Categories
Essay

Kabir & His Impact on Tagore

By Mozid Mahmud

Kabir. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Kabir’s life still holds importance in a society in pursuit of the one true Lord, steeped in religiosity and caste. He was born at a time when the Hindu-Muslim strife was raging across the subcontinent. Divided into various sects, Hindu society was already engaged in conflict and the arrival of the Muslims and the expansion of Islam intensified the conflict of the time. The two camps – followers of foreign and indigenous religions – could not find a way to come together. Arbitrary rituals and sacrifices were damaging their dignity and short-selling God’s glory. In such a time, Kabir was the most significant of intellectual sages who bridged gaps through his clarity of thought, unwavering devotion to the Lord, and humanist reading of all belief systems. In simple, clear and logical language he pointed out the irrationalities of men, without outright attacking any faith. His teachings were not only effective to his devotees but were helpful to adherents of other doctrines as well. One did not have to be part of his sect to receive his teachings and capture the meaning behind his words. Anyone free from the shackles of self-interest were able to accept it.

Though there is little to deny in Kabir’s words, there is much debate among the experts regarding the period of his birth and death. The historical facts contain many contradictory components as well. Evidently, one sees that there are two versions of Kabir’s life visible. One has been constructed through analysing historical data, the other through beliefs and commentary provided over the ages by his followers and devotees, though all such projection by his disciples cannot be understood in the same light. Yet it should be noted that the accuracies regarding some of Kabir’s facts of his life do not pose any doubt to his teachings and appreciation for beauty. Still, in light of the contemporary commentary, a brief biography of the poet is outlined here.

According to Kshitimohan Sen (1880-1960), a scholar and acting chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Kabir was born on 1398 in Varanasi and died on 1518 in Maghar village. While specifics are understandably hard to gather, most experts agree that he was of the time when Sikander Lodi (1458-1517) ruled over Delhi’s throne. Kabir had met the man, too. Lodi had arrived at Varanasi in 1498. Rabindranath had talked of this in his translation of Kabir’s One Hundred Poems, which was published from Macmillan. There, it is said he was born in 1440. Though Kabir’s Hindu devotees liken him as a devotee of the Vaishnava poet-saint Ramananda, it is still a matter of debate, for Ramananda was born in 1298 and most texts that refer to their connection can only be traced a hundred years after Kabir.  

In his writings, mentions of the poets Jayadeva (1170-1245) and Namdev (1270-1350) are found. Though one was active in the 12th century and the other in the 14th. Moreover, one can find references to Kabir in the works of Raydas, Garib Das, Dharma Das, Pipa and Tukaram. Some of Kabir’s verses can be found in the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib too.

There is much debate over his parentage and religion too.  However, it is taken as fact today that he was born in a Muslim family or was raised in one. It is hypothesised that he had come from a family of Muslim weavers, who had a trade in cloth. Another legend had him as the virgin son of a Brahmin woman, born through seedless conception and then he was abandoned and found floating in a basket. The fact that he was born in a Muslim family is mostly evidenced by the fact that he had an Arabic name, which meant “Great”. There is further doubt on his race and caste. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir belonged to a Yogi community, for he would refer to his father as Gosai, meaning Guru. They were principally disciples of Nath-Panthis – worshippers of Shiva. While they had accepted Islam as their religion, they continued in their old ways as of yore. But Kabir did not proclaim himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim. As a result, many surmised that he probably wanted to be known as someone from the lower caste, who remained out of these two binaries.

The issue of caste might have irked him as well. It might have had no importance to him. This reticence had led to most communities intending to co-opt him for them, constructing all sorts of imaginary relationships. A Muslim guru of the time, Sheikh Taqi, had complained to Lodi that Kabir saw himself as a deity. His low-born caste led him to a path of constant discrimination. There are accounts of this discrimination in texts. He had been humiliated for proposing the idea of a formless God. Many a time he had been tied behind his back and beaten up. Let me account some of the accounts of his torture here.

The Emperor of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, had demanded Kabir be arrested and brought to his court. When he was somehow brought over, he stood there in silence.[i] The Emperor grew angry and asked, “Why don’t your curse at the Emperor, Kaffir?”
Kabir answered, “Those who understand the other’s torment are called Pir, and those who don’t are termed Kaffirs.

When the Emperor asked him why it took him so long to get to his court, he replied that he had seen such a scene on the way that he could not but be late. A line of camels was entering a gully as narrow as a needle’s eye. The Emperor thought he was being ridiculed and grew angrier. But Kabir said, “Oh Emperor! Can you feel the distance between the heavens and the Earth? The distance between the Sun and the Moon can be filled with innumerable elephants and camels, yet we can see these stars through a drop in our eyes.” The Emperor was so moved by the statement that he let him go.[ii]

Once, after a few Brahmin priests had complained, the Emperor ordered his death by tying him to a stone and throwing him off a boat. But while the boat itself drowned, Kabir was said to have been found unharmed and floating. When they tried to burn him, the fire wouldn’t take to his skin. They even accused him of being a witch and tried getting a mad elephant to stamp on him. But the animal got scared seeing Kabir and ran away – there are numerous myths of these nature surrounding Kabir.

Kabir did not receive a formal education. He did not know how to read and write. There is no evidence of him attending a school to learn of language and philosophy. Moreover, he had barely any experience with his weaving. Many are of the opinion that the “guru” he talks about in his texts refer to God or the Creator and that he did not have any mentors. However, researchers at times hold the opinion that he was a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Taqi. It is evident he was influenced by Sufism.  He had similarities with the Persian poets Attar, Hafez, Khayyam and Rumi. Besides, he was considered a key disciple of the Hindu monotheist mystic Ramananda. Kabir hadn’t mentioned anyone directly in his texts. But through his songs, various interpretations are made by the public. Kabir’s best teacher seems to have been just life. The hypocrisy, short-sightedness, superiority regarding one’s beliefs and inconsistencies of men and society around him angered him, it made him anxious. This torment had put him to the path of sage hood. Kabir characteristically expressed his perceptions through simple and irrefutable arguments devoid of any personal animosity toward anyone.

Kabir was not an ascetic who abandoned his family to attain higher forms of consciousness. He lived with his wife and son and daughter. In his writings, he showed contempt against the sages who left their families. His wife was called Loi and his son and daughter were Kamal and Kamali. His second wife was Ramjania. According to Dr Ramkumar Verma, the second wife was possibly a prostitute. However, Kabir was not quite happy in his marriages. His devotion to his poetry and philosophy made him less attentive to the task of earning a livelihood through weaving.  Some days, his family found themselves short of food after feeding his visiting devotees. He was thin, meditative and enthusiastic, and hated to beg for alms to survive.

We know from his works that he visited many places. It is believed he had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. But it isn’t clear if he really physically visited the place or had a transcendental experience. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence of his visiting Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand. But it has been proved that he had visited many of the local pilgrimage sites around him.

Like his birth, the date of his death is cloaked in controversy. Some say he lived till the age of eighty. Others maintain that he was alive when he was 120. There’re broadly four dates that could refer to his passing. 1447, 1511, 1517, and 1518 AD.[iii] There is doubt, too, about his resting place. Some say he died in Ayodhya, some claim in Puri. The latter place is mentioned in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s book Ain-i-Akbari.

Kabir’s literature and philosophy

The divisions and discriminations of religion had a profound effect on him. The communal conflict and the blatant ownership of God deeply tormented Kabir. He realised that God did not exist for any particular religion or people. He wasn’t a single entity either, but omnipresent. His realisations were a result of the overarching philosophical conflicts of his time. The clash and assimilation of various cultures into the Indian way of living had given way to myriads of philosophies and religions in the region. Among them, the radical ones, which professed to one sect’s superiority over the other were beginning to widen separatism in society. The first of these great conflicts were between the Aryans and Non-Aryans. It took many years for the two to assimilate.

