Bombay Showcase

A Punjab without borders

Radhika Sood Nayak, who performs this evening as part of festival Art 35, has dipped into Sohail Abid’s vast Folk Punjab archive to perform spiritual poetry.

Radhika Sood Nayak, who performs this evening as part of festival Art 35, has dipped into Sohail Abid’s vast Folk Punjab archive to perform spiritual poetry.  

When Radhika Sood Nayak was growing up in Ludhiana, since her mother is from Lucknow, the family spoke Hindi at home. English was the language of aspiration; Punjabi, in her mind, was a rough language she was forced to study. When she grew up, got married to a Mangalorean, and eventually moved to Mumbai, her connection with the language grew even more distant.

It took the music of Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to draw her back to her cultural roots. “I remember hearing a recording where the poet Gulzar says: Abida ki awaaz jaise ibaadat ki awaaz hai . (Abida's voice is like the voice of submission to the Lord.) The depth of that devotion pulled me in. The poetry began to speak to me only later.” Trained in Hindustani classical music, Nayak now also sings the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Baba Farid, and other Sufis from Punjab.

The process of honing her singing has led to Nayak discovering a vast archive of music and poetry, Folk Punjab (, the brainchild of Sohail Abid, a much-respected archivist and commentator who lives in Pakistan.

“I belong to a Punjabi family that had to migrate because of the Partition riots in 1947,” says Abid. “I grew up on stories of our many homelands, from a village outside Patiala before partition to a refugee camp in Lahore, to Pakpattan, where the family settled.” Many cultural spaces feed Abid’s work: Lahore, home to the mazaar s (mausoleums) of Daata Ganj Baksh, Mian Mir, Shah Hussain, Madholal, Shah Jamal, and other Sufis; Kasur, near Lahore, where Bulleh Shah is buried; his murshid (spiritual teacher), Shah Inayat Qadri, a Sufi who lived in Lahore; Pakpattan, a pilgrim town, famous for the mausoleum of another Sufi, Baba Farid. “In the Punjabi imagination, ‘ watan ’ is a layered concept. Your foremost watan is your village, then the areas adjacent to it, then the region it is situated in, and so on,” says the Abid. “So I had many homelands, and they were situated in two countries, one of which I was told was the enemy. It was difficult to grasp. I never really bought it. The Punjab that exists in my heart is beyond the present borders. It is multi-layered and multi-faceted. It exists as a surreal entity.”

As many Indians as Pakistanis access Abid’s archive. Most of the Indians are from Delhi, with others from Chandigarh, Bangalore, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Mumbai, among other cities. Abid says, “Sometimes, people across the border — upon digging a little deeper and finding out that the person behind Folk Punjab is from Pakistan — send heart-warming messages that they never thought it could be someone from Pakistan. Many such people have become good friends over the years. They are my connection to my homeland, which is inaccessible otherwise.”

Ms Nayak has not visited Pakistan, but she is conscious of how the poetry she sings comes with the legacy of an undivided Punjab. Folk Punjab has introduced her to the work of Pakistani artistes such as Sain Zahoor and Hina Nasrullah, who she now follows.

In the process of expanding her repertoire, Nayak's appreciation for the Punjabi language has grown considerably. Her husband and her sons, all committed followers of Bollywood music, have begun to hum Sufi songs. She is also glad that her training in classical music is being put to good use. Many of her songs are set to ragas such as Bhairavi, Bhoop, Des, Bhimpalasi and Bageshri. “Singing Sufiyana kalaam has taken me on a journey of introspection. The Sufis sing of a beloved that is beyond all boundaries of caste and religion. Bulleh Shah, for instance, used to sing ‘ Holi khelungi kehkar Bismillah ’ (I shall play Holi, singing Bismillah). Even centuries earlier, they were saying such bold things that people are afraid to say now.”

Radhika Sood Nayak performs this evening at The Great Eastern Home, Byculla, as part of Art 35. Time: 6.30 pm. This is a free event.

The author is a freelance writer

“The Punjab that exists in my heart is multi-layered and multi-faceted … a surreal entity.”

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 12:50:40 AM |

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