Tracing the queer elements: Life and works of Ameer Khusrow

- June 8, 2022
| By : Ali Fraz Rezvi |

Pride Month seems an apt time to recall the love of Ameer Khusrow Dehlawi, the great poet and Sufi mystic, for Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. His outpourings became an integral part of Hindustani literature and are still re-enacted during Basant Panchami

Nizamuddin Auliya and Ameer Khusrow

Man qibla raast kardam ber terf-e-kajkulaahey

(I have straightened my qibla, the direction in which one prays, in the direction of this crooked cap)

This was Ameer Khusrow’s riposte when Nizamuddin Auliya, wearing a kajkulaah (a crooked cap usually worn in those days by the Sufis and saints) pointed to people bathing in the Yamuna. They were praying in the sun’s direction. At this sight, Nizamuddin said:

Har qaum raast raahey, deeni wa qibla gaahey

(Every sect has a faith and a qibla to which they turn).

It all started when as an eight-year-old child, he accompanied his mother to the khanqaah (monastery) of a Sufi saint named Nizamuddin. While his mother went inside to take the Sufi’s blessing, the child waited at the doorstep and planned to test the Sufi’s might. For this, he composed a short poem in his heart:

Tu aan shahi ke ber aewaan-e-qasrat

Kabootar gar nasheenad baz gardad

Ghareeb-e-mustamand e ber der aamed

Be-aayad andaroon ya baaz gardad?

(A king you are, at whose palace,

Even a pigeon becomes a hawk,

A poor passerby has arrived at your gate,

Should he enter or return?)

Within a moment, there arrived one of the saint’s disciples and narrated what he was told by Hazrat Nizamuddin:

Be-aayed andaroon mard-e-haqeeqat

Ke ba ma yak nafas hamraz gardad

Agar abla buwad aan mard-e-nadaan

Az aan raahe ke aamad, baaz gardad

(Oh you the seeker of truth, come inside,

So you become a confidant of mine,

But if the person who enters is a fool,

Then he should return the way he came).

The boy without giving a second thought ran inside and sang;

Aaj rang hai ree maan! rang hai ree! morey mahboob ke ghar rang hai ree! mohe peer paayo Nejamuddin Auliya!’

(What a glow everywhere I see, Oh Mother! What a glow! I have found my love and master in Nizamuddin Auliya).

This child later became known as the father of qawwali, Tuti-e-Hind (Parrot of India) Abul Hassan Yamin ud Din ‘Khusrow’ Dehlawi. Born to a Turkish father and a native Indian mother in the mid-13th century, he grew up to be the first poet of Hindi and Urdu which he called ‘Hindawi’ – the language of Hind or India.

Along with his multiple contributions to Hindustani music, literature and history, Khusrow is considered to be the first poet to introduce queer characters in literature. On several occasions, he opts for a female voice to express love and longing for a male who is often referred as ‘Nezam’ – a connotation for Nizamuddin Auliya.

Ghar naari gawaari chahe so kahe,

Main nijam se naina laga aayi rey

(No matter what the ladies say,

I stole a glance from Nizamuddin)

Undoubtedly, Khusrow loved Hazrat Nizamuddin much more than anything in this world. It is often said that they shared the same kind of bond that existed between Maulana Rumi, another revered Sufi saint and poet Shams Tabrezi, who was Rumi’s master. Rumi in one of his ghazals states:

‘Baya janaan enayat kun tu maulana e rumi ra

Ghulaam e shams tabrezam qalandar waar mi gardam’

(Come, oh my beloved! and help Rumi,

The one who is a slave of Shams Tabrezi and roams like a crazy being)

Khusrow is seen composing:

‘Mohe apne hi rang mein rang de rangile,

Sahib mora mahboob-e-elahi!

Jo tu maange rang ki rangaayi,

Mera jauban girvi rakh le!

Sahib mora mahboob-e-elahi!’

(Dye me in your own hue, O the one with colours – Nizam,

And if you desire something in its exchange,

Pledge my youth as a mortgage, my master!)

There are several instances from Khusrow’s life when he expressed his love for Nizamuddin Auliya in ways which were unprecedented.

Nizamuddin Dargah, Photo- Ali Fraz Rezvi

Once a poor man came to Hazrat Nizamuddin at a time when nothing was left in the Khanqaah. The saint in a state of helplessness pointed to a torn pair of sandals and asked if they would be of any use. The poor man with no other choices took them and left. After a few days he met Ameer Khusrow who was returning from a successful military campaign with lots of camels, horses and wealth. When they reached closer, Khusrow jumped off his horse and exclaimed, ‘Boo-e-Sheikh mee aayed! boo-e-Sheikh mee aayed! (This is my master’s smell!).

When the whole incident was narrated by the poor man, Khusrow, in a moment, gave away all of his wealth in exchange for the saint’s torn sandals.

Another tale is from a time when Khusrow was busy with military expeditions in Bengal, when he saw a group of women dressed in yellow who were singing ‘Sakal ban phool rahi sarson’ (The mustard flowers in every field)

After a long period of time, he returned back to Delhi and found out that the saint was grief-stricken and hadn’t smiled for months. Khusrow, wrapped in a yellow saree, with a basket of yellow flowers on his head, arrived in front of Hazrat Nizamuddin, dancing and singing the same song. The saint  burst into laughter.

The tradition gets carried on. Over the years, this story became the most popular tale behind celebrations on the occasion of Basant Panchami at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin.

Khusrow has himself  expressed at several places that he was awestruck by the beauty of Nizamuddin Auliya, but there exists a very interesting instance where he dressed like a wife,  exalted by the beloved’s appearance:

‘Main to khadi thi aas lagaye,

Mehendi, kajra, maang sajaye,

Dekh suratiya apne piya ki

Haar gayi main tan man ko!’

(I waited and waited in deep longing,

With henna on my hands, flower band, and vermilion,

But, when i saw my beloved’s face,

I lost my heart and soul.)

Khusrow even composed a ghazal which is basically a conversation between him and his beloved Nizamuddin Auliya, where the first part is what Khusrow asks and the second one is what the Saint answered:

‘Guftam ke hoori ya pari, guftah ke man shah-e-butaan,

Guftam ke khusrow natawaan? Guftah parastaar e manast!’

(Damsel or angel? he asked.

Lord of idols, he answered

Who is this helpless Khusrow?

A worshipper of mine, he answered.)

At the moment of his beloved Nizamuddin’s death, Khusrow was not in Delhi. He was shocked and devastated by the news of the saint’s sudden demise. He returned to his master’s grave and sang with teary eyes:

‘Har shab manam futada ba gird-e-sara-e-tou

Har rouz aah-o-naala kunam az baraaye tou

Jana bayan babin tu shikasta dili e man,

Umr-e-guzashta ast manam aashna e tou’

Farrokh Namazi, who teaches at the William and Mary College, USA, translates these lines as:

(Every night have I fallen, around the circle of thy tavern,

Everyday do I wail and cry in the yearning of thee.

Please don’t turn your gaze from this broken heart, o beloved,

For a lifetime has been spent in getting to know thee)

Khusrow’s soul too departed within a period of six months, in the year 1325. The tradition of love he expressed so eloquently has continued to thrive beyond gender binaries.

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