Red is not a colour

‘Color clings more, not necessarily to the object, but to territoriality…’
—Deleuze and Guattari[1]

‘sab qatl hoke tere muqabil se aaye hain,
hum log surkh-ru hain ki manzil se aaye hain’
(After being ambushed, we have returned to you,
Unabashed we have come back home)
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz[2]

Red is not a colour[3] but a story in Delhi. And stories become streets, may be even neatly folded maps, with densities of life and its familiarities. Cities through different seasons, Delhi winters, Bombay monsoons, Berlin springs, stick with adhesive haste to one’s existence in them. Roads become smells, street corners become conversations (and sometimes revolutions) and buildings become psyches, afflictions or affections. They stand as evidences of a life lived, intimacies shared and mnemonic milestones, like Angelus Novus in concrete and colour, making you look forward and backward at the same time.

Sarmad’s shrine as viewed from the Jama Masjid stairs facing Meena Bazaar.

Men of the cloak, even if drunk go unnoticed
Stories of lovers do rounds of the marketplace.[4]

This story first came flying to me as a teenager. Mother, an avid member of the Sahitya Akademi Library, had brought home a book titled Sarmad.[5] Father, who maintained the general ambience of the life of the mind in the house, a master storyteller himself, immediately started narrating the case of Sarmad’s bouncing head. Aurangzeb got Sarmad’s head chopped off, as he could not bear the friendship between him and Dara Shikoh. Sarmad walked up the stairs of Jama Masjid to pick up his bouncing head, while cursing and predicting the fall of the Mughal Empire. My overwrought death metal teenage imagination, excited with such morbid visualizations, marked a spot in my archive of stories. Father mentioned something about Kashan and Baghdad and about Sarmad being an Armenian Jew. Mother, in the meantime, immersed herself in the poems.[6]

Vendor selling blood-red Roof Afza outside the shrine.

I am sold in the market of love
I know not my buyer, nor my price.

Years later, the very crazy and brilliant D-School professor JPS Uberoi, taking big strides in his green corduroy pants and People Tree t-shirt, took me back to the Sarmad story. This time, it was about a street and the colour red. JPS, for those who know him, is a ventriloquist of thoughts and ideas. He could teach structuralism, history of the Renaissance, Islamic theology, engineering, Sufism and Marxism all in one sentence or, in this case, in a singular winter walk. This was 2001, and JPS liked to take walks to Old Delhi or what he referred to as his mashuka’s house. As we walked towards and then quickly away from Razia’s tomb, a non-descript structure of rubble stone, to the shimmering deep-red shrine of Sheikh Sarmad Shaheed, Uberoi explained that the tombs of kings and queens are uncovered, while those of Sufi saints are always adorned with cloth and flowers. Sarmad’s shrine, small and mostly shapeless, possibly made incrementally with concrete, stared at us in a luminous red. This was not the dull red of Red Fort or Jama Masjid but a deep bright acrylic red of fresh paint. Its ‘conservation’ is in its continuation as a site of worship, its redness an integral part of this renewal. Today, apart from the red exterior, there are red tiles adorning the inside of the dargah. The materiality of the shrine’s continuous renewal in red is inseparable from its symbolism. The shrine is not just a built structure but also a performance—of Sarmad’s life, death, his ideas, his poetry as also his love, rebellion and critique of the social order. It provides space to that which cannot be ordered, that which falls off the confines of orthodox religion, worship and societal norms; it provides solace to ideas of love and rebellion, annotated so fantastically in the red that is at once familiar and shocking.

The shrine, which earlier had its surfaces painted red, now has shiny red tiles to boast of.

When you pass by my graveside, have fortitude.
It shall become a place of worship
For all those smitten with love.

Uberoi loved explaining things through binaries.[7] He pointed to us that while the king could build the most glorious mosque facing his fort (Lal Qila), in order to enter the mosque (Jama Masjid), he had to first pay obeisance in front of the Sufi’s shrine, underlining the dialectic between the ruler’s power and that accorded to the local saint in the public sphere. At the time of this walk with Uberoi, Old Delhi was a place we went to get our ears pierced, buy notebooks or do nothing in particular—it was tucked away from its futures of curated walks and experiences. We did not actually know why we were walking, or talking, or just wandering. Sarmad too wandered the same streets—he would walk around naked, something that irked Aurangzeb. He was a malamati, that is, a believer in the doctrine of self-blame, where one purposely undertakes acts to invite insult and blame, as opposed to praise, in the pursuit of one’s enlightenment. Even today, the images on the pulp fiction sold outside the shrine portray Sarmad as a frail naked fakir siting on the ground, pointing his hand towards the ornamentally clothed, head-geared king.

Shop outside the shrine, run by Javed Zaidi and his family, which sells pulp fiction on Sarmad, religious iconography, and flowers and incense for offering at the shrine.

