Sufism, they say, is a way of life. It’s free from rituals, instead it relies on simple acts that can easily be incorporated into our daily lives. Like whirling. You can learn to whirl like a Sufi mystic – in an hour and a half for about Rs 1,100, at a boutique arts place on Hill Road in Bandra, Mumbai. You can drive in, whirl a bit, take a quick shower and get a couple of drinks at Irish House as you recite your favourite Rumi couplets.
It can’t be helped. Sufism is everywhere. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite as beautiful as Kabir’s poetry, or heard anything as awful as the endless string of ‘ali-maula’ songs we’ve been bombarded with by Bollywood in the recent years. It has gone from devotional music to subculture to a commodity in a span of a decade. The ideology it is born from has become all the rage in cinema, in nightclubs, in art and even in shoddy remixes of old qawwalis played in public transport.
It all began with Afreen. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s renditions of Sufi classics set to more contemporary tunes introduced the world to what was until then music sung under a tree by long-haired old men. Bollywood followed soon after, though in the 90s they were still doing qawwalis in dargah settings.
Then came Sufism’s foray into the world that strikes a chord with us millennials. Festivals like Ruhaniyat and the various concerts across performance venues, not to forget Coke Studio that brought some truly passionate melodies into our house parties. Finally we’ve got genres like Fusion, Sufi Rock and Sufi Trance, which have taken something that originated in whirling and swaying, and recreated it to fit into spinning and swaying.
Sufi Rock though, has gained popularity because of the rhythm and the beats, not necessarily because everyone can understand the lyrics (just as well, green bangles are hardly groovy). And it’s the same in the case of Bollywood, where the lyrics have been reduced to choice few Urdu words. Even Sukhwinder Singh (a playback singer seen in jackets made of such wildly different materials as plastic, fur and leather) complained about Bollywood’s lack of understanding what Sufism really means.
There are now dedicated Sufi radio channels, Sufi nights in restaurants, pubs and performance spaces, Sufi poetry festivals, Sufi cafes such as Faruiqi in Delhi, Sufi comics, Sufi perfumes and even Sufi wedding themes. This widespread influence in pop culture is mentioned in Sufi Soul – The Mystic Music of Islam, a Channel 4 documentary by William Dalrymple.
Last month I visited the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi. For the first time, although I’ve lived in Delhi in the past. It was a friend from Lucknow who dragged me there. The setting was charged, devotees milled about the shrine, the qawwals arrived to much applause. But the only people applauding were 4 tourists. Because the rest of the audience was still waiting – the qawwals were only tuning their harmoniums – the music was yet to start.
Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar