The Dawn: June 20, 2014

Punjab Notes: Sufi music: new cultural hocus-pocus

Mushtaq Soofi 

The so-called ‘Sufi music’ is much in vogue these days. It seems to be a serendipitous find for the ruling segment of our society that has put it on display as a magic wand that may help prevent the things from falling apart without taking into account what actually unhinged the things in the first place in another wise traditionally well knit society.

Music does play an important aesthetic role in creating an ambiance whereby an ordered sound produced by humans emerges as an echo of harmony out of cacophonous chaos that is a reflection of social and political anarchy unleashed by inequitable societal structure.

Let it be asserted at the outset that in our huge repertoire of music whether classical, light or folk, there is nothing such as Sufi music. The term itself is of recent origins born of politically motivated culture. What at the most may be held out as an evidence of Sufi music’s existence is Qawwali which if probed a little, would show you that it has mystical as well as secular content since its inception in the period of Muslim rule in India.

And it’s no longer Qawwali that stands as a vehicle of new Sufi music which is little more than verses of poets/mystics sung mostly in unprofessional ways by novices. Pick any musical instrument you like, take some verses of some mystic poet and start singing with whatever little skill you have. Rest assured you will instantly be labeled a Sufi singer.

It’s not your singing which is usually much less than music that makes you a singer. It’s rather the verses that stamp you as singer whether you qualify to be so or not. So Sufi music is a misnomer flaunted as tool of cultural politics with an ill-conceived notion that being venerable and venerated it can tone down the social strife while fully maintaining the exploitative system that creates conditions responsible for unending conflicts between different sections of society.

Music has historically played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting our great poetry in the manner of oral tradition from generation to generation by the singers in the absence of official patronage.

The new gadgetry under the control of state or corporate sector has added little to the cultural richness of the people as in the words of poet Brecht ‘from new transmitters came the old stupidities/wisdom was passed on from mouth to mouth’.

Music in Punjab has a large variety of genres such as classical music (Raga and Tappa) light classical (Thumri, Dadra, Kafi), Qissa singing (rendition of tales and legends) and folksongs. The lyrical genre of Kafi, the favourite of Sufi poets, though having a hallo of spirituality is not confined in anyway to the expression of mystical experiences.

It’s also a vehicle of mundane reality; social and erotic. But the magic about the Kafi is that the poets had the vision and the capacity to raise the mundane to the level of celestial blurring the line between the material and the spiritual.

The Sufis no doubt stood for social harmony and tolerance but their concept of unity is no way premised on the acceptance of the existing socio economic order based on the human inequality. They in fact were the ones who defied the norms evolved in the name of class, creed and colour through their peaceful practice.

Their poetic expression is the ‘soul of the soulless conditions’ that needs to be grasped and handled carefully if its musical rendition is conceived as a means of inspiring the cultural and psychic transformation.

Older generation being linked with the soil was able to comprehend the meanings and nuances of such a creative act better than the contemporary lot which is so proud of its mundane nothingness, an inevitable result of cultural disconnect.

It’s worth remembering that in 20th century we see the giants of classical music like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Tawakkal Khan, Ashiq Ali Khan, Chote Ghulam Ali Khan, Zahida Perveen and the celebrated duo Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Nazakat Ali Khan enthralling the people and the connoisseurs alike with their Kafi singing.

Add to the list the classically trained popular singers such as Tufail Niazi, Hussain Bux Dhadi, Jumman, Pathane Khan and Hamid Ali Bela. These singers understood the verses of Sufis and with their honed skill created the audio landscape replete with spiritual nuances opening a window to what is knowable unknown.

In no way it is implied that young singers shouldn’t sing the Sufi poetry or sing the way their predecessors did. Each generation has to make music in its own way to meet the creative needs of their times. A genuine artist is never prisoner of the past or the present.

The linier time is for the pragmatists. It’s heartening to watch our young singers especially from the middle classes singing our Sufi poets who have the creative power to impact our mass psyche. But they will leave no impact if they are not properly trained in music.

What they must be warned against is their tendency to allow themselves to be used as an instrument by the forces of status quo in civil society and corporate sector in their desperate efforts to perpetuate the moribund system appropriating the Sufis and their inclusive view of life with insidious intent. What is expected of them is that their singing like the verses of the Sufis would have some liberating effect on our intellectually subjugated people. ‘Let the debate rage (between the Sufi and the Mullah), let the drum beat, let the burner smoke, let the poor share the meal. That is what would comfort Bullah’ is how Bulleh Shah, the iconoclastic poet-saint paints his precinct. People will not miss the message if the mystic drum really beats.—

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