The city was spellbound, swaying to different genres hailing divine love and human bonding at the recently held Ruhaniyat

“I wondered what horse racing had to do with music,” quipped the smiling singer, as he rendered the bhajan, ‘God’s name is joy, all else is sorrow’. For, the Madras Race Club, canopied by clouds and festooned with interlacing trees, provided the open-air venue for the Chennai edition of Ruhaniyat, the All India Festival of Sufi and Mystic music, presented by the Mumbai-based Banyan Tree.

Mystics across the world have long held that truth is accessed not by reason, but through revelation. How then can music and poetry not be the only means of witnessing this truth? Actualising this vision?

Therefore, what Ruhaniyat staged was not performance, but participation. For three-and-a-half hours, the heterogeneous crowd remained spellbound, swaying to different genres presented by diverse practitioners, all hailing divine love and human bonding.

Inner conviction

Sporting white beards and amber turbans, the venerable opening trio, led by Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa, movingly sang the bhajans of Kabir and Nanak (Shabad). Age had seasoned voice and delivery, matured bhava, strengthened inner conviction.

An unexpected blend of Bulgarian and Rajasthani women singers followed. Bulgars believe that they migrated from Rajasthan to settle in Europe. The Kalvelias remain nomads, and their simple songs, with folk drums and the snake-charmer’s poongi, reflect this free spirit. The sophisticated voice-training, sprightly rhythms, volume control, polyphonic tone shifts and harmonising of the Bulgars proved delightful. Silence, shouts and chatter were part of their songs celebrating love, weddings, or of youth evaporating like spring water. However, the final coming together of the two traditions proved disappointing.

Lights dimmed to cast a different mood for Parvathy Baul, ektara in hand, duggi round the waist, bells on her feet. Beginning in slow motion, she accelerated to enraptured twirls and swirls, her ankle-length dreadlocks circling with her saffron robe. You wondered: how can an initiated Baul manage to meld her spiritual quest and international stardom? Certainly, there was more elation than posturing as she shaped the age-old images: longing for the good boatman to take humankind across the turbulent currents of life. She sang not only for herself, but for each individual trapped in the cage, aching with the pain of being human, wanting to break free, surviving with the hope of a divine spring, of unconditional love where dualities vanish. Her mantra ‘soham’ echoed anal-haq (‘I am the truth’), a statement for which the Sufi saint Mansur was executed as a heretic many centuries ago.

The metaphysical dimension

The flamboyant tannoura, or dance of dervishes from Egypt stunned the audience into perceiving earth and sky, stars and seasons, life and human existence, spinning in eternally. As their skirts flew in unending circles of colour and light, physical dexterity established a metaphysical dimension. The flags of Egypt and India were twirled to pray for friendship between the nations. The dancers also entered audience space to include the world in their performance, as those who witness tannoura are believed to be protected by the creator. Finally, the skirts were discarded, symbolising detachment, renunciation.

The evening ended with the overwhelming verses of Amir Khusro and Bulleh Shah, uniting the cultures of Uttar Pradesh and Sindh. Untouched by filmy gimmicks, commercial glitz, or techno-fusion ploys, the Chisti Brothers and their Muradabad team packed the stage to dialogue with the divine. With grainy voices, un-modulated chorus, un-variegated drumming and unflagging energy, they rendered ‘Chaap Tilak’, ‘Dama Dum Mast Qalandar’ and ‘Tera Deedar Karoon’ — invoking reverence for the peer / guru, yearning for eternal love, and faith in transcendent values.

Ruhaniyat brought music untouched by artifice. When the singer intoned: “I am never lonely, my love is always with me”, the experience could be internalised by listeners — seeking hope, peace and spiritual solace through music — music that heals and empowers.