The Dawn: Mar 07, 2014

A classical poet with modern mind! — Part I

Mushtaq Soofi 

It is an intriguingly interesting coincidence that the rich classical literary tradition of Punjab started with a Farid (Fariduddin Mas’ud, fondly called Baba Farid) and almost ended with another Farid (Khwaja Ghulam Farid). Both celebrated poets and mystics belonged to the famous Chishti Sufi Order which played a key role in creating spaces where the people- friendly literary, cultural and spiritual practices could strike roots and flourish from 12th to 19th century.

Khwaja Farid (1845-1901) was in fact named after Baba Farid, his distant predecessor and fiercely anti-establishment, larger than life poet/saint who, like his contemporary Saint Francis, opted to live among the poorest of the poor ‘graced with blissful poverty’.

Chachran, Khwaja Farid’s home town, was a part of the princely state of Bahawalpur that had already come under the influence of British colonialists due to the treaty signed by the ruler with the agents of East India Company. Because of the untimely death of his brother, emotionally shattered Khwaja was compelled to don the robe of the spiritual head of his Order.

Some of the significant factors that shaped his personality included he being forced by circumstances to be the custodian of a spiritual Order at a young age, his association with the ruler of princely state of Bahawalpur and the phenomenon of British colonialism. As the spiritual guide he inherited what was the best in the Chishti Order; compassion, openness and ‘inclusivism’. And this was precisely what had made the Order spiritually influential and culturally popular in the large swathes of the subcontinent. Being ‘Pir’(Guru) of the Nawab outwardly raised his social status but more importantly made his access to books easier that helped him grow intellectually. The presence of British agents in the court introduced him to a different world not known to him before. All such factors helped him develop a multi-dimensional personality we rarely find in the Punjab of 19th century which was on the cusp of transformational change.

His spiritual vision, free of constrictions of religious correctness, had a universal character defined by his acceptance of myriad mystical and religious experiences as authentic that he found in different cultures. ‘Maqabilal Majalis’ by Maulana Rukunddin that chronicled the daily activities of Khawaja, is a treasure trove for anyone interested in understanding the personality and the worldview of Khawaja Farid. “— someone asked him whether Lord Krishna and Lord Ram Chandra were saints or not? He (Khawaja) said that all the avatars and rishis were prophets of their times. They all had scriptures. -- Each one of them came to demolish evil practices. But when the Brahamans came to be excessively venerated among Hindus, they spread the notion that people could not achieve the unity with the Divine except through them. To debunk such a false belief appeared Lord Buddha on the face of the earth---,” says the chronicle. It may look incredible in today’s world of bigotry that a saintly intellectual such as Khwaja, not in a distant past, could accept the truth of religious and spiritual experiences coming from various non-Islamic traditions. He proudly owned what was the best in the sub-continental civilization. His knowledge of non-Muslim spiritual practices reinforced his belief in the universality of mystical experience.

Music posed no threat to his faith; rather it stirred his imagination and transported him to an ethereal world full of aesthetic and spiritual joy. He frequently talked of music with a view to explain its origins and the aesthetic impact. “He came to participate in the session of ‘Sama’ –. Qawaals (Singers) started with the ‘Dohra’ (four liners). “--- the verses moved him to tears. As usual he wiped his tears with his kerchief till it was fully soaked. ---- At the end musicians sang Hazrat Bulleh Shah’s lyrics; monh aai baat na rehendi a (I cannot help uttering what rises to my lips). The ‘Kafi’ (lyrics) put him again in a state of ecstasy—,” the chronicle tells us. It was not just the ‘Sama’ that touched his heart. The instrumental music too had a magical effect on him. Can you dare to listen to a Raga played on Shenai while sitting in a mosque? He did. “He together with other people performed his early evening prayer. He sat in a corner of the mosque and asked the musicians to play Raga Behag on Shenai,” reports the chronicle. Remember, between him and the musicians there were nothing but the low height boundary wall of the mosque.

The presence of all powerful British agents in the court of Nawab of Bhawalpur caused him much anguish. In one of his famous verses he exhorted the ruler to throw off the yoke of colonial masters.

‘Dismantle the English posts lead your country to prosperity yourself’.

But he had nothing to do with ignorant Mullahs who hated everything English. As a creative person he had an inquisitive mind and was keen to know what had made the alien colonialists such a formidable force. And the key to understand the secret of their power was to know their language. ‘Today he wrote on the paper the rules of Sanskrit, English and Gurumukhi (one of the scripts of Punjabi) and taught the same to his chosen disciples’ writes Maulana Rukunuddin. Another interesting small episode shows the premium he put on learning new things. “Once he looked at Barkat Ali Rubabi -- and asked him whether he had written anything? He nodded and took out of his pocket two or three pages written in English. He (Khwaja) had a look at the pages and appreciated--,” says the chronicle.

Khwaja Farid was a renaissance man. Like Karl Marx ‘nothing human was alien to him’. He loved all the things that could enrich him: poetry, music, dance, languages, human beauty, nature and meditation. He was always keen to experience the experiences; mundane and sublime alike. In his search of knowing what was knowable, he developed a distinct holistic vision of life which celebrated all the phenomena; human and Divine.

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