India connects with Sufi music after nearly 200 years

April 1st, 2008 - 10:30 am ICT by admin  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
“Bulla, I know not, who I am
Not a believer inside the mosque,
Nor a pagan disciple of fake rites
Not the pure among the impure…
Neither fire, nor from air is my birth” These secular lyrics penned by Sufi mystic Baba Bulleh Shah in the 17th century and set to music by a folk singer on his acoustic guitar had the young and the old - Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths - rocking in India.

Rabbi Shergill was not the only one. Several contemporary Indian musicians have been travelling back in time to cull influences from Sufi music - a legacy bequeathed by 13th century poet-saint Jalaluddin Muhammed Rumi, the founder of the cult of the “whirling dervishes”, the first-generation Sufi minstrels. These “spiritual rebels” sought to commune with god through their poetry, music and dance; instead of through
dogmatic religion.

As the politics of violence gather force everywhere in the world, India is seeing a revival of Sufi music as a buffer against the troubled times, after almost 200 years of obscurity.

The essence of Sufism, as summed up in author Margaret Smith’s words, is “this everlasting desire of man for his unison with god can be seen in certain strands of Hinduism, in neo-Platonism, in Christian mysticism and Islamic Sufism”. It draws from Hebrew traditions as well.

The new generation of Sufi singers are promoting the music as a “sound of connectivity, peace and friendship” transcending borders, class, creed, race and country. “It is universal, pan-Indian and is of the people. It talks of love, not hatred,” says Sufi singer Hansraj Hans from Jalandhar in Punjab.

He treats Sufi music as a bridge between India and Pakistan, the nation from where the music came to India in the 12th century.

“My home state Punjab was the transit point where all the Sufi saints from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Persia (now West Asia) and even beyond camped upon their arrival to India,” says Hans. In the process, Punjab developed a rich legacy of Sufi music, which later combined with Punjabi folk to create a distinct Punjabi folk-Sufi genre.

Hans is dedicated to his greater cause. Every year, the Sufi musician visits the border between India and Pakistan near Wagah, barely 40 km his home state, for candlelight “Sufi vigils” on the eve of India’s Independence Day on Aug 14 to sing songs of peace and amity.

“I have been doing it for 11 years. There have been skirmishes on the border, gunbattles between the armies on both sides, but we have braved it,” says Hans. He usually leads a group of 300-400 Sufi singers every year.

The modern-day Sufi singers are a curious clutch of contemporary rockers from India and Pakistan with their guitars and drum sets and a handful of traditionalists, who stay the original ‘no-frills’ course. Most of their lyrics are old Sufi poetry written by the 12th century poet Baba Sheikh Farid, the 15th century saint Shah Hussain, Baba Bulleh Shah and the 19th century poet Hazrat Sultan Bahoo - considered the cream of the lot.

“The association of the words Sufi and Sufism with the English usage of the term mysticism often leaves the impression on those not too well acquainted with the Sufi way that it is some kind of mysterious cult centred on enigmatic figures called Sufis. The impression may be reinforced if one approaches Sufism as a system of abstract ideas, but when encountered in real life, it turns out to be a body of practical wisdom or knowledge employed by people living harmoniously with each other,” writes Hassan N. Gardezi, quoting Shah, Idries, “The Way of the Sufi”, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974.

Sufi music has a universal sound because it speaks of everyday things - like pain, poverty, emotions, joys, sorrows and way of the lives of common people in the context of their ties with the “supreme power”.

The notes are plaintive, folksy and full of joy de vivre. “It is a celebration of life, encapsulating freedom from the dogmatic tyranny of religion through the doctrine of love,” says New Delhi-based Sufi exponent Madan Gopal Singh.

Singh, who is not a trained musician, responds to the Sufi poetic language. “I do not believe in the convention of classical music,” he says.

Recently, he fused a few stanzas from John Lennon’s “Imagine” to his Sufi repertoire at a recital in the capital.

The language of the songs is an improvised mixture of Punjabi (the language of Punjab), Urdu (the official language of Pakistan), Persian (spoken in Iran and the rest of the West Asian countries) and Turkish.

“The styles are different. Baba Farid, to whom we trace back the modern Punjabi Sufi music, is pithy. He wrote short two-liners - couplets, like Sant Kabir, the Varanasi-based Sufi saint who combined songs of devotion to Lord Krishna with Islamic Sufism. Baba Farid can be called the ‘Adi Guru’ (the old teacher) of Sufi music because he preceded even Rumi by 27 years,” says Singh.

Shah Hussain, on the other hand, wrote expansive poetry because India was expanding to cover the subcontinent during his time (15-16th century).

The Sufi movement in India took off during the rule of the “great slaves led by Qutub-ud-din Aibak” between the 11th and 12th century AD when the first batch of “Sufi minstrels” descended from the Arabian peninsula to spread the love for Allah and made Punjab their home. Subsequently, they moved to Delhi.

“The arrival of the first wave of Sufi saints sparked a wave of conversions. Many marginal backward caste Hindus who were not allowed entry into shrines converted to Islam because they were given a vision to commune with god and space for creative expression. It goes against the popular belief that the Hindus were converted by force. Sufi music was a hit with the neo-converts because it spelt freedom,” says Singh.

Sufi music peaked when legendary dervishes like Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrao refined it into an “elite genre of its own”.

A genre as much at home in a rocking party as in a ‘dargah’; to dance to and to reflect with.

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