से बन्दा-ए-इश्क हूँ
मुझे ज़ोहद-ओ-कुफ़्र का गम नहीं
मेरे सर को दर तेरा मिल गया
मुझे अब तलाश-ए-हरम नहीं
मेरी बन्दगी है वो बन्दगी
जो वकाएद-ए-दैर-ओ-हरम नहीं
मेरी इक नज़र तुम्हें देखना
ब-ख़ुदा नमाज़ से कम नहीं

∫∫∫

I do not care for prayers or rituals
But I shall fall to the floor,  forehead to dust
when you appear before me

I have been a lover since time immemorial
I do not worry about faith or sacrilege
My weary head has found your doorstep
I do not even care for heaven
My devotion is not bound to the mosque or temple
Just one sight of you, I swear,  is equal to prayer

∫∫∫

 

Nepal Valley

August 13, 1860

Begum Hazrat Mahal bowed a little towards Jung Bahadur, offered a formal Mughal aadaab.

Welcome Maharaj, to the humble milieu of Barf Bagh. Your royal visitation blesses our abode and incurs much debt upon us.

Jung Bahadur was impressed once again with the grandeur of Hazrat Mahal’s language. He bowed lower, and responded as coached by his Farsi munshi: aadaab-o-taslimat to Nawab Iftikhar un-Nisa Begum Hazrat Mahal Sahiba. It is an honor to be in the presence of one who has shown not only the British occupiers, but all the men of Hindustan what it means to be brave. I hope everything is to your liking here at Barf Bagh. If not, please send me word and I will remedy the situation immediately.

Hazrat Mahal noticed that Nana Sahab’s emeralds had already found a new home all around Jung Bahadur’s gaudy crown. They glistened in the soft light of her assembly room. She did not mind. In fact, she had long forgiven Jung Bahadur the small offense of having taken her own Awadh treasures. In its place, she was grateful for his larger kindness of opening up Nepal to her and the other rebels. It was, after all, because of Jung Bahadur that she had avoided the shame of having to bow down to the British dogs. She chose to ignore altogether his greatest offense of assisting the British during the Hindustani uprising. In the politics of survival, one has to be pragmatic and always take the long view.

Because of your lavish patronage, we are not in want of anything here, she said politely to Jung Bahadur.

lavish patronage… was she being sarcastic? Jung Bahadur flashed a suspicious look at her, straining to retain his composure. Hazrat Mahal’s large liquid eyes… accented by the confident sweeps of her arched, delicately re-shaped Mughal eyebrows and the strokes of gaajal that enhanced the curves and went a little too far towards the temples in an obvious attempt at maximizing what was already a natural advantage, before the sensual mounds of flesh that made up her eyelids took over… no, those eyes betrayed nothing.

The vixen!

Jung Bahadur continued, managing not to skip a beat: I hope Rani Kashi Bai and others of the royal Maratha entourage are also satisfied and in good health?

And here I was, hoping that you could update me on the latest news about Rani Kashi Bai, the thought flashed through Hazrat Mahal’s mind. But once again, she decided there was no point in getting the supreme ruler of Nepal riled up… especially over that sordid affair.

Yes, they are all well.

The opening niceties were beginning to drag.

This way Maharaj…

Hazrat Mahal turned, showed Jung Bahadur the way to the mehfil in the manner prescribe for polite society: lowered arm, palm flat and tilted, five fingers pointing discreetly at the floor, body bent forward slightly, but not too obsequious. Thus she led Jung Bahadur to some seating cushions at the far end of the room.

Jung Bahadur cast a sweeping glance through the room. She had transformed his dusty old palace into a grand Mughal gharaana… and in so little time… portraits in bright yellow and gold on the walls, paintings of peacocks, parrots, stylized trees. And big bold letters in the jumbled up Farsi script that had no structure or discernible order.

He settled in. Dhir Shamsher was also present, of course, but nobody had really noticed him until now. Even Hazrat Mahal had given him but a half-nod upon his entrance. Khadga Singh sat discreetly behind Dhir, the Purdey pistol lodged safely within the folds of his uniform, as relaxed as he could force himself to be while looking out for the double threat of home-grown conspirators and Hindustani rebel malcontents among the assembled crowd that might desire to harm his Maharaja.

