September 2008 
Year 15    No.134


From the diary of an occasional singer

Sufi music of our times


Jis tan laggeya ishq kamaal
Naache besur te betaal
(The body touched by the wondrous love/ Dances out of rhythm, out of note)

– Baba Bulleh Shah

I begin with a rather uneventful narration. This narration, in my view, has a certain bearing on the purpose of this short introductory essay on the unwritten polemic that surrounds the Sufi music of the subcontinent. 

About a year ago I was invited to address a press conference as part of a panel comprising mostly middle-rung musicians. The occasion was the announcement of an ambitious project by a well-known record label in which I was to feature as a singer of Sufi verses. I was a bit surprised when the organisers presented me to the press as a Sufi singer. I had always maintained that a Sufi singer was a separate and in today’s context possibly a non-existent category. I was a mere crooner drawing liberally from the rich and all-inclusive heritage of Sufi poetry and music and redeploying it with a clear political edge within the space of cultural activism.  

Whereas the distinction was extremely important to me for the kind of work I did, the organisers did not feel the need to endorse my sense of academic precision. For them perhaps this distinction was far too refined, far too rarefied for the lay person to appreciate. They had little problem therefore in sacrificing my pedantic concern at the altar of common sense where any singer of Sufi verses was by implication a Sufi. What made me eminently suitable, I was reassured with touching candour by another musician on the podium, was the aural charm I exuded because of my flowing grey beard and perennially pensive eyes. I did not quite know whether the comment was meant to genuinely assuage the anxieties I had acquired as a somewhat reluctant scholar of Sufism or was contrived to quite simply pull my leg. Nonetheless, I was left feeling somewhat apprehensively happy.

 My own little passage as a singer of Sufi verses had not only been fortuitous but also, what seems like a cultural paradox, quite wilfully eclectic.

My formative years, like most other children in the refugee settlement where I grew up, were full of community pageants. Depending upon the social scale on which these events unfolded, they could be both intimate and impersonal. Some of these spectacles were woven around the rites of passage and would always be accompanied by overpowering music. The larger community ceremonies were invariably held at gurdwaras and were always a great learning experience for at least some of us who nurtured visions of being able to perform musically some day. The Gurdwara Kirtan Durbars1 and the Jor Melas2 on the one hand, and the darkened film theatres and the radio on the other, held us enthralled.

These were songs of undying hope and deep despair; of unquestioning surrender and exuberant challenge; of mystical romance and the material desire to create, construct and shape a world around you. As one approached the threshold of youthful maturity, the lure of popular music from the West proved nearly catalytic in both its socially critical and joyously romantic registers. My mother’s harmonium with a double German reed was the next fetish object. My father sang songs of KL Sehgal – always standing, trying to catch an invisible something – an emotion, an idea, a time gone by. We children were held captive.

In the midst of all this, to borrow a poetic phrase from Neruda, the Sufi music touched us…

Each summer we spent a part of our vacation at our maternal grandparents’ crumbling house in Amritsar. It had dark unused corridors and passages where light barely peeked through the sturdy iron mesh woven firmly into each floor. The frozen darkness of the house was broken by the sound of a radio set that had been mysteriously installed in that haunted mansion to keep us, the little visitors from Delhi, pleased.

We would switch it on the moment the elders left for work. This was a way of overcoming our fear of the fug of a hoary past that surrounded us almost oppressively. We were beginning to confidently connect to a world out there – a new world where we hoped to live some day. Even the squeaky radio frequencies excited our imagination. We could see continents and seas beyond borders beckoning us. We could also see the home our parents had left behind in Lahore, barely 30 miles away from Amritsar – land now shut off by a political divide. Glued to the Lahore station of Radio Pakistan, we would hear Allama Iqbal’s hamd3: Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua Banke Tamanna Meri (A fervent wish keeps coming to my lips)4 on the children’s programme and be deeply moved. This was an amazing hamd – secular, warm and compassionate. Much later in our lives were we to appreciate why this hamd was a popular morning prayer at most schools before partition…

All this had changed in the schools that had come up after 1947. I went to two such schools – a Nagar Nigam school run by the local municipal body at first and a Khalsa school run by the Gurdwara Board later – in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The prayers had now become a lot more strident and avowedly aggressive, doling out unabashed myths of religious superiority. Special moral instruction classes were assigned where the instructors wove hysterical tales of gory heroism, whipping up anti-Muslim sentiments.

