February 07, 2013

Karen Chase!!

The Mehrauli Archaeological Park, spanning almost 100-acres, boasts of monuments dating from almost all the dynasties of Delhi. Most of the structures here are in different stages of excavation, a few have been completely re-claimed from vegetation & are being restored by a joint venture of Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I) & Indian National Trust for Arts & Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Among the famous ones are step-wells known as Rajon ki Bains & Gandhak ki Baoli, architectural novelties such as canopies, boat houses & ziggurats built by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, tomb of Ghiyasuddin Balban (ruled over Delhi from), & a mosque-tomb complex belonging to the 16th century saints Jamali & Kamali. Despite being there twice, I am yet to cover most of the structures within the park, since there are over 80 of them in number. I have so far seen only the major ones as I mentioned above. The place is more of a subdued forest, except that there is a trail running through the middle of the park & red sandstone markers indicating directions to the various structures & architectural details.

When I wrote the post about the Jamali Kamali complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex), I actually assumed that except for the history buffs I know, not many people would read it. It is a long post, complete with history, architectural details & the complex’s present state. So imagine my surprise when the American writer Karen Chase stopped by to give her feedback about the post. She was unable to post a comment in this blog itself (I believe that must be Blogspot’s occasional bug that makes commenting difficult) & hence sent me a brief mail. Here is what she had to say about the post –

I tried to post a comment on your blog but I must have done something wrong because it's not there. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for the wonderful and interesting post about the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. And the photos are great!” 

As I mentioned in that post itself, Karen has written a book titled "Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India" (Mapin Publishing) about the homosexual relationship that the two saints, Jamali & Kamali, buried within the complex shared. This is still a debated point, since Kamali’s identity has been shrouded in history – some say he was Jamali’s spiritual companion, friend, brother or wife. Karen wanted to know why I described her book as “fictional” (within the quotes), since it is actually a fictional piece that springs from her imagination – only the characters used are as real as me & you. I just felt I need to underline that Karen choses to call her book fictional although it could actually be the true story. Even if Jamali Kamali were gay, they would have kept their intimate relationship out of public purview since that was a time of enforced social chastity & culture building. Jamali was the court poet for several emperors of India – from Sikandar Lodi to Humayun, he would not have wanted his image to be tarnished. Karen’s book has actually opened a new dimension – as is the case, most of the travel portals/websites tend to copy the same material over & over without doing any background research – details about Karen’s beliefs have been copied without any link back/reference to her, & many people have actually accepted the version that Jamali Kamali were gay lovers. Further, Karen told me that she came upon the fact when she herself visited the Jamali Kamali complex & the local guide told her about it – indicating that the locals have no problem accepting Jamali & Kamali’s relationship.

Jamali Kamali's Tomb

In more of our discussions, I & Karen felt that the modern Indian culture system that looks down upon homosexual relationships is at loggerheads with the ancient Indian societies – both Hindu & Muslim – after all, Hinduism has always been an erotic religion, worshipping the sex organs as Shivalinga (Shiva’s symbol, Shiva is the Hindu God of destruction & the cycle of creation & destruction of the universe), & the Muslim sultans too had a large number of wives, concubines, eunuchs & beard-less young boys. Jamali & Kamali’s history, even if they were homosexual should be socially acceptable – it is between two people how they want to spend their life & with whom, & no one has the right to dictate their own conventional beliefs & practices – sexual & otherwise too, on someone else.

Karen also forwarded me the first read of her interview that later appeared in the homosexual magazine “Bombay Dost” –

“Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India came out from Mapin Publishing in India in 2011, when I went there to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival. It was released in the US last year.

Jamali-Kamali is a book-length homoerotic poem that tells the story of Jamali and Kamali, two men who lived in 16th century Delhi. Jamali was a Sufi poet and Kamali’s identity is unknown, but according to Delhi’s oral tradition, he was Jamali’s male lover. Although the men existed, the book is a fiction about love, sex, separation and death. The Introduction is by the Mughal scholar Milo Beach, who was for many years the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries (the museum of Asian art at the Smithsonian). My website www.karenchase.com has more information about the book. 

Jamali-Kamali came about as a result of a writing residency at the Sanskriti Foundation in Delhi in 2004. One day, I was taken with a group of artists to an archaeological site in the middle of the city. After tramping through an overgrown park and following a dirt path to the top of a hill, we arrived at the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. Inside the small tomb, two white marble graves sat side-by-side, inches apart. 

The historical marker noted that Jamali was a 16th century Sufi court poet. About Kamali, it said: identity unknown. The guide explained that, according to oral tradition, Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover. Jarred by the disjuncture and the story, I was drawn into another hemisphere, another century and another gender to breathe life into Jamali and Kamali." 

It is always nice to know people who see beyond today's trivial issues (such as the morality of same-sex love) & takes on history on her own terms!!

You can order Karen's books here -
  1. Scholars Without Borders - Jamali Kamali/Karen Chase
  2. Flipkart - Jamali Kamali/Karen Chase

The cover of Karen's book - This is the interior of the tomb

Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  4. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats