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World of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Musician-Turned-Sufi Father of Noor Inayat Khan, Aka the ‘Spy Princess’

By Nishtha Gautam

06 February 2019


Noor Inayat Khan playing the Veena. Photo Courtesy: Messy Nessy Chic


He taught music and mysticism when the world was gearing up for World War I.

His daughter became a spy in World War II.

Welcome to the world of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the musician-turned-Sufi father of Noor Inayat Khan, aka the ‘Spy Princess’.

One of the most identifiable photographs of Noor show her clad in a Saree and playing the Veena. Inayat’s legacy of music and mysticism are beautifully captured in his daughter’s picture, though rarely spoken about beyond the Sufi circuit.

The daughter, however, has assumed a pop-culture icon status. This year will see the global release of the Radhika Apte starrer Liberté: A Time to Spy, where Noor’s life is commemorated on celluloid.

The protagonist of this article, however, is her father.

A great great grandson of Tipu Sultan, Inayat grew up in the Gaekwad court of Baroda, where his maternal grandfather, Maula Bakhsh Khan, had founded a music school called ‘Gyanshala’, under the patronage of Sayajirao Gaekwad. Maula Bakhsh was married to Qasim Bibi, a granddaughter of Tipu Sultan. Inayat’s father Rahmat Khan was married to two daughters of Maula Bakhsh and helped the latter with the academy of music.

Inayat travelled with his musician father to the different princely courts of India. Apart from the musical milieu of the courts of Baroda, Hyderabad, Nepal and Gwalior, the city of Benares cast an almost mystical influence on his music at a tender age.

Inayat also inherited the educationist genes from his grandfather. He wrote a textbook of music, Balasangitmala, in Hindustani to teach music to children at the age of 14. It is said that this was an endeavour to bring music education particularly to the female children in Muslim households. For a 14-year-old boy, such perceptiveness about accessibility is admirably precocious.

Baroda, now Vadodara, boasts of the grandest Navratri celebrations in Gujarat, and possibly the country. Inayat’s role in making it special is indisputable. His Sayaji Garbavali, a music collection for garba, brought a unique character to the royal festivities at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace.

Taking Maula Bakhsh’s project of bringing the music of the East and the West together further, Inayat learnt Western music from his uncle Dr Alauddin Khan, who had returned from England after obtaining a doctorate in music. The music of the East, however, continued to live and breathe in him.

Here is a sample of how the East and the West blended in his music:

Musician Inayat to Mystic Inayat

Inayat is said to have been disappointed by the lack of seriousness and growing commercialisation in the world of music. His stay in Bombay as a young musician was not easy. He found the practice of setting a match between two musicians to be a cruel one. Inayat thought that the only pleasure anyone derived was out of seeing one musician humiliating the other and there was no harmony in this. For him creating and listening music were spiritual experiences.

Inayat’s experiment with mysticism began with his coming into contact with his Persian and Arabic literature teacher, Maulana Hashimi, during his stay at the court of Hyderabad. This is when he met Syed Mohammad Hashim Madani at the house of Maulana Hashimi. Madani was a Pir, or guru, of the Chishtiyya order of Sufis. Till the Pir died in 1908, Inayat chose to stay in Hyderabad honing his music and mysticism together. Very soon, however, the mystic was to overpower the musician: Inayat chose Sufism over music.

Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan

Inayat moved to New York in 1910 with a view to spread Sufism in the West. “I came to America with the Sufi Message, I had to carry out my mission, my profession, in which my cousin Ali Khan and my two brothers Mahboob Khan and Musheraff Khan assisted me,” he wrote in his autobiography. He delivered his first lecture at Columbia University and spent the next two years travelling and exchanging ideas at various universities and religious institutions.

He moved to England in 1912 and spent the next 14 years spreading the teachings of Sufism in Europe. He represented the Chistiyya order of Sufism and founded the Sufi Order in London in 1914, complete with a Khanqah (headquarter). The Sufi Order later became the International Sufi Movement.

Inayat’s Sufi teachings influenced many big names in the West including musician Claude Debussy, psychologist Roberto Assagioli, pianist Scriabin, and the automobile giant Henry Ford.

He returned to India in 1926 and died on 5 February 1927. He was buried near the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Every year his Urs (death anniversary) is celebrated in the Sufi tradition of paying musical homage. This year, Mohi Bahauddin Dagar, an exponent of the Rudra-Veena, is playing at the urs. Bahauddin plays this ancient classical musical instrument in ‘Dhrupad’ style, the oldest living vocal tradition of India. He finds it to be a great honour to be able to play at the Pir’s urs.

“An invite for playing at urs is a blessing . It is because of such Pirs that music is alive in our family. It is because of them that we know the presence of the Almighty, who is recognised in different cultures with different names. For me, it is clear from Pir Inayat’s saying that goes like this: the path to realisation is not about religion, but the search for truth. This line alone is a book in itself, and is everything one needs to be,” Bahauddin says.

Inayat’s Legacy

The musician-mystic has left a glorious legacy behind. His daughter Noor’s life is but one aspect of it. She followed her father steps in not only studying music—she learnt from Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory — but also, in focusing on children’s holistic education. She studied child psychology and wrote a children’s book inspired by Buddhist tales.

As recalled by Vilayat Khan – Inayat’s son and Noor’s brother – she joined the Special Operations Executive because Inayat brought up his children on the Sufi principles of peace and harmony. At the outbreak of WWII, Vilayat and Noor decided, “Well, if we are going to join the war, we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing.” Vilayat volunteered for minesweeping and she volunteered for SOE. Vilayat survived and became a Sufi mystic like his father; Noor was captured and executed in Dachau.

Inayat’s other son, Hidayat, became a classical composer and conductor. His body of work in music brought eastern monophony and western polyphony together. His youngest child Khair-un-nissa trained as a nurse and ended up working in a lab at Dunn institute at Oxford University where Sir Howard Florey was developing penicillin for medical use.

A conversation between a Dutch poet and Inayat can easily summarise what his beliefs were. While it is difficult to establish the veracity of this exchange, it surely acts as an aphoristic encapsulation of Inayat Khan’s life. A Dutch poet once asked him “Don’t you think, Murshid, that the poet must love God, but admire Satan also?” Inayat replied “I do not separate God from Satan.” The poet insisted, “But God Himself has separated”. Inayat retorted with “That is His own affair.”