This was also the period when the Muslim socials had virtually disappeared from the film scene and the use of Urdu in mainstream Hindi cinema was beginning to be a lot more restrictive and controlled. Nehru – the chacha we so fondly looked up to – had suffered a paralytic stroke in the wake of the war with China in 1962. His ailment, in retrospect, appears like a catalytic metaphor of a major transition that was beginning to overtake the direction in which India was now headed. The pristine dream of India as one family, one community – Bapu (Gandhi), Chacha (Nehru), Sardar (Patel), Maulana (Azad), Gurudev (Tagore) – was beginning to wither. We had quite clearly succeeded the Midnight’s Children in much the same way as Shammi Kapoor’s ‘yahoo’ had succeeded Dev Anand’s adventure through India as a joyous discovery made along multiply connected highways. The IPTA songs had dried up. The Communist Party had vertically split. Manoj Kumar’s developmental cinema of aggressive self-assertion was waiting to happen. As indeed were the first Samyukta Vidhayak Dal government, the militant Left, the agitations for linguistic and regional identity, the famines… What’s more, India was getting sucked into a decade of wars with Pakistan. 

In the midst of all this turmoil, the hamd by Allama Iqbal stood out as a secular reaffirmation of human dignity.

During these times of social repair and reconstruction we would occasionally come across a teacher or two who carried a nostalgic longing for the lost utopia into their pedagogic engagements. There was also a large crop of poets, artists and performers who fearlessly espoused a vision of cultural plurality even in the midst of those times of despair. The India of the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in a paradoxical sense, a vibrant space for much of the displaced and homeless creativity.

Amritsar to us was like getting close to that mythical home. It was there in the early 1960s that I heard for the first time a qawwali5 that was to haunt me for a long, long while.

 This qawwali was written by Sahir Ludhianvi for Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)6 and had an entire community of singers, from the galactic Lata and Rafi to the marginal SD Batish to Sudha Malhotra, participating in the true spirit of the Sufi zikr.7 This song was for the most part a mesmerising incantation in praise of ishq8 that seemed to go on and on. As a young and impressionable child I felt intuitively drawn towards its heady beat. A little later, as a pubescent youth I began responding to its thematic lure. Its use of takraar9 and the act of tying the girah10 were not merely saturated and resonant but profoundly assertive in a creatively materialist sense. What’s more, the poem was unambiguously polemical and unbelievably rich in its range of references. A significant body of the Sufi heritage of Punjab seemed to have been seamlessly embedded in this song of radical connectivity.11 This wondrous composition self-consciously eschewed inducing a state of wajd12 and thus succeeded in keeping its political edge alive and sharp and yet, unlike the Brechtian technique of alienation, it did not shy away from being emotionally excessive.  

Sahir had always been taken up with the idea of homelessness in both its celebrative and darker shades…  

Unfortunately for us, the metaphor of homelessness has become a dreaded reality driven by a brazen and murderously communal politics. In such times of deep political crises and existential anxiety Sahir’s invocation of this intrepid and secular Sufi tradition shows us the way. When we at SAHMAT revisited the Sufi-Bhakti tradition in the wake of LK Advani’s communally explosive Rath Yatra our cultural intervention was marked not only by the deeply impassioned and persuasive intent of the songs but also by the profoundly liberating influence they had on the performing artists themselves.

They performed with deep personal conviction and eventually secured these songs forever in the secular space beyond the restrictive confines of overt religiosity. Years later, when Rabbi Shergill sang Bulla Ki Jaana Maen Kaun, we could clearly see the formation of a new cultural persona rejecting identity politics without ever lapsing into a mode of surrender. This was a joyous affirmation of a new selfhood. In one fell swoop we witnessed the Sufi song move beyond the glorified capitulation of the self to an imagined Ultimate Subject. 


