I often pass a large monument on Mathura Road. It is covered by a green net. In front there are a few hoardings announcing the renovation of the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana. A few days ago, I found myself standing before a packed hall speaking about the man who rests there. Two lines from Keats poem On first looking into Chapman’s Homer came to my lips as I began. What do these lines have to do with the event? First the lines :
Then I felt like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken
The lines reflect my emotion when I opened the book, Celebrating Rahim produced by Inter Globe Foundation and Agha Khan Trust For Culture, published by Mapin Publishing. This article, however, is not a book review. It is my experience of a man who, along with Amir Khusrau, symbolises our syncretic culture, to use the overused phrase, our Ganga Jamni tehzeeb.
Who was Abdur Rahim? He was a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, patron. And also one of the nauratans of the court of emperor Akbar. He served three Mughal rulers and was regarded second in hierarchy to Akbar himself. My part was to release this volume, a task which gave me two sleepless nights. In school we had read dohe (couplets)of Rahim and Kabir; verses learnt in childhood are never forgotten.
Rahiman dhaga prem ka mat toro chatkaye/Toote pe phir na jure, jure gaanth par jaaye/Samay paaye phul hot hai samay paaye jhari jaat/Sada rahe nahin ek so, kaahe Rahim pachhtaat
His atelier (literary kaarkhana) produced Persian translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata along with Ragmala paintings. Artists, poets, craftsmen were welcomed wherever he went — Sindh, Gujarat or the Deccan. His translation of Baburnama from Chaghtay Turki to Farsi was a singular scholarly feat. Rahim was not a poet like the bhakts (religious devotees) Tulsidas, Surdas with whom he was compared. A soldier, he spent years in battlefields. Yet, he wrote poetry with equal ease in Farsi and Hindavi, the latter a combination of Braj, Avadhi and Khari Boli.
Harish Trivedi’s article “Rahim in his world and in ours” describes this wondrous sangam: “By choosing to be a poet in vernacular Hindi rather than courtly Persian Rahim, was entering a parallel cultural universe in which he became deeply immersed.” The ease of switching Persian with Hindi is evident in use of Hindavi words instead of Farsi; a few samples: Aandhi=Baad-e-tund, kela=mauz, imli=samar-e-Hind. The ease with which he switches languages shows his mastery of local speech. Maulana Shibli Nu’mani places Rahim’s Farsi poetry higher than that of Urfi’s. This sample for me is the finest expression of love.
Shumar e shauq na danista am ke ta chand ast/Jus ein qadar ke dilam sakht arzumand ast
(I do not know how to measure desire/Except my heart aches with craving)
The use of sakht arzumand ast would have made even Ghalib envious.
It was the pluralistic canvas of Akbar’s durbar which enabled Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan to be just Rahim and not only write in Hindi but commission Hindi and Sanskrit in a Persian court. The painting of Krishna holding mount Govardhan reproduced in the book was commissioned by Akbar. The one of Hanuman holding Mount Drongiri which contained the Sanjeevni plant was commissioned by Rahim.
My moment of personal pride was when I saw reproduced from his library an illuminated manuscript of poetry by my ancestor. Khwaja Abdulla Ansari, also known as Pir of heart, wrote a collection of poetry, Munaajat (supplications) which was acquired by Rahim. His note on the book says that it entered his library in 1589/90. Its flyleaf bears signatures and seals of four monarchs — Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb — indicating its journey through many libraries.
Why should we recall Rahim today? In our polarised world where Hindi and Urdu are placed respectively in Hindu and Muslim camps, Rahim disrupts the neat order by writing Barvais invoking Hindu Gods, Bighna Binasan (Ganesh), Nand Kumar (Krishna), Suraj Deb (Sun God), Girija (Shiva) and Priya Raghubir (Hanuman). His literary canon shows that in the Mughal court there was no discernible rupture between the Hindus and Muslims. Professor Namvar Singh speaks to this fact: “Rahim had attained that high ground of sensitivity where a Musalman while still a Musalman does not remain a mere Musalman nor a Hindu a mere Hindu.” His political message in the doha below speaks to the polarised worlds of Hindus and Muslims with ever hardening gaanths (knots) .
Toote sujan manaiye jo tootan sau baar/Rahiman phiri phiri poiye toote muktahaar
If a friend breaks off go plead again and again/If pearl necklace breaks don’t we thread it again and again?
In the synthesis he achieved while sitting on the pedestal in Akbar’s court, Rahim, worthy of becoming a national icon, gives a roadmap for India’s future.