Jung Bahadur noted the plates of fruits and nuts, the pitchers of juice laid out in front of him. The singing party was seated directly across, the central position occupied by a fat man with an exploding bushy beard and moustache. Jung Bahadur thought he did not look much like an ustad… perhaps a Mughal गाइने ? But he wore a solemn look and was quite richly dressed. To his left was a sarangi player, to his right a tabalchi, and to the far left, another man, thin and with the darkest skin of them all, without any musical instruments.

The Begum was now seated, also facing the singing party. Around her gathered the female members of her household. The male attendants, along with some representative leaders of the Nepali Muslim community, were seated a respectful distance away in a cluster. But Hazrat Mahal herself was quite scandalously close to Jung Bahadur. She offered him an elaborate hookah in black and gold, its long pipe adorned with embroidered cloth near the mouthpiece. Jung Bahadur politely demurred. The Begum took another hookah for herself, and said to Jung Bahadur in a solemn, ringing voice so all could hear:

I beg to introduce to the esteemed assemblage the Prince of Mysore, Sitara-e-Subh-e-Mashrik, artist of artists, the mashhoor Qawwal Ustad Maula Bakhsh Sahab, of the Baroda gharaana, who has graced us with his presence, despite the many hardships of traveling to our exotic mountainous locale.

Maula Bakhsh offered aadaab politely to the assembly. Obviously, the fat man had some social standing, Jung Bahadur thought, and re-calibrating his attitude returned the aadaab handsomely.

Maula Bakhsh looked to his right. Looked to his left. Nodded. The sarangi began. Hazrat Mahal did not recognize the tune but it drew her in. Lilting long motifs shimmered slowly into existence out of nothingness, but were still tentative, half-formed. Hazrat Mahal knew that they would find their full form within the unfolding words of shaayari, but for now just the music, and the sweet melancholic wait. The mood established, the sarangi wound down slowly, circling on a melody and growing increasingly quieter. Maula Bakhsh looked over, nodded. The sarangi stopped.

Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, and a deep, resonant alaap erupted from the core of his body. He started in the low scales

आ…

and looped higher with each new breath. The Begum had been swaying since the sarangi first started, and now the golden purity of the Ustad’s voice carried her forth to an ethereal level. She flew high as the Ustad surged up the scales. She swirled playfully as he came back down, always circling, always touching the right notes, before landing perfectly back on the home note.

 आ…                                      आ…
हा…   आ…   आ…
.. .आ…   हा…  

Jung Bahadur found it all rather interesting, but the thought did cross his mind: I hope there is more than just आ… and हा… in the program today. After some time the Ustad raised his hands signalling stop, which was curious because nobody else was playing or singing. Some sort of ustadi andaaz, Jung Bahadur surmised. The actual song would probably start now.

साक़ी की हर निगाह पे बल खा के पी गया…

Waah! Waah!

Jung Bahadur was surprised to hear this outburst from the usually tranquil Begum. He looked over. She was still swaying, eyes closed, a delicate frown on her face. He must have sung a good line… but Jung Bahadur had distinctly heard something about alcohol as well, which confused him. He knew the Begum was quite strict in her Musalman faith…

…लहरों से खेलता हुआ लहरा के पी गया…

Waah! Waah!

Hazrat Mahal said again as she admired the subtle play on words that was possible only in her adopted language. She took another long drag on the hookah. What shaayari. She let Maula Bakhsh’s words float through her, repeated them with fervor. With every glance from the wine-giver, I stumbled and drank. Playing with the waves I weaved. And drank. What qalaam-e-fun! What playfulness! Subhaan Allah. Subhaan Allah.

Now the backup singers were picking up the line.

लहरों ∫∫∫∫ से खेलता ∫∫∫ हुआ ∫∫∫

They played it back and forth. The first backup singer was in fact the sarangi player. He sang in short, high-pitched forays, notes darting like hummingbirds but landing, always landing back on the home note for the other singer to pick up. Through all this, his sarangi kept pace with the singing. Never faltered. Never skipped a note. The other backup singer, the one without instruments, glided like an eagle, but in low majestic notes, unhurried, in supreme command of his graceful voice, searching for widely undulating pathways that would no doubt in time lead to a glimpse of The One…

लहरों ∫∫∫∫∫
लह∫∫∫∫∫ रों∫∫∫∫

The mystical communication between Maula Bakhsh and the backup singers tugged at the crowd. Invited them to join in. All succumbed willingly.

Hazrat Mahal wondered how her guest was doing. She knew Jung Bahadur had a rudimentary knowledge of formal Farsi from his darbar munshis, and Parbatiya words were often rather similar to Hindustani… She looked over discreetly. Jung Bahadur was still paying some attention to the qawwali, but the fogs of stupor were starting to gather around him.

She leaned over, and spoke close to his ear: Maharaj, you might have noticed the mention of the wine-giver and drinking in the qawwali. I beg you to note that the song is about spiritual ecstasy, and not the drinking of alcohol, which as you know is forbidden in Islam. The wine-giver is a veiled allusion to the Almighty, The One. And to become drunk is to fall in love with The One. We use the allegory of drinking thus in Sufiyana qawwali.

Jung Bahadur smiled. Thank you for your generous explanation, Begum Sahiba. I understand.

Jung Bahadur understood, but only vaguely. Meanwhile, the qawwali had progressed:

  पास रहता है दूर रहता है
कोहि दिल मे जरूर रहता है
जब से देखा है उन कि आंखो को
हल्का हल्का सुरूर रहता है
अब अदम का वो हाल है हर कदम
मस्त रहता है चूर रहता है
ये जो हल्का हल्का…

A quick virtuosic turn of the sarangi, and the tabla came to life, also with a quick introductory flourish, and bolstered the familiar rhythm that tugged at Hazrat Mahal’s heart. The clapping now began, in perfect step with the tabla. The entire party save the Ustad clapped in unison. A crisp, dignified rhythm.

Clap…Clap…

ये जो हल्का हल्का

Clap…Clap…

Now the two backup singers added their voices … different moods different adaas all came together in one harmonious meld… syncopated by the clapping…

ये जो हल्का हल्का

Clap…Clap…

Even Jung Bahadur felt the primitive tug of the rhythm, the precision and grace of the clapping, enforced by the tabla. Almost without knowing it, he started to keep a discreet beat: two fingers of his right hand tapping on his thigh.

ये जो हल्का हल्का

Clap…Clap…

The hypnotic, repetitive waves of music were working their effect on Hazrat Mahal. She could feel the trance coming on. The clapping, a rejoicing with flesh, bone and sinew, kept the same rhythm as the beating of the human heart. A reaching out of the physical trying to emulate and to reunite with the mystical.

She started moving to the music gently, in anticipation of the rapture she knew Maula Bakhsh would deliver later on.

ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

The story had suddenly advanced. He had been accused of teaching us how to drink. The magical spell was cast. And it would only grow as the qawwali progressed.

Jung Bahadur recognized some of the words, but most were frustrating and dense to him. Like suroor. He sensed there was a fancy meaning, but he could not… he would not be able to find out. This annoyance took him back to the foreign lands of Lanka, Egypt, Malta,encountered at the beginning of his now-legendary trip across the Black Waters ten years ago. Took him back finally to London. The Opera. Laura Bell. Alien worlds with people speaking confounding languages. Despite the translators in his service then, he had encountered words that would entice and tease but were categorically denied him. It was an annoyance, but did he really care? No. Jung Bahadur had already decided that if he spent his days enjoying shaayari, a Basnyat or Shahi would have lopped his head off long ago. So he was generally happy with the way things were. But it still bothered him, like a mild toothache that would not go away. Out of habit, he looked back to check on Khadga Singh, and relaxed a bit more when he saw that his faithful bodyguard was scanning the room constantly but discreetly for signs of trouble, just as he had instructed him to.

