Ram, Krishna and the Mahabharata in Urdu poetry

Ashraf Engineer

February 3, 2023


‘Main samay hoon’ audio clip

Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Did you know that the screenplay and dialogues of the iconic television series ‘Mahabharata’ were written by a Muslim, Dr Rahi Masoom Raza? The story goes that when BR Chopra, who made the series, approached him, Raza declined because of time constraints.

Chopra, however, announced Raza’s name as the writer anyway. That sparked a reaction from the so-called protectors of Hinduism who asked why a Hindu was not asked to write the series. Chopra passed on these objections to Raza, who then immediately agreed to write the screenplay and dialogue. Raza exclaimed: “I am a son of the Ganga. Who knows the civilisation and culture of India better than I do?”

Later, Raza said: “I’m hurt and amazed at the furore created about a Muslim writing the script. Am I not an Indian?” Raza, incidentally, identified himself as a “Gangaputra” or a “Ganga kinarewala”.

This incident comes to mind because I am trying hard to focus on the intermingling of faiths and cultures in India, expressed through art and culture, at a time when it is being tested severely.

I guess it’s a somewhat late reaction to the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on what used to be the site of the Babri Masjid. I didn’t quite know what to think or how to articulate my sense of hurt. It wasn’t a matter of faith, because I am not religious, but more a worry about how India is evolving, how in such a short time it has transformed so dramatically from the country I grew up in.

So, reminding myself and you that India is a confluence of beliefs, values and traditions, I want to talk about the expressiveness of Urdu poets and writers about Lord Ram, the Ramayana, Krishna and the Mahabharata. And I should say these are Muslim poets writing in Urdu. I choose this theme also because Urdu has been the other great target of Hindutvawadis, who label it as the language of the ‘other’. Anyone with a rational mind understands that language is an expression of geography, not religion. So, Muslims in Tamil Nadu speak Tamil and Hindus in Punjab speak Punjabi.

But, returning to the theme, Muslim poets writing in Urdu about Hindu epics have had a greater impact on popular culture than you might imagine.


Back to Dr Rahi Masoom Raza and the ‘Mahabharata’ TV series – it was he who came up with the idea of time as the narrator of the epic. BR Chopra had earlier attempted something similar in his TV series ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar’ for which the Red Fort was the narrator.

For the voice of Time, among those considered was Dilip Kumar, another Muslim, but eventually voiceover artiste Harish Bhimani was chosen. It was under Raza’s tutelage that Bhimani perfected the legendary line “Main Samay hoon” or “I am Time”.

It was and remains one of the greatest narrations on Indian television. Making Time the narrator was a stroke of genius that not only made the tale relatable but also allowed the makers to introduce analyses and interpretations.

Let’s turn to Urdu shayari now.

A story is an epic for various reasons. Among those is timelessness and the fact that it can mean different things to different people. It’s timelessness and appeal across generations and geographies also means that the epic will be told and interpreted in various languages. Among the many languages the Ramayana finds expression in is Urdu. In fact, there exists a vast body of Urdu shayari and literature around the epic.

Among the poems is ‘Ram’ by Dr Muhammad Iqbal. It’s a work of remarkable respect and affection, addressing the deity as ‘Ram-e Hind’. Among the verses is:

Labrez hai sharaab-e haqiqat se jaam-e-Hind,

Sab falsafi hain khitta-e-maghrib ke Ram-e Hind.

Which translates as:

The cup of Hind is brimming with the wine of reality,

All the philosophers of the west are taken in by Ram of Hind.

Another poem titled ‘Ram’ was written by Rahbar Jaunpuri. In it, the poet praises Ram for striving for peace and truth.

Rasm-o-rivaaj-e-Ram se aari hain shar-pasand,

Raavan ki nitiyon ke pujari hain shar-pasand.

This translates as:

Those who prefer evil are far removed from the traditions of Ram,

They are worshippers of what Raavan did.

A third poem titled ‘Ram’, this one by Saghar Nizami, honours the lessons in love of the deity.

Zindagi ki rooh thha roohaniyat ki sham tha,

Woh mujassam roop mein insaan ke irfaan tha.

This means:

He was the soul of life and the light of spirituality,

He was knowledge in the form of a man.

Let’s look at an Urdu poem written by a Hindu too. ‘Ramayan ka Ek Scene’ by Brij Narain Chakbast is about Lord Ram saying goodbye to his parents as he goes into exile. This poem is important because it is inspired by the Islamic soz and marsiya tradition of Awadh. Ayodhya is part of the Awadh region.

Among the verses of the poem is:

Uska karam shareek hai to gham nahi,

Daamaan-e-dasht daaman-e-maadar se kam nahi.

This means:

If you are blessed by him, you will not experience sorrow,

The hem of the jungle is no less than a mother’s hem.

The jungle here, of course, refers to the banwas that Ram is said to have undertaken.

Let’s move now to Ram Leela, the enactment of the ‘Ramayana’ by performers on a stage.

In Faridabad, there has been a longstanding tradition of the show being performed in Urdu.

It is said that the Urdu script for the Ram Leela was penned in 1976 by Nand Lal Batra, who wrote primarily in that language. The background score is often given by Muslims from Mathura for the performances and in some instances, on the day of the aarti, no religious song is sung. Instead, they sing ‘Ae maalik tere bande hum’, which is a secular hymn, because the organisers want people from every religion to attend.

