The 13th edition of the three-day annual Sufi Music Festival, Jahan-e-Khusrau, at New Delhi’s Arab ki Sarai organised by the Rumi Foundation aspired to enhance not only Delhi’s Sufi heritage but attempted to expand the idea of the cultural syncretic frame of Sufism by presenting a dance-drama titled Yamuna – Dariya Prem Ka .
Amir Khusrau the multifaceted artist, poet, musician, linguist and the most favourite disciple of 13th Century Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin is the inspiration for the noted film-maker and the driving force of the festival Muzaffar Ali to re-imagine and repeatedly present a cultural performative macrocosm on the ethos of Sufism.
The Sarai is historically a part of the wider Sufi heritage landscape that surrounds the saint’s tomb. The caravan inn reflects a space where there was once vibrant human interactions comprising exchange of cultural nuances between travellers and where the presence of water bodies such as wells, step wells, and the river Yamuna played an important role for the sufi saint to settle (Nizamuddin previously called village Ghiaspur) for his spiritual practices.
The intention of the dance drama on Yamuna was her personification as a symbol of love and compassion, so central to Sufi thought. Her character as a woman, vicissitudes of her life and ecological suffering, was presented within the heritage site by referencing to myths, historical and contemporary context using the artistic tools of poetry, Kathak dance and sophisticated technical production.
The dance-drama on the first and third day of the festival was deliberated in two parts through the choreography by Kathak dancers – Astha Dixit and Sanjukta Sinha and their groups. Kathak was unfortunately underutilised and reduced, as is increasingly seen, to superfluous movements dominated by skilful pirouettes endeavouring to hypnotically thrill the audience. The work of Ashtha Dixit wearing costumes without the innate aaharya of the ghugharoos (dancing bells) appeared as incongruous forms moving with purposeless sensibilities and repetitive movements lacked the choreographic perceptiveness to use the art of the Kathak abhinaya technique which could have brought out the poetry encased in strong music by vocalists Barnali Chattopadhya and Archana Shah.
The work of Sanjukta Sinha, fortunately, fared better. The mark of her guru the avant-garde Kathak choreographer Kumudini Lakhia was evident in the choreographic formations, entry and exit of the dancers, costuming and drawing in parts elements of abhinaya portrayed in the lyrics of the musical pieces of dadras, hori and other forms. But the initial elation experienced in Sinha’s work ended by succumbing to create a stimulating wow impact in the endless pirouettes highlighted by lighting against the exotica of the heritage landscape.
There is no doubt that the recalled visuality of the whirling dervishes in the Rumi tradition inspires the use of Kathak which does have the technique of pirouettes. But there is a difference, the movements in Rumi’s tradition is whirling in slow motion single-mindedly aiming to convert the body into a dynamic rosary.
In dialogue with light
To use Kathak to represent Sufi poetry and ethos of mysticism is more than employing the technique of pirouettes. For instance, Kathak has a wide technical repertoire by which emotive elements are brought out to recreate stories, these include compositions called Kavit where poetry is woven in rhythms, gat bhava and gat nikas where without using words, stories are recreated by the use of realistic or lok dharmi dance movements, there is the technique of Sanchari bhav where meanings of words are recreated and its wide variety of footwork has the potential to create intense meditation , unfortunately, none of these was evident in the production.
Efforts of conspicuous research relating to the mythological landscape of Yamuna were woven in simple but evocative poetry netted with referencing to the various living cultural landscapes of the Yamuna such as that of Yamnotri, Prayag and Braj nonetheless, much more could have been done to bring out the cultural theatre represented in the living environments of these locations.
And yet, the magic touch of Muzaffar Ali was axiomatically displayed by using the heritage site in dialogue with light. For example the laser lighting on the quartzite stones of the Sarai produced the organic tangibility of mountains from where the river emerged, and on another occasion calligraphic art materialised out of the stones along with the sound of water, and Deepa Gupta’s haunting narration rendered by Ali himself.
The production inspired by Amir Khusrau’s verse Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar, Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar which translates as - O! Khusrau, the river of love flows in quaint directions where the one who jumps into it drowns, and the one who drowns, gets across is about the notion of immersion in the Sufi idea of love; howbeit, the production was one where the viewer was quixotically left to decide whether Ali’s work was one where he drowned or was one where he was transcended to another level!