To return to the press conference with which I began, immediately after I was introduced as a Sufi singer there was yet another, totally unexpected and far bigger shock in store for me. Present in our midst was the young and highly talented sarangi player, Kamal Sabri, with whom I had worked closely for a while and performed in India and Pakistan. In his youthful exuberance, he dropped a virtual bombshell by questioning the separate categorisation of Sufi music as a full-fledged genre worthy of inclusion within the project. He was very emphatic about this, averring that there was no such thing as Sufi music. He maintained that it had no tangible or formalised existence as distinct from other generically identified forms of Indian music. The only thing Sufi about what was touted as Sufi music, in his view, was the Sufiana kalaam (mystical poetry).

The entire heritage of what we had been given to believe was Sufi music seemed to come crumbling down. It was not easy to dismiss the young musician’s premise lightly. Not only was he a gharanedar musician (of the gharana), his family had close links with the Sabria silsila (order). Besides, his family had been very close to the well-known ethnomusicologist, Regula Burkhardt Qureshi, whose work on the Sufi music of India and Pakistan continued to draw unflinching admiration from the cognoscenti.  

Within the space of an hour I was made to go through a crisis that was both canonically and existentially crucial to my own somewhat restricted engagement with music. What am I? A Sufi? A singing-masquerade? What have I been singing all these years? If Sufi music did not exist at all then what did I hear when I heard what people received and feted as Sufi music? How would I now reclassify the names of Mian Abu Bakar, Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the Qawwal Bachche; the singing of Ustad Fateh Ali, Mubarak Ali, Aziz Mian, Ustad Jaafar Hussain, Sher Ali, Mehr Ali, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali, Allan Faqir, Alim and Farghana Qasimov, Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri, Tufail Niazi, Abida Parveen, Saeen Zahoor; and the list could go on and on.  

If this press conference brought about a temporary disquiet in my being about the nature of Sufi music and the direction in which it had grown, there was a positive fallout as well. It made me think about Sufi music beyond generic confines. I had always believed that in its eclectic energy Sufi music had drawn and never stopped drawing liberally from diverse sources. Not that Sufi music was generically non-existent. It made me realise that Sufi music has in fact never been exclusively about music. Perhaps no other music can be, in the sense in which Indian classical music has been. Earlier it was driven by an etiquette of spirituality and its concomitant rituals; today it is monitored by the cultural industry as a fetish object on the one hand and also espoused by radical cultural activists as a poignant tool of resistance.  


A few years ago I was invited to plan a musical soirée around the theme of Sufism for a Delhi-based business tycoon who happened to deal in ship scraps. I must confess to having been deeply fascinated by the image of the gargantuan ships finally reaching their last, albeit temporary, abode. There was something touchingly otherworldly and almost poetic about this transient image of tired ships at the end of their long, dark journeys.  

The event I was asked to design was part of an extended wedding ceremony in the family. The venue was to be an exotic fortress-cum-hotel near Alwar. The tycoon’s daughter was getting married and, doting father that he was, he dreamt of the occasion as an effusive gift to his child. For hadn’t she once expressed a desire to be initiated into the Sufi way through the irresistible lure of its music? This was a Punjabi Hindu family with little religious linkage to Sufism. In our part of the world Sufism continued to be perceived mainly as a quaint and spectacular offshoot of Islam.

I had never designed such a function before and definitely not for money. I considered myself to be an occasional cultural activist who took pride in singing free of charge for progressive and secular causes. Such a position has always seemed to me to be creatively closer to the Sufi spirit and I felt somewhat purified and liberated after every concert. I had kept judiciously away from the moneybags and it was only with extreme reluctance that I was persuaded to accompany my painter friend, Manjeet Bawa, to liven up the insulated penthouses of the rich and famous with Sufi melodies and verses. Sufi music, as I understood it, was originally meant to be a community experience where the rich and the poor would mingle freely and possibly without a sense of divisive socio-economic hierarchy. It was meant to be performed in a spiritually well-defined space for khalq-e-khuda (people of god) gratis. 

In retrospect, I look back and wonder if a Sufi concert of the kind I had designed was not in effect a contradiction in terms. In a traditional Sufi congregation the performing musicians and devout followers were supposed to be bound together in a highly coded etiquette of listening and spiritual bonding. None of this was likely to be in evidence during the wedding pageant wherein the Sufi verses and melodies I had chosen would be happily subsumed. And this was only a minuscule part of the various ways in which I thought the very nature of Sufi performances was beginning to irreversibly change. 