Kabir and Rabindranath

Rabindranath had a prominent role in spreading Kabir’s words in Bengal. About a hundred years ago in 1910, he had written a preface to a book of translations of Kabir’s poetry. Kabir was among the few poets whose works were preserved at Santiniketan. Kshitimohan Sen had grown up in Varanasi, among the saints there, nursing a love for Kabir from a young age. A few months before his translations had come out from Santinektan’s press, Rabindranath had published Gitanjali. It was not possible to avoid drawing comparisons, with some claiming Rabindranath was inspired by the sage’s poetry. In Prasanta Kumar Pal’s biography of Tagore, the matter is discussed at length. He had written that in the original manuscript of Gitanjali, there were poems of various poets of such ages written over. Dr. Rameshor Mishra thought they were written by Rabindranath, but Pal could not agree with him. He had maintained that Kabir had been well-known as a poet over the years. Even before Kshitimohan’s translation, it would not have been unlikely for the young poet to have been aware of Kabir. Kshitimohan himself had dwelled on the matter saying that he had introduced Kabir’s poetry to Rabindranath after reading Gitanjali and finding the similarities in the balance of tone.

Whatever the case was, the fact that Rabindranath and Kabir wrote in a similar spirit cannot be denied. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by the Persian Sufis. One could clearly see the presence of both Sufism and Vaishnavism in Gitanjali. Rabindranath’s father was a devotee of the Persian poet Hafez. Hafez impacted Rabindranath as well. He had talked about this when visiting Iran at the end of his life. “My father was an admirer of Hafez,” he had said, “I have listened to his recitations and translations many a time. It is that beauty of Iran that has entered my heart during my travels here.”[iv] Around this time, he was studying Sufi theory as well. Therefore, one cannot claim it was solely Kabir who had an influence on Tagore’s Gitanjali. But Kabir did have an effect on Rabindranath, if for a little while.

Rabindranath began to work on Gitanjali in the early 1900s. He had written to Kshitimohan around then, saying, “I have been expecting Kabir. Do not delay.” The next year he wrote back to say, “Give my respects to him.”[v] From these letters we can see that Rabindranath had a good deal of interest in reviving Kabir. In one of those letters, he had maintained, “I have told you. One should not deviate from the principle aspect. If there is ambiguity regarding the literalness, then be it. Some of it is needed, or else the poetry loses some of its meaning.

“It is better to use the next most literal word when there is no direct translation possible. Kabir uses ‘word’ to express his songs and it seems that particular word does not work in all instances. There is a historicity to ‘word’ – one thinks of a child’s first cry, the first chants of creation. It is quite simpler and more complex than a song.”

Published as part of Santiniketan’s book series, Kshitimohan wrote in the preface of his translation that without the encouragement and help of Rabindranath he would not have been able to publish a work like this, that he was quite grateful to him. Rabindranath had a hands-on approach to Kabir’s translated poetry. That this happened around the time the poet was working on Gitanjali was a thing of co-incidence. Kshitimohan himself had talked of how he had brought Kabir to the poet’s attention after hearing about Gitanjali.

However, the matter has refused to die down. In books on Kabir, there have often been calls for Rabindranath to recognise the debt of Kabir in his texts, that Tagore’s mysticism had arrived solely from Kabir, which was merely given an occidental polish to accommodate the Poet’s international audience and that Rabindranath’s fame came from a decoration of mysticism for the pleasure of Europeans. Even as one notices the ludicrousness of such claims, it is understandable that much of Rabindranath’s spiritualism is a product of Sufi mysticism. Moreover, there was always a strain of India’s old traditions that included Kalidasa and the worship of beauty. He had discovered the bauls (minstrels) when looking for folk literature in his youth. He was fascinated with Lalon. However, Kshitimohan Sen had claimed that Rabindranath was not one to be heavily influences by these mystics. “The era of Gitanjali came head-to-head with the revival of these mystics. No one is indebted to anyone here.”

But how much of Kabir was on Rabindranath’s mind? Many would go ahead and say a great deal. That he had devoted to Kabir more so than Gitanjali in this period. Perhaps the indulgence toward both texts was a united effort in the pursuit of true worship. Two events around this time are noteworthy. One is Ajit Kumar Chakravarty’s translation of Kabir under Rabindranath’s guidance and the other is his own translations of Kabir. This was when Ezra Pound, too, was interested in Kabir’s poetry. There is no doubt that it was Tagore who had got Pound into it during their discussions on mysticism. Helped by his encouragement, Pound, who had little knowledge of Hindi or Kabir, made ten translations of Kabir’s poetry with the help of Kalimohan Ghosh. They were published in the 1913 January issue of Modern Review under the title, “Certain Poems of Kabir/ Translated by Kali Mohan Ghosh and Ezra Pound/ From the edition of Mr. Kshitimohan Sen.”

