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Indian Muslim cultural heritage is indelible

Like it or not, modern Indian culture is still heavily indebted to the legacy of the Mughals and the nawabs

– Shafaat Shahbandari

Stamps of both tangible and intangible heritage of India’s prosperous Muslim reign are still vivid, despite more than two centuries of indifference, ingratitude and insolence that followed.

From language and art to cuisine and architecture, every aspect of Indian cultural landscape has strong traces of Muslim sounds, flavours and colours that continue to trickle down from an era that drew the world to India.

Like it or not, modern Indian culture is still heavily indebted to the legacy of the Mughals and the nawabs. The Persianate culture that was dominant well into the decline of the Muslim dynasties, continues to influence our customs and traditions.

Intangible heritage
Whether we call it Hindi or Hindustani, the language that is spoken by most Indians, especially in North India, took shape in the hallowed halls of the Mughal Delhi and Nawabi Lucknow.

Though, it’s been nearly two centuries since the sun set upon the fortunes of the Mughals, their cuisine is still in the ascendancy and gaining in popularity everyday. Can a party be complete without the biryani and kebabs?

Urdu may not be a particularly favoured language of our times, but no Urdu basher could be averse from the influence of its sweet melody. Despite some serious attempts at its erasure from the public consciousness, Bollywood or Hindi Cinema still has some strong strands of Urdu in its rapidly morphing personality.

The indelible Urdu legacy lies at the very heart of ‘Hindi’ cinema’s golden era, with some of the best dialogues and songs that most of us swoon over being still its biggest treasure trove.

As much as its intangible legacy, the tangible legacy of the Muslim architects still remains the biggest tourist attractions in India. Not just the Taj Mahal and the Jama Masjid of Delhi, Muslim architects have left towering symbols of aesthetic excellence in architectural marvels such as the Qutub Minar and the Charminar.

Besides Delhi, Agra and Lucknow, cities such as Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Aurangabad and Bijapur wouldn’t have existed without their Muslim patrons. Their Muslim character is hard to miss despite consistent attempts at altering their nature.

The magnificent monuments, among the greatest landmarks of the tangible human heritage, are so deeply etched on the landscape and the psyche of India, that they have become synonymous to the grandeur of the Muslim ascendancy in India.

Artisanal legacy
But, more than the glowing architecture, it is the enterprising artisanal traditions that continue to have the greatest traces of Muslim influence. Importantly, Muslims continue to preserve this legacy against all odds.

From the Pashmina Shawls and Banarasi Sarees to the Rogan Art and Bidriware, some of India’s best known handmade traditions are painstakingly preserved by Muslim artisans, maintaining a living heritage that can be traced to the patronage of the Great Mughals, the Bahamanis, the Adil Shahis, the Nizams and others.

It is no secret that the Mughals were the great patrons of art, craft and industry, with creativity, innovation and industry flourishing during their rule, making India the most prosperous country in the world.

Their generous patronage and facilitation meant artisans from different parts of the world made a beeline to India, adding new forms of craft to a landscape that was already full of life.

From muslin and brocade to diamonds and jewellery, the artisans of India produced some exquisite handmade goods that drew traders from all over the world to India.

Mughal India – World’s biggest economy

During the peak of the Mughal rule in India, when Aurangzeb Alamgir was at the helm, India accounted for 27 per cent of the world’s economy, greater than the GDP of the entire Europe combined.

Until the mid-18th century, when British started gaining greater control over some parts of the country, India was the biggest exporter of manufactured goods across the world.

Despite the unparalleled rapacity and depravity of the colonial administration that had led to the near extinction of the Indian craft traditions a century ago, Indian handicrafts survived largely through the resilience and industry of the artisans.

Though, the policy of erasure continued even after the British left India and continues till this day, Indian artisanal communities have shown remarkable resilience against the onslaught of monopoly, ruthlessly cruel economic policies and unfavourable terms and conditions.

Many craft clusters have also faced communal apathy, discrimination and prejudice.

Under such extreme conditions, it is nothing short of a miracle that ancient handmade craft traditions survive in India.

Story of Bidriware
The tale of the Bidriware, primarily practised by Muslims, is one such story of skill, struggle and survival.

Bidriware is poetry crafted in metal

Cast in an alloy of copper and zinc, with silver and gold wires or sheets inlaid or overlaid, a Bidriware artefact is so graceful in its appearance that an indulgent heart longs to feel and touch it, if not wear it!

For more than five centuries, Bidriware objects have been must have pieces of adornment among the royalties and nobilities such as Mughal emperors, Rajput kings and Nawabs of Bengal to Bahmani, Adil Shahi and Vijayanagara Sultans (yes, the Vijayanagara kings loved to call themselves sultans!).

In the pre-modern era, the Nizams of Hyderabad have been the biggest patrons of this magical craft, not only collecting the artefacts such as hookahs (sheesha), vases, vanity boxes, ewers and pitchers, but also relocating several artisans to Hyderabad.

However, despite the early 20th century migration of artisans and losing patronage, Karnataka’s northern town of Bidar continues to remain a hub of Bidriware.

With all of the kingdoms and fiefdoms gone, ancient Bidriware items along with other surviving royal antique pieces are a collector’s treasure now, gracing the leading museums across the world.

The Origin
Though, the Bidri metal craft has its origins in medieval Persia, Bidriware in its distinct Indian form blossomed in the capital of the early 15th century Bahmani Empire.

The tale of Bidriware, primarily practised by Muslims, is a story of skill, struggle and survival

The Bahmanis were renowned for their exquisite sensibilities for art and architecture, hence it is no surprise that a complex and intricate enterprise such as the Bidri metal craft originated in their royal atelier.

This, perhaps, is among the last few influences that the medieval Bahamanis continue to have on modern India.

Reinvention
Despite the spell Bidriware has on art aficionados and connoisseurs of craft, the enterprise has seen a steady decline over the last few decades, with only a few masters working their magic.

Currently, the city of Bidar has around 150 registered artisans, but only a handful of artisans in the town have the depth of knowledge and the deftness of skills required to be called a master.

MA Rauf Siddiqui is a national-award winning master craftsman who is reinventing Bidriware, catering to the modern aesthetic sensibilities

Among the few masters is the national award-winning artisan MA Rauf Siddiqui.

Even as the overall scene of the Bidriware tradition is not particularly encouraging, the Shilpi Guru-winner is quietly reinventing the traditions, ably-assisted by his young and enterprising children.

Modernising the techniques, motifs and methods, the family has several generations involved in the craft, adopting latest softwares to come up with new patterns and using social media to reach new frontiers.

However, the traditional expression of the art-form continues to find patrons, even as the newer expressions in wearable forms give the craft a new lease of life.

Empowering the community
Many Muslim communities in India sit on a huge treasure trove of craft traditions that have been part of the country’s cultural, economic and political legacy for centuries.

Many of these traditions are withering away due to multiple factors, including lack of upgrade or inability to adapt to the changing landscape, little government support and poor marketing.

With necessary attention and support we can not just preserve this precious legacy of India and Indian Muslims, but can also make hundreds of these craft clusters economically independent and sustainable.

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