Exploring the link between Chishtia Sufis and music

April 5, 2020

Were the Chishtia elders mere passive patrons of our musical tradition?

The Chishtia Sufis, more often than not, have been patrons of contemporary music. The principal personage among them was Nizamuddin Auliya. However, his role in creating music, its patronage and its propagation has not been explored thoroughly.

The subject has been left untouched both by Sufi chronicles and those writing the history of music in the subcontinent. He is considered to have opened his doors to all kinds of disciples, including Amir Khusro, who is usually credited with the creation of qawwali.

Amir Khusro is not only credited with starting the qawwali, but also a host of other forms, including the kheyal, qalbana, tarana, manqabat naqsh, etc besides introducing many ragas to the body of already existed ragas. Also, there are many bandishes (compositions) carrying pseudonyms like Deeni Baksh, Mehboob-i-Elahi, Nijamuddin Aulia, Nijam Key Bal Bal Jaoon, all attributed to his mentor. They are still sung or played by musicians in the length and breadth of the subcontinent and the India and Pakistani Diaspora which are now to be found in every corner of the word. He is also given the credit for the creation of the sitar and tabla and for introducing many taals and bols of the tabla, the baaj of the sitar and the complex development in the progression as inspired.

Many have since doubted that Khusro was really responsible for reinventing an entire musical system single-handedly and have questioned the oral history, particularly of the inherited/ professional musicians which has traveled down, laced with all these attributions. Many have given partial acknowledgement to his role and some have by extrapolation given him the benefit of the doubt with regard to having created/introduced many forms, instruments and ragas as well as playing techniques of these instruments.

While all this has been placed at the door of Khusro, there is a stunning silence about the role of his patron and mentor Nizamuddin Auliya. If anything, there is an apologetic slant where the Sufis’ patronage of music is taken into account. It is always with a caveat, never openly acknowledged and accepted. It is generally said, and this has been the standard narrative, that the Sufis seeing the great interest of the people of the region in music thought of making it a vehicle for the propagation of their teachings. They put the liturgical interests as being primary, and music was then commissioned to that end. There sanctuaries, hospices and shrines thus became the hotbed of musical performance, if not of its creation, and have remained that way over seven centuries.

The Muslim rulers over these centuries were also great patrons of music. The patronage also extended to families of musicians who were looked after and promoted by the institution called guniankhana. The royal court, as well as the courts in the provinces, states or rajwaras, offered their patronage. This shaped up as a pyramid with the Sultan or Badshah surveying all from its pinnacle.

The Sufis have been accused by the orthodoxy of many transgressions. One of those was offering patronage to music. There must have been a tussle between the two orders of representation of Islam and the Muslim way of life in the subcontinent. IT appears that it tended to be not only polemical, but also violent. But certain Sufi silsilas (orders) continued to promote and protect musicians and the musical expression throughout this period.

Because of these frontal attacks, there has been a kind of a reservation towards acknowledging the contribution of these Sufis in a more open manner. As there is no stated acceptance of sur and its forms, there has been a debate about its being permitted in the formal set of dos and don’ts. Given the general silence in the scriptures, the argument has been based on references, their sequencing and then interpretations. Cases have been built by theologians and other thinkers and those directly opposed to them through various ahadith (traditions) and then the practices of those respected in the quasi-religious sense.

If the Sufis, particularly the Chishtis, thought that music was essential for acceptance of their worldview, then probably their role in it could not only have been passive and only that of a patron allowing it willy-nilly. It must have been something that was fully accepted and done with conviction to serve a larger cause.

Amir Khusro is seen to be the representative figure of the Indo-Muslim culture. Everything has been attributed to him in poetry and music. He is seen to be a lone ranger responsible for offering a larger and a more humanistic expression of religious sensibility. He was aware of various strands coming together and forming a new cultural matrix that was unique to this land and not a replication of a prototype.

It is often said that the role of the arts in an overarching ideological umbrella has to be in conformity to that umbrella i.e. that the arts have to be handmaidens to that ideology or worldview. This is the justification also offered in the grudging acceptance of the role of musical expression. This is how it has escaped censure, if not the ire of theologians.

But this still begs the question whether the role of Nizamuddin Auliya was only passive and that of a patron who allowed it, even if he did not want it or was it more active and accepting of something that worked to help his cause.

If it was the latter, then there must have been greater investigation into the augmented role of music and its immense qualities as has been done in other systems and orders. Its great value addition would not let it remain just a means, but must have sprung forward at times to become an end in itself. All this must not have been lost on somebody as perceptive and wise as Nizamuddin Auliya who instituted what remains a living tradition.

Nizamuddin Auliya died on April 3, 1325.

Exploring the link between Chishtia Sufis and music