Here’s one verse from the Ram Leela in Faridabad:

Tu ne bhi, mere bhai, chhoda pyaara vatan,

Laat maari hai aish  par,

Jab main ab Awadh mein jaaonga is bhai bin,

Kya kahoonga, mar gaya Lanka mein bhai bekafan?

These lines, said by the actor who plays Lord Ram when Laxman lies injured in battle, translate as:

Even you, my brother, left home with me,

Spurned every comfort,

When I return to Awadh without you,

What shall I say, that he died in Lanka without as much as a shroud?

Let’s turn our attention to films now, to a story often told by scriptwriter, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar.

In 1993, director N Chandra was making a film named ‘Yugandhar’ and he signed Akhtar to write the songs. At a sitting to discuss the songs, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, who had been signed to score the music, seemed very awkward. When Akhtar asked why, they said hesitantly that there was a situation in the script where an aarti in honour of Lord Krishna seemed like a perfect fit. They were sceptical that Akhtar, an atheist but born in a Muslim family, could write an aarti.

Akhtar asked for the tune and returned the next day with the lyrics. He told Laxmikant and Pyarelal that an aarti always ends in a crescendo, which was missing from their tune. However, he had written for it and he asked them to compose it.

The entire crescendo comprised names of Lord Krishna. Laxmikant and Pyarelal were stunned because they, as Hindus, did not know as many names of Krishna – and they said as much. They asked Akhtar how he knew so many and he replied that it was because he reads Urdu.

Incidentally, ‘Yugandhar’ means someone who will change an era and is one of the names of Krishna.

‘Krishna Aayega’ audio clip

In case you’re interested, the song is named ‘Krishna Aayega’ and can be found online and I will also hyperlink it in the episode transcript on the podcast’s website, www.allindiansmatter.in, and put the link in the show notes.

Let’s balance the euphoria of the aarti with a lament by the great Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, the late father-in-law of Akhtar and father of actress Shabana Azmi. When the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, Kaifi Azmi wrote the poignant and very political poem Doosra Banwas. It was an elegy for the India that was and could have been through the eyes of Ram himself whose temple was sought to be constructed on the site.

The verses talk about Ram returning from exile only to find a raqs-e-deewangi or dance of madness in his home and blood on the banks of the Sarayu river. Ram would have viewed this, said Azmi, as his second banishment from the city or Doosra Banwas.

Here’s an excerpt from the nazm:

Ram banwas se jab lautke ghar mein aayein,

Yaad jangal bahut aaya jo nagar mein aayein,

Raqs-e-deewangi aangan mein jo dekha hoga,

Chhe December ko Shri Ram ne socha hoga,

Itne deewane kahaan se mere ghar mein aayein…

This translates as:

When Ram returned from exile and entered his home,

He longed for the jungle upon seeing the city,

As he would have viewed the dance of madness in his courtyard,

On December 6, Lord Ram would have thought,

How did so many madmen get into my home…

As I said, this is a lament. But I want to end with something more uplifting.

I am deeply passionate about qawwali, a musical format invented by Amir Khusro – a devotee of Nizamuddin Auliya whose dargah is a sanctuary for people of all faiths in Delhi even today. ‘Man Kunto Maula’, which is thought by many to be the first qawwali composed by Khusro, is often preceded by a call to Ram. Although Khusro did not compose that call to Ram, it is not surprising that it happens because qawwali is at its core a call to the divine and is the embodiment of India’s syncretic soul.

Take one of the qawwali’s many versions, this one sung by Mukhtiyar Ali. He starts like this:

Swar hai shakti Ishwar ki,

Har sur mein basein hai Ram,

Ragi jo sunaaye Ragini,

Rogi ko mile aaraam.

This means:

In voice lies the power of God,

Ram resides in every musical note,

When the singer sings a melody,

The ailing find relief.

Man Kunto Maula audio clip

This particular version is interspersed with calls of ‘Hari Om’ too. This is a qawwali sung in honour of Imam Ali, considered by many to be the spiritual successor of Prophet Mohammad.

The words ‘Man Kunto Maula’ is part of a hadith, or statement of the Prophet, and is said to have been uttered when he returned from his last pilgrimage in 632 AD, just a few months before he passed away. It means: Whoever accepts me as their spiritual guide, Ali is his spiritual guide as well.

The qawwali can be interpreted as being in a state of union with love for the divine and, when sung well, often induces a state of ecstasy or spiritual rapture.

If you’re interested in listening to it, I have hyperlinked it in the transcript of this episode on the podcast’s website, and put the link in the show notes.

As I said, qawwali is not about Islam alone and so it’s no surprise that Lord Ram often finds mention in it.

In the days to come, I will do more episodes on other religions and their role in India’s syncretic soul.

In the meantime, I hope this episode doesn’t come across as a ramble but instead what it’s meant to be: a tribute to what India is at its core and should be on the outside too. I hope it underscores how India embodies syncretism and that it is a convergence of faiths and cultures and art and poetry and everything that is beautiful in this world. And I hope that this episode exudes hope because, without it, where would India be – especially in times like these?

Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at editor@allindiansmatter.in. Catch you again soon.