History: Lived and Imagined

Most of the time we imagine history – we carry in our mind a vision of the past that we believe to be true. Given that very few of us are actually studying history these days, or reading it for pleasure for that matter, there is little that can bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. Sometimes the gap can be very wide indeed. How can we test the truthfulness of our vision without investigating it ourselves?

I am proceeding on the basis that it is futile to suggest people read alternative accounts of history and weigh their respective claims to objectivity and truth. Rather, I am going to propose something simpler that is more within the grasp of the overwhelmed citizen of the modern age. I am going to suggest a recourse to lived history that requires nothing more than looking around oneself and noting the patterns and rhythms of ordinary life.

As a case in point I am going to pick an example of lived history that I started reading yesterday – an excerpt from the biography of Pandit Jagannathbuwa Purohit (‘Gunidas’) by Vamanrao Deshpande (Between Two Tanpuras, 1967). Pandit Jagannath (1904-1968) was a renowned musician and teacher of North Indian classical music in whose memory a ‘Gunidas Sammelan’ has been held every year for over thirty years. The point of this somewhat random account is to provide an illustration of the sort of lived history that is obscured by the all-encompassing visions of imagined history.

The depth of his knowledge and extraordinary capability can be traced to his discipleship of great teachers in his youth. This training began in his early childhood and all his teachers were Muslims. Indeed Buwa had been so much under their influence that at first sight most people would be inclined to class him as a Muslim. He really belonged to a priestly Karhada Brahmin family; but since he was ten, he kept constant company with Muslim musician-teachers and indeed considered himself fortunate to be able to serve them…  For thirty or thirty-five years of his life, he had moved in purely Muslim circles; all his friends and acquaintances were Muslim musicians. It was but natural that he should have been steeped in Muslim culture. Really speaking, he should have been called ‘Jagannath Khan,’ rather than ‘Buwa’ or ‘Pandit’.

And truly he has the bearing of someone who was born in a family of a long line of respected Muslim musicians. It might be more appropriate to say that he belongs to an aristocratic Muslim mould. His only education was in music and that too not with ordinary singers – he was taught by several singers of great renown from the age of eleven or twelve until quite recently. The teachers included Mohamed Ali Khansaheb (Sikandara Gharana), Tanras Khan’s son Umrao Khansaheb and his son Sardar Khan and nephew Shabbu Khan, Bashir Khan (Gudiyana Gharana), Ghulam Mohamed Khan (Tilwandi Gharana) and finally Vilayat Hussein Khansaheb (Agra Gharana)….

In Buwa’s youth, Hyderabad had a large number of talented artists such as the ones mentioned above except Vilayat Hussein Khan. (Buwa’s father too was apparently a music-lover. Buwa recollects his father leading him by his finger to the mehfils of these Muslim singers as a child. The father must have really been fond of music otherwise why should he, an orthodox Brahmin belonging to a priestly family, frequent Muslim houses?) One thing Buwa knew was to render personal service to the Khansahebs. He had to do everything that goes with domestic service such as running errands, washing clothes etc. and also do all the ‘bandobast’ where his masters’ predilections were concerned. Buwa had to become an expert in procuring cannabis, hashish, opium, other narcotics, toddy, liquor etc.

It is worth mentioning that the name ‘Gunidas’ (under which pen-name he composes his cheejs) was not chosen by him but by his Muslim masters. They used to say – “You are really a Gunidas – a worshipper of merit!” And the name stuck. Buwa, too, began to use it in his compositions.

In the excerpt, the author gives examples of compositions (bandish or cheej) made by pupil and guru (Vilayat Hussein Khan – Pranpiya) for each other and then narrates the following anecdote:

Another cheej of the same sort (which I cannot recall now) was sung by Buwa on the radio at Bombay when Khansaheb was ill. Khansaheb heard Buwa sing it. When Buwa called on him, Khansaheb, until then completely confined to his bed, suddenly stood up. The two met in a hearty embrace. The eyes of the guru and the disciple were filled with tears; neither was able to speak. Finally Khansaheb, unable to control himself, said, “Buwa! Even my own sons did not do what you have done for me.” With that Khansaheb once again broke into tears.

