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The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
By Shrabani Basu
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Shrabani Basu
All rights reserved.
The story of Noor Inayat Khan began on New Year's Day in Moscow in 1914. As the frozen Moskva river gleamed in the reflected light of the green and purple domes of the Kremlin, a baby girl was born in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery, a short distance from the Kremlin. The proud father was the Indian Sufi preacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, and the mother a petite American woman with flowing golden hair, Ora Ray Baker. They named their little girl Noor-un-nisa, meaning 'light of womanhood'. She was given the title of Pirzadi (daughter of the Pir). At home their precious little bundle was simply called Babuli.
Inayat Khan and Ora Ray Baker had arrived in the city of Moscow in 1913. For Inayat it had been a long journey from his home town in sunny Baroda in western India to the snowy splendour of the Russian capital. He had left India on the instructions of his teacher Syed Abu Hashem Madani to take Sufism to the west. Inayat was the grandson of Maula Baksh, the founder of the Faculty of Music at the University of Baroda, and Casimebi, the granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the eighteenth-century ruler of Mysore. The family enjoyed a proud heritage as descendants of the Tiger of Mysore, as Tipu Sultan was known, who had fought bravely against the British.
Yet the family did not publicise this royal heritage, for political reasons. After Tipu Sultan had been killed fighting the British on the battlefield of Seringapatam in 1799, his family was forcibly removed from Mysore to prevent further rebellion in that area. The son of Tipu Sultan was also subsequently defeated and killed in Delhi fighting the British during the uprising in Vellore in 1806. According to family legend his daughter, the 14-year-old princess Casimebi, was taken to safety by two faithful servants – Sultan Khan Sharif and Pir Khan Sharif. They were the sons of an officer who had served under Tipu Sultan. The princess was taken secretly to Mysore and her true identity concealed. Because she was of royal descent, Casimebi could marry only a person of noble standing, who carried royal honours and titles.
As luck would have it, Inayat Khan's grandfather, Maula Baksh, went to Mysore in 1860 and sang at a competition before the Maharaja that lasted for eleven days. A skilled singer in both the North Indian classical style and the South Indian Carnatic classical style, Maula Baksh won the competition. The delighted Maharaja of Mysore presented him with a kallagi (turban ornament), sarpesh (turban), chatra (large umbrella), chamar (fly whisk) and the right to have a servant walk in front to announce him. When Maula Baksh received these emblems of royalty, the two retainers secretly arranged his marriage to Princess Casimebi.
Maula Baksh was now told of the secret of the princess's ancestry. Casimebi's heritage was talked about only in whispers (lest the British discover that the retainers had hidden one of Tipu's descendants). Maula Baksh and Casimebi then moved to Baroda (also known as Vadodara) in Gujarat at the invitation of the city's ruler. Here Maula Baksh started the Gyanshala or Music Academy, overlooking the lake, where it still stands.
Inayat's father, Rahmat Khan, a musician from the Punjab, came to Baroda and started teaching at the Gyanshala. He married one of Maula Baksh's daughters, Khatijabi, and moved into Maula Baksh's large family house on the edge of the town with its stables, large courtyard and separate women's quarters. It was in Baroda that Inayat Khan was born to Rahmat Khan and Khatijabi on 5 July 1882. Soon two more sons were born, Maheboob Khan and Musharraf Khan.
The house of Maula Baksh was an open one where all religions were tolerated and music rang out from each corner. Meals for forty to fifty people were cooked in the kitchen every day. The liberal, tolerant atmosphere of his maternal grandfather's house was to have a major influence on Inayat Khan and on his daughter, Noor.
Inayat Khan soon began to teach at the Gyanshala and travelled extensively, giving concerts in Nepal, Hyderabad and Calcutta. In Hyderabad he played for the Nizam and was initiated into Sufism by Syed Abu Hashem Madani. His teacher advised him to combine his music and his philosophy in order to bring about a better understanding between East and West.
After the death of his father Rahmat Khan, Inayat Khan decided to follow his teacher's advice. He had received an invitation to play in New York and he wrote to his brother Maheboob Khan and cousin Mohammed Khan asking them if they wanted to join him. They agreed immediately.
'Dost chalo' (Friend, let us go), Inayat Khan told his brother and his cousin as he used to do when they were young. The men packed their instruments and sailed from Bombay in a small Italian ship in September 1910.
New York came as a shock to the musicians from Baroda. They were used to the leisurely life of the Gyanshala and the hectic pace of Manhattan took time to get used to. So did the weather and the food, but gradually they settled into their new surroundings. The group called themselves the Royal Musicians of Hindustan and began giving concerts at Columbia University. Soon they were recruited by the dancer Ruth St Denis, who took them on a tour of the country starting in Chicago.