The sarangi joined Maula Bakhsh for occasional quirky accompaniments: short, not theatrical, but full of quick, subtle musical genius. The voice flexed, the sarangi kept pace, climbed up and down the scale, seemed to anticipate the next turn of singing, pushed the boundaries of what the raag allowed, but elegantly arrived back to the center note again, just in time for Maula Bakhsh to begin the next line.

सारा जहाँ मस्त
मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

The backup singers echoed:

मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

Must. Jung Bahadur surmised that the word referred to spiritual intoxication, based on Hazrat Mahal’s earlier explanation. The constant repetition of the word by the singers made him mind wander again. Took him to the Tarai jungle. He thought of the massive drives to corner and capture male elephants in heat … must… in the other sense of the word. It would be three more months before he could return to the pleasures of the jungle again. He was in his element there, chasing wild elephants while riding his faithful Jung Prasad. Or else face to face with a tiger, trying to shoot it point blank. The flood of memories from the Tarai suddenly made Jung Bahadur wonder: What am I doing here? A weariness dragged him down. He wanted to run away from this pretentious Mughal event. Away from the constant grating burden of his artificial royalty. Away from the oppression of this godforsaken valley. He missed the simple humility of the Tharu villagers, the smells of the jungle, the naked joys of hunting. The incessant conflict in Jung Bahadur between his comfortable opulence and his raw jangey character riled up in his memory the fated words of his father…

…gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

He clenched his teeth to drive the words out of his head.

सारा जहाँ मस्त जहाँ का निज़ाम मस्त
दिन मस्त रात मस्त सहर मस्त शाम मस्त
खुम मस्त शीशा मस्त सबु मस्त जाम मस्त
है तेरी चश्म-ए-मस्त से है ख़ास-ओ-आम मस्त

यूँ तो साक़ी हर तरह की तेरे मयख़ाने मे है
वो भी थोड़ी सी जो इन आँखो के पैमाने मे है
सब समझता हुं तेरी इश्वागरी ऐ साक़ी
काम करती है नज़र नाम है पैमाने का
तेरी बहकी बहकी निगाह ने मुझे इक शराबी बना दिया

Hazrat Mahal marvelled at the subtle ways Maula Bakhsh pushed the boundaries, using the very profane to describe the sacred. Marvelled at the grace of the words and the notes, so that he would always be immediately forgiven. Marvelled also at the implicit summons in the profane words to rise up and think of a higher meaning. Indeed, You have many wines in your tavern: Yeshu. Krishna. Muhammad. Guru Nanak. But Maula Bakhsh wanted to drink directly from the eyes of The One. What impudence! What devotion! Subhaan Allah.

Meanwhile, in celebration of the verbal fireworks that had just erupted, the tabla picked up speed, kept a driving hypnotic beat, and echoed the clapping, so that the rhythm playfully bounced around between the tabla and the clappers. It was the two-beat dhuk dhuk of a racing heart: the first beat came from the tabla, the second from the clapping.

है यूँ तो साक़ी

Maula Bakhsh began again. Hazrat Mahal saw that the entire party was ready to go along for another repetition of the majestic couplet just introduced.

यूँ तो साक़ी…

The Ustad repeated. Hark! He was lingering. Something was being cooked up here. The sarangi player looked over, read the Ustad’s face, and slowed the sarangi considerably. The clappers kept up the rhythm, but much subdued. They were all waiting for direction…

मेरे साक़ी…

The sarangi meandered, the soft claps anticipated… Maula Bakhsh had not made up his mind. Hazrat Mahal frowned, the pleasant torture was becoming unbearable…she even set her hookah pipe down…

…and then the release: voices, claps, tabla sarangi all unleashed in their full fury:

मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

Jung Bahadur noticed that some men seated behind Hazrat Mahal had gotten up and were weaving and spinning to the now insistent, frantic music. They looked like servants and lower-class guests of the Begum. But they appeared unburdened in their dance, keeping step with the clapping and the chorus of saaqi saaqi from the backup singers without any regard for the fact that their Begum, along with the supreme master of the host country, were sitting three steps away. Two women now got up and joined them. Jung Bahadur shifted his gaze to the Begum, trying to determine whether all these breaches of decorum were acceptable. But the Begum was lilting to the incessant repetitions of saaqi saaqi herself. Jung Bahadur looked around the room: no signs of alcohol, of course. This was the same kind of behaviour he had seen among the ascetics who flocked to Pashupati during Shivaratri. And also in the shamans he met back in Jumla and Dhankuta while growing up. Various modes of spiritual possession he never really understood, but respected from a distance.

तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए…

If your beauty were to be unwrapped from its veil…Hazrat Mahal wondered how the Ustad was going to turn this new, obviously profane line around…

तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए
हर एक चेहरा ख़ुदा कि किताब हो जाए
शराबियों को अक़ीदत है इस क़दर तुम से
जो तुम पिला दो तो पानी शराब हो जाए

Hazrat Mahal no longer parsed the words, did not tease apart the meaning. She just opened up and let the words, the rhythm flow through her. Like water. Like wine.

The harmony that enveloped the cosmos reverberated through her soul, carried forth in the voices of the entire bazm-e-qawwali.

मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

Amidst the swaying and dancing, Jung Bahadur noticed one of the men in the Begum’s party stand and approach the Ustad. It was in fact one of the pesky Kashmiri merchants from Indra Chok whom he had to deal with occasionally. The qawwal party played on, but in a suspended manner, to accommodate the merchant interruption. They did not seem to be bothered about it. The merchant lingered in front of the Ustad, brought out a leather pouch, grabbed a fistful of silver coins – probably athannis – and laid them one at a time on the carpet in front of the Ustad:

One in the name of Begum Sahiba, One in the name of us Kashmiri Merchants, One for Nepal, and One for Hindustan!

Waah! Waah! Waah! Erupted from all corners of the room. The Ustad was pleased, and offered a respectful aadaab to the merchant. The Begum smiled approvingly.

Well played, Jung Bahadur thought, eyeing the Kashmiri merchant suspiciously.

The qawwali picked up again.

मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
लहरा के झूम…

Bakhsh Sahab said suddenly. He paused, grabbed a towel to wipe off the sweat that had started to collect rather profusely on his face and neck. The worldly side-effects of focused devotion. The two backup singers sensed a small opening in the silence. They filled it immediately with a detour.

झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

Bakhsh Sahab had not anticipated this new direction, but he liked it. He indicated Continue with a motion of his hands. As he watched intensely in silence, yet in supreme command of the ever-evolving structure of the qawwali, the detour slowly blossomed into a new ecstatic motif, its end catching its gossamer beginning subtly, but catching it, and looping back, circling again and again, until there was no beginning and no end. A dizzying concoction that entranced all. Certainly a fitting tribute to the word jhoom itself. But in the end, as always with qawwali, a spinning whirling dervish in praise of The One.

Hazrat Mahal closed her eyes again… Lehera ke jhoom… The new words made her recall her youth amidst the squalor of Lakhnau, before she became Wajid Ali’s courtesan, and long before she became his wife. I used to sing a song that started with the same words. But that old song was a hollow scaffold of dead conventions steeped in the morbidity of the tawaif-khaana, my sole purpose to sing five… six sessions a day to impotent Lakhnau nawabs with lost souls among stifling alleys and rundown shacks spittled everywhere with paan and the crushed spirits of little girls from the hills and plains of Nepal and Hindustan…

… And here was Bakhsh Sahab, taking us closer to The One, in hypnotic circles and repetitions that wilfully drew you in. Hazrat Mahal returned from her painful past to the ecstatic present, and smiled at the aesthetic genius of Maula Bakhsh, who had stolen the initial words of her sordid song and fused it elegantly into his spiritual lament.

So Hazrat Mahal jhoomed, surrendered and was subsumed into the divine blend of voice, clapping, sarangi and tabla.

झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

Jung Bahadur munched on the dates and cashews in front of him, and absentmindedly looked around the room. As he had cursorily noted upon arrival, the Begum had decorated the walls with elegant portraits in green and gold of men holding roses or spears… very similar to his own portrait by Bhajuman… over here some handsome swords with embossed Farsi letters… elaborate plates, blue and red and drenched in yellow… He liked the artwork, although sometimes it was too gaudy and cluttered. But it was again the complicated script of the text mixed in everywhere… vague scribbles that seemed not to follow any rules… that were completely, eternally hidden to him.

Jung Bahadur noticed that the Begum was looking straight at him. He quickly collected himself, and directed his attention to the qawwali again. Good God, they are still stuck on the jhoom jhoom! So the old drunk with devotion routine had not ended. Forcing a smile, he bowed towards the Begum and mouthed silently: Waah! Waah!

Hazrat Mahal returned the bow. She was not fooled.

In the meantime, Maula Bakhsh had rattled off the next line, taking even his singing party by surprise:

लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला…

He is singing my song! Hazrat Mahal realized in a flash as she heard the first full line of the couplet. This style of injecting a separate song into the middle of a qawwali performance was new to Hazrat Mahal, but she settled in to discover where Maula Bakhsh would take the song, her old dead song, now a divine mystery again, an unopened book. She closed her eyes, and readied herself for an extended, nourishing detour.

लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला
फूलों के रस मे चाँद की किरणे मिला के ला
क्यूँ जा रही है रूठ के रंगीन ये बहार
जा इक मर्तबा इसे फिर वर्ग़ला के ला
कहते है उम्र्-ए-रफ़्तार कभी लौटती नहीं
जा मैकदे से मेरी जवानी उठा के ला

Then back to the original refrain, the original harbinger of rapture:

मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur was trying very hard to suppress a yawn. He grit his teeth, pursed his lips, but unfortunately the tedium of the afternoon was too much for him. He inadvertently yawned with his mouth wide open. Tears of lethargy welled up in his eyes.

As spontaneously as it had started, Maula Bakhsh decided to end the detour by raising his hands emphatically: STOP!

The qawwal party was in suspended animation. The sarangi lingered softly again, waiting for the next musical hook. The clapping was subdued in anticipation, as before. Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, frowned in concentration as he mapped out the next trajectory of the qawwali. Having resolved on a course, he launched another verbal assault:

तेरा नाम लूँ…

The backup singers recognized the path ahead and quickly picked it up. The sarangi player enacted his mercurial vocal magic in the high notes again:

तेरा∫∫∫∫ ना∫∫म लूँ ∫∫∫∫

The other singer cut in, descended deep in resonance, majestic, slow-moving. But the transition did not jar. The first singer trailed off, yielded the stage gracefully, no ego, now only extending the melody on his sarangi. In fact, as the eagle sailed low in the eternal landscape of raag and alaap, the sarangi player occasionally joined in to bolster the verbal transitions, and supplemented the melody. The gliding eagle moved through vast landscapes in the lower notes. The hummingbird made quirky forays into the sky. A quick somersault here, a rapid saragama ascent there, before diving down to meet the other voice, and together continuing the saga, a flowing river of many currents now very near its destination. What coordination. What divine mirth.

This collective offering to The One caused the physical world to recede for Hazrat Mahal and many others in the audience. Only pure musical notes remained. They left Jung Bahadur and his party behind and wafted gently into the cocoon of the qawwali, into the present, conscious of the here and now, savouring the music note by note. Time stopped flowing.

तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫
तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫

Hazrat Mahal floats through the gossamer web of qawwali thus spun, and allows it to lift her up tumbling swaying spinning in abandon. In her around her she sees the same patterns as in the loops of qawwali… the swirls of pine cones fondly picked up on the लेख high above her childhood village of Kavre… the intricate mandals she had encountered within the mysterious smells of Patan alleys… the dazzling muraqqas of Lakhnau depicting the sun resplendent in its manifold brilliance… the sensuous unfurled petals of a lotus. All idealized circles that twirl, that seem to record the passage of this मिथ्या called time and yet, in their symmetries, remain the same at each instance: timeless, motionless, perfect. Circles that gently proclaim through their unmoving centers: in many there is One. Circles that whisper of the Eternal Uncreate, where there is also no space no time only love.

