Singular love

INNER VOICE Mukhtiyar Ali: ‘I am not a master of language, but I understand there's something beyond those words that we sing'

INNER VOICE Mukhtiyar Ali: ‘I am not a master of language, but I understand there's something beyond those words that we sing'   | Photo Credit: Photo: Murali Kumar K.


Mir Mukhtiyar Ali, the Sufi singer from Rajasthan, whose soaring voice stirs the listeners, says nothing matters to him more than his music

The setting was rather bizarre: the food joint in the hustling and bustling Forum Mall. In a set up most unmusical, how would I initiate my conversation with Mir Mukhtiyar Ali, the extraordinary musician from Rajasthan? We moved — to a nearby cycle shop and made place for ourselves amidst spanking new cycles and shining spare parts. Mukhtiyar Ali had a song on his lip from the time I met him at the mall: as he sat in the indifferent restaurant, as we took the escalator, as we crossed the busy road, and now – as he examined those many kinds of cycles.

“My sons love the bicycle. As children, we just walked from end to end. No question of a cycle. Times have changed…,” he said, his attention going back to the cycle in hand. The song had come back. It was nearly half an hour since we had met, and not once did the expression of unruffled calm change. In an invasive city that is constantly pushing you and edging you out, how does Mukhtiyar Ali from the leisurely pace of a village, remain so untroubled? “Ham ko sirf sangeet pareshan karta hain…,” he quietly said.

In the arid landscape of Rajasthan, Mukhtiyar Ali's village Pugal is in the North West Frontier of India, close to the Pakistan border. The Mirasi community to which Mukhtiyar belongs has been practising music for several hundreds of years.

This 26 {+t} {+h} generation musician lives in the bone-dry region of the Thar desert, where nothing grew and was constantly reeling under drought. The Mirasis, hardworking that they are, not only managed to make agriculture their livelihood but have also held on to their Sufi music tradition despite severe economic hardships. “I work in the fields from morning to evening, it is only in the evening that my music begins,” says Mukhtiyar, who has made pioneering efforts to revive the fading tradition.

“I have been listening to Bulle Shah, Kabir and Mirabai from the time I opened my eyes. It is my life and very being,” explains Mukhtiyar who is a treasure trove of all the sufi and bhakti poets who defied caste, class, religion and gender. “Till a few years ago, I would proudly say that the Mirasi community never gave its girls to a family that had no musicians. I cannot say that anymore…,” he says looking crestfallen. The Indira Gandhi canal which was built in their parts solved their water crisis, but it brought along with it many other problems. “Our community got scattered and the Mirasis who held together the 500-year-old tradition got dispersed,” he says.

The Mirasis, so closely bound to music, were banned by the religious heads. And so, there is a section of the community which believes that music is sin and shuns them. “What does the maulvi know about music?” says Mukhtiyar, whose ancestors have been singing in weddings and other auspicious occasions in various parts the State. “It doesn't trouble us. We go where we are welcome. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs everyone invites us. We have songs for everyone,” he says and quotes Kabir to explain that they are beyond religion: “If you say Hindu, I'm not that! Muslim? I'm not that either. Both the truth is, I play in both.” So, “we are everybody's and everybody is ours,” extends Mukhtiyar.

Mukhtiyar Ali and other practising musicians of the community sing at most satsangs in and around Pugal village. “We sing bhajans of Ram, Hanuman, Krishna, Saraswati, Allah… but once it strikes midnight, we switch over to Sufi. We not only sing them, but we have intense discussions. Each time we try to understand what is being said in the poem, we find new meanings. There are so many layers. I am not a master of language, but I understand there's something beyond those words that we sing. It is about reflection.” The singer of passionate robustness sadly wonders why people fight over caste and religion. “If you listen to Sufiana kalaam you feel sad over these meaningless squabbles.”

As the unlettered Mukhtiyar so brilliantly weaves Mira with Kabir with Bulle Shah, the myth of formal education strikes you. As he negotiates complex nuances of scale and raga, you wonder how he mastered it without formal training. “I have no explanation for this. It is all intuitive. My father Allah Baseya Khan used to sing, he still sings. My uncle Manzur Khan, could play some harmonium. I learnt it from them. But let me tell you… I never learnt it in the classical way. So if you ask me what note I am singing, I can't tell you.” How then did you sing raga Kafi so beautifully? “You know it is Kafi, I only have a picture and colour in my mind.”

Mukhtiyar at this point begins to think. “I feel I should give my children some training. They are superb, better than me. When I watch children on the reality shows, I feel my sons have to be there. But then, I know if I send them, I will lose them to another world. If they do not keep our tradition alive, what's the point of all the talent.”

For Mukhtiyar nothing is a greater tragedy than losing his tradition. In fact, he has even started teaching children in Pugal; he made CDs and distributed them in the neighbouring villages just to tell people that the Mirasis were still singing.

“Fame, money everything is transient. I want to keep my tradition alive. That is foremost for me…,” he says with a faraway look, blurring the shining cycles into nothingness.

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