Very often, you hear a person insultingly use the word ‘miraasi’‘ for a fellow friend who enjoys entertaining others and wants to pursue theatre, film or music. Ever since I was a child, I always believed it was a derogatory term used to mock boisterous people who were passionate about dance or singing. And I never understood why these people should be made fun of. Should they feel ashamed of their fervor for the performing arts? If yes, then why? And what was the reason for describing them as ‘miraasis’?
In medieval ages, the keepers of history, genealogy, culture, stories and poetry of Northern India were known as ‘miraasis’. Many of them became students of Amir Khusrao and at the hands of him, accepted Islam. As historians of heritage, they were given the honorable title of Nasab Khwan which over time became Khwan Sahab.
In the previous era, these preservers of our rich culture were considered a part of the ‘elite’ families. Their presence would glorify the evenings of the Mughal emperors as learning music and dance was a luxury back then and not one many could afford. Thus, they married within their own community to preserve their talent and because of this, miraasi’s are naturally gifted artists. Historically, in Jahangirs time, the miraasis would incorporate the stories of Babars era in their music to carry on his legacy, staying true to their title ‘miraas chalanay waalay’.
In the Shia community especially, the miraasi’s hold immense importance. Even if they aren’t the main face of their recitals, you’ll always find at least one or two miraasi’s exalting the choir with their melodious vocals. As they are passing on a historical message with the power of their ‘surr’, again they are the magnificent ‘miraas chalanay walay’. The combination of their great voice and the history which they recite, again, makes them the preservers of our customs, culture and heritage.
In todays world, when one hears the word ‘miraasi’, their thought instantly goes to someone from a low caste who has long, messy hair and possesses the habit of chewing on ‘paan’ while enthusiastically playing the ‘dholki’ outside a wedding function. They are ranked as an ‘inferior’ group in our country by many. The marginalized miraasis have gotten sidelined and because of the stigma associated to being a maraasi, some even gave up their heritage. They started marrying outside their communities and a few even changed their names.
The same oh-so privileged and ‘decent’ people who curse the miraasi caste and, hence, declare them unacceptable in a ‘civilized’ society are the ones who listen to their qawali’s ever so frequently at their grand events. This is the problem with our country. We won’t appreciate the individuals who form the basis of our culture and we’ll label them as ‘misfits’ depending on their social background. But look at the hypocrisy of our people. We’ll shamelessly take credit for belonging to a nation with such a globally recognized culture and boast about our heritage without contributing even one bit to it.