Ginans are poetic compositions which have been a central part of the religious life of the Nizari Ismailis of the Indian subcontinent, who now reside in many countries around the world. The literature is also shared by the Imamshahi community in Gujarat, who are believed to have split off from the Nizari Ismailis sometime in the sixteenth century.1
The term ginan is derived from the Sanskrit jnana, meaning ‘contemplative knowledge’ or ‘wisdom.’
Ginans were composed by Pirs and Saiyads, or preachers, who came to the Indian subcontinent as early as the eleventh century. Saiyads, a term also used to refer to Sufi masters, were distinguished from Pirs, a title which indicated formal appointment by the Imam. Most of the seventeen Saiyads who authored ginans were descended from Pir Hasan Kabirdin’s son Imamshah or his other children.
Ginans were composed at a time when the literary tradition was flourishing in the subcontinent. The composition of devotional and mystical poetry among the Sufis was also developing at this time. Composed in several local languages of the Indian subcontinent from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, ginans served as secondary texts to convey the teachings of the Qur’an and the esoteric Ismaili interpretation of Islam to non-Arabic speaking people; longer versions were called granths.
Ginanic compositions were influenced by the rasa – the emotive experience evoked by the literary work – which was a prevalent medium of art from the twelfth century on in Gujarat, where the early Pirs were based. The rasa, which was recited to a raga (melody), was a frequently used medium for religious instruction and to express specific emotional feelings; each composition always ended with the name of the composer and with prayers for forgiveness.
Ginans are distinguished by the raga as well as the names of the accepted author that appear in the last verse of every ginan, similar to the rasa. The music in ginans is vital for invoking specific emotional states; many manuscripts indicate their connection to rituals such as before daily prayer or at funerals, or as aids to meditation.
Very popular in the Gujarati folk life is the garbi, a folk dance, with the word applied to the song as well as the singing party itself. The individuals move around in a circle and sing to the accompaniment of a rhythmical clap of hands and feet. Pir Shams, who authored the largest number of garbis, is said to have joined the Hindus in their dance during the festival of navratri, substituting his own words for theirs, thus teaching them the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.
Listen to a Garbi by Pir Shams – Evi garbi sampurna at the Library, University of Saskatchewan.
1 Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Azim Nanji, The Nizari Isma’ili Tradition in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Caravan Books, New York, 1978
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions, 2008
Compiled by Nimira Dewji