Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sufi Kathak

Delhi is always nice at this time of the year, every day there are cultural events that stretch to the festival season and beyond - right upto the end of the year. Many of these are open to a general audience and it was one of these that I attended a few days ago - a new dance form called sufi kathak, that combined the spirit of sufiism with the classical dance of North India, kathak.

Sufiism, a mystical form of Islam moved towards India in the 9th century. Northern India was introduced to this form of spiritual expression through Sufi saints who preached the importance of purifying one's heart and surrendering to God at an individual level. There was no focus on attaining heaven after death as is emphasized in mainstream Islam, instead one strived to experience God in this life, through one's thoughts and actions. Nizamuddin Auliya is one of the most revered Sufi saints of Delhi; he lived in Delhi in the 13th century and his teachings were mainly about the importance of love and compassion. One of his closest disciples, a scholar, musician and royal poet called Amir Khusro, composed a large number of verses in various languages, some of these were set to a distinctive kind of music that he developed (called qawwali) in praise of the teacher, Nizamuddin Auliya or Mehboob e Ilahi (Beloved of God), and his spiritual teachings.

The programme I attended was at the Bahai temple - a beautiful lotus bud structure in white marble with lush lawns and clumps of trees stretching all round. The dance was indoors, but walking past the temple and its picturesque surroundings towards evening, when all colours are altered by the setting sun, with a breeze in the background, was wonderful.

The dance, conceived and arranged by Manjari Chaturvedi (who has begun this new style), was very moving, partly because of her innate grace and partly due to the powerful qawwals from Lucknow, who, through their music, seemed to be beseeching God himself to come down upon the stage. Kathak lends itself well to this form of expression because it naturally has a lot of whirling, akin to that done by Sufi dervishes.

Apparently, this annual programme began last year and it attempts to continue for 22 years, to celebrate the 22 Sufi saints of Delhi. This year, they were focussing on Nizamuddin Aulia (through Amir Khusro's compositions), which was an added treat for me because I love the poetry of Khusro - it is simple and striking (often misleadingly simple) - accessible to all but containing deep spiritual reminders for those who choose to probe beneath the surface. One of my favourites is a two line composition -

Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar,
Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar.

Oh Khusrau, the river of love
Runs in strange directions.
One who enters it drowns,
And one who drowns, gets across.

This was not sung, but many of his other well known verses were, and by the end of the evening we were all inundated with the music and dance, and walked out rather thoughtfully, past the temple which was now lit up against the dark sky.

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