No artist since Amir Khusrau has epitomised the syncretism of Indian music like AR Rahman. The contributions the maestro has made to the synthetic current of margi and desi music are staggering.

His equal poise both in the technologised milieu of new age sounds as well as the elitist music of Western academy is that rarest of rarities that eludes other classical musicians. The astounding achievements of Rahman, including two Academy Awards, Golden Globes and almost any other conceivable accolade in the musical arena sit easily on him.

Rahman’s genuine lack of airs has endeared him to fans, who are legion. The realms of classical and popular music in India are notoriously elitist. Rahman has stormed the bastions of elitism, like nobody has ever done before. 

For many in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, Rahman has been a political figure of sorts, despite being withdrawn and shy. He has never been apologetic about his spirituality or faith. ‘Religions divide, spirituality unites,’ seems to be his motto.

That he has composed not a few patriotic ditties seems to have done him no end of good in those stakes. Rahman’s belief in Islam and its spirituality has been the major identity marker, perhaps more than any other contemporary musician of global repute. This has, in some circles, earned him brickbats, for being ‘cynical’ and so on.

A.R.Rahman at the 57th FF Awards, January 2012 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The seamless nature of his music that unties northern and southern states, languages, classical and folk, urban and rural, popular and elite, young and the old, has meant that Rahman formed the musical horizon of Indic conviviality for nearly three decades.

The unfortunate hatchet that Rahman recently spoke of point towards a shrinking of this wider syncretic space, where a musician from Tamil Nadu espousing a Sufi credo can attain pan-Indian popular acclaim on such a colossal scale.

Jealousies and shenanigans in the realm of music are as old as Mozart and Salieri. Rahman’s winning back-to-back Oscar nominations was no mean feat. When his Still I Rise song for 127 Hours failed to win, a national daily egregiously proclaimed, “He did not rise.”

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Such repressed calumny is rare. This is unfortunate. Rahman as a syncretic master, moves centrifugally from an Indic classical centre towards the periphery where he explores with unsurpassed mastery the folk musical traditions that desperately need revitalisation.

The hampering of such a movement can be juxtaposed with similar negative energies unleashed in the context of another artist of national repute, Ebrahim Alkazi. 

Ebrahim Alkazi, born in Pune to Saudi-Kuwaiti parents, helmed the National School of Drama in New Delhi for over a decade. For nearly a century, he remained an effulgent presence in Indian theatre. Alkazi’s semitic credo, as the son of Arab parents, had hardly mattered then.

The rapid unravelling of harmonious conviviality has left a world bereft of innocence in its wake. Alkazi, who passed away recently, had to his credit more than fifty productions, including Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and Dharamvir Bharti’s Andha Yug.

Ebrahim Alkazi | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But a proposal to rename New Delhi’s Meghdoot Auditorium after Alkazi, who passed away in August, was met with vehement opposition. “Meghdoot auditorium ka Arab namkaran wapas lao” was the slogan. The decision soon got entangled in the bureaucratic corridors of the Sangeet-Natak Akademi. The pettiness and the bigotry were staggering, matched only by the sheer idiocy of the whole thing.

Alkazi’s syncretism was a centripetal one, where the energies of Indic theatre, from Kalidasa onwards, drew him inevitably towards its centre. There was nothing contingent about this. Centripetality of forces, as in the case of a Alkazi, was one of the modalities of syncretism in India. These energies are being thwarted at present. Indian art is impoverished by this.

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Even as the world moves towards an even more cosmopolitan outlook, imbibing influences from across the globe, Indian music and theatre are constrained by a shortness of sight that refuses to ponder beyond the obvious reality of communal political mobilisation and hatred.

The failure of the liberal intelligentsia to explore the centripetal as well as centrifugal currents in syncretism has produced an unfortunate situation where hybridity and fusion of any sort is castigated as cynical and hence, to be looked down upon.

The strategies of the liberal left intellectuals who pander to readers or reporters of The Guardian have hardly kept track of the shifts in popular taste back home. The diametrical polarisation of the Alkazi-Habib Tanveer complex, hardly helped the cause of theatre. Legendary rivalries belonged in early modern court intrigues. The contemporary world is nowhere near as forgiving or charmed.

Linda Hess, who beautifully evoked the Kabir tradition, and others of an activist bend who follow similar trajectories in music and folk theatre, casually dabbling in electoral politics in an increasingly democratising world of technology and convergence, while foregrounding the popular folk, have relegated popular taste to secondary status in their endeavours. 

The centrifugal forces of Indic syncretism in AR Rahman and the reverse manifestation of a similar current in Alkazi, find their locus in the figure of Amir Khusrau.

Khusrau perhaps is matched only by Kabir and Tagore in the gesamtkunstwerk sort of Gestalt holism that was brought into the creation of a musical community. The inside out forces – both centripetal and centrifugal – were linguistically harnessed in the musical genius of Khusrau, who composed in Persian, Arabic and Turkish, in addition to his maternal Hindavi.

Of Turkish extraction, Khusrau’s era almost coincided with a golden period of immense vitality in Indian thought and culture. Multiple languages, genres, traditions, styles and geographical specificities inspired his syncretic oeuvre. The cosmopolitanism and eclecticism of Khusrau, as a pioneering master in music, remain unparalleled in Indian history.

“A Muslim Pilgrim Learns a Lesson in Piety from a Brahman”, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi | Source: Gift of Alexander Smith Cochran, 1913, Wikimedia Commons

As an infant prodigy, Khusrau composed the Tuhfat us-Sighr, proceeded thence to mesmerise audiences with the astonishing range of his spirituality and music. The chaos and the confluence of identities seem merely to have aided his growth and flourishing.

The drab reality of present-day music scenario leaves much to be desired. Just as Stephen Greenblatt would suggest in the new historicist context of renaissance Europe and the theatre of William Shakespeare, the past is mostly about the present, so much so that it is not even past.

The Indian musical and performance traditions can be read in conjunction, in the way that someone like TM Krishna would attempt to in a puritanical and not syncretic fashion. Krishna rearticulates the monolithic classical from multiple folk locales.

But these multiple currents and forms need revitalisation that can be performed only in syncretic synthesis. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: AR Rahman (left), Amir Khusrau (centre), Ebrahim Alkazi (right)