For vocalist Smita Rao Bellur, transition is the song of life. Moving through life choices marked by shifts, from Bengaluru to Mumbai, Hindustani classical music to Sufi kalam and from a lucrative corporate profile to being a musician, she believes in going with the flow of artistic impulse. Slated to perform over the weekend in Delhi at the World Sufi Music Festival ‘Jahan-e-Khusrau’, the artist reflected seamlessly on Sufi music as a way of life.
“In Northern Karnataka where I grew up, the Hindustani classical influence is very strong,” recalls Bellur as she talks about her father taking her to her first music class. Trained primarily in the Kirana gharana, khayal music was the mainstay in the early days of her performance career. “Music was always a serious pursuit.” Taught in the traditional guru-shishya tradition, she believes the teaching system of that time made music a part of life, first as a hobby and interest and later as a consuming passion and profession.
“I remember almost growing up in my Guruji’s home. After school I would spend most of my time there, learning and practising, and most of my summer vacations too.” Years of training with maestros PR Bhagwat and Arjunsa Nakod gave her a strong foundation, sketched further with a nuanced study of the Jaipur style with vocalist Alka Dev Marulkar. With over 350 classical concerts to her credit, Bellur’s initiation into Sufi music was sudden and swift.
Words of wonder
The vocalist started listening to Sufi music as a panacea to her work life. She recalls a moment that marked the sublime shift of genres and professions for her. “I was in the thick of corporate life, returning from work, and this particular Sufi kalam took me into a trance.” The composition was Aziz Ahmed Warsi’s rendition of ‘Allah Hu.’ For her the words carried a message and it was the surreal experience of the universe speaking directly with her. “The way this famous kalam was presented was very different. It was slower in pace, and included a little narrative about a devotee and her belief that the divine power would come home to visit her, she even begins preparing for this visit. She is mocked and berated for her belief and told that her concept is faulty. In this story, god says that a devotee can worship or love them the way they want. This absolute acceptance and expression of devotion is beautiful.”
Deeply moved by this kalam, Bellur’s artistic stirrings directed her towards finding a teacher for her foray into Sufi music. Soon she had become a disciple of the Warsi Brothers. “I realised this was my calling and since I had trained to be a classical singer, it was not very difficult to learn this genre.”
She continued to practice Khayal, and Sufi music gradually took prevalence until she decided to finally give up her cushy corporate day job and move to Mumbai to focus entirely on being a musician. “Khayal is mostly about creating the mood of the raga, the focus is more towards the aakar and development of the raga and not the bol. Sufi music focuses on the poetry.” She shares, describing the gravitation towards the world of words, “It is not just the text, but the vibration of the words, the way they are sung, that is important.” Bellur believes that Sufi music has a deep connect with the audience and is anchored in emotion and spirituality.
The vocalist points out that delving into Sufi music actually goes beyond musical training. “A lot of Sufi learning is about understanding the philosophy, reading, connecting the dots.” The immersive world of Sufism has taken her into the compositions of several other saints apart from the traditional lineage of the Warsi brothers. “Mystical traditions of various languages and regions draw me, for instance the Punjabi Sufi kalams are very different in thought and music and go deep into social and cultural life.”
For Bellur life changed dramatically in 2016 as she adopted Sufism into her everyday life. “To quit my job and move to another city in the pursuit of music was an impulsive and inspired decision,” she reflects. “I almost dismantled a comfortable and financially stable life for this and rationally it would probably not appear a good idea. But it felt natural, and I just took a leap. Sufism, after all, is a way of life.”
Balancing major changes in daily life has also been accompanied by transformations in the aesthetics of music presentation. Bellur points out that traditional instruments have given way to new-age arrangement in the Sufi music sphere. “It is quite common now to use the keyboard, drums, programmed rhythms. I try and stick with acoustic or Indian-sounding arrangements though some changes are required to present a sound that connects with young people also.”
As one of the few women qawwals, she believes that the entry of more women in the Sufi genre subtly challenges the social structure. “I was accepted easily into the musical tradition where few women have been allowed earlier, times and attitudes have changed now and there is acceptance and less gender bias.”
Curating theme-based presentation is the way ahead for Bellur as a researcher and musician. Presently engrossed in the works of Hyderabadi poets including ghazals and Sufi kalaam, she would be sharing her interpretations in her upcoming concert at Jahan-e-Khusrau. “The festival is known for its Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and Muzaffar Ali sahbb has given me a rare kalam of his choice to compose.”Iranian musicians would be accompanying the vocalist at the festival.
Quietly reflecting on the significance of Sufi music in the present world, the vocalist says, “Indian music is largely about love. In today’s world hate has unfortunately become more popular. In our traditional music, there is a nuanced exploration of love – from erotic, romantic, to the divine. Themes of love have been written and celebrated. I am happy to be part of this musical world where love is at the centre.”
(Smita Rao Bellur will perform at the World Sufi Music Festival: Jahan-e-Khusrau, Delhi, on March 6, 2020)