Q. You are trained in Hindustani classical music. When did the interest for Sufism develop?
A. I grew up hearing and learning Indian classical music and the tabla but my heart always gravitated towards Sufiyana kalaam. So much so that at a young age I started visiting Sufi shrines and sitting with the qawwals, absorbing myself in the mystical music and poetry. I was lucky to meet and learn from some of the great gurus.
Q. Could you give us an insight into Sufi music?
A. Sufi music or Sema is an expression of Sufi mystic philosophy. As the Sufis were often far removed from worldliness and material pursuits, Sufiyana kalaam became the vehicle of spreading their message of peaceful coexistence, human oneness, love and piety.
Q. Does India have any particular Sufi genre?
A. The main genre of Sufi music in South Asia is qawwali. The form originated in early medieval Arabia and its name is derived from the word “qaul”, i.e. speech. The qawwal is a sort of spiritual storyteller who renders the poetic compositions of the great Sufi saints. Ranging from Arabic and Persian to Hindustani, Punjabi and Urdu, qawwali was first used as a form of Sema at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty of Ajmer. Under Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the great poet laureate and musicologist of India who was a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, qawwali, along with forms such as khayal, tarana and ghazal, attained new heights of aesthetic refinement.
Q. You were also trained and mentored by the legendary qawwali and classical maestro, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Could you please share some of your memories of him?
A. In 1995, I heard Nusrat sahab live. That was the moment I realised what I was born to be.
Later, upon becoming his student, I told him about this. He said he saw me sitting in the front row and remembered me as a chubby boy with a ponytail gazing open-mouthed at the amazing spectacle unfolding.
Ustad ji was not only a legendary artiste, but an extremely gentle, patient and saintly personality who was generous with his art.
The Chishty Sufis of the Indian subcontinent created a shared space for all regardless of creed, gender, class and religion, for god truly lives in our hearts and not in buildings, clothes or sacraments.
Q. You recently sang in your authentic Sufi style the Bhakti poetry of great Sufi saints. Could you tell us more about this?
A. The Sufi Bhakti movement marks a shift in the inner consciousness of the masses. It was a distinct movement from mere ritualistic and theocratic notions of religion to a faith-based one based on spiritual and esoteric concepts. The poetry and discourse of saints such as Baba Farid, Amir Khusrau, Lalla, Kabir, Meera, Tulsi, Akka Mahadevi, Rahim, Shah Hussain, Bulleshah, Bedam Shah Waris and many others all the way till Hasrat Mohani, Iqbal and Seemab Akbarabadi, a period of over 800 years, created a shared and syncretic heritage. It is this vast and beautiful tradition that we evoke through our music. Reminding our listeners of a glorious, liberal and shared past that is still vital to our cultural identity. “Jashn e Mohabbat” recently organised under the aegis of Routes 2 Roots and ICCR, celebrated this Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb with the theme of Basant and Holi, two festivals historically celebrated by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs together.
Q. Sufi music is one of the most popular art forms in the world. Could you tell us about any new developments in this genre which have altered it, or added to its popularity?
A. Sufi music has, since the ’60s, been wildly popular not just in shrines and mehfils but also in mainstream film industry and concert stages. Artists such as Munshi Raziuddin, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers and later Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Amjad Farid Sabri, Wadali Brothers, Abida Parveen, Fareed Ayaz, Nizami Bandhu and Hansraj Hans etc. have taken it to the whole world, so much so that the Western world has developed a huge taste for qawwali and Sufiyana kalaam.
Q. What about Bollywood exploring Sufi music?
A. Today, almost no Bollywood film is complete without a Sufi-inspired song or theme! Sometimes of course the music is cheapened or taken out of context but overall it is heartening to see the Bombay film industry recognising and promoting Sufi culture as a unifying force for all.
Q. How has Sufi music acted as a bond between religions?
A. The great Sufi poet and saint Mevlana Rumi said, “Come, come whoever you are.” The core Sufi belief is accepting with love all without judgement, harshness or segregation. The Chishty Sufis of the Indian subcontinent created a shared space for all regardless of creed, gender, class and religion, for god truly lives in our hearts and not in buildings, clothes or sacraments. As Hazrat Amir Khusrau Dehlvi said: “I am a follower of the religion of love, neither the Brahmins girdle nor the creed of the Maulavi do I need.”