How Amir Khusrau's 'rung' inspired the film and music culture of South Asia

The 'rung' composed by Amir Khusrau occupies a place of pride in the qawwali repertoire performed in the dargah during the birth anniversary of the saint Hazrat Nizamuddin | #FWeekend

Shahwar Kibria November 26, 2017 14:31:07 IST
How Amir Khusrau's 'rung' inspired the film and music culture of South Asia

The rung is a manqabat (qawwali in praise of Hz. Ali or/and a Sufi saint) celebrating the birth of Chishtiya Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The rung composed by Hz. Amir Khusrau, poet and disciple of Hz. Nizamuddin, occupies a place of pride in the qawwali repertoire performed in the dargah during the birth anniversary of the saint.

Rung is the rapture of Amir Khusrau on attaining a spiritual guide, a pir — Nizamuddin Auliya; it is an ecstatic announcement Khusrau makes to his mother (referred to as “Ma”), this wonder of attaining a guide like Nizamuddin Auliya. It also draws out the significance of Nizamuddin Auliya as a Sufi pir representing the light of Prophet Muhammad and the wisdom of Hz. Ali.

Composed in delicate and playful Hindavi, the qawwali symbolises the particular synthesis of Indian and Persianate musical traditions. The concept of rung, or hue, has special significance in the mysticism of Islam. Rung becomes an attribute and an aspired consequence of the bond between the Beloved and the lover in Chishtiya Sufism, where the seeker seeks to be completely immersed in the colour of love through constant remembrance of Allah, propagated in the practice of Zikr and Sama in Chishtiya Sufism. Rung refers to an overwhelming, all encompassing, transmitted pervasiveness, which connects a lover to its destiny of love, unity and oneness through a sustained mystical ambition resulting in spiritual exaltation.

How Amir Khusraus rung inspired the film and music culture of South Asia

Celebrations at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah. Photo courtesy the writer

The rung has been variously explored in the film and music culture of South Asia. The following are three instances, two from Bollywood and one from Coke Studio Pakistan, which excel in their distinct approaches to the mysticism, magnificence and musicality of Rung.

1. Junoon | 1978 | Dir: Shyam Benegal | Music: Vanraj Bhatia 

Junoon opens with Khusrau’s emphatic manqabat “Aaj Rung Hai” (sung and performed by Jameel Ahmed). Based on the novel A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, Junoon explicates the socio-cultural and emotional upheavals in the backdrop of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. "Aaj Rung Hai" becomes an evocation of the spirit of rebellion, and the spiritual charge of the qawwali becomes an index for interpreting the fervour mobilising and transforming uncountable multitudes in their quest for freedom.

In Junoon, the mystical is evoked to address the political and the energetic Qaul dramatises the junoon/obsession which colours the nation as it prepares itself in revolt against coercive forces. The qawwali shot amidst the ruins of old Lucknow monuments also evokes the passing dignity of a fading culture caught in a moment of twilight. Addressed directly to the Sufi saint, (though not situated in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya), the qawwali becomes a spiritual affirmation or sanction of the junoon or the mutiny as a step towards freedom from tyranny. The Sufi faqeer (played by Rajesh Vivek) “overwhelms his audience with his vision of love" and his "war trance-state” embodies an emotional response consequently honed and intensified into a climactic Haq which legitimises the quest for freedom as a spiritual quest.

2. Bajrangi Bhaijaan | 2015 | Dir: Kabir Khan | Music/Rendition: Nizami Brothers

Moving to contemporary times, the manqabat occurs in mainstream Bollywood cinema in the form of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Its use foregrounds the plight of the mute little girl Shahida (Harshali Malhotra) against the larger all-encompassing beneficence of Hz. Nizamuddin Auliya. Pained by her daughter’s distress, Razia (Mehr Vij), Shahida’s mother decides to take her to the dargah of Mehboob-e-Ilahi in Delhi, where “all prayers are answered”. Shahida and Raziya embark on their impossible train journey from Kashmir, across Wagah and Atari, and their train rushes past gates, borders, checkpoints and divisions, with an unstoppable cause and momentum, as if enchanted by the call of the saint.

