Biya! Biya! Ke tuyi jan-e-jan-e-jan-e-sama’
Biya ke sarv-e-ravani be bostan-e-sama’
Sama’ shukr-e-tu guyad be sad zaban-e-fasih
Yeki-do nuqta beguyam man az zaban-e-sama’

Come, come! For you are the soul of the soul of the soul of sama’
Come for you are the flowing cypress of the orchard of sama’
Sama’ thanks you in a hundred eloquent tongues
Let me say one or two things in the language of sama’

— Maulana Rumi in Diwan-e-Shams Tabrizi

Ninety years ago, a pensioner named Syed Noorul Hasan published an anthology of Persian verse titled Naghmat-us-Sama’ (Songs for Listening). A dense book running almost 500 pages, it contained more than 700 meticulously curated Persian poems that he had heard performed at shrines across North India as well as collected from other sources.

Naghmat-us-Sama’ is dedicated to the memory of a 13th century Sufi, Hazrat Alauddin Sabir Kalyari, a visit to whose shrine at Piran Kaliyar, Uttarakhand, lead to a personal mystic epiphany and inspired Hasan to produce the anthology.

Sama’, a complicated term derived from Arabic, literally means “listening, or hearing”. But is used in a broader context to refer to many forms of ceremonial or religious performance and song, as well as the mental state of ecstasy that this induces in listeners.

Noorul Hasan’s 1935 anthology is an eclectic mix of various forms – ghazal predominantly, but also several other poetic genres, clubbed together with the umbrella term naghma (songs). They were selected somewhat arbitrarily for their musicality, popularity and because they were frequently performed at shrines across North India.

The book contains an extensive, somewhat ponderous, essay on the etiquette governing such musical performance and their permissibility in Islam. It makes no claims to comprehensiveness, accuracy or even credible attribution.

Noorul Hasan’s preface with great candour admits that he collected whatever he could, as he heard it performed, and as shared by scholars such as “Maikash” Akbarabadi. In fact, he even goes on to admit that for several lyrics, he was unable to gather more than three or four verses or find any details about the poets.

The shrine of Alauddin Sabir Kaliyar at Piran Kaliyar near Roorkee in Uttarkhand. Credit: कृष्ण कान्त शर्मा, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hasan’s request to readers

The book begins with a Guzarish (request) to his readers, which contains an elaborate lament about the state of Persian in India. He begins:

Kulla yawmin huwa fi shan (‘Every day God shines forth in new splendor’, Quran 55:29), the times have changed, the people of our time have changed, the tastes of poetry have changed. Now there are no longer those mashaikh (saintly ones) nor those patrons, arbab-e-haal (connoisseurs), nor those singers, nor those listeners, but because, in this world nobody is free from the fragrance of the divine, so recognising those remaining sacred souls and recognising the obvious from a long time, I had intended to put together a collection of those ‘urfa (gnostics) and ahl-e-haal (people blessed with mystic experience)’s Persian writings, and organise those that are complete in spirituality and whose every word is a lightning like fiery story of gnosis and love whose sound resonates with the songs of the Divine, and matches their song...”

The Guzarish reflected the reality of his time – a loss of interest and understanding in Persian – one that has only worsened since his compilation. As the ethnomusicologist Regula Qureshi points out, Persian, once the pre-eminent language of sama’, a marker of audience sophistication, and language of high status, had even before the 1970s increasingly fallen out of fashion among patrons, audiences and musicians.

An image of the Guzarish (request to readers) from the first edition of Naghmat-us-Sama’ published in 1935. Credit: in public domain.

Unknotting a knot – the girah

A qawwali performance, like most genres of Hindustani music, is fundamentally an interactive experience: performers employ a wide range of strategies to gauge audience interest and sophistication. One such strategy widely deployed to elicit feedback is to introduce a girah (an inserted verse, literally meaning “knot”) to amplify the main text.

The little Persian that is still sung in today’s qawwali performances is either performed as a girah in pieces that are largely in Hindi or Urdu; or as a means of checking audience interest, with the performers switching to Hindustani if it fails to evoke a sufficient response. All of the stock repertoire of Persian girahs used in today’s performances emerge from Noorul Hasan’s Naghmat-us-Sama’.

Noorul Hasan (or more completely Syed Noor ul-Hasan Maudoodi Sabri Fazl-e-Rehmani Sahsawani) was not, as he himself admits, a musician, or an authority on Persian literature. He was a pensioner and Sufi who dedicated his old age to this anthology, to draw the world’s attention to the fragments of Persian lyrics that he had heard being performed. Even in his own time, they were close to being forgotten.

His first edition, with a print run of 1,000 copies, published in by Nizami Press in Badayun, urges readers to share other songs with him and to correct his errors so that he can bring out a second, more accurate edition – something that he never managed.

The Persian song canon

Syed Noorul Hasan’s book – like its contents – might have been relegated to a historical footnote except for the fact that, during a period of significant decline in Persian fluency in South Asia, it became a widely adopted source text for musicians across the subcontinent.

While many anthologies of Persian verse were widely available, his focus on musicality, and curating and selecting lyrics that were accessible, popular and could easily be set to music, created the modern canon of Persian qawwali.

All subsequent such compilations for performance, such as the updated and similarly named versions published in the 1970s in India by Idris Khan and Pakistan by Mushtaq Illahi Faruqi, modeled their texts on his. This cemented Noorul Hasan’s position as the father of the present-day Persian qawwali canon.

Naghmat-us-Sama’ not only contributed to the persistence of Persian in modern-day music, but popularised the Persian works of writers such as “Jigar” Moradabadi, and “Maikash” Akbarabadi. While most of the anthology consists of classical writings by acknowledged Iranian masters, it also contains several Indian Sufis and Persian-language poets.

A poster of the preacher Abdul Qadir Jeelani, who features prominently in Noorul Hasan's anthology and was the great-grandfather of Hazrat Allaudin Sabir Kaliyari. Credit: Brijbasi Art Press, Artist unknown, c1990, from the collection of Yousuf Saeed at Tasveer Ghar.

Poetic licence, paying tribute

It is easy to think of Noorul Hasan as an old man, faithfully writing down what he heard but he was more than just a mere compiler of existing verse. His anthology exhibits significant poetic licence, mixing verses attributed to different authors; omitting some lines; in some cases, revising and replacing difficult words with more easily comprehensible terms; and in numerous instances, misattributing the authorship of lyrics.

This, perhaps inadvertently, has resulted in nine decades of confusion and the introduction of numerous divergent, error-ridden competing lyrical versions of songs.

For instance, over 50 different poems or songs by the perennially popular 15th century poet, Jami, appear in this compilation – 15 of which are wrongly attributed to him. Even the opening lines of this article, which cite a selection on a sama’ from the Diwan-e-Shams-Tabrizi appear in a different form in Hasan’s book and contain a verse interspersed in between that was notauthored by Rumi.

In the classic tradition, the greatest tribute a poet could pay to a master was to emulate his style by reworking, borrowing and presenting afresh an established poet’s themes. Sirqeh (poetic licence) may be viewed negatively today, but in his time was not necessarily seen as a defect, but in certain sense could be a lawful form of homage, revision and return.

If Noorul Hasan had lived to witness how his perhaps deliberate, creative liberties went on to become canonical, and the possibilities that his anthology opened up for the generation of musicians who came after him, he would probably have been thrilled.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood has a PhD in Persian from Jawaharlal Nehru University with an interest in Indo-Persian.

The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India in film, music, books, religion and culture. Read the series here. Views expressed are personal.

Also read:

How Indo-Persian, the language of cosmopolitan India for six centuries, fell into decline