Rabindranath could have had the biggest scandal in his life regarding Kabir due to Ajit Kumar’s English translation. Ajit Kumar had decided to translate about 114 poems from the 4-volume work of Kshitimohan Sen while enjoying his summer vacation in Orissa. He was helped by Pearson. Rabindranath had to face quite a lot of criticism after winning the Nobel, both at home and abroad.

In his travels to America and Britain, he had to explain the mysticism apparent in Gitanjali. Moreover, when the text was published there, many Christian preachers had taken to saying that Christ had said it way before already. That Rabindranath had written these inspired by Christ’s sayings. This was a reason why Rabindranath felt it was important for the West to be acquainted with medieval poets and mystics such as Kabir, so that the long Indian tradition of spiritualism wasn’t co-opted by the West as one of their own. He even wanted to take Kshitimohan there and get to translating some of this poetry himself. He wished to show that the sages in India were preaching these truths long before the Europeans had arrived in their shores. If there is a sliver of debt that Rabindranath should recognise it is in this context. Gitanjali is not a deviation from Indian poetry; rather it is part of the land’s grand tradition. However, Rabindranath’s own translations did not seem to have gone far enough. He relied on Ajit Kumar’s.

Before leaving for America, Rabindranath was introduced to Evelyn Underhill, a Catholic writer and pacifist. She was a great admirer of both Jesus and Indian mysticism, authoring a book on the subject in 1911 called Mysticism. Rabindranath had referred to her as quite highly educated and influential in his letters. Tagore had even told Kshitimohan that with her help it would be possible to publish Kabir’s biography and poetry from Harvard University, urging him to take all necessary equipment with him. He had told Ajit Kumar that with the help of Ms. Underhill they would polish their translations and make it worth publishing. A review of the correspondence is enough to see that this translation project would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. But that did not happen in the end. It came out as One Hundred Poems of Kabir, as translated by Rabindranath Tagore with a preface by Underhill.

Both Ajit Kumar and Kshitimohan were upset with this. How this had happened no one could know clearly. Whether it was Underhill’s doing or of Rabindranath himself, one could not know. From reading Rabindranath’s letters, it was quite evident that he had also thought the manuscript would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. He had assured him as such in more than one letters. That Underhill might cut him out bothered Ajit and Rabindranath had written to him saying, “You have misunderstood. Evelyn does not wish to take your name off the Kabir Manuscript. Secondly, it is not my wish to leave you and Kshitimohan out financially.” In another letter he had said, “I don’t know how your book would do financially. Of course, there won’t be any lack of trying, but it is better to not hope much. Be content with what they give you.” [vi]

All we have in this case are conjecture. No concrete facts. Underhill in her preface had merely thanked Ajit and Kshitimohan and nothing more.

This had sparked a bit of controversy then and Rabindranath was accused of depriving Ajit Kumar of his credit. Rabindranath’s explanations regarding this matter was that it wasn’t intentional. That he did not even know this had happened until it was too late. It was Macmillan house that did this to bring more sales to the book. Rabindranath claimed to have sent in Ajit’s name under the title, but the publishers had disregarded it. It was the West’s commercialism at play, he said.

“Getting into the literary scene here is quite difficult. One is hard-pressed to enter if they don’t possess any reputation beforehand,” he said. But whatever Tagore’s excuse was, many did not see it sympathetically. Referring to his letters to Ajit, many pointed out his growing fascination with the manuscript. In one of the letters Rabindranath had said, “I finished the Kabir book after all this while. It seems that if I had done these translations it would’ve taken me far less an effort to read them through. I’ve had to write many poems but yours does make one clap.”[vii] There is no doubt that Rabindranath got most of the credit for the Kabir book that Macmillan had published. But many found the omission of Ajit had left a bad taste. Many felt his name should have at least been part of the conversation.

