Lately, the usage of the term Sufi in India, be it in music, dance, fine arts, festivals, amongst young and Bollywood, makes one wonder if the term is indeed understood or it is only a fad that sweeps across the country without really getting a sense of what it’s about. I get asked questions when I say going to a Sufi festival, both from within and without India, and from musically inclined contacts – what is Sufi, are Qawwali and Sufi same and so on. Perhaps the association of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Bollywood brought about this wave in India, or it is the ‘secular’ India suddenly waking up to a sect of Islam, not sure as I was away from the country and started hearing the term here only on return.
Mystical dimension of Islam is Sufism. This school encompasses music and dance as part of the meditative process to attain that union with the divine, though the link between music and divinity existed since time immemorial, be it in shamanism or animism. Another school of Islam opposes music lest that it has the potential to intoxicate the mind and lead one away from the path of attaining Allah. Well, that is my limited take on the term.
Having said that, the focus here is the music festival. World music is still hard to come by in India and understandably so for the mind-boggling variety and wealth of music around. After all, the origin of music ever is said to be Sama-veda, one of the four Vedas of Hinduism. But, these Sufi festivals are indeed a welcome treat for they showcase performing arts from other cultures, though a Langa group from Rajasthan and a Qawwali group are invariably part of such festivals, probably included more to justify the ‘Sufi stamp’. In addition to very many obscure Sufi festivals across the country, the three major annual ones, at least I know of, are World Sufi Spirit Festival at Jodhpur with a regal touch, both in terms of venue and admission price, and backed by the likes of Aga Khan Trust and the Royal family of Jodhpur; Ruhaniyat, an itinerant gig that packs 5 or 6 groups in just one evening; and Sufi Sutra, a free for all festival that lights up the city of joy – Kolkata (Calcutta). Having done the first two in the circuit earlier, this year I soaked in the music at Sufi Sutra.
At the first look, the venue of the festival was rejuvenating with lots of green and flowers. It was Mehar Kunj, a park adjoining the popular colonial landmark, Victoria Memorial. The walkway inside the park was lined up with billboards of the participating bands. Black and white photographs of historical Calcutta took up a small niche. The stage and the seating looked as it would at any other outdoor concert venue. A band that was scheduled to perform in the evening was rehearsing on stage with no audience presence as I was guided to the morning workshop session at another section of the park with sprawling lawn.
The workshop sessions were quite informal and provided opportunity for visiting bands to introduce their genre, both verbally and musically, as a prelude to their formal act in the evenings. It was also the time to interact with the audience and answer queries they might have, jam with local musicians and get the rich exchange and learning curve going. While the audience indulged in circle-dance, media was busy with photo-ops and interviews at back-stage with artists who were done with their morning slot. Two bands were presented at these sessions. Handicraft artisans had spread out their exquisite wares along the periphery of the lawn giving the event a multi-faceted touch.
The evening scene was quite a transformation from what I saw in the morning, as the crowd swelled to capacity, illumination ran up the trees in all hues and the stage was set with state-of-the-art sound and light equipments. Constant supply of steaming tea and the music more than made up for the dip in January evening temperature. Three bands performed in the evenings at this three-day festival.
El Bola (Spain), Mu (Portugal), Radiant Arcadia (Denmark), Win Bang (Iran) Barkbroder Extended (Sweden) and Arnob & Friends (Bangladesh) were the bands participated this year.
In my books, Sufi Sutra beats other festivals on all fronts – ‘music for all and music for peace’ motto, great venue and decor, friendly staff, opening avenues for local folk musicians and handicraft artisans, laid-back atmosphere, providing opportunity for people to get their feet wet in World music by keeping the festival open for all and of course, which festival offers you limitless supply of no-charge-tea ! Given the limited resources in India, it’s quite remarkable that an organization could venture in uncharted waters (world music) and stage something like this – Kudos to Banglanatak.com team for pulling off such an act that I would say exceeded some of the outdoor acts I have seen abroad.
Though the city of Kolkata didn’t have a call for me all these years, in the last 1 year I found myself there on 3 occasions – first, to ‘reconnect’ with my time in the Amazon at Sundarbans, as its called the Amazon of Asia, second for the Sufi Sutra festival and quite recently for the World Hare-Krishna festival (ISKCON) – so, it’s certainly turning out to be a happening-city! No metro (subway) in the world can beat the clean, ad-free, efficient and air-conditioned ride for a mere Rs.5 – though a new kid on the block, no wonder it was voted as the #1 metro in the world on the PBS documentary I watched a few years ago! And the eco-friendly clay tea-cup used at the street-side shops was a welcome sight yet walking through the labyrinths of Kumartuli where the potters churn out gleaming Gods and Goddesses was simply magical !
An artistic director of one Sufi festival rightly asked me once why there was such Sufi-craze in India with so much of Hindu music in its bag, while his counterpart at another festival rightly answered that Hinduism embraced all faiths with open arms. Yet, I personally wish to see India stages a festival on the lines of Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, sans Indian classical but providing platform to multitude of regional and state-wide genres of Bakthi (devotional) music and as well invite rich world sacred music traditions that include tribal, shamanistic and animistic categories. Abhang, Nama-Sankeerthan, Samprdhaya Bhajan, Oduvar tradition, Thirupugaz singers,Theru-koothu,Yakshaganam,Garba andDhandia, Kummi and Kollattam, Bauls of Bengal, three styles ofChhau, Somana Kunita, Pavai dance, Bishnoi bhajans, Bhagavatha Mela are the art forms that are much older than Sufi or any such traditions and many of which trace their roots to Sama-Veda. These are just right off the top of my head and the list will be endless if dig deeper across the country. These art forms are currently pigeon-holed to respective regions and that too on a very negligible scale. With plenty in the backyard, if India doesn’t showcase these hoary but dying traditions to the world on a common platform, no one else will and they are not likely to get invited to Iran or Pakistan as we find bands from such countries here, nor for that matter at the money-spinning, agent-oriented World music venues and festival destinations. Probably the first organisation in India, Prakrithi Foundation in Chennai, has started hosting an annual festival in the clichéd caption ‘Thiruvaiyaru Sacred Music Festival’ on the banks of river Cauvery, with a little mix of other flavours but only adding more classical vibes to that town Thiruvaiyaru that already has a strong association with that genre.
Following is an interview by yours truly of Win-Bang, the band from Iran that was featured at the festival, carried by the daily Deccan Herald –
and also in World Music e-mag INSIGHT in Germany –
http://www.insight-worldmusic.blogspot.in/ (please find the photo below at their site and click)