Theatre

Muzaffar Ali: Navigating the stream of consciousness

IN A CONTEMPLATIVE MOOD Muzaffer Ali

IN A CONTEMPLATIVE MOOD Muzaffer Ali   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

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As Muzaffar Ali returns with a ballet capturing the spiritual ethos of Yamuna, the multifaceted personality talks about Sufism in everyday life

‘An artist can’t react; he can only reflect.” Muzaffar Ali chooses his words with care as he expresses his concern about Yamuna, the lifeline of northern India that is gasping for breath these days. As part of his upcoming Jahan-e-Khusrau Festival, the versatile artist is mounting a two-part ballet that celebrates the myth and romance of the river to make us realise its current misery by blending faith and ecology, delicate matters which define our times. “If you feel its importance, you will like to save it as well.” This weekend, through Dariya Prem Ka, he promises to present a “mythological biodata” of the river, answering questions like why it is called Kalindi, its brush with Kaaliya naag and, of course, its “enduring romance with Krishna.”

With thumri and kathak providing the form, Ali, who is trained in aesthetics, has employed his multi-disciplinary skills to turn it into a Sufi spectacle at Arab Ki Sarai. Drenched in the river’s Sufi connection with Krishna, Ali recites, “Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar, Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar.” (Oh Khusrau, the river of love runs in strange directions. One who jumps into it drowns, And one who drowns, gets across.)

Ali describes Amir Khusrau as a master blender, somebody who was ahead of his time, who made tabla out of pakhawaj and Hindavi out of Persian. “Not many people have described Hindustan as Khusrau did. From its seasons to its flora and fauna, Khusarau was totally in love with India. A disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, Khusrau served in the court of many rulers of Delhi Sultanate including Allauddin Khilji. “I don’t think the monarchs took his Sufi side very seriously. There is no record of any monarch objecting his closeness to Nizamuddin Auliya. What he has done with monarchs is also fascinating. He has described battles in verse. You can feel the rhythm of the battle in his poetry,” says Ali, equating Khusrau with a modern day civil servant who serves the government of the day. One missed his humanising presence in the court of Khilji in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. “But you need a demon to tell the story of a hero,” Ali gives a wry smile.

It seems Sufi thought is fast falling prey to consumerism but Ali doesn’t agree. “You can sell something only if somebody is ready to buy.” And feelings, he says, don’t die. “Seene Mein Jalan” continues to be as relevant as it was in the late ‘70s. “People are still looking to breathe in fresh air. Modern man still identifies with Shahryar’s poetry.”

Talking of poetry, Ali says it needs to be distilled. “It needs to be felt passionately and shared intensely. Raga based compositions, sometimes, take away the emotional and spiritual thought.” He doesn’t see Sufi kathak as dilution. If somebody thinks he looks cool by singing ‘maula maula,’ Ali doesn’t mind. “To me, a bird singing away is also fundamentally sufi. Love makes you free, and the establishment always fears this freedom.”

As a reaction to this freedom, perhaps, many of us are returning to purist fold in matters of faith. “That has always been the challenge. Don’t we remember what happened to Sarmad,” he asks, referring to Persian mystic Sarmad Kanashi who was beheaded for his unorthodox views during Aurangzeb’s reign.

Pakistani Sufi artists have also been part of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that Ali espouses through the 13-year-old festival. But in the last couple of years their presence has been sorely missed. “They are still in demand in the country but even if one person says something insulting, it will leave a bad taste. However, I would like to say that the government must appreciate the artists who are fighting a silent battle in the neighbouring country. Unlike us, they are living under terror and are somehow holding on to their artistic ethos.”

Holding the festival at Arab Ki Sarai helps in keeping the heritage alive but there are civic issues as well. “For me, it is my need. I didn’t pick it for some agenda. The ruins go with the Sufi mood. If it serves a bigger purpose, it’s a value addition. Of course, there is some disturbance but locals have embraced the festival.”

Another dimension of Sufism

For Ali, a fashion designer himself, dastakari is also a dimension of Sufism. “A sufi, Sayyid Ali Hamadani, took dastakri to Kashmir in the form of kaleen, Pashmina, papier-mache, and over a period of time it became a distinct art,” says Ali who has just finished more than a dozen short films on dastkari in different parts of India for the government.

“Dastakari has its own temperament and if you observe a weaver closely, you will find that it’s a meditative process. But today Kashmir its losing its aesthetics. It is very easy for aesthetics to get derailed. I saw it in Bhuj, Gujarat as well where after earthquake government has provided blocks of houses, which are bereft of any aesthetics. Wahshat ne mujhse loot li dam bhar mein dosto, Jo muddaton mein aayi thi shaistagi hamein. (How madness got the better of us and in a moment swept away the refinement of centuries),remarks Ali. Some might call it tyranny of taste? “We need to set some standard. There is simplicity in beauty as well. I am not asking for Taj Mahal, I am asking for a house made of mud that has fragrance of tradition,” he counters. “When you rebuilt his house, it’s your tyranny that you didn’t even nod to his aesthetics. Refinement also means that you salute the aesthetics of the other,” sums up Ali.

Between the lines

On his love for Kashmir I went to Kashmir to make a film on Habba Khatoon which will reflect the soul of Kashmir. The music of Kashmir helped me in understanding the place. Sufiyana shayari was alive at that time. A sufi is a person without a base. He is of here and there. My Lucknow roots has given me etiquette and when you express them, you often get more than required. I saw Kashmir from the prism of culture. And then I saw it in the mirror of my heart. For me, Dal Lake was a lake of spirituality in which I got immersed. Along the way, I found weeds, which they keep removing from the lake. They hurt me because by then Pakistan had injected a fundamentalist undercurrent.

On Zooni getting inordinately delayed We tried to fit in commercial actors in an artistic timetable. I agree I did it in Umrao Jaan as well but in Umrao Jaan nature was not visible. Here I wanted to connect all the emotions with nature. Kashmir allows it. Its spring showcases joy and its winter reminds of sadness and melancholy. I got a little too ambitious but it doesn’t mean I got carried way. I am very good with time planning. I have recently completed 13-14 short films on time.

On his friend and collaborator Shahryar

He was consuming himself. He was not a sufi. Every poetry has its destination. Shahryar’s poetry has its down destination and Faiz’s has its own. As I am not a poet, I can move from one destination to another. And I can stop at the destination that I like. But if you are a poet, you can stop at a destination only when you are worthy enough to reach there. I don’t have to prove anything. But as a filmmaker, I faced similar challenges.

On comparison between Umrao Jaan and Shatranj Ke Khiladi For me, Awadh was the biggest issue. It was my reason to make the film. For Satyajit Ray, I guess, it was the story. It was good, but I wanted the character of Wajid Ali Shah to have more punch.

On his ability to take risks From casting Rekha as Umrao to making Shabana Azami sing in Anjuman, there is a long list. “I have the sixth sense and being a painter I have the confidence that I can make something out of nothing. Sometimes this conviction fails as well, but it is the first prerequisite for any creative pursuit.”

On the relevance of Anjuman and Aagman, his films that didn’t get much traction when they released Aagman continues to be relevant because the exploitative attitude of sugar mills in Uttar Pradesh continues. The farmers are unable to look beyond sugarcane crop. Anjuman talked about the advantage that exploiters take when the unity of society breaks.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 2:13:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/muzaffar-ali-navigating-the-stream-of-consciousness/article22960196.ece

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