Roundabout: Play the rabab, Mardania, November is here
November is the season of numerous festivals. This year, the fasting act came early with women going without food from sunrise to moonrise and defying the pandemic to dance to the DJ’s music after the sacred rituals. And now all eyes are set on the festival of lights, crackers, sweets and songs to Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth to be kind enough and look the way of sparkling clean and lit homes. And the last day of this autumn month will see the celebration of Gurpurab, the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhi, Guru Nanak (1469-1534).
In recent years there has been an effort by poets, painters, fiction writers and scholars to retrieve the story of Mardana not just as Guru Nanak’s disciple but as a friend of his youth and travel companion in all of his spiritual journeys, stringing the words of love in ragas as he played the rabab. The rabab, a musical instrument, originated in Central Asia, and took its name from the Arabic word rebab (played with a bow). Together they travelled on foot far and wide capturing hearts and souls of people by spelling out as is been beautifully captured by Punjabi poet Surjit Patar in a couplet:
Rait te Babur da si, roohan te uss da raaj si
O’ ki jehrha aakhda si chherh Mardane rabab
(The sands were ruled by Babur, he ruled the souls
The one who would ask Mardana to play the rabab).
This relationship of two persons born to different faiths and different castes reposed faith in humankind free of caste, creed and religion to better the lot of the common man crushed between the oppression of the Muslim rulers and the prejudices of the Hindus. It was not in words alone but in practice. Punjabi novelist Jasbir Mand is perhaps the first writer to explore this relationship afresh, free from the oral tradition of Janamsakhis replete with myth and miracle, and review it in its historical context.
The novel, Bol Mardania (Speak out Mardania) breaks many myths, including the popular conception of Mardana as just a Mirasi musician. Mand brings out the dedication, simplicity and understanding in new light. Mardana was a friend to Guru Nanak and appreciative of his teachings which spelt out a new prejudice free path.
Amarjit Chandan, a Punjabi poet now based in London, but seeped in the spirit of Punjab, where he had his first encounter with revolutionary movements, looks at this jugalbandi of Guru Nanak and Mardana as the union of two elevated souls. Baba is the word for Guru in Punjabi and he is perhaps the first who calls Mardana a Baba too in his poem, Baba Nanak te Baba Mardana:
Baabe di baani mardana gave
Baba apna ucharea aap sune hai
Jorhi khoob suhaae baba te Mardana
Ek rabab bajaye dooja anhad baaja
(Mardana sings the words of Baba
Baba hears the words he uttered
One plays the rabab and the other
utters words of boundless truth).
Pakistani anthropologist and writer Haroon Khalid, who literally walked in the footsteps of Guru Nanak across the border, put a question to one of the descendants of Mardana, Ghulam Hussain: “Why weren’t the Muslim rababi protected? They held such high status in Sikhism? Why were they allowed to leave East Punjab at the time of Partition?” Ghulam, whose family elders had been singing and playing the rabab at Shri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, spoke thus about their migration from villages around Amritsar: “We were Muslims, therefore we had to leave. It did not matter if we were rababi. What mattered was our Muslim identity. That became our only identity. In fact, a couple of our rababi even lost their lives during the riots. My father-in-law, Bhai Moti, was one of them. He used to play the tabla at a gurdwara in Patiala. Another rababi who used to perform at Guru Amardas Gurdwara at Goindwal was also killed.”
The communal polarisation in the early 20th Century and the final death knell of a composite order representing the cultural fabric of Punjab came to an end, and with it the tradition of the rabab, replaced by the less soulful harmonium. The pain of this alienation from the very tenets of Sikhi was best expressed in a heart-wrenching poem by well-known Punjabi poet Harbhajan Singh: Mera Nanak ikalla reh gya/Bahut din beet ga’ay/Sangat ich Mardana nahi aaya! (My Nanak is all alone/Mardana is absent from Sangat for long).