At a lecture in the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram in San Francisco, California, Inayat Khan met a young woman called Ora Ray Baker. She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1892 to a half-English and half-Irish father and a Scottish mother, both of whom had died when she was young. Ora Ray had then been brought up by her half-brother, a doctor. She was the niece of a Senator O'Brien and the granddaughter of one Erasmus Warner Baker, a solicitor. Ora Ray is believed to have been a distant cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement.
Ora Ray Baker was captivated by Inayat Khan's lecture. She approached him after the discussion and asked if she could interview him privately. He granted her request and the two soon fell in love.
But Inayat Khan knew his future was uncertain. He told Ora Ray that he was a dervish and did not know where his next meal would come from. Ora Ray Baker's family did not approve of the match, and neither did Inayat Khan's brothers. He told her they could write to each other and she could join him only when she had secured the consent of her family or when she came of age. In the spring of 1912, leaving behind his address with Ora Ray, Inayat set sail with his brothers once again, this time for England, where he had an invitation to play at a musical convention. His younger brother, Musharraf Khan, joined him in New York before they left. After a mixed reception in England, the brothers moved to France in September 1912 in the belief that the French would be more inclined to appreciate their music.
Parisians were fascinated by all things oriental and soon the Royal Musicians of Hindustan were busy giving concerts, lessons and lectures. The famous dancer Mata Hari, the rage of the Paris nightclubs, engaged them as part of her troupe. She called them 'mon orchestre' and had herself photographed with them in the garden of her house in Neuilly, with herself in the foreground striking a dance pose and the Royal Musicians of Hindustan standing behind her in all their finery, looking amused and slightly awkward. Ironically, many years later, Inayat Khan's daughter, Noor Inayat Khan, would also be a secret agent, though not quite in the Mata Hari mould. Like Mata Hari, who was executed by a firing squad in the Bois de Vincennes, Noor too would be executed.
In Paris, Inayat Khan was introduced to the leading French actor and director Lucien Guitry, who asked the group to take part in an Eastern-themed show called Kismet. Before long, the Royal Musicians of Hindustan were playing before the cream of French society. They met Edmond Bailly, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the dancer Isadora Duncan and many other prominent people. During this time Inayat Khan also met the composer Claude Debussy, who encouraged the group by his understanding and appreciation of Indian music.
Meanwhile Ora Ray Baker had given up trying to persuade her brother to accept her relationship with Inayat Khan, and she wrote to tell Inayat that she was coming to France to join him. Her ship arrived in Antwerp where he met her and they left immediately for England. On the ferry they met another Indian who said he would perform a religious rite to solemnise the union.
On 20 March 1913, Inayat Khan married Ora Ray Baker at the civil register office at St Giles, London. They rented a place at 4 Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, and began a new life in England. Ora Ray Baker was given the new name Amina Sharada Begum. Inayat chose the name Sharada after Ma Sharada, wife of the Indian saint Ramakrishna Paramhans, in whose ashram in San Francisco Inayat Khan had first met his wife. Ora Ray's brother never forgave her and she severed all links with her family. She started wearing a golden sari to match her husband's golden robe and even wore a veil. Inayat himself had never asked her to wear Indian clothes but the Begum insisted she was doing it of her own free will. She said she had always envied the seclusion enjoyed by the women of the East.
The couple received many social invitations and Amina Begum handled all her husband's correspondence, as well as organising his schedule and travels. In London they met the Indian poet Sarojini Naidu, a firm supporter of Indian independence, who was to accompany Gandhi on his famous Salt March of 1930. Inayat would practise the Indian stringed instrument known as the veena in the evenings and sing in the mornings. He often spent hours meditating at night.
In 1913 Inayat Khan and his group received an invitation to play in Russia. The invitation came from Maxim's, the Moscow nightclub, which wanted an Oriental night. The musicians did not like what they saw of Maxim's. The drunkenness and debauchery that prevailed there was alien to the men and they wanted to leave, but Inayat Khan persuaded them to stay and honour their commitment.
Moscow soon grew on Inayat Khan. He loved the intellectual atmosphere of the city and, despite the freezing climate, spent some of the happiest days of his career there. He realised that the people who went to Maxim's also frequented the concerts and salons and that Moscow was actually a deeply cultured city. He found in the people of Moscow the same sort of warmth that he experienced back home in India. In turn, Inayat Khan made an immediate impression and soon had among his friends Sergei Tolstoy, the son of Leo Tolstoy, who became the representative of the musical section of the Sufi Order in Moscow.
It was in Moscow that Inayat Khan made one of the first attempts to combine eastern and western music. He chose seventeen ragas and adapted them to a play based on an episode from Kalidasa's Shakuntala. Sergei Tolstoy and a friend, Vladimir Pohl, harmonised the Indian melodies and even scored them for a small orchestra. The theme was the liberation of the soul.
