Threats to Sona Mohapatra over 'sufi song' are shameful. What about the music?
Before getting into the controversy, let's understand Sufism, qawwali and sama mehfils.
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“We rarely hear the inward music, but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless, directed by the one who teaches us, the pure joy of the sun, our music master.”- Rumi
A hitherto not well-known group Madariya Sufi Foundation is in the news for making threats to well-known singer Sona Mohapatra for her song “Tori Surat pe balihari". The saint Zinda Shah Madar from whom they claim descent is, however, very famous.
Before getting into the controversy, let's understand Sufism, qawwali and sama mehfils.
Sufism is often referred to as the mystical dimension of Islam and a Sufi is one who sets off on this path. His destination is oneness with God. Everything he does on the way is aimed at achieving that goal.
Hazrat Amir Khusrau is credited with turning this mystical chanting into qawwali. PC: Turkey Museum
Sama or getting into a trance (haal) induced by music is one of the accepted ways of becoming closer to God, for the one in the trance is unaware of all except the divine. He/she has lost all sense of self.
The introduction of Sama mehfils is credited to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. As per legend, one day, he was walking in the market when he heard the rhythmic pounding made by the goldbeaters and to his ears the sound being created was “La ilaha Ilallah (There is no God but Allah)”. It is said he immediately spread out his arms and started spinning in a circle. This was also the start of the tradition of the “whirling dervishes”. One hand is raised towards the sky, signifying the acceptance of divine blessings and the other points downwards, signifying the passing of blessings to the earth and mankind. It symbolises a man’s spiritual journey towards love and perfection. Since then, all Sufi gatherings included sama music and many went into a trance. In fact, it is believed that the famous saint Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki went into a state of ecstasy after listening to a qawwali and died three days later without ever recovering from it.
Hazrat Amir Khusrau is credited with turning this mystical chanting into qawwali in his heyday in 13th century India. Asked by his mentor and guide Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya to set a qaul (saying) of Prophet Muhammad to the sama music, he chose the most popular qaul of the Prophet for qawwali:
“Man kunto maula,Fa haza Ali-un maula ”
”Whoever accepts me as a maula (master),
Ali is his master too”.
The name “qaul” is bestowed to all the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh).
The genius Hazrat Amir Khusrau not only set it to music on the spot, but also added to the composition the famous tarana,
Dara dil-e dara dil-e dar-e daani
Hum tum tanana nana, nana nana ray
Yalali yalali yala, yala ray
to give body and soul to the music and to induce a trance.
The word “qaul” gave rise to the word “qawwali” and he was tasked with training children in this genre who were called qawwal bachhas. Modern-day artists like Farid Ayaz, Chand Nizami and many others are descendants of the qawwal bachhas.
Hazrat Amir Khusrau was extremely devoted to his Sufi master Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and wrote many verses on him, which are sung as qawwalis today. These verses take the shape of “ishq e haqeeqi” or love for the divine as a Sufi master not only guides his disciples on the path of mysticism but also helps her reach the divine. As Dhruv Sangari (Bilal Chishty) tells me, the first step towards union with God is “Fana fi Pir, fana fi Rasul , fana fi’llah”. The word fana means to immerse oneself in, perish in, lose oneself in contemplation of first the pir (mentor), then the Rasul (Prophet) and then Allah.
The ultimate union of a Sufi is with God and that is why the death anniversary of a Sufi saint — an urs — is considered a wedding ceremony.
Most of the qawwalis written by Hazrat Amir Khusrau can be described as invoking divine love and are steeped in spirituality.
Combined with the literal meaning of Islam — that is submission — for me, qawwalis are actually a form of spiritual submission to the divine. Now to come back to the latest controversy. I had first heard Sona Mohapatra’s music on a CD a decade or so ago. Her rendition of “Tere Ishq ne Nachaya” was fascinating to my ears as I had just begun to study Sufism and its practices.
Today, on Youtube, I found its video and it’s lovely. I for one find her husky-timbred and soulful voice suitable for singing Sufi songs.
In mid-April, I was tagged in a Facebook comment on Mohapatra’s latest song by a friend. The comment was on the transformation of a traditional composition into a trendy one. I remember listening to it and saying “Tori suart pe balihari” is a song of devotion and submission while Mohapatra’s rendition only offers agression and that the dates given in it were wrong. The historian in me couldn’t resist pointing out that Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253–1325) was a poet from the 13th century not the 11th century (as was given on her Facebook page). I just wished the team posting the updates would do their homework.
Sona Mohapatra in 'Tori Surat'.
However, just as Mohapatra has the right to her version, I have the right to like or not. As I said, I love her voice. Just not this song and it has nothing to do with the visuals. I don’t like the treatment as it negates, for me, the spirit of Sufism.
What Sufis say
After I read news reports about threats being issued to Mohapatra, I was horrified and I began talking to my Sufi friends about the controversy.
