The three-day annual World Sufi Music Festival, themed Rivers of Love, begins on March 8, at its usual site - Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi. But how did this festival begin? Filmmaker, artistes, painter and fashion designer Muzaffar Ali’s journey began after he came to Delhi in 2000. He had made small documentaries on tasaveuuf (Islamic mysticism) namely Samaa, Seena-b-Seena and Tajalli with ICCR. Tajalli, a film on Iran’s mysticism, triggered in him an understanding of blending of cultures. Then his stay in Kashmir to make Zooni (a feature film on the first Kashmiri sufi poetess), which never got completed, saw him experience Kashmiri music, a blend of Hindi and Persian schools. He also had made a television serial on Ameer Khusrau called Paigham-e-Muhabbat. This led to him ponder on creating something on the blend of cultures.
Recalls the director of Umarao Jaan, “Fundamentalism in Kashmir was at its height and I could see that the softer, finer things of Kashmiri culture needed to be saved amid that growing intolerance. Then, I saw the atmosphere of hatred after the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992. It made me restless. I started travelling on foot with a kafila of just 50-100 people to spread communal harmony. We walked singing bhajans and qawwalis for about 200 kilometers, from Lucknow's Waris Ali Shah's Mazaar to the Angola temple that my buzurg had built.” The thought of spreading love through blending of cultures was thus born.
“When I came to Delhi, it made me feel that it is a land of faqeers and tasavvuf, of Meer and Ghalib. Sheila Dikshit asked me, ‘If you are trying to settle down in Delhi, can I help you?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I think Delhi is a city of faqeers. I should serve it by establishing an atmosphere of love through sufi music’. ” She gave us a grant of ₹15 lakh which grew to ₹45 lakh in due course of time) and said, "Rest you arrange from your resources and we will not interfere in your creative pursuits". With the help of this grant and more, Jahan-e-Khusrau started its journey.
Ali has a huge library on Sufi saints' writings and renderings and that helps him choose the songs to be performed at the festival. He reveals, "My job is to discover the best of Faqeer shayayri, translate it into English/Urdu, present it to the voices as a tabarruk (prasada) who would sing them. We design it in such a way that it does not get trapped in the ragas but begin with a rooh, a soul. Ragas are important but according to the meaning and feeling of the kalaam (verse). We believe in blending as much as possible."
This is where many ustads of pure classical gharanas do not gel with Ali.The festival’s first edition started in collaboration with ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan, the legacy carrier of the Dilli Gharana of classical music and thumri.
There are two types of faqeers, those who dominate, and those who turn themselves into ash to gain something. I am the latter. I turn into ash to learn from ustads and blend it with what we have.
“What we do at Jahan-e-Khusrau requires ishq and a huge zehan. I have always tried taking along people who can blend. But normally, people don’t want to blend. Many artistes and ustads are on their own journey, some are egoistic. They believe what they have learnt all their lives. They cannot go beyond a point when it comes to blending. They think it will dilute their name. I never argue with them because I am a faqeer, not their ustad, nor a music director. There are two types of faqeers, those who dominate, and those who turn themselves into ash to gain something. I am the latter. I turn into ash to learn from ustads and blend it with what we have. I believe every ustad teaches me something and I am grateful to them for that, following Prophet Hazrat Ali who said that he was a slave to any person who would teach him even a thing. I talk of opening up more and more and follow Ameer Khusrau who was a master blender.” says Ali
Jahan-e-Khusrau reached its height of popularity because of the quality of artistes it brought from the globe on Indian soil: from Abida Parveen from Pakistan for several years, apart from Sufi singers from Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia and other parts of the globe. Funds, therefore, have mostly been an issue. Ali agrees asking for funds is the most difficult part of the festival.
“At times I feel strange that those whom God bestows with money, are full of arrogance, far from understanding the fest’s spiritual essence. I am very sensitive. It’s very difficult for me to spread my hands before anyone. But I have to do it. I have to almost beg. Bahut neeche girna padhta hai. It is humiliating the way people behave before they dole out funds. It’s just a handful of people who unite to help Meera Ali (wife) and me to continue the work,” he says.
Ali shares that the artistes, who make us reach the highest spiritual level with their music and kalaam, are immensely money minded. They don’t move an inch to compromise on payments. They talk money like business, not like spiritual beings. “Jo jitna roohaniyat ki oonchiayon tak le jata hai, utna hi commercial minded hota hai. So at times, we have to compromise on the quality of the artistes but people want names,” he reveals.
Do these programmes, aimed at communal harmony, bring any visible changes on the ground?
“It will take a long time for this to take effect. I feel politics and commerce minded people will one day kneel before this. Mera kam to sirf ahl-e-dil ke sath hota hai. This time most of the artistes are not Muslims but Hindus and also from other religions. They talk of Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb, Hindi and Urdu, Krishna and Sufi mystics. They are like lotus blossoming in the muck. So, there is always a hope,” Ali sounds optimistic.
However, Ali believes though politics and spirituality are two different things, those who are in politics and power also look for soulful things. “Many powerful and rich administrators like Akbar and Dara Shikoh have always respected roohaniyat, while the current government expects us to stand before them with a begging bowl while they keep on interfering in our creative endeavours. Not having Abida Parveen is a big loss and a challenge. Popular singers in India unfortunately get trapped in the show world of Bollywood. So we keep away from politics and economics that way. We work for lutf (fun) and those who associate with us, do it for the same,” he signs off….