Was that a glimpse of The One?

Maula Bakhsh is silent while all this transpires. Now he joins in, on the off-beat, with the hypnotic repetition:

तेरा नाम, नाम, नाम, नाम, तेरा नाम

…But something is wrong. The rhythm seems to be off by a half-beat… Hazrat Mahal feels this in her soul. It is out of phase like a carriage pulled by two horses in misstep. The strain builds, almost pulls Hazrat Mahal out of the conscious present that she has just entered. She opens her eyes. Is the qawwali lapsing into chaos? But the tabla and sarangi players and clappers are undaunted and carry on with their original beat, themselves deeply mesmerized. But after a few moments, Maula Bakhsh, still singing teraa naam in a loop, begins to register his off-rhythm with the clapping of his own hands. His beat clashes starkly with the rhythm of the tabla and the clappers, and confirms Hazrat Mahal’s suspicion: he is off. But suddenly, in one virtuosic turn, Maula Bakhsh executes a double-clap, stops singing for a half beat, and effortlessly brings the singing and the clapping back into synchrony again. So this was all intentional: that wobbling rhythm, the introduced strain: a masterful revolt, a pretension of breaking away from order before the eventual succumbing to the rhythm of nature, a reunion with the humming of the universe, registered and kept time to by the beating of each human heart, fragile, ephemeral, but also eternal because it is the same dhuk-dhuk pulse of the entire universe.

The subtle shades of meaning, the magical powers hidden in a mere couplet of delicately arranged لفظو … all this only possible in Urdu, her dear, adopted language. The words flowing out like graceful sculptures in marble – supple yet strong – from the Ustad’s mouth, but really originating in the depths of his soul, the very core of his consciousness, which, of course, was the same core within herself now accepting the rapture. Hazrat Mahal is fully intoxicated. Water has indeed become wine.

तेरा नाम लूँ ज़बाँ से तेरे आगे सर झुका लूँ
मेरा इश्क कह रहा है मै तुझे ख़ुदा बना लूँ

Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur, very much ensnared in the tentacles of space and time, was finished with the mehfil. Only the knowledge that it was extremely impolite to leave in the middle of a qawwali had kept him seated. But… what was this… He noticed the Ustad motion with his hands: wind it down. The clapping and the music became subdued. All eyes were again on the Ustad, probably anticipating some sort of finale. Jung Bahadur was relieved: his agony would be over soon. He forced himself to pay attention. The Farsi in the next few lines was easy, which helped. The words seemed to be those of a spurned lover. Jung Bahadur wondered whether the lover was in fact a stand-in for a spiritual devotee. He was picking up on this thing.

मेरे बाद किस को सताओगे
मुझे किस तरह से मिटाओगे
कहाँ जा के तीर चलाओगे
मेरी दोस्ती की बलाँए दो
मुझे हाथ उठा कर दुआए दो
तुम्हे इक क़ातिल बना दिया

क्याबात!
Despite himself, Jung Bahadur yelled out in enthusiasm. He also seemed to have leaped up a little from his cushion. The song had made a culprit out of god, for having seduced us mortals! Jung Bahadur was impressed with the stark boldness of the words. He had never heard anything quite like this before.

Hazrat Mahal turned gracefully toward Jung Bahadur, bowed low. She was genuinely pleased that at least some of the magic of sufiyana qawwali was rubbing off on Jung Bahadur. She took another satisfying draw from the hookah, and ruminated on the final devastating lines from Maula Bakhsh. What audacity! She was grateful and proud of the fact that this sort of playful language was allowed in the Sufi tradition. She was grateful too of Maula Bakhsh sahab for having executed this sustained offering of devotion so superbly.

Jung Bahadur regained his composure. The sudden rush of understanding had still not left him. His heart opened up. He offered a dignified Waah! Waah! Waah! to the Ustad.

