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Islam and Spiritualism ( 21 Dec 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The subcontinent’s common Sufi strain

T.S. Eliot’s words: ‘You are the music while the music lasts.’

By Sudheendra Kulkarni

Dec 21, 2008

Come for my concert, messaged my friend Vidya Shah, an acclaimed classical singer whose rendering of bhakti and Sufi songs demonstrates the syncretic nature of Indian culture, how Hindus and Muslims can discover the convergence of their spiritual traditions in devotional music. Winter is when Delhi’s music world comes alive. Vidya sang on the first day of a two-day festival last month in Delhi called Bajat Anhad Naad. Listening to her I was reminded of the truth in poet T.S. Eliot’s words: ‘You are the music while the music lasts.’ Her one song that left a deep imprint on me proclaims a bigger truth: “Koti Brahmands (crores of universes) get created in a second, get destroyed in a second. It’s all Hari’s leela.”


But it is the singer on the second day, an Indian music teacher in Kabul, about whom I want to write today. His name is Ustad Sufi Bawra. In the two-and-half hours that they performed, he and his troupe created a universe of sounds, which at one level dissolved the material world around me and left me transfixed on the eternal message of their songs. Take ‘Allah-Hu’ (pronounced Al-lah hoo, which means the One Who Is), for example. Who, except dogmatic Marxists, will remain unmoved by the power of its lyrics and the mesmerising manner of its singing? “Yeh zameen jab na thi, aasman jab na tha/ chand sooraj na the, yeh jahan jab na tha/ jab na tha kuch yahan magar tu hi tu/Allah hu....” (When this earth wasn’t there, nor the sky; when the stars and the sun weren’t there, nor this world; when there was nothing here, you were here.) True, no other singer has sung this song better than Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the greatest qawwaal produced by Pakistan. Yet, Sufi Bawra was able to recreate the magical effect of this incomparable prayer.


Music, even of the most mystical kind, cannot be divorced from the world in which we live. Hence, Bawra’s songs naturally focussed my thoughts on today’s tragic reality that binds Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together. A war is raging on in Afghanistan for the past three decades. It has killed millions. Its flames, stoked by Russia, America and Pakistan, have reached India too in the form of terrorism and religious extremism. It has wrought destruction in Pakistan too. Therefore, while remaining immersed in Sufi Bawra’s divine music, it was impossible not to wonder how far our subcontinent has moved away from the wise teachings of our saints and poets. Here he was singing a song from Bulleh Shah, the greatest Sufi poet of the undivided Punjab, who had exhorted: “Remove duality and do away with all disputes; The Hindus and Muslims are not other than He. Deem everyone virtuous, there are no thieves. For, within every body He himself resides. How the Trickster has put on a mask!” Here he was singing Dama Dam Mast Qalandar, a song in honour of two of the most revered spiritual figures of Sindh, Shahbaz Qalandar and Jhulelal, which Bangladesh’s pop singer Runa Laila made popular through the subcontinent. Yet, from Kabul to Dhaka, our four countries are unsuccessfully grappling with the fires of communal divisiveness and national discord.

I met Bawra after the concert was over, and what he told me not only increased my admiration for him, it also reinforced my conviction that it is primarily our shared religious and cultural traditions that will some day bring peace back to our subcontinent. A music instructor at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi, he was sent to Kabul by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), which officially conducts cultural diplomacy for India around the world. Since the establishment of the India Culture Centre in our embassy in Afghanistan for which ICCR’s director general Pavan K. Varma and Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood deserve praise, it has become a popular venue for Afghans, who come in large numbers to learn yoga and music. “I have over a hundred Afghan shaagirds (students), young men and women from Kabul University who are very devoted to their art,” said Bawra. “They learn Sufi songs of Amir Khusro and others and of contemporary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz. But they also learn bhajans and chant the Gayatri Mantra. Because of the non-peaceful conditions in Kabul, it is difficult for embassy staffers to move around in the city after office hours. But my students frequently call me home for private concerts in the evenings.”


I asked Bawra about the ISI-sponsored terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in July this year, which killed 41 people. “It was barbaric and very painful,” he said. “The situation was very tense and we were extremely sad at the loss of some of our dear colleagues. But not a single staffer in the embassy wanted to go back to India. Within days, our embassy and the culture centre started functioning again. And, after a month, we celebrated India’s Independence Day by singing Indian and Afghan patriotic songs. We celebrated Gandhi Jayanti in Habibiya High School, one of the best schools in Kabul, in which hundreds of Afghan children participated. Among other songs, they sang Gandhiji’s favourite ‘Allah tero naam, eshwar tero naam...’ ”


Bawra spoke with deep humility, befitting a Sufi singer. After listening to him sing and speak, I felt humbled to know that an ordinary music teacher is serving as such an effective cultural ambassador of India in a strife-torn foreign land. The cultural and spiritual ties between India and Afghanistan (and these subsume the ties between India and the present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh) have such hoary ancestry that I often feel sad that we know and care so little about them. We can create a better, peaceful future for our four countries only by re-discovering and rejuvenating this shared past. For this to happen we need statesmen—and also singers like Sufi Bawra.

Source: THe Indian Express, New Delhi