In my recent post on Open Couplets, the debut novel of US-based Indian (Bengali) writer and scholar Torsa Ghosal, I discussed how a blend of Hinduism and Islam has shaped Indian culture, and especially specific areas of India. One of the earliest and most prominent figures who helped establish such a synthesis of these two different religions and ways of thinking was the poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) – he remains a major icon in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent. In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau translated by Paul Losensky (Indiana University) and Sunil Sharma (Boston University) is a good introduction to the poet.
Born Ab’ul Hasan Yamīn ud-Dīn Khusrau around the Delhi area to a father of Turkish origin and an Indian Muslim mother, Khusrau began his career when he was twenty. His origins are shrouded in mystery and over the centuries, his personality has been embellished by layers of myth and legend. We know that he was proficient in both Persian (the language of the elites of the Delhi Sultanate) and Hindavi (the vernacular in Delhi). His works were appreciated across a cosmopolitan Persianate world that stretched from Turkey to Bengal. He made important contributions to Indian classical music, Islamic mysticism (Sufism), South Asian Sufi music (qawwali) and Persian literature.
At the heart of Khusrau’s character lies a deep conflict. Biographers have found it difficult to reconcile the incompatibility between his “professional life as a courtier” and his “spiritual life as a mystic”. Poets in medieval Islamic kingdoms were often mercenary sycophants who would surrender their talents to the highest bidders. Their job was to compose panegyrics for their patrons. They were more inclined to idealism than objectivity. Within the court, they were entertainers, propagandists, advisors and friends to their rulers. It is believed that Khusrau may have moved in the direction of Sufism from the more “worldly” and not always very ethical position of a court poet after being disappointed by the political intrigues among rival factions in Delhi.
Going through the Penguin Classics collection, I found a valuable paragraph by the translators on Khusrau’s view of poetry. They write:
Khusrau placed a high epistemological–as well as artistic–value on poetry. Comparing discursive learning with poetry, he writes, “Knowledge remains veiled by the minutiae of facts, while poetry becomes well known due to the manipulation of facts.” He continues, “Poetry is higher than wisdom and wisdom lies at the bottom of poetry. A poet can be called a wise man but a wise man cannot be called a poet. Magic is considered part of rhetoric but rhetoric is not magic. Therefore, a poet can be called a magician but a magician cannot be called a poet.”
Now a ghazal by the poet:
Yearning for you, no trace of me remains. / What shall I do, for no one gets his fill / of gazing upon your beautiful cheek. All day in your street, all night at your door, / I have no goal but to look at your face. / I will now circumambulate your street / with just my eyes, for my legs are worn down / to the knees in searching for you.
By faith, will you accept that tracking down / your fidelity, I fed my blood-soaked / heart to the dogs on your street? My mind, / my reason, my senses, heart and eyes too / are devoid of any image but the image / of your face. No, I cannot rightly render / service to you short of yielding / my sweet life in yearning for you.
Which garden do you come from that your scent / is so sweet, my Rose? Your breeze enlarges / the soul, and the dead heart is brought to life. / Though you load my body, weak as a hair, / with a universe of woe, I’ll not trade / a single strand of your hair for both worlds. / What need to explain to you how I am, / now that Khusrau has become a legend / in yearning and searching for you?
Related books that you can check out: Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles by Ankit Chadha, The Book of Amir Khusrau: Selected Poetry and the Tale of the Four Dervishes translated by Paul Smith, Amir Khusrau: Life & Poems (Introduction to Sufi Poets Series) (Volume 1) also translated by Paul Smith.