Peerzada Syed Altamash Nizami, who is a descendant of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, tells me: “Anyone can sing Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s kalam and no one can object to it. I have no problems to Sona Mohapatra singing whatever she wants to but she has in some way lessened the importance of the words (which were a tribute by a mureed for his murshid) by reducing the majesty of the words that were steeped in spirituality. It wasn’t necessary for her to show it in the way she has as it nowhere reflects the spiriuality and love that Hazrat Amir Khusrau had for Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.” However, he went on to say that “anyone who has anything to do with Sufism has a right to object but no one has a right to threaten anyone”.
“The way forward is only dialogue, not threats,” he believes.
On the other hand, the famous Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari (Bilal Chishty) said, “Despite not wanting to, I find myself agreeing with a part of the complaint: a video with skimpy clothes and displaying a crass and commercialised Sufi Qalaam written for the buzurgaan e deen is not acceptable. The complete de-contextualisation and appropriation of a sacred spiritual tradition is very offensive to the practitioners of the Sufi tradition. But the complaint (from the content of Mohapatra’s tweets) also smacks of misogyny. No one can assert that Sufism belongs to only men and that women cannot be stakeholders in it. Sufi traditions (especially, and in this case ironically, Qalandariya) have always allowed the participation of women and accepted their position as scholars, practitioners and interpreters of mysticism. I am against radicalism and misogyny but I feel that Sufi traditions should not be corrupted and commercialised.
Sufism in South Asia belongs to all communities not just Muslims. That said, the crude and vulgar monetisation of Sufi music is also a reality one cannot ignore: most pubs and discos in town host ‘Sufi nites” these days and any song with the words ‘Maula’ and ‘Aaqa’ is considered ‘Sufi’.
Just like the freedom of the artist is vital and sacred, the faith and sensibilities of those protesting cannot be given less importance. If a song is written for a saint, it acquires a certain mayaar (standard) and cannot be reduced to a mere ‘love ballad’!”
Chishty adds, “More power to the wonderful Sona. But I think instead of tweeting about it, she should just meet and talk with the aggrieved party to understand their point of view. Similarly, those complaining should understand that you can not claim copyright to or bring into legal framework millennium-old oral, intangible and syncretic heritage! Sufi music belongs to all, but with the caveat that its spiritual and sacred purpose not be diluted and reduced to something crude and unreasonable.”
Syed Salman Chisty, the current custodian at Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishtydargah in Ajmer, tells me, “I would invite the singer for a Sufi sohbat (gathering) to share the essence of Hazrat Amir Khusrau sarkar’s kalaam.”
Hilal Ahmed, professor at CSDS, tells me: “Instead of taking an ‘either or’ position, I think both the singer as well as the foundation are keen to secure media space in the highly polarised public sphere of contemporary India. That said, I like the video and creative rendering of the spirit of Sufi traditions.
Who is threatening the singer
According to Sona Mohapatra’s tweets, the Madariya Sufi Foundation has threatened her. Sameer Bhogani, president of the outfit, writes on his website that his is a non-profit working for the promotion of Sufism, peace, justice and human rights. It has exclusively focused on the research work of great Sufi Saint Syed Badiuddin Zinda Shah Madar and his followers.
On his Facebook page, Bhogani has asked for legal action against Mohapatra for defaming Sufi practices:The irony here is that he belongs to a Qalandriya sect. Qalandars have traditionally been known to be free spirited and uncaring of worldly shackles. In fact, they personify syncretism and lack of emphasis on external religious practices. They immerse themselves in the remembrance and love of Allah. They claim descent from the famous saint Zinda Shah Madar whose dargah near Kanpur is immensely popular.
Almost every religion in the world uses music as a form of devotion, be it hymns and choir at churches, or bhajans in a mandir, or shabad keertans at a gurudwara. Qawwali is used in South Asian dargahs as a form of devotion and it is a rare musical genre that has survived in practically the same form and style in which it was introduced by Hazrat Amir Khusrau at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi.
Thus, I feel that if Sufi followers are feeling concerned about preserving the classical form, I don’t think they are out of line because in today’s world, it doesn’t take long for things to lose their value.
But the tradition of Sufism does not allow for violence or misogyny. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya famously said about Sufi saint Bibi Fatima Sam of Delhi: “When a tiger comes out of the jungle, no one asks whether it’s male or female.”
While everyone has the right to seek legal recourse, which seems to be the case here, the way forward here is dialogue.
Let’s come to the question of hurting religious sentiments or creating tensions — here I would like to end with my favourite story of the Prophet in whom Sufis find their roots.
An old woman was struggling with a heavy load along the road in Medina. Upon seeing her, a young man asked if he could help her, and she readily agreed. As she walked along with the young man, she kept criticisng Muhammad who had just migrated from Mecca to Medina. She said she was leaving because of him and what he was preaching. During the entire journey, she criticised him and the young man patiently heard her out.
As she reached her destination, she said, “Thank you now, young man. You’ve really been so kind. Such generosity and smile are very rare to find now a days. Let me give you some advice since you’ve been so very nice to me. Stay away from Muhammad.”
As the young man turned to walk away, she stopped him and asked his name.
“I am the same Muhammad,” he said with a smile.
A musical version of the anecdote is available here.