Sufism is neither a religion nor a cult. Any person who has knowledge of both inner and outer life is a sufi.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan, Sufi philosopher and practitioner)
It is Thursday evening and I am at the NCPA Mumbai’s Tata Theatre to attend an evening of Sufi music. The above words by Inayat Khan leap out of the beautifully produced and informative programme brochure on “Sama’a The Mystic Ecstasy: Festival of Sufi Music” as I read it to familiarise myself with the programme. Though I have listened to some Sufi music over the years, I have never attended a live performance. I also do not know anything about the history of Sufism or Sufi music, for that matter, except for the fact that music is central to the core experience of Sufism. The programme brochure states that
… music is regarded as a means for the believer to get closer to the Divine. Sufi music therefore is music of the ‘soul’ by the ‘soul’ and for the ‘soul’.
It is the second day of the 3-day festival of Sufi Music at the NCPA, and on offer that day are two performances. The first is by the Nuba Awamrya: Brotherhood Music by the Hadra Sidi Mansour Ensemble from Tunisia, and the second is a Qawwali performance by Haji Aslam Sabri.
When the theatre bell rings, signifying the time for the performance to begin, a member of the Hadra Sidi Mansour Ensemble comes on the stage with coal burners and places one burner at the centre of the stage and another burner in a corner. He then sprinkles some powder on the hot coal and the auditorium is suddenly filled with the aroma of incense. He then goes back inside and brings out what looks like tambourines (which I later found were called bandirs) and places them around the coal burner, as if to warm them up. The stage is laid out with a violet/purple carpet and the backdrop is a façade of a domed white structure—a quintessential example of Islāmic architecture. All of us in the audience watch this, almost as if it was THE main performance itself !
We didn’t have to wait long for the actual performance to begin. A presenter soon came on stage and introduced the Hadra Sidi Mansour Ensemble and their music to the audience. “Hadra” means a congregation of Sufi followers, and the Sidi Mansour Ensemble is named after its founder, Sidi Mansour a prominent black Sufi saint from the North African region.Trance is integral to the practice of Hadra as are percussion instruments like the bandir, an earthen hand drum known as darbuka, and the zukra, a wind instrument which looks like and sounds like the Indian been. The lyrics of the songs to be presented by the Ensemble are based on popular Arabic poetry and the music has been transmitted orally through generations.The Ensemble performed 5 songs and the pattern for each song was similar: the lead singer would begin with the recitation of a verse, accompanied on the zukra. They would then be joined by the other members of the Ensemble on the bandir, who also provided vocal support. After some time into the performance, the dancers joined in. There were 2 dancers, one of whom slipped into a trance as each song progressed. The other dancer would dance, exhort the audience to clap at certain places, supply a steady stream of warmed-up bandirs from the coal burners, and periodically sprinkle incense on the coal.
When the programme announcer said that one of the dancers would go into a trance like state, I thought it would be a state, where the dancer would perhaps spin a la whirling dervish style, or maybe maintain a particular pose for a certain length of time. I could not have been more wrong. A trance-like state here meant that the dancer leapt about the stage, placed his feet on the coal burner, brought his face close to the coals, flung off his cowl-like robe, and generally startled the audience, particularly those in the front rows. After the first song, I just shut my eyes as I found the “dance of the trance” disturbing as well as distracting. This immediately made a difference to my enjoyment of the Ensemble’s performance as I was able to concentrate on the lyrics, the music and the fantastic percussion. I love the Arabic language and it was beautiful to hear the verses sung by the Ensemble.
The Ensemble finished their performance and received a standing ovation from the audience. While I liked their performance, I wish that one of the Ensemble’s members had talked about themselves, their philosophy and their body of work. I think it would have made a world of difference in the appreciation (or lack) of their performance as this type of music was new for many of us in the audience.
The 15-minute break that we had before the next performance saw the audience rush out for some sustenance. I found to my surprise that in addition to their usual fare of sanwiches and bevarages, the NCPA had also laid out a special menu of chicken and vegetable kebabs and roomali rotis in honour of the Festival of Sufi Music. The food was delicious and partly responsible for the slight delay in the programme resuming 😉
When we came back to the auditorium after that lip-smacking break, the stage settings had changed a bit. Gone was the purple carpet and in its place was a white rug, on which were placed instruments tablas, harmoniums, a dholak and a banjo. The backdrop, however, had not changed. Even though I had never attended one, I could immediately place the setting as perfect for the Qawwali programme by Haji Aslam Sabri.
Sufism took roots in the Indian sub-continent in the 14th century. According to the Sama’s page on NCPA’s website, Sufi music in region “finds expression through Ghazal, Qawwali and various folk forms from Rajasthan, Punjab and Sindh, based on the poetry of mystic poets including Baba Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai, and others”. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a wandering dervish, was the founder of the Chishtiya Order in the region and Haji Aslam Sabri hails from a Sufi family connected with this Order. Though the Qawwali is performed mainly at dargahs (Sufi shrines), it has gained mainstream popularity.
Central to a Qawwali’s performance is the mehfil-e-sama or the assembly for listening and interacting with. And Haji Aslam Sabri illustrated just how this is done. He sang songs, explained certain verses, recited shers, teased the audience, provoked responses from them, and above all made pertinent and pointed observations on religion, communalism, politics, and state of society itself through his performance. Sabri and his ensemble presented works by Amir Khusrow and Kabir. Visibly peeved at being given only 1 hour for his performance, Sabri said that such time was only sufficient for getting into the right “mood” and that he required a minimum of 3 hours for a performance.
Looking at the audience around me, I was intrigued to see such an eclectic mix of people. There were people who had come straight from the office like me in various stages of formal, semi formal and casual wear. There were also the silk and chiffon people, the khadi kurta-pajama-jhola people, suited and booted people, celebrities and non-celebrities, locals and expats, students in their grungiest or trendiest best… I had never seen such a diverse mix at a concert before, and certainly not at the NCPA. None of them fit in with my stereotype of what a Sufi music lover should be like. But then what do I know about what such a person looks like?
Erab, my Palestian friend had once asked me as to why Sufism was so popular in the Indian sub-continent, and particularly in India which has a dominant Hindu population. I did not have an answer then, and I do not have an answer even now. But I can make a guess at the reason after having attended my first Sufi music performance. Sufi music may have had its origins in Islam, but its approach is more spiritual than religious. And therein lies its appeal across different types of populations, which could be seen in the very composition of the audience that evening. The power of sufi music is such that it appeals to the spiritually inclined aficionado, the amateur and the curious in equal measure.
Unfortunately, I could not stay till the end of Sabri’s performance as I had a long journey back home. Besides, I had to go to work the next day as well. As I left the auditorium, I was once again reminded of the lines I read in the brochure of Sufi music being “of the ‘soul’ by the ‘soul’ and for the ‘soul’ “.
For me, while the music was for the soul, the little knowledge that I gained about Sufism and Sufi music was definitely for the mind, and the specially made food reflecting the Sufi theme was for the body. The entire evening was a Sufiana experience for the mind, body and soul !