The importance of sustaining Sufi music

June 30, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 16, 2016 05:04 pm IST

Narendra Kusnur

Narendra Kusnur

Following the tragic murder of Pakistani singer Amjad Sabri in Karachi last week, there have been numerous articles and discussions about the historical, religious and political relevance of Sufi music. This column shall avoid those aspects.

Instead, the focus shall be on where the genre stands in the Indian context today. The music has had a select, devoted number of followers, especially in the past two decades, but the number may not match Hindustani classical, Carnatic or ghazal audiences.

First, some background. In its original sense, this is a traditional and devotional form associated with Islamic mystics known as Sufis. The roots can largely be found in Persia, parts of the Arabic world, Pakistan and India. The qawwali and kaafi are the most popular styles, and are associated with poets such as Hafez, Rumi, Amir Khusro, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussein and Khwaja Ghulam Farid.

As a style, the qawwali has existed in Hindi film music for years. The songs weren’t Sufi as they lacked the spiritual element. The hits included ‘ Na Toh Karwan Ki Talaash Hai ’ ( Barsaat Ki Raat ), ‘ Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen ’ ( Waqt ), ‘J hoom Barabar ’ ( 5 Rifles ) and ‘ Parda Hai Parda ’ ( Amar Akbar Anthony ). Aziz Nazan’s ‘ Chadhta Sooraj ’ falls in the popular slot.

From a purist’s sense, old-timers were exposed to Pathaney Khan and the Sabri Brothers, Ghulam Farid and Maqbool Ahmed, and also music played in shrines. The sudden rise of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the late 1980s gave the genre a fillip. By the mid 1990s, he ensured that Sufi music gained a following in the West, thanks mainly to his album Night Song with Canadian producer Michael Brook.

After Nusrat’s demise in August 1997, the mantle was carried forward by Abida Parveen in Pakistan. In India, the Wadali Brothers, the Nizami Brothers, the Warsi Brothers and Madan Gopal Singh gained in popularity, while certain Rajasthani tribal groups blended Sufi and folk music effectively. Festivals like Ruhaniyat promoted the genre.

The problem began thereafter. To expand the fan base, efforts were made to infuse Sufi music with pop sounds. Not all was bad though. In Pakistan, groups such as Junoon, Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon blended traditional compositions with western sounds. In India, A.R. Rahman, Kailash Kher and Rabbi Shergill created tunes based on Sufiana influences. Nusrat’s nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, arrived in Bollywood.

By and large, however, commercialisation followed. Film songs used specific words and tunes, but they were in no way connected with the original message. Many singers only sang a few select songs like ‘ Chhap Tilak ’, ‘ Allah Hoo ’, ‘ Man Kunto Maula ’, ‘ Bullah Di Jaana ’ and ‘ Damadam Mast Qalandar ’.

Audiences swayed and clapped without knowing the poetic relevance. Poet Bulleh Shah became a huge name, but not many knew his poetry followed the four stages of Sufism: shariat (path), tareeqat (observance), haqeeqat (truth) and marfat (union). Often, people would raise wine glasses for tunes that were purely spiritual. In short, Sufi music became a party fad.

True, some musicians have been trying to promote pure Sufi music, like London-based Deepa Nair Rasiya’s 2015 album Destination and Dhruv Sangari’s live qawwali concerts. Shubha Mudgal, Kavita Seth and Rekha Bhardwaj present Sufi tunes, whereas Vasundhara Das, Smita Bellur and Indira Naik perform regular shows.

Yet, the number of Sufi singers remains much smaller when compared with other genres. What one misses is a concrete effort to educate listeners about this wonderful genre. Without that, things may well remain at a standstill.

The author is a freelance music writer

There is a need for concrete

steps to educate listeners about this genre

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