Legendary Figures: Amir Khusrau and Gopal Nayak, Hindustani pioneers

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Amir Khusrau Dehlavi (1253-1325, pictured above) - variously spelt Khusro, Khusrou, Khusraw - was India’s first Muslim musicologist, and has become an iconic figure in the history of Indian culture. He made substantive contributions as a scholar, philosopher, mystic, scientist, historian, and diplomat, but his greatest contribution came via poetry, in both Farsi and Braj Bhasha (medieval literary Hindi).

Based in Delhi, he was a star pupil of the great Sufi master Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya (1238-1325), and is said to have died of grief within six months of his master’s passing. He is buried next to Nizamuddin’s tomb, the only disciple to be allowed this privilege. Khusrau is best remembered as the inventor of qawwali (a devotional Sufi style) and for his prolific output, introducing many new genres into the (then) newly-emerging North Indian classical tradition.

Khusrau’s original songs still form the core of the classical qawwali repertoire performed to this day. Its origins and development lie at the home of Nizamuddin Awliya (now a famous Sufi pilgrimmage site in Delhi) who, it is said, would not eat until he had had his daily 'fix' of music. Khusrau, in an effort to please his master, composed new songs which he then performed exclusively for the master and, at whose suggestion he eventually included a chorus.

Khusrau’s earliest qawwali forms bear a striking musical resemblance to geet govind a song style then in vogue for reciting the verses of Jayadeva, a 12th century Bhakti devotional poet. It was a period of much cross-fertilisation between Hindu and Muslim cultures with Khusrau living at a time when India (and its music) stood at a crucial – and decisive – point in history.

Muslim influence was growing in all aspects of Indian life, with a succession of Turkish sultans on the throne at Delhi. A polished and politically savvy courtier, Khusrau served no less than seven sultans of what is known as the Delhi Sultanate period, including the illustrious Allauddin Khilji (1296-1316), a major patron of the arts.

Gopal Nayak was reputedly summoned by the ruler to translate ancient Dhrupad songs, originally been sung in an austere fashion to match the rigidities of the Sanskrit language, into a more modern living language. Gopal, a native of Vrindavan (the legendary forest of Lord Krishna), translated the dhrupads into Braj, the language of Krishna, sanctifying them.

It quickly began a trend for North Indian poets to compose in Braj – a significant shift contributing to the end of Sanskrit domination in North Indian culture. Although it was basically a linguistic change, it left a peculiar – and permanent – mark on the music of North India, which became freer and more experimental, unlike its counterpart in the South which continued to retain the sanctity of the antiquated past.

Numerous anecdotes abound about Khusrau and his fellow-musician Gopal and one even goes as far as to suggest that Khusrau was, unwittingly, inspired by Gopal to invent tarana – a song form that uses only syllables instead of full words.

The story goes that Khusrau was so very clever at imitating a song perfectly on just one hearing that Gopal, when performing at the court of Khilji, took great care to garble his words to prevent Khusrau from reproducing the song (however the syllables, far from being meaningless, are actually a form of mystical code used by Sufis, based on parts of words from the Persian language combined with the mnemonic syllables of the pakhawaj drum).

Khusrau was responsible for introducing Turkish and Persian elements into the music of North India - the main distinguishing feature between North and South Indian music. But one of the difficulties of assessing Khurau’s exact impact has been that while on the one hand there are scholars who attribute almost everything to Khusrau, including the sitar, tabla, khayal, as well as many North Indian classical raags on top of qawwali and tarana.

There are others, notably in the early part of the 20th century, who tend to deny any acknowledgement of Muslim contribution to Indian music. But Khusrau was undoubtedly an Indian patriot as well a creative genius, greatly admiring of the languages, culture and music of India. He wrote: "Indian music, the fire that burns heart and soul, is superior to any other music in the world" and was fortunate enough to live at a time when such creativity could be accepted and absorbed to leave a lasting impact on India’s musical culture.


Listen to the music | Qawwali superstar Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sings a composition by Amir Khusrau.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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