Lost in Partition, the Sikh-Muslim connection comes alive in the tale of Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana
A descendant of the guru’s Muslim disciple speaks of the importance of the rubabi tradition in Sikhism.
The question was directed at Ghulam Hussain. I was in his home, deep within the older part of Lahore, close to the shrine of Data Darbar, the city’s patron saint."Why weren’t the Muslim rubabi protected? They held such high status in Sikhism? Why were they allowed to leave East Punjab at the time of Partition?" I asked.
Dressed in a white shalwar kameez and maroon waistcoat, a white scarf tied around his neck, the octogenarian had only recently recovered from what had become for him a recurring sickness. He had nevertheless agreed to my request for an interview.
Behind him, the walls and cupboard were adorned with symbols of the Sikh religion — a picture of a kirpan, the Golden Temple — and numerous awards he had received from Sikh organisations over the years.
Along with them were a few Islamic symbols, including a poster with a verse from the Quran. It was February of 2014 when I met Hussain. He died in April the following year, and this was possibly his last interview.
I had searched for Ghulam Hussain for a few years, having heard that he was a descendant of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s Muslim rubabi.
Bhai Mardana played an important role in the development of the Sikh religion. Not only did he accompany Guru Nanak on his travels, he also played the rubab while Nanak sang his divinely inspired poetry.
Since their time, Muslim rubabi had been given the responsibility of performing the kirtan at gurdwaras — till the tradition was abruptly disrupted during Partition.
From kirtan to qawwali
"Everyone was only concerned about their own selves at the time," Hussain recalled.
"We were Muslims, therefore we had to leave. It did not matter if we were rubabi. What mattered was our Muslim identity. That became our only identity. In fact, a couple of our rubabi even lost their lives during the riots. My father-in-law, Bhai Moti, was one of them. He used to play tabla at a gurdwara in Patiala. Another rubabi who used to perform at Guru Amardas' gurdwara at Goindwal was also killed."
He continued, "My chacha, Bhai Chand, was a rubabi at the Golden Temple. He had three houses in Amritsar, all of which were three storeys high. He was a millionaire at that time. He used to live in Bhaiyyon ki gali, named after the rubabi family. He became a pauper in Pakistan."
Elaborating on his Sikh heritage, Hussain said his family’s ancestral gurdwara was Siyachal Sahib, which lies between Lahore and Amritsar. His father was a gyani — one who leads the congregation in prayer — who also gave lectures on Sikhism.
"My father was the gadi nasheen of the rubabi seat there, which meant I would have taken over his position eventually," he added.
But Partition changed all that.
"Not only did we lose our money, we also lost our profession," Hussain said. "While we knew the [Guru] Granth by heart, we knew nothing about being Muslim, besides the kalma. The Muslims had no interest in our profession. Thus, we began doing odd jobs — selling samosa, kheer, meat."
However, Hussain soon found a second calling in qawwali, after receiving an invitation to a performance of Punjabi poet Najm Hosain Syed. The baithak was part of a weekly gathering of poets who recited and sang the works of Punjabi poets such as Bhai Gurdas, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah.
"At one of these meetings, not many years after Partition, I was invited to perform qawwali," Hussain said.
"In those early days, I struggled because my Urdu pronunciation was weak. I couldn’t even read the script, having been trained in Gurmukhi. However, I practised and gradually mastered singing in Urdu. My financial condition also began improving."
I asked him, "How similar or different are these two traditions, of kirtan and qawwali?"
He answered, "There is an old Punjabi saying — a hundred wise men sitting together will end up saying the same thing, while in a group of a hundred fools each one will say a different thing. Bulleh Shah reiterated what Nanak said. Guru Arjan’s and Sultan Bahu’s message is the same as that of Shah Hussain. Their kalam overlaps. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that Guru Nanak expounded the Quran. Thus, to answer your question, qawwali and kirtan are part of the same tradition."