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Updated: September 3, 2013 08:59 IST
Hidden Histories

To sing like Mastan Sahib

Sriram V.
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Mastan Sahib’s dargah in Royapuram.
Special Arrangement Mastan Sahib’s dargah in Royapuram.

Mastan Sahib’s songs greatly enriched Tamil poetry, in particular the Islamic genre.

That is a wish expressed in a film song. Ever since then, the musical mystic has intrigued me. Planning for a heritage tour of Royapuram, Karthik Bhatt and I are standing in front of the Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Lying in Hospital. We have been told by our good friend Anwar that the Kunangudi Mastan Sahib Dargah is nearby. After asking around quite a bit, we go into Raman (earlier Rama Naicken) Street. It is a thoroughfare of indescribable filth but we trudge along.

We cross a St Mary’s School. The next big landmark is the Renukadevi temple. We pause to ask again and are told we have crossed the dargah. We retrace our steps to find it in a vast, unkempt compound. But once inside, it is a haven of peace and remarkably clean. The structure is simple; a verandah with rounded pillars fronts a vestibule behind which, are chambers with sepulchres. The principal one, facing the entrance, is that of Kunangudi Mastan. On either side are those of his disciples – Pulavar Nayagangal (Hazrath Sheikh Abdul Qadir), Hazrath Qadir Mastan Sahib, Madhar Bibi and Hazrath Ibrahim Sahib.

Kunangudi Mastan Sahib, who was given that name owing to his ever being steeped in spiritual bliss, is believed to have lived between 1792 and 1838. Born at Kunangudi near Thondi in Ramanathapuram district, he was named Sultan Abdul Qadir at birth. His parents, Nainar Mohammed and Fathima Bibi were wealthy but the son chose to give it all up, seeking the supreme truth. He became a Sufi, taking to the Qadariya order. His love for God he expressed in the form of songs. To him, God was the beloved and in some of the songs, in keeping with the Sufi tradition, he depicts the supreme being as feminine.

Songs of his songs such as ‘Manonmani Kanni’ and ‘Rehman Kanni’ could have been the inspiration for Subramania Bharati in depicting God as his Kannamma. Mastan Sahib’s songs greatly enriched Tamil poetry, in particular the Islamic genre. The 20th century veena artiste VS Gomathisankara Iyer even set them to Carnatic tunes, making them suitable for concerts. A compilation was published by Professor Abul Rahman in 1980.

At the dargah, an aged servitor welcomes us in. We pray in silence and just as we are leaving, are asked if we saw the subterranean chamber. An opening in one corner of Mastan Sahib’s shrine accesses this. You need to crawl and then literally fall into it. The space, where you can only squat, can accommodate just about two people. Mastan Sahib is said to have meditated there. Local legend has it that it was once an underground passage leading to Tondiarpet. It is believed that Mastan Sahib was referred to as Tondiar owing to his having come from Thondi. The area of Tondiarpet is therefore said to be named after him.

Despite the squalid surroundings, and the difficulties in getting there, Mastan Sahib’s dargah is well worth a visit.

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