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Rahim: The poet within the courtier

A two-day festival in Delhi honours the great Hindi poet and Mughal general, still remembered for his dohas.

art and culture Updated: Mar 11, 2017 10:56 IST
TCA Raghavan
Abdur Rahim Khani Khanan

Among Abdur Rahim Khan’s legacy in Delhi is the Khan i Khanan, an exquisite tomb he built for his wife in what is today Nizamuddin. It’s currently being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

The two cities most associated with the life and times of the Mughal nobleman Abdur Rahim Khan i Khanan or the Hindi poet Rahim are Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. While lifting the veil on obscure Burhanpur is still some time away in the future, Delhi is rediscovering Rahim and reviving its old memories of him.

Abdur Rahim Khan i Khanan (1556-1627) stands out in Mughal history as an outstanding general and courtier. His most cited achievements are the military victories in Gujarat, the conquest of Sindh and a long tenure as viceroy in the Deccan seeking to expand the Mughal empire further south. In court, he was the greatest of the Mughal patrons of Persian poetry. But this list of achievements is outmatched by an even greater reputation as the Hindi poet Rahim.

I, like many others, first encountered Rahim in a Hindi lesson in middle school. Rahim soon became my favourite medieval poet, and remains so, as he has for many others. This is because he is the easiest of all the medieval poets to understand and memorize. Rahim’s dohas, for which he is best known, are straightforward lessons for everyday life, touching on themes such as friendship, enmity, the crests and troughs of life, family, relationships etc. He speaks to us across centuries in a contemporary tone. This is not the voice of a recluse or a philosopher but of someone reflecting on a life of achievement and disgrace, political intrigue and cold-blooded calculation and pragmatism.

A view of the tomb where Rahim and his wife, Mah Banu, are buried, before restoration work began. (Sonu Mehta/ HT Photo )

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It was only much later that I discovered that Rahim wrote a great deal more than his dohas with their high moral and ethical overtones. He also wrote a great deal of Hindu devotional poetry and even more poems dedicated to love and erotica. While his dohas, which he wrote possibly when he was a much older man, are simple in language and construction, his sensuous poetry is not. Much of it, written when he was a young man, is crafted with an eye to literary excellence. After all, he lived in a time of great literary achievement with contemporaries such as Tulsidas, Keshav, Gung and many others. This made this period in India as significant as William Shakespeare made the 16th century in England.

. In Delhi, Rahim has left his imprint with an exquisite tomb for his wife’s grave. He himself was later buried here. We know little about Mah Banu but the tomb built in her memory is certainly exceptional. It stands not far from Humayun’s tomb. For many years it was a somewhat sad and forlorn structure. The restoration works now being undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture will soon remedy that and we can hope that, like the restored Humayun’s tomb, this too will add to the magic of Delhi’s past. This tomb says a great deal about a now lost relationship. It is after all one of the very few structures of this size built in the memory of a woman — even rarer if we exclude royal women .

Nearby was another tomb built by Abdur Rahim — a smaller one for a son- which has now disappeared. This happened in the early 1950s as the Nizamuddin colony, bursting at the seams to accommodate partition refugees, swallowed it up. Fortunately, the tomb of another son survives in Burhanpur in MP. It is a magnificent structure and easily the most prominent one of the many other buildings associated with Rahim there. But Rahim’s life, notwithstanding his many political, military and literary achievements, ended tragically. He and his family were caught up in the most destructive of all Mughal preoccupations — the succession struggle. This led to his own downfall but more tragically the execution of his son and grandsons. Rahim’s life had many happy things to it but not a happy ending.

This is a painting of Abdur Rahim Khan i Khanan, imagined as a young man, based on portraits of him as an older man. It was a gift to the writer. (Courtesy TCA Raghavan)

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Most portraits of Rahim were made late in Jahangir’s reign — when he was aging and was falling out of favour. The best amongst them are in Europe and the USA and their copyrights are jealously guarded. What did Rahim in his prime look like? A painter in Pakistan, whose name I unfortunately cannot recollect, sought to satisfy my curiosity and painted a younger Rahim after studying the paintings of the older man.

The Aga Khan Trust, to contextualize the restoration works on the Khan i Khanan’s tomb, has also organised a Rahim celebration. On 10-12th March we can see in the Habitat Centre scholarly discussion, music performances, poetry recitals and an exhibition — all centering on Rahim. The diversity of the performances from qawali to dastongoi bring out a flavor of Rahim’s own life — as a courtier, a general, and a poet of ethics, morality and devotion as also the writer of very beautiful sensuous verse. In his afterlife Rahim has thus appeared to some as an ideal exemplar of the Bhakti movement while to others as a staunchly conservative Muslim.

For me personally this is not coincidence, but a real Rahim revival. I have studied and researched him in both incarnations — the nobleman and the poet — for many years. Fortuitously my own book on Abdur Rahim Khan i Khanan and his father Bairam Khan has also only just been published. Along with their biographies I also show how views and assessments of the father- son duo changed over the 19th and 20th centuries — with nationalism, language politics, communalism and partition each playing a role. That Rahim’s celebration and revival takes place again now in the 21st century is both serendipitous and marvellous.

TCA Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan and Singapore. ‘Attendant Lords: Bariam Khan and Abdur Rahim- Poet and Courtier in Mughal India’ is his first book.

What: Celebrating Rahim Khan

When: 7.15 pm on March 10, 9.30 am to 3.30 pm on March 11 and 7.15 pm on March 12

Where: Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, Near Airforce Bal Bharati School

Nearest metro station: JLN Stadium

Entry is free