Last autumn I was asked to present at a Sufi Baithak in Hong Kong. I balked. How does one catch an entire ocean and pour it into a cup for dispensing?
However, as I applied more thought I realized that this entire evening of Sufi music was like a taster, where each singer would bring to the mehfil a composition which was relevant to them and, which they hoped would speak to all as well. By the end of the Mehfil, it was hoped that people would have journeyed on some of the several paths one can take to explore the Sufi universe.
If you'd like to hear what I presented, click the video below. Otherwise, read the transcript below.
In that spirit, my introduction will dwell briefly on
- what it means to be Sufi
- how the Sufi faith is simultaneously ancient and modern
- and how it is woven into the fabric of the subcontinent
First, What it Means to be Sufi
You might have heard the qawwali, Allah Hu, which we shall be presenting later in the evening. Allah Hu is the truncated version of ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ which means ‘God is Great’. When the Sufi poet edits it to ‘Allah Hu’ he says, God is. And therein lies the essence of the Sufi thought. God is, and it is for us to find him or her - whether in nature, or in our beloved or in beauty or in God himself or herself. An essential respect and love for all humanity is the underpinning of the Sufi philosophy.
Second, How the Sufi faith is Modern & Ancient
Another qawwali that’ll come up later is ‘Chaap tilak’ which was composed by Amir Khusrau in the 13th century. Amir Khusrau is widely regarded as the father of qawwali. A linguist, he often composed poetry in which the first line was in Persian, the second in Hindvi. Some of you might remember the song from the Hindi film ‘Ghulami’ -
Zihaal-e-Miskeen maqun ba-ranjish,
bahaal(ba-haal)-e-hijra bechara dil hei.....
This song was written by Gulzar saab and inspired by Amir Khusrau’s
zihaal-e-miskeen makun taghafful,
duraaye naina banaaye batiyaan..
The first line in Persian, the second in Hindvi and thus the song goes. That a song from 700 years back could find its way into Bollywood and become a rage is a testament to the Sufi tradition where one proponent builds upon the legacy of the previous. And it is common for a Sufi singer to weave two different songs which are thematically common into one. If you’ve heard Abida Parveen you’ll know what I am saying.
But going back to ‘Chaap Tilak’ - the song is still sung today in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh during festivals, ceremonies and gatherings. It is therefore both modern and ancient, Sufi and Bollywood.
Third: how Sufi is woven into the fabric of the Subcontinent
I’ll end this introduction with Baba Bulleh Shah who is a 17 century Punjabi Sufi poet and whose compositions are so widely used in Punjab - both in India and Pakistan - that it is difficult to conceive that the lyrics were actually written by a particular person. For instance, when a discussion in Punjab on the vagaries of life & living reaches its amorphous conclusion it isn’t uncommon for a person to end it with a declaration: Bullah, kee jaan main kaun!
Yes, every Punjabi is Bullah, just as Bullah is in each Punjabi.
I am sure you have all heard the famous Bollywood number which saw Shahrukh Khan and Malaika Arora dance atop a moving train .... chal chhaiya chhaiya chhaiya chhaiya...
That famous rendition by Gulzar saab from the film Dil Se draws upon Baba Bulleh Shah’s kaafi, Tere Ishq Nachaya kar ke thaiya thaiya.
More of this as the evening progresses. Let me leave you with a Sufi shayr which, to my mind, sums up the essence of Sufi thought:
Chal ve Buliya chal oththe chaliya, jiththe saare anhe,
Come Bullah, let’s travel to that land where everyone is blind
Na koi aapni jaat pachhane, te na koi aapa nu manne
Where none recognizes our caste, nor sits upon judgement
But sees us for what we are - human beings.