Moscow, with its blue-green oriental domes, luxury and sophistication combined with poverty, reminded Inayat Khan of India. He rode in an open sleigh and met many priests and monks. The city was seething with rebellion at that time as the Tsar was perceived as weak and under the influence of his wife and courtiers. Communists and anarchists fanned the people's discontent. The secret police spied on people everywhere. Even Inayat Khan and his brothers were followed to their concert one day. Later the person shadowing them became embarrassed and introduced himself as Henry Balakin. He confessed that he had been sent to watch over them. When Inayat Khan reassured him and said he understood why he did it, Balakin became his mureed or disciple.
At this time the family lived in a four-or five-bedroom house called the House of Obidin on the corner of Petrovka Street and Krapivenski. It was just opposite the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery and about 1.5 kilometres from the Kremlin. A modestly furnished place, it provided enough room for Inayat, his young wife and his three brothers.
The couple's first daughter, Noor, was born in Moscow at 10.15 p.m. on 1 January 1914. Noor was very special to Inayat Khan, being his firstborn. Like his father and grandfather before him, Inayat Khan reached out to his new baby through music. He would sing to her and carry her around as he gently lulled her to sleep.
Baby Noor's nurse had some rather unusual habits, however. She was a strong Tartar woman who horrified Amina Begum by giving her daughter black coffee to drink and scrubbing her with a brush made of stiff bristles as a sort of massage. She also started binding Noor's feet to keep them small as was the Chinese-Tartar custom. It was the nurse who gave Noor the name of Babuli (Turco-Tartar for 'father's child').
Apart from her idiosyncratic ways, which were alien to Amina Begum, the widowed nurse nevertheless was a considerable support to the household. She had a 16-year-old girl, who Musharraf fell in love with and wanted to marry, proposing that both mother and daughter become part of the family and travel with them. Amina Begum strongly opposed the match, causing some conflict in the Inayat Khan household.
When Noor was forty days old, Inayat Khan invited some friends and admirers to his house to attend a ceremony for Noor. The invitees included a group of Russian students who had met Inayat Khan at Maxim's. One of the students, Yevgenia Yurievna Spasskaya, later described the event in rapt tones:
At last a velvet portiere opened and entering from the next room ... I don't know what others saw, but I imagined that I saw Nesterov's Blue Madonna: against the background of the dark-red velvet portiere she stood slim, fair, in a blue scarf wrapped around her slender body, a young mother with a tiny tawny baby in her hands.
The sight of the fragile Amina Begum in her blue sari with her head covered and flowing golden hair standing next to the tall stately figure of Inayat Khan had completely captivated Spasskaya. During the ceremony Amina Begum sat in an armchair holding baby Noor while the other brothers and musicians came up to her one by one, bowed low, sang a greeting and gave her a gift. Then the tabla player, Ramaswami, who had met Inayat Khan in New York and joined the group, sang a joyful song that he had composed especially for mother and baby, which amused everybody. This was followed by more music as all the brothers sang and a feast of Indian sweets and food prepared by an Indian cook was served.
Baby Noor sat quietly in her mother's lap through all the singing and a proud Inayat Khan told the students that she was already a theosophist.
Though Inayat Khan may have met Tsar Nicholas II through his friend Sergei Tolstoy, it is not certain whether Inayat Khan ever met the Russian mystic Rasputin. It is possible that he met him at St Petersburg, because Inayat Khan is known to have been in the city from 13 May till the end of the month.
Meanwhile the political atmosphere in Moscow was becoming highly charged and one of the Tsar's officers advised Inayat Khan to leave the city. Sergei Tolstoy loaned them a sledge and they prepared to leave. But on the day they decided to go, riots broke out and the people put up a barricade, barring their path. As the excited crowds gathered around their sledge, Inayat Khan took baby Noor from his wife's arms and held her up. So impressive was the sight of Inayat Khan in his golden yellow robes holding up the tiny baby that the crowd immediately fell silent and drew back the barricade.
The family made its way to St Petersburg and then to France. The Royal Musicians of Hindustan had an invitation to play at the International Music Congress in Paris in June. Ramaswami decided to return to India but the other musicians played at the Music Congress and stayed in Paris for a while, giving concerts and lectures. But soon war broke out in Europe. In August 1914, with German cannons pointing at Paris, Inayat Khan decided to take the family to London. Here he would be based for the next six years as Europe was torn by the First World War.
London in the war years was a hard environment for the family. Having drawn capacity audiences in Moscow and Paris, Inayat Khan now faced half-empty halls for the first few months. Everyone was preoccupied with the war. Noor was to spend the first few years of her life in considerable poverty and hardship. Yet her father's spirit, his calmness and meditative outlook, clearly imbued her with strength.
In London, Inayat Khan sang for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and brought tears to his eyes. He sang for Indian soldiers who lay injured in hospital and at charity concerts to raise funds for war widows. In June 1915 the Royal Musicians of Hindustan played in the opera Lakme and got good reviews.
Excerpted from Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu. Copyright © 2011 Shrabani Basu. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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