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Musical Noise in Arab ki Sarai

Yousuf Saeed

Review of a music festival on Amir Khusro directed by Muzaffar Ali at New Delhi

Muzaffar Ali has this unusual gift of being able to rope in some of the best talent at the right time and the right place - without probably fully understanding the implications - and then being able to walk away with the limelight, as most of his extravagant ‘creations’ turn out to be quite exciting for the half-ignorant audience; the classic example being his film Umrao Jan. The areas he delves into – Urdu and Persian literature, aristocratic muslim culture, Islamic mysticism and so on – are generally considered rare and exotic; not many others are trying their hands on these, and therefore Ali tends to be taken seriously with whatever he presents.

Jahan-e-Khusrau, a 2-day music festival sponsored by the government of Delhi and Ali’s Dwar pe Rozi Society, at Arab ki Sarai, New Delhi on 23rd and 24th March 2001, was supposed to be “an attempt to take Khusrau to every child and intellectual across the length and breadth of India and to all corners of the world.” But what it actually did was to further obscure the 13th century poet-mystic in an almost cacophony of musical noise as the artists of very different styles and cultures were pitted against each other on-stage to show that Khusro’s music and poetry transcends geographical boundaries.

The star attraction was of course Abida Perveen from Pakistan, besides a host of performing groups from India, Iran, and Tunisia – each of them seeming to be exceptionally good in their own styles. But instead of being given a chance to perform individually, a number of these groups – at least three at a time - were put together on the stage to have a musical dialogue which, at its best, could only charge the audience to a rhythmic applause. However, whether it achieved anything musically or intellectually is hard to say. As far as the music and poetry of Amir Khusro is concerned, the artists of the subcontinent and even from Iran could, and did present some of it, but the Tunisian music for instance, had very little to do with Khusro was quite evident.

On the first day, Indian qawwals Faraz and Shiraz Ahmad performed some popular qauls and compositions ascribed to Khusro, followed by a dance and music performance by children from the Vasant Valley School of Delhi. Later, some classical and semi-classical compositions were presented by the Dilli gharana’s young exponent Iqbal Ahmad Khan, including a few of Khusro’s Persian ghazals. He and other vocalists were further complimented by a group of Kashmiri sufiana musicians led by Ghulam Nabi Namtahali. The other intersting feature of this day was a Kathak dance recital by Lucknow's Manjari Chaturvedi based on the music of Khusro, with vocals by Papiha Malik and others.

The second day attracted a larger crowd mainly because of Abida Perveen. The show started with painfully lengthy introductions by the compere Salima Raza and the director Muzaffar Ali while the audience waited for Fahimuddin Dagar to begin his qaul performance. However Fahimuddin turned out to be a bit of a disappointment as he tried to render the qaul (a popular form of Khusro qawwali) in what sounded like an archaic dhrupad style with pakhawaj accompaniment! He was flanked on either side by the two international groups – of Lotfi ben Abdelhamid Bouchnak from Tunisia, and Reza Abaee from Iran, who played their music turn by turn with notes and rhythms matching the lead Indian singer. Lotfi of Tunisia in fact, was extremely touching at the rendering of an Arabic naa’t or poem for the prophet Mohammad – containing many phrases from the Quran and some muslim prayers.

Finally it was Abida’s turn who was welcomed on the stage with a continuing performance of the two international groups, together with a Sarod and a guitar player from India. Her introductory alaaps blended beautifully into the rhythmic jamming of the two groups - in fact soon she was singing her Mun kunto maula… in the middle of this Iranian-Tunisian- Indian-Pakistani accompaniment of a violin, violin cello, synthesizer, flute, santoor, daffs, ney, sarod, guitar, harmonium, dholak and many other instruments!

Those who are familiar with Abida’s typical traditional style (and had probably come to hear just that) waited for this inter-continental ensemble of sama to end so that they could hear her unhindered, but kept waiting till the end. The artists had either decided in advance to go into this kind of jugalbandi (dialogue), or the Iranians and the Tunisians were a bit too resolute to compliment Abida’s singing with their instruments without much thought. However the general impact on the audience – despite the terrible acoustics - was quite moving

Abida sang some of the typical Khusrau compositions such as Chhaap tilak…, Teri soorat ke balihari…, and Rung, but her voice was often lost in the middle of an excessive drumming of the Iranian duffs. At times one was reminded of those spontaneous music sessions at the Osho commune, or of Hare Krishna Mission, where various strains of rhythmic and loud instruments create a psychedelic ecstasy within the participants, but not much music. Only one song which sounded to be bringing some synergy between the three groups in terms of music as well as the poetry, was Chashme-maste-ajabe - a beautiful ghazal of Amir Khusro.

Isn’t a sufi Sama, which this programme claimed itself to be, supposed to be something else? The Chishti sufis have always stressed on the poetry and message of the song, rather than mere sensual quality of the sound in a Sama. In some of the earliest mehfil-e-sama (soirees), musical instruments were either taboo, or their use has been fiercely debated by the scholars. According to Nizamuddin Aulia himself, “Sama is that which is heard with ones heart and not by ones ears.” The chronicled accounts of the saint speak of mehfils where a qawwal - often Amir Khusro himself - used to simply recite a ghazal in Persian or Hindvi, mostly without accompaniment, and the words of the poem itself would bring the Sheikh to an spiritual ecstasy.

One can hope that in the future festivals of this kind, as promised by the Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Muzaffar Ali, one would be able to hear these traditional forms of music in their more original versions rather than these experimental renderings.

I recently saw in a Delhi music shop the double cassette recording of the above mentioned concert. If somebody (who did not attend the concert) has bought and heard it, and liked it, despite my criticism, do let me know. Though I won't waste my 125 rupees for it. I also saw an interesting review of the same album by Amitabh Aiyer which you may like to read here.

© Yousuf Saeed, 2001