The Ustad offered an aadaab, and in his supremely confident style, landed the large qawwali ship deftly into the docks with a slow, majestic finale.

ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

Jung Bahadur briskly collected himself together and stood up. Hazrat Mahal could see that Jung Bahadur was strained and fatigued, despite his recent outburst of enthusiasm. He did sit through three ghadi of singing, she thought not unkindly. As a final peace offering, she addressed him in high Urdu:

हम तो सूफ़ियाना अंदाज़ कि पैरवी करते हैं
सूफ़ियाना चिश्ती ख़यालात मे इस्लाम जैन इसायत और हिन्दू धर्म
हर एक मज़हब कि इज़्ज़त रहति है
पैरव-ए-मस्लक-ए-तस्लीम-ओ-चिश्ती मे एक हि खुदा कि इबादत होति है

As before, Jung Bahadur did not understand all of this. But he understood enough. And his newly acquired British sensibilities dictated that he smile politely and offer gratitude for the entertainment and hospitality.

You have expressed yourself elegantly, as always, Begum Sahiba. On behalf of myself, my brother, my entourage and my entire country, I thank you for inviting me to this magical mehfil.

∫∫∫

Jung Bahadur decided to take the shorter south gate route back to his palace, along the banks of the Bagmati. The sun was setting behind Chandragiri. The sky was turning pink. Jung Bahadur walked briskly as usual. Dhir Shamsher followed his older brother with light steps: the qawwali had also suited him quite well. Khadga Singh scrambled up to Jung Bahadur, and asked politely: They say the Begum is actually a Parbatya, Maharaj. Do you think that is true?

Shut up! Jung Bahadur said quickly but quietly. The nawabi opulence of Barf Bagh lingered on around him. Truth be told, he was feeling positively Mughal inside.

The emerald grapes hanging in a row from his crown danced merrily as he walked. His mind wandered back to the day he had seized these treasures from Nana Sahab. The Shiromani emerald was quite a catch! The thought should have brought him pleasure, but it brought him mild annoyance instead. Now his always restless mind jumped to his secret trysts with Kashi Bai… inside one of the very houses he had just passed by. Now he thought of his uncle, murdered in cold blood under orders of the Darbar by… himself. And finally, inevitably… the Night at the Kot. Suddenly all the deeds that had paved the way to his becoming Sri 3 Maharaj came flooding back. With them came the words of his father that had haunted him all his life:

…gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

He looked up in exasperation. The sky was now blood red, the ominous colour that enveloped this confounding valley on most autumn days before the onset of complete, total darkness. From his vantage point on the good side of the Bagmati, he could see naked children from Patan playing along the other bank, shamelessly exposing their bare, sunken ribs. He also saw Jyapus trudging back from the fields, their bone-eroding weariness palpable even from afar. Jung Bahadur walked faster. His perpetual scowl returned. The baubles of emerald on his crown jangled more awkwardly, hit him on his forehead with an annoying pitter patter.

Jung Bahadur was now completely free of his transient Mughal pretensions. He scurried towards the darbar and blurted out to Khadga Singh:

हैन, त्यो पर्वत्या नै हो, बुझिस् खड्गे ?

∫∫∫

Dedicated to Anup Pahari for introducing the author to the magic of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan amidst the autumn leaves of Lancaster, PA twenty three years ago.

Select lines from Ye Jo Halka Halka Suroor, Qawwali performance by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Amalgamated lyrics by various artists: Jigar Moradabadi, Abdul Hamid Adam, and others.
Photo I: Detail from the Shah Jahan Album, Rosetta Bearing the Names and Titles of Shah Jahan, India, ca. 1645, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, cat. 250A.
Photo II: Details from Padshahnama plate 10 : Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies (8 March 1628), by the artist Bichitr, Royal Collection Trust, UK.
Photo III: Upper right: Shamseh, Unknown artist, First half of 17th century, Golestan Palace, Iran. Lower Right: Mandal of Manjushri Dharmadhatu Vagishvara, The Rubin Museum of Art. F1996.15.2 (HAR 455). Other Photos: © Author.

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