The beautiful and overwhelming rung playing in the background archives the quest of the seeker, synergising and connecting troubled geographies, till Shahida is welcomed to benefaction in the land of Pir Mehboob-e-Ilahi. The rung parallels the arrival of light, with the arrival of little Shahida in Delhi, and prepares the template for a narrative which is all about dispelling darkness and schisms — of thought, belief and sensibilities, which begins with Shahida getting separated from her mother and ending up in the guardianship of Bajrangi, a benign but religiously devout do-gooder, who escorts Shahida back to her home in Pakistan.

The beneficence of Hz. Nizamuddin is actualised in the miraculous journey of Shahida, back to her home in Pakistan, emboldened with the grace of Hz. Nizamuddin. However, the narrative triumphs  in celebrating the quest of a devout Hindu rescuing a lost Pakistani child and his consequent resolve to accompany the child back home — paralleling the journey of Bajrangi Bhaijaan from narrow religious prejudices into the greater faith of humanity coloured by love, rung.

3. Aaj Rung Hai | Coke Studio Pakistan | 2012, 2016

A mention of Khusrau and qawwali in contemporary South Asian music culture demands a mention of Coke Studio Pakistan, which has produced three triumphant versions of the manqabat. Rohail Hyatt produced two versions of rung performed each by Hadiqa Kiani; and Ustad Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, in Coke Studio Season Five (2012); while the Strings produced yet another unforgettable rendition of rung featuring Ustad Amjad Sabri and Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, in the season finale episode in Season 9 in 2016. Of the three however, I find the rung performed by Ustad Fareed Ayaz as undoubtedly the most electric of all, representing a glorious amalgamation of qawwali honed and energised by western instrumentation in a digital live music production set up.

Rung performed in Raag Malhaar, is undoubtedly the most vivacious version outside the Khanqah and perpetuates the atmosphere of a trance-inducing mehfil. Opening with string invocations, it builds up into a Khanqahi rung rapture, most prominently with the piano keys and drums which trace and archive its pulse.

The greatest challenge when working with traditional performers is to keep up with their random and improvisational graphs, which greatly contradicts the 10-beat instrumental cycle while syncing the guitar chords to the sam-ras. “Qawwals, at any given point, they can change... they can go into some other section… The greatest challenge for the house band is to follow them, but then this is the challenge we as musicians look forward to," Asad Ahmed, guitarist, has been quoted as saying.

But then that is also the magic of qawwali rhythm, which can be described as a shape-shifter, explained accurately perhaps by studio tabla-player, Babar Ali Khanna:

“Qawwali ki ek rhythm hoti hai jo bilkul qawwali ki hoti hai…yeh aise gaane wale hain ke aap inke saath koi bhi rhythm laga do…yeh apni beat ko nahi chorenge…aur mushkil se mushkil tar yeh nikalte jaate hai”.

It is believed that this rung was composed and set to tune by Amir Khusrau himself. The rung has special significance in spiritual assemblies, having extreme mystical connotations and effects on both the Qawwals and listeners alike. As Ustad Fareed Ayaz says:

"Mujhe bahout pasand aya, main isko sound-test nahi kahoonga, yeh Mehfil-e-Sama thi…bahout khoobsurat experiment aur usko barkarar rakhte hue ki Amir Khusrau bhi nazar aayen, qawwali bhi nazar aye, kuch experiment bhi nazar aye, lekin khoobsurti se…"

(I loved it. I do not consider it a sound-test. This was a Mehfil-e-Sama. It was a beautiful experiment which preserved that all elements be visible…Amir Khusrau, the qawwali and the experiment…all welded beautifully.)

The above are few instances of how the rung has been variously navigated to address the real, on the plane of the ideal, while rooted in spirituality and affect. The birth anniversary of the saint, also referred to as “Ghusal Sharif” was celebrated on 14 November this year, with a nightlong qawwali mehfil, following an elaborate ritual which involved bathing the tomb of the saint with rose water and anointing it with sandal, musk and oudh. A ritual which has traversed centuries is still aglow and thriving in the colour or love which binds people across race and religious sensibilities. The colour of love is indeed going strong. May this colour thrive today, tomorrow and for all our forevers to come.

 The writer is a research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include Sufism and contemporary film, media and sound culture in South Asia.

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