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Non-Muslim's devotional poetry

A poem in praise of the Prophet

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Hindu poet Chander Bhan Khayal's long panegyric on Prophet Mohammed earned him the Sahitya Akademi Award. He tells TOI-Crest why he loves Urdu.

It's one of many panegyric poems on the Prophet Muhammad, but a few years after it was published, Urdu poet Chander Bhan Khayal's Laulak is still hailed as a masterpiece that has blazed a new trail in devotional poetry. It shows a non-Muslim's deep devotion to a figure who is revered by Muslims next only to Allah.

Comprising six chapters named Before Birth, Birth, Prophethood, Hijrat or migration, Jihad and Victory, the poem captures life in Arabia before the Prophet's birth and important milestones in his life. Written in simple language, the 1, 500-line poem has 480 stanzas. Acknowledging the significance of this poem, the Sahitya Akademi conferred its Tagore Literature Award on Khayal in 2010.

"As a boy I read an essay on the Prophet. The description of his life and his struggles to uphold justice left an indelible mark on my mind, " says Khayal, 66, seated in the cafeteria of Sri Ram Centre's Auditorium in New Delhi. "As I grew up, my curiosity to know more about the Prophet increased. "

Khayal learnt Urdu without a formal teacher. He bought an Urdu primer from the railway station in his hometown of Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh and learnt the language. "I was determined to teach myself as there was no Urdu teacher in my village, " he says.

Moving to Delhi in the 1960s, Khayal became a disciple of poet Pandit Ramkrishna Muztar. Having read tomes on the life and times of the Prophet, he thought to write a poem.

Initially, he took the penname Chander. One day, the famous Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri came to stay with Muztar in Delhi. Muztar introduced Chander to Firaq, who asked him to recite a few lines. "After he heard me, Firaq saab said there were many thoughts (khayal) in my poetry and gave me the name Khayal, " says the poet-journalist and a former vice-chairman of National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), a nodal agency under the human resources ministry.

Apart from India and Pakistan, Khayal's poem is being lauded in other countries. A couple of years ago, the Iranian government felicitated Khayal for his contribution to devotional poetry.

Before he earned accolades for Laulak, Khayal fought poverty and anonymity. While earning his bread as a lowly-paid Urdu journalist in Delhi, Khayal would participate in naatiya mushaira (poetry recitation sessions where devotional poems are presented). Poet Kumar Pashi and Urdu scholar Sadiq heard some of his lines in praise of the Prophet and encouraged him to continue writing, he recalls.

The biggest hurdle to penning a panegyric poem on the Prophet is that it might become exaggerated and fictitious. Any controversy would have put the poet in a spot. "Muslims would have easily blamed me for being an anti-Muslim, Islam-bashing Hindu. I took care to stick to the truth about the Prophet's life while penning this biography in verse, " says Khayal.

Having got it vetted by some senior clerics, Khayal published the poem to critical acclaim. "It is not easy to write on the Prophet. It requires deep study, understanding of Muhammad's mission and a realistic approach. I am glad Khayal lived up to these expectations, " writes Prof Gopichand Narang, noted Urdu critic and former president, Sahitya Akademi.

Khayal says that if Urdu vanishes, it will be India's collective loss. "Urdu has wrongly been called the language of the Muslims. It symbolises our composite culture and we must try to restore its lost glory, " says Khayal who wants the country to follow three language formula: Hindi, English and a mother tongue. "Those students who want to study Urdu as a mother tongue must be provided facilities. We should learn Urdu for its beautiful poetry, its fascinating fiction and its sweet diction, " he says.

As long as there are secularists like Khayal around, India's famed composite culture will remain intact.

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