One story goes that once Aurangzeb walks towards Jama Masjid for his Friday prayers and comes across Sarmad sitting naked at his usual spot. The king rebukes Sarmad, ‘Why are you sitting naked here, at the time of the prayers, ruining people’s wazoo?’ Pointing to an old blanket, Sarmad tells the king to cover him if he is so bothered. When Aurangzeb picks up the blanket, the heads of all the people he had killed and will kill tumble out. To this Sarmad responds, ‘Ab tu hee bata ki tere aibon ko chupaon ya apni sharmgah ko—should I hide your sins or cover my nakedness?’ Sarmad’s nakedness stands against the grandiosity of the king’s attire, his self-blame attitude in opposition to one that seeks praise, his abstinence against the ostentatiousness of kings—binaries that provide the key to understanding how the world was structured in Sarmad’s time as much as it perhaps continues to do today.

My tall Beloved has dwarfed me
His wine cup eyes have snatched my senses
He is in my arms, yet I seek him.  

What a strange thief
He has stripped me of my garments.

Sarmad had spun many worlds upside down. At the time of his trial at the court, he was ordered to read aloud the kalma ‘la illaha Ilaallah’ (there is no god but god). Sarmad started with ‘la illaha’, namely, ‘there is no god’ and stopped, much to the horror of the jury. Breaking in the middle the kalma, he provided the public sphere with a different interpretation of a theological doctrine. It is significant to note that Sarmad was sentenced to death for his blasphemy, rather than his other malamati acts, including nudity.

Presently I am drowned in negation;
I have not yet attained the station of affirmation.
If I said the whole phrase in this state,
I would be telling a lie.[8]

I encountered Sarmad’s story again, many years later, at a class being conducted by Syeda Hameed on the theology and sociology of Islam. She explained to the students, mostly comprising women, that Sarmad had fallen in love. She went on to elaborate that he had fallen in love with a Hindu jeweller’s son, Abhay Chand, whose long, supple fingers formed the subject of many of his writings. The story goes that eventually Sarmad and Abhay Chand had to run away from Thatta in Sindh, where they first met, to Lahore, eventually landing in Delhi in the winters. How does one explain forms of love and belonging to the people of any city?

There continue to exist in this city forms of love that cannot be explained—it is not about heterosexuality or homosexuality; it is just an irrevocable form of human desire, the comfort with someone’s mind and body, which cannot be crafted into the legitimate archives of a public and social life. It has to be hidden, may be even from one’s self, because it has become too endearing, where the sense of the self and the other has moved into laughter, friendship, and the completion of each others sentences, moods and positions of sleep. Such lovers can sleep anywhere, as long as they are together, curl into fort walls, invisible beds in parks and hidden rooms. Are the rooms hidden or the love?

Sarmad’s grave lies alongside that of Hare Bhare Shah, supposedly one of his teachers.

How do we create our own stories about cities or different parts of the city? Why do some parts hold for us deeper intimacies and familiarities than others? Sarmad’s story has continued to reappear through the last twenty years of my life in Delhi, whether it is through the mind, home, classroom or street. Inadvertently, every trip to the old city would end up in a walk down to Sarmad’s shrine. It is like walking down to a friend’s house or a beloved’s. Walked routes, which are always meeting us in different places in the city, are about intimacy and love. The Ghazipur nallah, which through years of growing up and living in Delhi held no meaning for me, now suddenly holds the same joy as walking on the back side of Nizamuddin East, going to Lodi Gardens, or heading towards Sarmad’s. So how does one think of these relationships with city spaces and our lives lived through them? Another teacher, Savyasaachi, would always explain routes of walking and living in the city through ishq, an entirely untranslatable term for him and not amenable to neat categorizations. What can you translate of ishq in the forms of the everyday, the routines, the smells of streets at night with the elaichiwala jinn, the paan and chai shops, and the trees laden with shehtoot? This could be the banal love of the everyday, not embedded in events, allegations or proclamations, but based on repetitions, circles of the self and the other, of knowing a route, without a map, without asking others, making you a different person everyday, yet endearingly continuing our relationships and our lives. As much as it creates the city and its spaces for you, it also creates a ‘new’ you in its repetitions.

Who is the lover, beloved, idol and idol-maker but you?
Who is the beloved of the Kaaba, the temple and the mosque?
Come to the garden and see the unity in this array of colours.
In all of this, who is the lover, the beloved, the flower and the thorn?[9]

Yet another encounter of such repetitions and circulations of life in Delhi once led me to a resting spot near Gate 1 of Jama Masjid. As I sat there on a hot sunny day, exhausted, I turned to look behind, seeing a dilapidated and dull grave marked with Abhay Chand’s name. Maybe it was a mirage of my mind as, since then, I have never been able to relocate the grave, nor find any mention of it in any historical literature. Maybe some aspects of love stories are meant to fade into the debris of the city as it builds itself anew, as we build ourselves anew, with the passing of each beloved.

pic 5 Sarmad
The shrine complex co-hosts the graves of two Sufi saints, namely, Hare Bhare Shah in green and Sarmad in red.

Interestingly, today Sarmad’s grave rests with that of Hare Bhare Shah, the two graves neatly demarcated by red and green respectively. According to one legend, after Sarmad’s execution, he was walking up the stairs of Jama Masjid, dancing and cursing the king and his empire, with his head in his hand. Hare Bhare Shah, possibly Sarmad’s first teacher, reminds him not to be vain and not go against the natural order of things, accept his death graciously and walk his path to heaven. Little is known of Hare Bhare Shah, but today his grave rests with that of Sarmad’s. According to some, he is none other than Sarmad himself.