Bibliography

  1. Rabindra Kokkhopothe Khitimohan Sen By Pranati Mukhopadhyay
  2. Gurudeb O Shantiniketon  By Syed Mujtaba Ali
  3. RabiJiboni By Prasanta Kumar Paul
  4. 100 poems of Kabir By Rabindranath Tagore

[i] Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History. David N. Lorenzen

[ii] The Bijak of Kabir. Kabir. Oxford University Press.

[iii] Bharatiya Madhyauge Sadhanar Dhara. Kshitimohon Sen. Pg.61

[iv] “Rabindranath Tagore’s Syncretistic Philosophy and the Persian Sufi Tradition”. Lewisohn, L

[v] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg.414

[vi] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg. 416

[vii] Rabijibani Vol. VI, Prasanta Kumar Paul, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. Pg. 370-371

Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.

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Categories
Editorial

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Art by Sohana Manzoor
‘Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?’
— Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (Translated by Radha Chakravarty, 2022, Seagull Books)

As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago. 

This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.

Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?

He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.

“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”

All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.

Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.

A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud by Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.

Translations have thrown up interesting colours this time with a Tamil story by a Sahitya Akademi winning writer, S Ramakrishnan, translated on our pages by B Chandramouli, one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi and of course a transcreation of Tagore’s songs where he sings of the meeting of horizons. A beautiful poem by eminent Balochi poet Atta Shad (1939-1997) has been translated by Fazal Baloch. We are again privileged to host an original translation of Jibananda Das(1899-1954) by Professor Fakrul Alam. We also managed to get permission to share some of Professor Alam’s fabulous translations of Jibananada Das from UPL (United Press Limited) and are starting it out by excerpting two of his poems on Banalata Sen, which were till now restricted to readership who only had access to the hardcopy. Rakibul Hasan Khan has given us an essay on these translations. An interesting essay on Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) by Rebanata Gupta and personalised tribute to the first Booker Prize winner from New Zealand, Keri Hulme (1947-2021), by Keith Lyons, who had many non-literary encounters with the sequestered author, add to the richness of our oeuvre.

Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.

Brooding on death and suicide is Candice Louisa Daquin essay. This is a topic under discussion as Switzerland might start a resort for abetting suicides. It is rather frightening that while people value life and as technology and humans work in consonance to preserve it, the rich can think of squandering away this unique process that has till now not been replicated. The other strange long literary yarn that is dark in colours is woven by Sunil Sharma as he explores the futility and self-pity experienced by retirees in their existentialist quest to find a meaning to live. It has bits of poetry too. Penny Wilkes has also introduced verses into her photographic tour of dewdrops. Candice’s vibrant poetry this time has joined that of Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Mike Smith, A Jessie Michael, Ananya Sarkar, Jay Nicholls, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Rhys Hughes and many more I leave you to unfold. Rhys Hughes has also given us a spooky piece which says ghosts might be genies — check it out. Do you agree or is he just being bizarre and funny?

Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsi narrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.

The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.  

Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.

Wish you all a lovely month.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview Review

Akbar: The Man Who was King

In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books

“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman

These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.

Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.

Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?

They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.

Akbar by Shazi Zaman in Hindi

The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.

The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’s  Jorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times.  Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.

Shazi Zaman

Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.

If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.

Why did you choose to write of Akbar?

One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.

Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?

I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.

There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?

It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.

Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?

History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.

What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ?  Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.

A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.

In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.

What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.

The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.

My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often.  Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now.  So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel.  However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.

 How did you create the character of Akbar ?

Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.

When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is  Akbarnama which was a monumental image  building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.

Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective.  I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.

Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.

Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters  Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or  were writers themselves. I closely studied them.

Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described.  Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.

In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts.  Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.

I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?

There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.

You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?

More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to  say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of  a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance. 

What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”

There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”

You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?

The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English  version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language.  A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language. 

You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?

I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.

Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?

Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.

Thank you for your time.

This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from Akbar: A Novel of History

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
A Wonderful World

What do We Need?

 “It is not enough to try to remove wants; you can never remove them completely from outside; the far greater thing is to rouse the will of the people to remove their own wants.” — Rabindranath Tagore, A History of Sriniketan by Uma Das Gupta, published by Niyogi Books.

