o have one’s child following one’s footsteps in terms of career is welcomed by most parents anywhere. But less and less children of India’s Muslim jogis are doing that as years pass, which is why Gafruddin Khan is more than glad that his 25-year-old son Shahrukh has joined his band.
Shahrukh even has grand ambitions about the art his family has been engaged in for generations. “My aim is to take our art globally,” says the bachelor’s degree holder. “People should know who we are and what our ancestors have contributed for the welfare of society.”
Muslim jogis have been around for centuries, singing devotional and spiritual songs dedicated to Hindu deities even as they remain rooted in their Islamic faith. There are around 120,000 Muslim jogis in India at present, with the majority living in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. (All the jogis mentioned in this story are based in Rajasthan.)
These days, some of them still get invitations to perform their art showcasing a syncretic culture of Hinduism and Islam under the garb of Sufism. But for some time now, many Muslim jogis have been turning up in overcrowded streets, where they sing their songs in return for alms.
“I usually perform before educated audiences who endorse my art,” says Gafruddin Khan. “In 2019, I got an invitation from the Prime Minister’s office to perform on Gandhi Jayanti Day (birthday of Mahatma Gandhi). But I know people (Muslim jogis) performing at lower levels are facing problems.”
In fact, an ugly development in India in the last decade or so has cast a shadow over the future of Muslim jogis: communalism and the targeting of the Muslim community.
India has had a history of communal violence in its 75 years of independence, but things have become dire for its minority communities since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the reins of the country in 2014. Raising the flag of Hindu nationalism, India’s BJP government has been steadily pushing religious minorities such as Muslims – who make up more than 14 percent of the country’s nearly 1.5 billion people – toward the edge.
Referring to the Muslim jogis, renowned filmmaker and scholar Yousuf Saeed remarks, “What is happening with this community is a reflection of a larger challenge that minority communities are facing in India.”
“It is true that Muslim jogis are getting marginalized,” Saeed says. “And the sad part is that the majority of the people are not even aware of it. There should be more exposure of jogis so that people will come to know about them.”
Yet even before BJP came into the picture, Muslim jogis were already up against changing tastes in music, even in rural areas where their mystical tunes are considered part of tradition. Mohsin Khan, nephew of popular Muslim jogi Jummu Khan, says that nowadays, “wherever we perform, people give us that look without saying anything to our faces.”
But Mohsin, who is determined to become a Muslim jogi just like his famous uncle, adds: “We will continue to perform even if (only) one person listens to us.”
Jummu Khan himself, though, has already given up on his own sons taking after him. “I am afraid that my generation is the last jogi in my immediate family,” he declares. Pointing to his 17-year-old son Esadeen, who is sitting at a distance from him, he says, “My son is not interested in continuing this art form.”
His other son, Majid, has also chosen to follow a different course in life, and now works at a hospital.
“I don’t blame them,” Jummu Khan says of his sons. “There is no financial stability in this profession. Moreover, the fear of being targeted is always there.”
Just this year, the murder of two young Muslim men allegedly by Hindu “cow vigilantes” moved him to write “Kaiso Aayo Jamano Beimaan (How Did the World Become So Meaningless),” a song that became a hit on social media.
Yusuf Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim jogi, notes, “Things have changed since my grandfather’s days. I would be lying if I say that we [Muslims] are not being made to feel like outsiders in this country.”
He recounts that just this March, at a show in his own hometown Alwar, he was forced to chant “Jai Shree Ram (Glory to Lord Ram)” after a host introduced him on the stage by his name while some Hindutva supporters were nearby.
“There was a Bhagawa rally passing by, and they were carrying swords and iron sticks,” says Yusuf. “As the host introduced me on the stage, they started shouting at me. It was the first time I felt that I could be attacked because of my religious identity. I can never forget that day.”
To pacify the hostile crowd, Yusuf says that he recited these couplets that silenced everybody:
“Mandir ho ya masjid ho, church ho ya guruduwara lekin waha pai parampita tou aik hi hamara aur tumara (Be it a temple, mosque, church, or guruduwara, there is the same God present in each of them).”
“Dharti bhaanti, dharam bhaantdiya, bhaantdiya hai bhasha, bhaant diya bhagwan ko bhi socha nahi zara sa (You divided earth, religion, language, God without any thinking).”
“Himat hai tou karkai dekho tum ouska batwara waha neelgagan tou aik hai hamara aur tumara (If you have the guts then show us dividing the sky that we all share).”
Yusuf’s grandfather Zahoor Khan and father Umar Farooq were both national folk-art awardees. Yusuf, however, initially trained to be a civil engineer. When his grandfather died in 2007, Yusuf was focused on his career and had no intention to become a Muslim jogi.
Then years later, his father passed away, and a local newspaper stated that the family’s legacy of bhapang art had been buried with Umar Farooq. Recalls Yusuf: “That news jolted me to the core. I couldn’t let the legacy of my family vanish like this. So I quit my job and started learning my ancestral art.”
He decided to concentrate on the bhapang, a small drum that is among the instruments used by Muslim jogis and which his family is renowned for playing with precision and exquisite artistry. Today Yusuf is a popular bhapang artist who has earned several state awards for his contribution to the preservation of Indian folk music. He posts videos of himself playing the bhapang on social media, but also goes about digitizing all of his grandfather and father’s recordings for a wider audience and posterity.
A prolific songwriter, Yusuf’s music often focuses on addressing India’s current socio-political issues instead of the traditional odes to Hindu deities. He points out: “We need to improvise to keep our art alive. So I have been doing fusion with other artists as well. And the response has been overwhelming; I have traveled to many foreign countries for my performances.”
Shahrukh Khan meanwhile observes, “In the past our songs were mostly dedicated to the praises of Hindu deities. But today we are more keen to write about the social issues that we all encounter in our day-to-day life.”
Like his father – whose daily affairs he now manages – Shahrukh writes and composes his own songs. He says, “Our songs are largely based on cultural harmonization. And I think given the time we live in, it is a perfect remedy to bridge the gaps that some people are trying to create in the name of religion.”
Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi singer who has written extensively on art and cultural history of India, says that art has always been a driving force to bring people together and stand against the state’s tyranny.
“Art is a gentle but important critic,” he says. “It binds people.”
Jummu Khan apparently agrees. One of the older Muslim jogis who has made sure to keep up with the times, the veteran singer-songwriter explains that he always aims to “unite people” through his poetry and music. “Wherever I am getting a chance to perform,” he says, “I sing about the present-day situation of my country (to remind) people about the common values and culture that we (Hindus and Muslims) have shared for centuries.”
His nephew Mohsin says as well, “Through our poetry and writing, we have sought to bridge divides and foster unity among people, transcending religious differences.”
Mohsin is now learning to play the chimta – steel tongs – as he prepares to become a full-fledged Muslim jogi. Although he is unable to read and write, he knows all of his uncle’s songs by heart.
“I am a good listener,” says Mohsin, “and I have memorized all the songs.”
He also declares, “I know we are being marginalized. People treat us differently, but I am keen to take my family’s legacy forward.”
That sentiment is shared by the likes of Yusuf and Shahrukh who are not about to give up on their art despite all the challenges and threats, and want to share it with as many people as possible.
Says Shahrukh: “We are Muslim jogis. And we are proud of what we do.” ◉