Now the entire idea of Sufism in general and Sufi music in particular was changing irreversibly. It was not only changing around me but in my own case as a performer through me. I did not profess to be a Sufi. I was, after all, not a Muslim. To make matters worse, I was a non-practising Sikh and a near atheist. I was fascinated by Sufi music and had read detailed accounts of the poets and the silsilas they represented. I had visited many Sufi shrines and had been deeply moved by a large body of Sufi poetry and music. But I was not a Sufi. Over a period of time I had somehow convinced myself of the improbability of the existence of a practising Sufi. The age of fakirs had withered and the dervishes had lost all their sanguine spirit to the whirling traps of unending ritual.

Since my name had been recommended by the then reigning deity of Indian popular music, with whom I had enjoyed working and for whom I had, and still have, a deep personal regard, I accepted the responsibility without much fuss. To my great joy I subsequently discovered that the rich tycoon for whom I was to design the evening was a man of impeccable taste and no little learning. His daughter was doing her doctoral research at Oxford and apart from being superaffluent the family was academically almost awe-inspiring. The bridegroom was to fly in from Dubai where he worked as a senior executive in a multinational sports company. The audience included the rich and famous: poets, painters, politicians, power brokers, professors, princes… and sundry other shades of prominence. In the midst of this diverse audience, I, once a film scholar and occasional cultural activist, now stood nervously as a learned mirasi (minstrel) whose scholarship was acknowledged for whatever it was more out of politeness than genuine conviction.  

Our first goal was to identify musicians to the mutual satisfaction of all. This did not prove to be difficult even if our host insisted on the inclusion of a group of popular qawwals on the recommendation of the reigning deity who had abstained from all deliberations thus far. I had over a period of time developed fairly strong views on the quality of music produced by the Indian qawwals and did not find their singing either traditionally credible or musically convincing. After some persuasion our sponsor agreed to drop the qawwals and settled on the Mangniars I had proposed instead.

I had lined up the finest singers from among the Mangniars, a tribe of traditional Muslim singers from the sleepy deserts of Rajasthan. The great advantage of inviting these singer-musicians was, I believed, their repertoire which cut across linguistic and cultural barriers with amazing ease. They could sing in six different linguistic registers without ever sounding unconvincing. This group of extraordinary musicians usually sang lilting melodies pertaining to Hindu rites of passage, of changing seasons, of rare pastoral landscapes, lonesome trees and camels in vast deserts, of myriad Hindu gods and goddesses. These musicians still saw themselves as belonging to the jajmani system and their patrons happened to be largely Hindus who had fallen on bad times.

On that particular day however the Mangniars were going to sing haunting melodies that they offered gratis at the mazars of their pirs and murshids for a gathering of believers who were willing to shed the inhibitions of the self and pass into a state of trance. As for my musicians, they happened to be professionals with a relatively lesser degree of spiritual involvement in the enterprise of Sufism. My own position within this musical show was that of a lec-dem performer – singing a little, explaining a lot. 

I could clearly see through my own agency how in recent years Sufi music had moved decisively away from its traditional performative spaces or base. The khanqahs and the dargahs had receded in a dreamy haze. The new exponents of Sufi music had emerged from chaotically diverse backgrounds of cultural activism, exciting new scholarship, religious fluidity, transgressions and musical lineage, if any. Some of these singers had emerged over a period of time with more than moderate success as the embodiments of lifestyle statements that go far beyond conventional modes of singing, musical adaa (style), elan or etiquette. It seemed to extend into the domain of haute couture – a certain styling of the look with an appropriately randomised vocabulary; cross-continental diaspora, travelling histories and global tourism; new technologies of communication and the parasitic cultural industry.

In another sense, its creative reach had been stretched and had begun to extend well beyond the ambit of Islam or even what had been understood as Sufism in the popular perception. The very nature of Sufi music as such stood radically changed. In the light of these changes a series of questions were bound to arise even as this cultural shift ushered in completely new and unexpected possibilities.  

Perhaps the single most important fallout of this emergent phenomenon is that more and more people understand what they do of Sufism through what they receive as Sufi music. There is a clearer desire to reinstall Sufi music beyond the pale of religion, at times paradoxically within modes of cloned religiosity. In other words, there is perhaps a problematic but celebrative conflation of Sufi music with the idea of Sufism as imagined and experienced by people across linguistic, cultural and religious boundaries.