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Does political freedom eulogised by masses ensure housing, clothing, food, love kindness, self respect and education to all the beneficiaries of a newly structured country? Centring around this theme, we bring together writing around India’s Republic Day, when the country adopted its new constitution and called itself an independent republic with its own self-defined preamble. This happened on 26th January, 1950. Here we carry writing that reflects on the then and now of the people who have lived by that constitution defined in 1950. Some of the issues had been voiced centuries ago, by Akbar, the grand Mughal, subsequently by greats like Tagore who died long before India became an independent entity and more recently by Nabendu Ghosh. These issues, ranging from the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education, health have been variously taken up among people by NGOs and writers who have come forward to voice and act to awaken the majority to make a change. Are people then better off now than they were in the past?

Past Reflections

An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History detailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj, showcasing syncretic elements in the past, where homage to power clashes with spiritual aspirations. Click here to read.

Morichika or Mirage by Tagore: An early poem of the maestro that asks the elites to infringe class divides and mingle. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read

Current Musings

For the Want of a Cloth: Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Among Our People: Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.

We Consider Faith by Dibyajyoti Sarma: A poem that takes a look at the medley that defines faith in the current world. How has it evolved from Akbar’s times? Click here to read.

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans: Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. The support often comes from beyond the border lines and from people who live through the ordeal. Click here to read.

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore: Sayantan Sur looks into environmental hazards due to shoddy garbage disposal and describes how it can be resolved. Click here to read.

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children: Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges. Click here to read.

Categories
Excerpt

Akbar: A Novel by Shazi Zaman

Title: Akbar: A Novel of History

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Now people began to hear of Badshah Salamat’s close links with the region of Braj. His visit was described in a dhrupad —

Shah Chhatrapati Akbar visits the Braj region,
Kings of the seven islands, nine regions and ten directions tremble.
Cavalry, infantry, elephants, and brave warriors,
With bows, arrows, swords and spears.
Not one blot on the clothes of Humayun’s son,
How formidable was the army of Jalaluddin Muhammad.

The region of Braj was not far from Fatehpur Sikri. It is said that Badshah Salamat, having listened to the poetry of Surdas, asked when he met him, ‘Surdas ji, God has made me powerful and all the talented people sing my praise. Why don’t you sing my praise too?’

Surdas sang the following words in reply: ‘No space in my heart.’

Badshah Salamat thought, ‘Why would he sing my praise? He would sing if he had the greed to seek something from me. He is a man of God.’

Finally, Surdas sang: ‘Seeing God is like nectar for the thirst that the eyes have.’

Badshah Salamat asked him, ‘Surdas ji, you can’t see. How do you know what this thirst is that the eyes have? How come this metaphor?’

When Surdas kept quiet, Badshah Salamat said, ‘His eyes are with God. He sees there and describes what they see.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘He should be given something but he has been initiated into Vaishnavism. He has no desire.’

People say that when Badshah Salamat heard that the Vaishnav poet Govindswami sang very well, he went out to listen to him in disguise.

Badshah Salamat was fond of travelling incognito among people. In the sixth regnal year, corresponding to about 1560–61 ce, a large group from Agra had camped outside the city on the way to the shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in Bahraich. Badshah Salamat went to their gathering incognito but some petty criminal recognized him and the word began to spread. To convince people otherwise,

Badshah Salamat rolled his eyes upwards. When people saw this they said, ‘Such eyes and expressions can’t be that of an emperor.’

As Govindswami sang the Raga Bhairav, Badshah Salamat was sure he would not be recognized. But suddenly, as he sat listening, these words escaped his lips, ‘Wah, wah!

Recognizing him, Govindswami said, ‘This raga has lost its value.’

At this Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar said, ‘I am the Emperor.’

Govindswami replied, ‘If you are the Emperor, keep to it. But this raga has lost its value because you listened to it.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘I am the ruler of one country. For him, the grandeur of three worlds is meaningless. Why would he obey my command?’

It is said that Badshah Salamat heard an artiste sing the poetry of the Vaishnav poet Kumbhandas and said, ‘Would there be anyone like him who sees God in this manner?’

The artiste replied, ‘Saheb, he lives even now!’

An excited Badshah Salamat asked for Kumbhandas’s whereabouts. The artiste replied, ‘There is a village near Shrigovardhan called Jamunawat. He lives there.’