Sarmad 6
From Sadequain’s series of paintings titles Sar-ba-Kaf (1970).

My head was severed from my body
by that flirt who was my Companion.
Otherwise, the headache
Would have been too severe.

In my archive of chopped heads, the Sarmad story from the red staircase of Jama Masjid fits right in. The first entrant to this archive was Chinnamasta, the evocative malevolent goddess, who cuts off her own head, and stands atop a copulating couple, with a steady flow of her blood flowing into two side dishes held by her female friends. No blood is wasted in this archetypical moment of letting go of your false consciousness, or self-decapitation, reminding one again and again to let go of the head sometimes. The next head in this archive is of dear Orpheus, whose still singing head becomes the oracle of the island of Lesbos; then there is Kali with her head collection couture necklace, and many others. One wonders, what is so compelling about these imageries, specifically the imagery of Sarmad walking up the stairs of Jama Masjid with his head in his hand. Sadequain (Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi), the Pakistani modernist artist, drew out a whole series titled Sar-ba-Kaf (1970) inspired by this imagery. Lingering possibly at each corner of such a vivid and repeated imagery is the idea of a dialogue with the self. Each story of chopped heads is as much about the social as it is about our selves. The self most strongly emerges when the Eros contends with the Thanatos. Sarmad left us a reminder of this dialogue, this dialectics of the self and the other, the king and the pauper, the remembered and the forgotten, the red and the green. Here in a street corner of Old Delhi, the same notable red that streaks the streets of the city on Valentine’s Day or in a protest march sits as a silent reminder of the many binaries, many dialectics that the city offers us. The same red, now no longer just a colour for me, but a story, stands steadily as the city holds together our many beloveds, our many stories, our many colours and our many heads (off site and on).

An age has passed
Since Mansur’s ‘An Al Haq’.
I am here to give fresh lustre
To the gallows.

—Sarover Zaidi

All images, except Sadequain’s painting, © Sarover Zaidi.

[1] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] Author’s translation.

[3] The title of this essay is taken from architect and architectural theorist Bernard Tschumi’s book Architecture Concepts: Red is Not a Color (2012, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.), an anthology of his works. The book functions as a manual of his ideas, structures, cinematic interests, and philosophical and political motivations. Moving from sections titled ‘Space Event Movement’ to ‘Concept/Context/Content’, Tschumi interestingly deploys philosophical concepts in the making of his works. This essay attempts a similar overture in its elaboration on red.

[4] All poems quoted henceforth, unless mentioned otherwise, are from Sarmad. 1991. The Rubaiyat of Sarmad, trans. Syeda Saiyidain Hameed. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

[5] Ezekiel, I.A. 1966. Sarmad. Beas: Radha Soami Satsang.

[6] Sarmad, according to a majority of sources, was an Armenian Jewish tradesman, who visited and settled in the Indian subcontinent in the seventeenth century. While it is unclear whether all the writings ascribed to Sarmad are actually his, the earliest source on Sarmad—Mubad Shah’s Dabistan—clearly presents him as a mystic and a seer, who also wrote a set of rubaiyats. First published in 1660, Dabistan was translated by David Shea and Anthony Troyer in 1843; see The Dabistan or School of Manners, 3 volumes. Paris: Oriental Translation Fund. Twentieth-century writings on Sarmad include Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s essay ‘Sarmad Shaheed’, later translated from Urdu by Syeda Hameed in 1991. According to Shad Naved, scholar of comparative literature, there is a marked trend in the ascription of a body of poetry and personality traits to one saint or person, who may or may not have existed. Folklore does not settle on singular authorships, but when it makes the transition from oral tradition to the written format, it often ends up ascribing a singular authorship. There exist today, in sociological, literary and theological literature, different tellings of Sarmad’s story, his origins, his life and even his dramatic death in Delhi.

[7] Drawing from the Marxist concept of dialectics, a binary in structural anthropology is a way of thinking of and seeing the world in terms of complementary opposites, for instance, the raw and the cooked, the foul and the fragrant, life and death.

[8] Quoted from Donald A. Sharif Graham, ‘Sarmad: The Cheerful, Naked Martyr’, available at, accessed on 10 June 2018.

[9] This translation has been adapted by the author, after looking at various Persian and English versions of this very famous rubaiyat, including that of Syeda Hameed (1991).

8 thoughts on “Red is not a colour”

  1. Red, and ishq and liberation (even though you don’t use that word)… Chopping off a head, or perhaps more and then rejoicing is a form of desired liberation. I could almost feel your hand writing this while the other held your own chopped head, that cackled at the world it saw anew. This is, thus far, my favourite of your essays. There is something in the way you have written. It is hee(a)dless, indeed!


  2. Brilliant. Very moving too. The two graves were “vandalized” when Sanjay Gandhi cleared the steps of Jama Masjid and created the Mina Bazar. It also destroyed their ties to Maulana Azad’s grave. The maulana wrote another brilliant essay on Sarmad.


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