“Bulleya ki jaana maen kaun. (Bulleya, to me, I am unknown.)”
One only expects to come across such an utterance at a festival celebrating Sufi, Bhakti, mystical and spiritual music, but in this case, the spirit inspiring the outcry belonged to the material world.
Madan Gopal Singh’s performance had just wrapped up the first evening of the World Sacred Spirit Festival (or WSSF) in Jodhpur. In the beautifully lit confines of Mehrangarh Fort’s magnificent Zenana Deodi Courtyard, the scholar had not only sung, but also translated and explained the work of timeless Sufi and Bhakti poets such as Kabir, Sultan Bahu and, indeed, Bulleh Shah, segueing magically into John Lennon and centuries-old German poetry as well. And now, piercing through pleas for an encore was one of Bulleh Shah’s best known moments of epiphany, being screamed on loop by a dancing audience member who was clearly drunk out of his mind.
I love such moments in a festival. I mean, who are we to judge? What worked for the Buddha may have been a Bodhi tree but if someone else’s moment of self discovery is to be triggered by — alongside some excellent Sufi music — liberal doses of 100 Pipers and Chivas Regal (the lines for the drinks coupons did bring to mind Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala) then, as Robert Burns would have put it, “Freedom an’ whiskey gang thegither! Take aff your dram!”
Moments like these — a break from what’s expected — make a festival come alive. Like when I heard Jackson Scott, singer-songwriter, composer and flamenco guitarist extraordinaire, casually ask someone for super glue to stick his fingernail back on (the rasgueado, a flamenco guitar rapid-strumming technique, employs the fingernail as well as the finger tips, creating meticulous and superb rhythms).
But these are not the moments which made the World Sacred Spirit Festival — a tall name to live up to — work for me. Nor the fact that the festival — spread out over three days, from 22-24 February — boasted artists from India, Argentina, Iran, China, Mongolia, Sweden, Scotland, France, Turkey, Spain, Algeria and Azerbaijan. Nor that the chief patrons of the festival are Sting, a celebrated pioneer of new wave rock, and a modern day Maharaja, Gaj Singh II, nor that the venues for performances were spread out not just in the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, but also areas of pristine beauty surrounding it, such as the Rao Jodha Desert Park, the Chokelao Gardens and the lake next to Jaswant Thada (a gorgeous memorial for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II). For there’s a different air to classical music when you hear Ambi Subramaniam play the Carnatic violin, or Mohammad Aman render Raag Madhuvanti with a bada and chota khayal, at dusk, on the shores of a lake, with a marble cenotaph and hills and various migratory birds making up the backdrop.
No. Nor was this festival made special by terrific extravaganzas like that put up by the Meerabai Collective — 40 grand performers (brought together by the festival) such as Sumitra and Rami Devi, the Meghwals of Marwar, the Manganiars Bhaaka, Anwar, Taleb, Ghewar, Darra, Firoz and Gazi Khan, Meherdeen Langa, Chaang nritya, Kalbelia dancers, Chakri dancers and Parveen Khan — enacting stories from the life of Meera, their queen poet of Rajasthan. If the climactic segment on Meerabai’s death felt a little underwhelming, it was because the rest of the drama was so breathtakingly spectacular. And yet, it was built up, almost wholly, of traditional performance forms drawn mostly from in and around the land where its protagonist lived: present day Rajasthan.
There is credit in all this, and in the two all-women groups who put up marvellous shows: an orchestra called Ingie playing the qanun, a string instrument, combining influences from Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Arab, and Persian cultures, and Telli Turnalar, an Anatolian ensemble that performs in the style of Ashiks, or wandering troubadours from yore.
There is definitely credit in the way the WSSF took popular perceptions and recent memory and turned these things on their heads. An example is the group of young Iranian musicians who render poetry from Shiraz into song. Shiraz, the city of the renaissance in the Middle East in the 13th century, called the Dar al-’Elm or ‘House of Knowledge’ and the ‘Athens of Iran’ by geographers and historians, was birthplace and home to philosophers and poets such as Sa’di (called the ‘master of speech’), Ruzbehan (known for his commentary on the ecstatic sayings of Sufis), Mulla Sadra (leader of the transition from essentialism to existentialism in Islamic philosophy), Qutb al-din al-Shirazi (polymath and scientist who had discussed the possibility of heliocentricity a few centuries before Copernicus) and Hafiz, the poet who needs no introduction and, in the words of Goethe, “has no peer”. At a time when Iran invokes images of little more than Ayatollahs and geopolitical discord, when Islamophobia runs rampant across the world, it is easy to forget that a place called Shiraz existed, and exists.
Till music resurrects that memory. Ashkan Kamangari, summoned his ‘hal’, the Persian term for the physical, emotional and spiritual state of the artist, to sing Hafiz in a voice that began with being reflective, conjuring up a state of helplessness, even as his accompanying musicians on the tar and kamancheh (both string instruments) and the zarb (percussion) built up a contrasting fast-paced tempo. Then as the tempo moved to a climax, Kamangari preempted and overpowered the ensemble by metamorphosing his song into a high-pitched powerful crescendo. As Dariush Safvat, maestro and Persian ethnomusicologist, said, “In traditional Iranian music, the manner of playing is much more important than what one plays.”
Moving on from the world to closer home, what really makes the WSSF work, in the trying times we live in, is that it reminds you that Indian syncretism — yes syncretism, not secularism — has not been born out of just pre- or post-independence debates, but has been continually stitched into at least some fabric of our being in this subcontinent from long before any idea of a common country had emerged. Syncretism, not secularism, because we can forever argue about whether secularism should be about being ‘tolerant’ or ‘accepting’ of all religions or ignoring religion altogether, but syncretism is defined, irrevocably, as “the amalgamation (action, process, result of combining/uniting) of different religions, cultures and schools of thought”.
The festival made this point without trying too hard, when Madan Gopal Singh sang Ram Naam and “La Ilaha Ilallah (there is no god but God)” in one breath, and when Shujaat Khan — whose sitar strings can melt the most hardened cynic — effortlessly shapeshifted Amir Khusrow’s timeless poetry into 15th century Adi Kavi Narsinh Mehta’s “Vaishnav jan toh taine kaihiye je peed paraayi jaane re (Call those people Vaishnavas — the people of Vishnu — who feel the pain of the other)” and then back to 13th and 14th century Khusrow again.
The festival also made this point, without trying at all, by the ubiquity of Langa and Manganiyar musicians of Rajasthan. Both traditional Muslim folk music communities, the Manganiyars were patronised by Hindu Rajputs and the Langas by Mehar Muslims and Sindhi Sipahis. Their songs are often odes to Hindu gods, goddesses and rituals.
Moreover, this spirit of syncretism came through in form as much as in substance. ‘Fusion’, is a much bandied about word in the musicverse today, but to truly witness fusion in action you must hear a 2016 band called Raitila, comprising a younger generation of Manganiyar and Langa musicians, who are working on learning some of the oldest compositions from their communities and contemporising them without losing their essence. The result is a sound that is more instantly relatable for a younger audience than more deliberate, multi-layered renditions by older community legends as also one that is more open to collaboration. London-based Spanish musician Pablo Dominguez accompanied them on percussion this festival and Jackson Scott on the guitar. If Scott’s sadly passionate flamenco rhythms, in conversation with the powerful mystic music of a new generation of Langas and Manganiyars, is an excellent example of what complementary fusion can achieve, ‘Mathias Duplessy and the Violins of the World’ are a stellar example of supplementary fusion. Here, Duplessy’s guitar plays the role of mere instigator, for the most part, and it’s the Indian sarangi, the Chinese erhu, the Swedish nyckelharpa and the Mongolian morin khuur — all string instruments, all played by masters — that make up a fusion by association. In doing so, with partly additive and partly contrasting sounds, they craft a musical voyage reminiscent of the Silk Road. ‘Crazy Horse’ is a part of this voyage, and one track in which Duplessy’s guitar comes in as emphatically as the ‘violins’, injecting generous doses of the feelings of adventure and discovery that only such a journey could entail.
Yet nowhere did the festival embody the spirit of this syncretism better than in the musician and music of its last act. At 7 am on 24 February, the compelling voice of stalwart Sawan Khan pierced the dawn with his now famous Sindhi Sufi Gayaki. Sawan Khan, from the Manganiyar community, was born in Dabdi village near Jaisalmer. Having learnt from a young age (as all Manganiyar musicians do) from his father and elders, he then crossed the border to spend eight years in Sindh, Pakistan, under the tutelage of Ustad Bhikey Khan. Then he returned and today it is voices like his that serve to not just relay but bring vibrantly to life the words of Sufi masters like Bulleh Shah, Ghulam Farid, and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, on platforms like Coke Studio but also intimate village gatherings that Manganiyar musicians continue to perform in.
It is this diverse reach of Sawan Khan’s voice that makes you wonder, for it is a reach valuable festivals like the WSSF have yet to embrace with greater tenacity. The festival has held some free shows for the public, but the crowd at Jodhpur seems indubitably upper middle to upper class, with many people from Mumbai and Delhi. This is expected as the festival tickets are not easily affordable and not much publicity accompanies its occurrence every year. The venues are still full, but this seems to be more a consequence of word-of-mouth which also limits audiences to similar kinds of circles (many in the audience seemed to know one another). Not that this isn’t important. “Did you hear what he said dude,” I heard one young man say to another after Shujaat Khan’s concert. “Sufism isn’t about religion. It’s a philosophy.”
At the same time, countrywide, the syncretic strands once woven into our fabric are wearing thin. That this idea has constantly been eroded in Pakistan is their tragedy. But now, ever so often, we seem to be teetering on the brink too. In an era when social media timelines as well as TV shows spew hatred and misunderstandings 24/7, ‘noises from the ground’, as people love to call them, are hardly hopeful. Kashmiri students are being forced to flee to their home state from Dehradun. A bakery in Bengaluru was attacked merely for having the word ‘Karachi’ in its name. In a prison in Jaipur, in the same state where this festival was being held, a Pakistani inmate died after being hit with a stone. Even as you drove up to Mehrangarh every day, you couldn’t help but notice graffiti abusing Pakistan on the road leading up to it.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a piece of music is worth a thousand pictures. Music festivals, compared to literature festivals, can have the effect of conveying constructive messages in relatively more non-polarising and engaging ways. But, in such times, for the spirit of festivals like the World Sacred Spirit Festival to effect any larger impact, they have to be held more frequently, at more places, and — most importantly — for larger, diverse audiences at lower costs. Relieving as it may be to come upon what looks like one of the last bastions of hope in a medieval fortress, bastions must exist for and not from their people.
— All photos courtesy Kavi Bhansali