When Badshah Salamat’s men reached the residence of Kumbhandas he was in Parasoli. Reaching Parasoli, these men said, ‘Badshah Salamat has asked for you.’

Kumbhandas said to them, ‘I am no servant to the Emperor. What do I have to do with him?’

Badshah Salamat’s men said, ‘How do we know what you have been called for? We are under orders from the Emperor to get Kumbhandas ji. Here is a palanquin and a horse. Please mount and come with us. We have to take you.’

Kumbhandas had no option. Wearing his shoes, he said, ‘Brother! I have never mounted a conveyance. I will go on my own.’ When Kumbhandas reached Sikri on foot, Badshah Salamat

said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, come. Please be seated.’

Badshah Salamat’s elegant tent had precious stones and frills. Even so Kumbhandas felt his home Braj was far better because Shrigovardhannath ji played there.

Badshah Salamat said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, you have written much poetry in praise of Vishnu. That is why we have called you here. Sing for me some poetry in praise of Vishnu.’

Kumbhandas thought, ‘The real patron of my voice is Shrigovardhandhar. But now that I cannot avoid it, I better sing something to ensure he does not ever ask for me. Let me say harsh words. If he minds, so be it.’

Kumbhandas remembered, ‘One who has been adopted by Lord Krishna is always safe. He would come to no harm even if the whole world turns against him.’

Then he recited —

Devotees have no need of Sikri.
One walks one’s shoes threadbare, God’s name forgotten,
And salutes those whose face brings no joy.
O Kumbhandas, without Lord Krishna, these are false destinations.

They say Badshah Salamat felt unhappy when he heard this but said to himself, ‘If he had any greed he would sing my praise. He is a true devotee of his Lord.’

Irritated with Badshah Salamat, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni said, ‘… Hindu infidels, who are indispensable, and of whom half the army, and country, will soon consist and as whom there is not among the Mughals or Hindustani Muslims a tribe so powerful, he could not have enough. But to other people, whatever they might ask for, he gives nothing but kicks and blows…’

When it began to be murmured in Fatehpur Sikri that Badshah Salamat had turned Hindu, Sheikh Abul Fazl was forced to respond,

‘This rumour is spread because His Majesty, being of an open mind, would meet Hindu holy men, raise the rank of Hindus and be kind to them in the interests of the welfare of the country… There were three reasons these rumours spread by evil men gained currency. First, people following different religions gathered in the darbar, and because there was something good in every faith, everybody got some bit of praise. Secondly, because of sulh-i-kul, people of various kinds got spiritual and worldy success. Third, the crooked ways of evil people of the age.’

(Excerpted from Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)

About the book

Conventional historical accounts tend to paper over seemingly minor events related to Akbar’s life, to the detriment of a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most important figures of Indian history. Shazi Zaman fills the gap with this remarkable novel rooted in history.

Akbar’s writ ran from the Hindukush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, an empire his father Humayun and grandfather Babur had only dreamed of. And his religious policy, boldly unorthodox, was as fierce a contest with the clergy, particularly Islamic, as were his military campaigns with his political opponents. Most histories give us Akbar the commander who never lost on the battlefield, and the fearlessly iconoclastic ruler. But we rarely come across the restless, questing soul who wished to reconcile a sensitive and compassionate heart to the sometimes ruthless obligations of statecraft; and the man who, in his struggle for sulh-i-kul, peace with all, could dare to treat as equal not only all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others—but all life as well—human or animal.

With a scholar’s rigour and a storyteller’s insight, Shazi Zaman, in this transcreation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, sifts through fact and many an anecdote to paint a complex yet enchanting portrait of one of the world’s great monarchs. There isn’t another book, as vast in scope and as layered, to help us fully understand the phenomenon that was Akbar: the unsparing pragmatist and benevolent ruler; the austere leader and indulgent friend; the unlettered prince and philosopher-mystic.

About the Author

Shazi Zaman started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since then worked with several media organizations. He has had a long association with the ABP News Network as a senior executive producer and as their Group Editor. He has been on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Akbar is his third novel. His earlier Hindi novels are Prem Gali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism ke Log.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life

Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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