‘Art is an education of the emotions and is thus an essential element in any scheme of truly national education,’ said Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was born on November 11 in 1888. He was the first minister of education, science and culture in independent India and spent 11 productive years in institutionalising all three of them. Maulana Azad was an enigmatic figure. Quite a few things about him are still not known. One of them, which he enjoyed all his life, was music.
Maulana Azad was not only a great patron of music but also an accomplished musician who played the sitar. In Ghubar-i-Khatir, a collection of his letters, written while in prison, the longest letter is on the history and art of music. His Islam did not deter him in this pursuit, where he disagreed even with his father’s perception of the faith. The letter is about aesthetics, especially music; what it means to him personally, what it meant to people in the course of history, and how India’s composite culture is reflected in her music.
While engaging with music, Azad was following a well-established Islamic tradition, which has been marginalised by certain sections during the later centuries. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote further, which is in stark contrast to the Wahabi and Talibani distortion of Islam: “I can always remain happy doing without the necessities of life, but I cannot live without music. A sweet voice is the support and prop of my life, a healing for my mental labours. Sweet music is the cure for all the ills and ailments of my body and heart.”
Rebutting all those who dub music as un-Islamic, he cited examples from Indian history where orthodox and prejudiced courtiers of Akbar like Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni were expert flute players and Abdul Salam Lahori was as well-versed in music as he was in texts like the Hidaya and Buzduvi. Azad, in this letter, tried to establish that music is not prohibited in Islam rather “music is one of God’s graces; it cannot be forbidden to man because it has been created for man.”
Soon after he joined the interim government, a few months before Independence, Maulana Azad felt that enough is not being done to promote Indian classical music on All India Radio. He shot off a letter to Sardar Patel, who was formally in charge of broadcasting, where he said: “You perhaps do not know that I have always taken keen interest in Indian classical music and at one time practised it myself. It has, therefore, been a shock to me to find that the standard of music of All India Radio broadcast is extremely poor. I have always felt that All India Radio should set the standard in Indian music and lead to its continual improvement. Instead, the present programmes have an opposite effect and lead one to suspect that the artistes are sometimes chosen not on grounds of merit.”
Azad also believed that the essence of Indian civilisation and culture has always been the spirit of assimilation and synthesis. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the field of music. We need to remember Azad for his institutionalisation of art and aesthetics in independent India as he was the founder of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Sahitya Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi as well as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, not only stood steadfast against the Partition of India, but also remained in the vanguard of espousing the cause of Indian pluralism and syncretism.
S Irfan Habib holds the Maulana Azad Chair at NUEPA, New Delhi, and is the author of Jihad or Ijtihad: Religious orthodoxy and modern science in contemporary Islam
The views expressed by the author are personal