Like everybody else, I too peeked through the tiny square holes of the huge gates inside which the silver chariot of the presiding deity of the Udupi Krishna Math was kept. Someone said, “It was apparently made by a Muslim…” The flower seller who sat by this gate, inside the temple complex, offered a correction, “It was done by Belli saheb…” Hearing him, it almost seemed like it was derogatory to call Belli saheb a Muslim. I seemed to agree with the flower seller’s intuitive response – he didn’t mean derogatory, but to fix Belli saheb as a Muslim largely diminished his persona; Hamza embodied the essence of every religion. The life and story of Belli saheb is also the story of the rich pluralistic traditions of this country which have survived quietly, with remarkable resilience.
The late Ameer Hamza is fondly referred to as Belli saheb. For nearly 60 years, he made deities not just for the Udupi Krishna Math, but for various other temples in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The small, dingy workshop of this silver metal craftsman is just a breath away from the Krishna temple. The workshop bears no resemblance to the sights and sounds of religiosity one gets to see in the temple premises. Photographs of several Hindu gods adorn the musty wall alongside a saint’s picture from the Dargah they go to. Ameer Hamza, his father Sheikh Peeru saheb, and his guru, Subbanna Achar also find a place in an inner corner. An open tin vessel with an unknown grainy liquid, a wooden ladle, tools of many shapes and sizes, an ancient table fan, metal boxes… lie around with many other unfamiliar objects. Amidst this dusty chaos, an unforeseen aura of reassurance hangs in the air. In the far end of the little room, stand Hamza’s two sons, Makbool and Altaf, with a welcoming broad smile. “We just completed three silver idols for a nearby village temple. There is not much work now,” the shy brothers open up after a while.
They are not sure when it all started in their family, but Makbool, the older son of Ameer Hamza says his grandfather Sheikh Peeru saheb was a renowned silver craftsman. “My father’s initial lessons were from him.” But Peeru saheb mostly made huge silver utensils used in the temple. The little Hamza was in sixth standard when he had a tiff with his father. He was so upset that he ran away from home. It was sheer serendipity that he landed in Mysore. After working here and there to be able to fend for his food, he chanced upon the workshop of Subbanna Achar, who headed the team of silver and gold craftsmen in the palace of Mysore. “My father apparently stood at the door of the workshop, day after day, and watched him at work.” Seeing Hamza’s interest, Subbanna Achar took him into his fold, and eventually became his most trusted artisan. “The other upper class Hindus had a problem with this, and even doubted my father. They told Subbanna Achar not to trust my father with so much gold and silver. And Achar had replied, ‘Even if he runs away with all these kilos of gold, he will still remain underpaid. His artistry is far superior.’ My father would get emotional remembering his guru’s affection. For nine years, he stayed in his house….,” Makbool trails off.
Achar took Hamza with him everywhere. The two went to Dharmasthala to make the chariot for lord Manjunatha, and from there they headed to Udupi to make the silver chariot for Krishna. Hamza stayed put at work, while Achar went to meet his old friend Sheikh Peeru. He told him of the extraordinary young Muslim artisan who was working with him, and Peeru promptly turned up to meet the masterly craftsmen the following day. When he saw that it was his son, he couldn’t contain his happiness. Since Hamza had never mentioned this, Achar was clueless about this. Once the chariot was complete, Sheikh Peeru made sure his son stayed back with him. “That chariot is spectacular… my father was given this place by the Math in 1940. All the work for the temple has been done by my father,” Altaf quickly pulls out letters of appreciation from the rusting old trunk, given by seers of Palimaru Math, Udupi Math and various others. Deeply indebted to these religious heads who placed great trust in him, Hamza put up a picture of the Pejawara seer in his house, which continues to be there. “The day my father completed the Dashavatara for the temple and was praised by everyone, he told us the purpose of his birth had been fulfilled,” remembers Makbool.
The devout Hamza, who never missed his namaz, always began his work after meditation. He often told his sons that work and worship were not separate. “Each time the priest in the temple gives prasada to the devotees, he takes Sri Krishna’s name. However, it doesn’t mean he’s thinking of the Lord. ‘Do your work with utmost devotion and you can feel Krishna in every single pore of your body…’ my father said this, believed it and lived like that,” says Makbool. Hamza, though a school dropout, was completely aware of the Hindu scriptures. While he was in Mysore, he had even learnt astrology from Lingannacharya.
Hamza could see beyond the ordinary. With his saint like qualities and with his training in astrology, he apparently was able to comment with reasonable accuracy about people’s journey of life. “Many people came to my father. He never charged even a rupee. Money was never the uppermost concern in his life, it’s not for us either,” the brothers say. Makbool has an interesting story to tell. People of a nearby village came to Hamza asking him to make the face of a goddess for a black stone which had no torso. They took Hamza to their village to show him their faceless stone god, Bobbiriya. “For several days my father researched, met several people. He even met the seers at the Math. But nothing came out of it. One night the goddess appeared in his dream…,” narrates Makbool. “This is my face,” said the fierce goddess of demonic proportions. Hamza was relieved, and completed his work. On the day the deity was installed in the village temple, Hamza was invited. Like in most Bhoota temples, the shaman became possessed and refused to accept Hamza’s work as the face of the deity. In all respect, Hamza said that his work bore resemblance to the goddess who appeared in his dream. “The Bhoota instantly agreed, and told my father that it was only a ruse to make people aware of Hamza’s powers,” narrates Makbool.
The Brothers are full of admiration and respect for their father. “There was opposition from within the community, but my father said this is god’s work and put an end to everything.” Makbool recalls an occasion when people from the mosque came to collect donations. “My father refused to give. All the money that I have is from the Hindu gods you are against. They told my father that it was fine to accept donations. My father calmly exposed their hypocrisies and sent them away.”
Hamza and his family have enjoyed support from the Ashtamathas. Each time there was work to do, the seers would summon Hamza and have a discussion with him. “We are the only Muslims in this entire area,” says Altaf. “But never have we been singled out. They have been very loving towards us,” he says, giving me a holige that just arrived from the Krishna Math’s kitchen.