Resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, range of emotions… There’s an abiding appeal to Abida Parveen’s music

DATE: November 17, 7.15 p.m.

VENUE: The Music Academy

No, she is not a saint. But when she sings, the saints seem to speak to us through Abida Parveen’s electrifying voice. A voice that alternates weary grief with radiant joy, quiet trance with dancing rhythms, until the individual quest turns into a binding community experience.

Born in Larkhana, Sindh, little Abida grew up in a family closely connected to the Sufi dargahs where congregational singing was part of culture, and poets such as Abdul Lateef Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast and Bulleh Shah were venerated as prophets. For Abida, singing their verses was like breathing. Later, she was to make her own, the songs of Muhammad Baksh, Ghulam Farid and Shah Hussain from the Punjab, Jalaluddin Rumi from Turkey, Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Auliya and Moinuddin Chisti from India.

Sufi poets spoke in the common tongue, deploying local legends and idioms, even as they sought to unite earth and sky, the love of man with the love of God. Simple? But so iconoclastic that the Persian mystic Mansur was executed for heresy when he insisted ‘Ana-l-aqq’ — I am the truth, which diehard mullahs interpreted as a claim of divinity.

The scholar will say that Sufism is a syncretic blend of Vedanta and Islam, reflecting both the virah-milan (separation-union) of vaishnava surrender, and the advaitic oneness of the human soul and the Oversoul.

But ask Abida Parveen, and she will say in courtly Urdu: “The universe emerged from God’s music (alaap). The message of Allah comes to us through the music of the saints. We learn that pain ( dard) is the other side of love ( mohabbat). When we find the path to God, we find peace, we forget the world. Peer and dargah remind us of this universal truth.”

Though known for her reticence, reputed to be sparing of speech, Abida Parveen decided to share her experiences generously with The Hindu. Her eloquence is obviously shaped by poetry, for which she has a passion, perhaps, greater than for music. Every thought is illustrated with a verse, particularly from Kabir. Her words bristle with connotations, just as a melodic phrase trails microtones.

Abida Parveen’s lessons started at age three with father Ghulam Haider, who had developed his own teaching techniques in a music school of mainly male disciples. “Music is not a show,” he told her. “It is a means of finding the inner self.” That is why her recitals marry the flamboyance of masti (frenzy) to meditative intimacy. Her qawwalis draw us into this space within.

Known as one of the best singers of Sufiana kalam, ghazal and geet, adept at the demanding genre of the thumri, Abida Parveen is no stranger to khyal music. She was initiated into the stylistics of the Sham Chaurasia gharana by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, whose haunting live recitals are remembered by old-timers in India. “What can I say? None can equal his sureelapan, laykari and taiyyari! His Multani Kafi was exquisite! This was music with a divine innocence.”

Fame came early to Abida Parveen. Her motherland gave her the prestigious “Pride of Performance” and “Sitara-e-Imtiaz” awards. The world has acclaimed her inspired creativity. Her albums enjoy a cult status. She is a star in India, a regular performer at the Jahane Khusro Festival (now closed), New Delhi. Abida Parveen knows the stalwarts of Hindustani music in India — “Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan enchant us with their singing, just as the Sufi saints enchant us with their poetry,” she says. The political traumas in her country and its difficult relationship with India do not trouble her overmuch. “God will take care of it. Let’s keep on promoting love through art, our link to God.”

What makes Abida Parveen irresistible? Resonant voice? Crystal diction? Range of emotions? Charged delivery? Personal charisma? Listeners acknowledge these strengths but believe that her abiding appeal has to do with something else. Voicing our deepest sorrows, she also suggests that it is possible to overcome them with faith and love. In a world racked by violence din, Abida Parveen helps us to tune to the peace within.

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