Pakistani singer Abida Parveen, who recently launched a 11-disc compilation of Abdul Latif’s verse set to music, talks about the mohabbat between India and Pakistan, the Sufi tradition and more.

Fifteen years ago Abida Parveen recorded the first sur of Shah Jo Raag, the verses of Shah Abdul Latif, the 18th century Sufi poet whose songs are still sung from sunset to sunrise at his mausoleum in Bhit Shah. Now, thanks to the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh, more of that magic has become available to music lovers the world over. An 11-CD compilation album released by Abida Parveen last month presents Abdul Latif’s songs along with an accompanying monograph on his life, with translations in English and Urdu.

Known for her flamboyance on stage and simplicity in real life, Abida Parveen started learning music at the age of three. Though her father Ustad Ghulam Haider ran a music school, for her, school was everywhere. “My father taught me all the time, as I went in and out of the house. We would fight, he would ask me to sing a sur, and so it went on. There was never a moment when I wasn’t learning. And whatever you learn is never enough,” she says with her irrepressible smile.

She also went to the real school, she confesses. “I studied up to barah-chaudha (12-14) I think; but that was enough. It was music that I was after,” she giggles. Her father, an exponent of the Patiala gharana, was a great admirer of the legendary Amir Khan whose music he heard on All India Radio.

The word ruhaniyat pops up frequently in the conversation. This unique soulfulness that she brings to her music has taken the world by storm. “In Karachi the jalsa was historic; it overflowed with ruhaniyat, almost a revolution of sorts. That’s what you need to bring humanity together. In whichever language you sing — Sindhi, Seraiki or Persian — it’s a message of peace, of a soulful tradition that gives inner strength to unite people and make them strong.”

Releasing the album was a historic event for her. “These songs have not been sung like this except at the Bhit Shah dargah. I grew up listening to them. I longed to sing all the songs one day. It was an abiding passion with me.” She started work over 15 years ago on this massive compilation. “We had some translations; the original is in Sindhi.”

The compilation is set to 30 different raags, some of which are not even sung anymore. The stories are symbolic, based on folklore and have a message for humanity. “We did a lot of research and found the different raags and stories. For instance, there is a unique way of singing Sur Moomal Rano and you can recognise the raag from the way it’s sung. The research began when I met Abdul Hamid Akhund, the then secretary of culture, Sindh. I told him I wanted to do the Shah Jo Raag project. He immediately called the Governor who said, ‘Why wait till tomorrow? We should start the project today.’ I had a lot of help from Ustad Feroze Gul Saheb, a classical music expert, and later Ustad Majeed Khan, a sarangi player from Sindh, and Hameed Haroon, CEO of Dawn Media Group. The whole project reflected the colours of Sindh, based on classical music, which is an exclusive strength of Hindustan and Pakistan. You won’t find it in America or elsewhere,” she says. Calling it another musical education and a spiritual journey, Parveen says she stopped all performances for the duration. “It was like a treasure trove of music had opened up.”

Given that she has performed in Mumbai and many of her albums were recorded in India, what does she think of Indo-Pak relations?  “There is already unity — no doubt about that — there are brothers and sisters across the border. Mohabbatein hai (there is love). There is so much love among artistes, among the people. People travel, meet and work and there is a will to do that. I think we are one country, we have the same thought. There is sweetness and love; I think this way. Please correct me if I am wrong. Love is a force; it’s like the sea, it cannot break,” she laughs.

In her AP Gallerie, adjacent to her house in Islamabad, she has a whole wall dedicated to her Sufi albums and photos of herself mostly with Indian artistes — with Lata Mangeshkar, R.D. Burman, Pandit Jasraj, of her performance in 2008 at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, hugging Shoukat Kaifi Azmi, her guru Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, and standing at Moinuddin Chisti dargah in Ajmer Sharif. There are awards galore displayed in another section. The gallery also has a collection of clothes, jewellery and artefacts. She counts Pandit Jasraj and Ustad Amir Khan among her favourite Indian artistes and loves Ustad Zakir Hussain Khan. Her favourite in Pakistan is Tari Khan, a celebrated tabla player. 

Her next project is based on the compositions of Hazrat Sultan-ul-Arifeen, who wrote in Persian. She is translating it into Seraiki and will sing it in both languages. “His work is powerful. He said that anyone reading his work need not search for a spiritual master. She quotes, “Where I have reached no one else has.”   Abida Parveen is, perhaps, one of the few who can reach that realm and take you with her.