With this change, vis-à-vis social reorganisations themselves assimilating the vestigial, the very idea of Sufism becomes conflated almost exclusively with a mode of singing. How does one relocate and readdress the very question of Sufism as distinct from what is termed as Sufi music? Is there a form of music quintessentially and non-negotiably Sufi in nature? What is the status of the verses and melodies identified with the long-established conventions of Sufism within the new order of things?  

Conversely, how has the very idea of music changed in view of its growing dissociation from its spiritual history and the centres of spirituality in which it flourished and developed for almost a thousand years? What role have the new technologies of communication – the talkies, the wireless, the satellite channels and the Internet – played in not only disseminating Sufi music but also in its integration within the growing idea of cultural industry? How have these technologies helped produce syncretic and secular communities of new consumer recipients? These are some of the questions that both the cultural activist and the performing artist would need to address.

(Madan Gopal Singh is a musician, film historian and cultural activist.)



1 The religious festivals of the Sikhs invariably culminated in soirées of devotional music involving important exponents of kirtan held within the precincts of the gurdwara.

2 A fair-like large congregation of devotees, held especially within the precincts of the historic gurdwaras, where the folk and the popular mingle freely with the canonically mystical.

3 Hamd, in the Islamic tradition, is a poem/composition in praise of god.

4 Lab pe aati hai dua banke tamanna meri

Zindagi shama ki surat ho khudaya meri

(A fervent wish keeps coming to my lips/ My life may glow like an impassioned flame, O God!)

Door duniya ka mere dam andhera no jaaye

Har jagah mere chamakane se ujaala ho jaaye

(My deeds may dispel the world’s darkness/ With my sparkle may the entire world light up!)

Ho mere dam se yoon hi mere watan ki zeenat

Jis tarah phool se hoti hai chaman ki zeenat

(Because of my deeds may my homeland dazzle/ Just as a garden through its flowers blossoms)

Zindagi ho meri parwaane ki surat ya rab

Ilm ki shama se ho mujhko mohabbat ya rab

(O Lord! My life may be the life of a moth/ O Lord! May the flame of knowledge be my love)

Ho mera kaam garibon ki himaayat karna

Dard-mandon se zaifon se mohabbat karna

(May all my deeds be supportive of the poor/ May I forever the suffering humanity love)

Mere Allah buraai se bachaanaa mujhko

Nek jo raah ho us raah pe chalaanaa mujhko

(Protect me, O God, from the evil path/ Make me tread the path of good deeds, O Lord!)

5 A mode of group-singing associated primarily with Sufi music. Structurally, it consists of a naghma (melody) played on instruments, a rubai or a poetic verse that precedes the main composition cutting into the naghme, a mukhra or refrain which may be like the antara or the stanzas that follow by obsessive argumentation of takraar or may go out of the main song altogether to tie a knot outside, girah lagaana, and fortify a polemical loop before returning to the main song. Qawwali is often led by one or two main singers who are supported by a group who provide vocal and rhythmic support by clapping their hands to fixed beat structures.

6 Na To Karvaan Ki Talash Hai.

7 Zikr is a creative act of remembrance in a collective Sufi ceremony of listening known as samaa.

8 Ishq or Love – the concept central to all Sufi practices.

9 Takraar or the argumentative in Sufi music – especially in qawwalis – is an obsessive and recurring emphasis on a keyword or phrase.

10 Girah lagaana.

11 To pick a few examples from the poem at random, the following lines clearly invoke the poets whose names are parenthesised:

Ishq aazaad hai, hindu na musalmaan hai ishq (Bulleh Shah)

Aap hi dhamar hai aur aap hi imaan hai ishq (Bulleh Shah, Ghulam Farid)

Jisase aagaah nahi shekh-o-barahaaman dono (Kabir, Bulleh Shah)

Us haqiqat ka garajataa hua ailaan hai ishq (Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah)

Allah rasul ka farmaan ishq hai (Waris Shah)

Yaane hafiz ishq hai, quraan ishq hai (Ghulam Farid)

12 Wajd, a state induced by the zakir (the ones who lead zikr – usually a set of musicians) in the listener during samaa when the listener loses all worldly bearings and moves into a state of spiritual unity with the one remembered.

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