Why the music of Sufiyum Sujatayum tugs at your heartstrings

Aditi Rao Hydari in Sufiyum Sujatayum   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

From its origins in Istanbul, Morocco, Egypt and The Balkans, Sufi music, which articulates the wisdom of Islamic poets such as Amir Khusro, Rumi, Bulleh Shah and Hafiz, has found ever-widening audiences in world music forums.

Every once in a while, the Sufi genre makes a memorable entry into Indian cinema. From ‘Mere Rushke Quamar’ (Baadshaho), ‘Maula Mere Maula’ (Anwar) and ‘Khwaja Mere Khwaja’ (Jodha Akbar) to ‘Kun Faya Kun’ (Rockstar), music composers have paid homage to the rich tapestry of Indo-Arabic-Persian poetry and music rooted in spiritualism. Joining the list is Malayalam cinema’s first OTT platform release (Amazon Prime), Sufiyum Sujatayum (Sufi and Sujatha), which celebrates a series of firsts.

A contemporary fable that narrates the intensity of a mute Kathak dancer, Sujatha’s burgeoning but forbidden love for a whirling dervish Sufi mystic, the film traces the lovers’ separation, Sujatha’s unwilling acquiescence to an arranged marriage, and her inner turmoil that finds closure after she learns about the mystic’s death.

Ocean of mysticism

The film’s Sufi-themed music showcases the works of two music directors — M. Jayachandran and rising young talent, Sudeep Palanad. What were Jayachandran’s sources of inspiration? “Musically, what we term Sufi encompasses elements of qawwali. Since childhood, I have listened avidly to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri brothers, Aziz Miyan Qawwal, the ghazals of Begum Akhtar, Ghulam Ali and other luminaries.

M. Jayachandran

M. Jayachandran   | Photo Credit: K_Ragesh

A constant source of poetic inspiration has been Jalaluddin Rumi’s ‘You are not just a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop’. So, this film has been the realisation of a long-cherished dream to work on an Indo-Middle Eastern theme. An experience which condensed me into ‘a droplet of divinity’ that focused on the creation of a capsule encasing an entire ocean of mysticism,” says the composer.

Focal to the Sema ceremony of whirling dervishes, ‘Ayin’ is a vocal and instrumental piece featuring classical Turkish instruments. “My friend, a sound engineer in Dubai, helped me locate traditional practitioners Cem Ekmen (duduk), Huseyin Can Pala (baglama), Onur Nazim Engin (clarionet) and Canan Cal (voice),” he says. Due to the lockdown, their orchestral portions were recorded via Skype. It has also been the first time that authentic Turkish instrumentals were included in songs and BGM score recordings. “Director Naranipuzha Shahnavas and producer Vijay Babu helped fulfil my vision,” says Jayachandran.

What was the creative process for the three songs? “Simplicity is the highest degree of sophistication. In this story, simplicity pervades every frame. I don’t usually select a specific raga. Each situation generates certain emotions which, in turn, generate the opening lines and key phrases around which the composition flows organically. For ‘Vathikkalu Vellari Pravu’ that has appealed to so many, the first two lines surfaced and kept playing in my mind. The rest just fell into place.”

Mentoring two rising vocalists, Nithya Mammen and Arjun Krishna, Jayachandran has coaxed Nithya’s delicate voice to express the innocence of an unconditional first love, matching Sujatha’s childlike wonder and her half-hesitant, half-eager steps with the unfamiliar ambience that surrounds the Sufi. Watch out for Arjun’s burst of energy in the soaring anupallavi lines ‘Atharintey Kuppi Thuranney’ and Zia Ul Haq’s Urdu chants written by Shafi Kollam.

Lyricist B.K. Harinarayanan sketches vivid vignettes of village life in a picturesque hamlet. Characteristic inserts of Sufi symbolism and allegory, such as ‘mylaanji kaadu’ (verdant thicket of henna), ‘mulla bazaar’ (flower market) and ‘praavu’ (dove) conjure up a striking imagery that lingers even after the visuals fade. At the core is the oft-repeated, plaintive sigh of ‘Roohe’ — a signature leitmotif that wafts ‘pranan’ (life breath/ soul) touched by divinity.

Actor Dev Mohan

Actor Dev Mohan   | Photo Credit: Vishnu S Rajan

In ‘Azan - The Light’, the ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ call for prayer is illuminated by the nuanced timbre of Kerala’s Zia Ul Haq, a Hindustani classical artiste and qawwal trained at the Sufi Inayath Khan Academy in Delhi.

‘Doori Teri’, powered by Madhuvanti Narayan’s contemplative vocals and Mumbai-based Manoj Yadav’s lyrics, is an elegy to Sujatha’s lost love that can never be borne to fruition. Here, anguished helplessness laces the melancholy.

With minimal dialogues, the music itself becomes the voice of Sujatha’s emotions. How did Jayachadran approach the challenge? “Initially, it gave me sleepless nights! How was I going to find a particular frequency to express the inexpressible and convey mood through the BGM in scenes housing only visuals and music? The wisdom of my guru, the late M.B. Srinivasan was the eye-opener. He had taught me that silence speaks and pauses link — when to be silent, when to converse, to remain neutral, be aggressive. Above all, when to stop the music. To him, I dedicate the three background scores, which are contemporary-esoteric via Indo-Arabic confluences, shaded with warmth”.

An exultant high

In ‘The Journey’ theme, rhythmic patterns radiate anticipation during the protagonists’ first meeting on a bus journey. When the soul speaks, you listen. And when it sings, you break into dance. The way Sujatha does, in Aboob’s Clarionet theme, that spirals to an exultant high. In the ‘End Title’ theme, sadness gives way to serene solitude suggesting that the Sufi is at peace in the realm of eternity.

Mesmeric would best describe the undercurrent of the looped ‘Noorullah’ refrain in Sudeep Palanad’s composition ‘Alhamdulillah’, as it rafts Amrutha Suresh’s vocals that meld passion with quietude.

With Sudeep’s voice growing on you with every listening, the philosophy interwoven (‘Thank you god, for every pain and gain’) is about accepting one’s destiny. The orchestra includes the Turkish oud and Egyptian saz, with Indian artistes handling the percussion, acoustic guitar and keyboards.

Touched by the overwhelming listener response, Sudeep says, “This song took shape in 2017. Shahnavas requested three elements — a devotional flavour (to enable it to be played at places of worship), Sujatha’s love, and the pain of separation”. One quality that compels attention is the effortlessness with which the melody retains its native identity while seamlessly blending in the Arabic flavour. How was this happy amalgam achieved?

Says Sudeep, “Most listeners are accustomed to the Sufi cadences and percussive beats of the Punjab province. I owe thanks to Shahnawas, who urged me to tune into and absorb Middle Eastern styles. Frequent listening and internalisation teach one what to do and, importantly, what not to do when linking genres, while staying true to original forms”.

In a throwback to an idyllic time and space, Sufiyum Sujathayum’s music recreates an age of innocence with emotive intensity. In an uncertain present, when the pandemic has become a test of faith and hope, it comes as affirmation of both. And what better proof of that than the 10 million plus YouTube views they have drawn till now.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 2:57:02 AM |

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