The point of the account is that this too is part of our history. Pandit Jaggannath lived in that most tumultuous period (1904 – 1968) when our imagined history tells us incredible communal hatred ruled the hearts and minds of Indians. Lived history makes us aware of a different reality that also marked human relationships during the very same years.

A number of inferences can be made from this account. First, this kind of a relationship could not have existed completely divorced from the reality of the period. Rather, it would have been a part of the tenor of the times – there must have been many more relationships of a similar nature within which this particular relationship would have thrived. Second Pandit Jagannath could not have been coerced into associating with Muslims if his father introduced him to them. Third, religion was not necessarily the only identity that defined individuals in those times. Here we have Muslims partaking of liquor and drugs and Brahmins procuring the same for them – neither the Muslims nor the Brahmins were ostracized by their respective communities for interacting with the enemy or for violating the fundamentals of their faith. Fourth, that a higher calling, that of art, made religion irrelevant to individuals even during times when, or so we are told, all of life was about nothing else but religious hatred and antagonism.

It is possible to reject all such evidence and continue to give precedence to imagined history by labeling people like Pandit Jagannath and Ustad Vilayat Khan as ‘collaborators’ or as ‘traitors’ to their respective faiths. But how many ‘collaborators’ were there, starting with Tansen, Todar Mal and Man Singh, among others? If there were so many collaborators perhaps the perception of a monolithic ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ was not what the times were really about; rather the ‘Us’ and the ‘Them’ were intertwined on every side as lived reality might suggest. We might be forcing our imagined reality against the evidence of lived reality.

What should we believe – imagined history or lived history, what we are told or what we see for ourselves? To give weight to lived history is not to deny the existence of communal conflict in India, then or now. But there is an extension to the argument that is essential to make. Just as lived history makes us realize that there is more to human relationships than religion, imagined history can make us believe that nothing matters except religion. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that most of the inhuman acts of violence that we are familiar with – police encounters, ethnic cleansings, terrorist attacks – are carried out between people who do not know each other as individuals, people who are driven by the presumed truth of their imagined histories, or are made to believe that imagined histories are the only true histories and that these imagined histories call for the settling of accounts.

It is for this reason that we have to soften the edges of these imagined histories by setting them against the reality of lived histories. It is for this reason that we have to know each other so that we may never be part, actually or vicariously, of inhuman acts against each other.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:26h, 05 October Reply

    There are anecdotes that convey the same message in Pankaj Misra’s ‘Temptations of the West’. But they are too long to put it down here. I believe that those who peddle imagined histories where a particular community that forms a significant part of civilization is cast in a negative light as if they had nothing to contribute throughout history have actually never individually and personally known anybody over an extended period of time from that community. It is the detachment from ‘Them’ that allows the demonization of ‘Them’. A personal connection will expose one to the multifaceted dimensions to the identity of a community and will not let one colour ‘Them’ with a broad brush.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:33h, 05 October Reply

    While Misra was touring Afghanistan and interviewing anti-Soviet jihadis, he comes across Faiz who is a poor Afghan and a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad. Misra is accompanied by Ishrat who is an Afghan educated in Pakistan. Ishrat was the interpreter between Misra and Faiz. At one point in the interview, Faiz laments at the invasions by foreigners into Afghanistan and adds as a rider, the inteference by Arab and Pakistani jihadis. This rattles Ishrat who tries to drive in the kafir-muslim worldview into Faiz but fails. Obviously, the poor Afghans don’t quite share the jihadis’ kafir-muslim worldview. There was a lesson in identities there which Ishrat clearly misses and Misra gets.

  • Rita
    Posted at 18:30h, 16 October Reply

    I agree with this fully having heard my father’s positive experience of inter-faith relationships through college.

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