The Stars of Sufi

Rishi Majumder is mesmerised by the diverse, exotic bunch at Mumbai’s 7th Sufi and Mystic Music Festival

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Konya's Whirling Dervishes

Konya's Whirling Dervishes

Ruhaniyat, introduced by Banyan Tree Events, as “India’s biggest Sufi and mystic music festival” was first hosted in Mumbai seven years ago. The mystic number it celebrates with its anniversary this year is further emphasised by its being held in seven Indian cities, enabling rural voices from Bhakti and Sufi tradition to rise resoundingly above metropolitan murmur. Some names, like Parvathy Baul and Kachra Khan, and genres, like the Sufi Qawwali, have over the years become as synonymous with this festival as with great mystic music. Drawn by the organisers from the wellspring of spirituality for the first time, here are some names and genres that Mumbai might be less versed with.


These Sufis hail from the Mevlevi order, founded at Konya by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi after his death in 1273. They perform their dhikr (remembrance of Allah) in the form of a dance and music ceremony in a format known as the Sema. The dervishes can whirl for hours without losing balance, the ritual reflecting a man’s spiritual journey, deserting his ego, towards the “perfect”. Instruments include the Ney, or rim-blown flute and vocals consisting of Rumi’s poetry. Traditional attire includes a white gown (the symbol of death), a Hirka or black cloak (the symbol of the grave) and Kulah or a hig brown cap (symbolizing the tombstone). Most dervishes join this order during childhood, and in today’s world many of them continue ancillary professions, amalgamating their responsibilities towards the order more as a way of life than renunciation. Their whirling is looked upon more as prayer than performance, and though they whirl before audiences to encourage an awareness of their philosophy, they discourage applause.


The Warkari tradition, a part of the Bhakti movement, is held by some historians to date back to even before the 13th century. The saints Dnyaneshwar, Namdeo, Tukaram, Chokha Mela and Eknath are held to be its stalwarts. Shri Udavant’s group was formed 12 years ago though he has himself been a vital part of over 1250 Warkari programs. Their music is based on both classical and folk forms, and their lyrics comprise of Kavya (poetry) rendered by the patron saints — mostly in praise of their deity Vitthal, an incarnation of Vishnu. “Our organization does not have a rigid structure,” Udavant lets in. “There are many groups in many villages who continue to meet, exchange notes and perform.” He also says that besides “using a sound system” and some minor improvisation in the Gayaki, they largely keep the musical structure consistent to preserve a form that is palatable to the rural ear and traditional.
An expert at playing the Tumbi, Jagatram Lalka’s group also uses the algoza (comprising two flutes), the chimta (a rhythm instrument) and the dholak. It is with these that they bring to life the legends of Heer-Ranjha, Mirza-Sahiba, Jaymal-Fatta and Shashi-Punnu. “Folk love stories by great Sufi poets like Waaris Shah bring forth philosophy to the common man,” explains Lalka. He exemplifies this with a common verse by Waaris Shah where Heer is likened to the soul and Ranjha to the body, and then their departure is described. Then he says this is only the most basic of such verses. He also observes that while the folk music they perform has immense acceptance and relevance in rural and small town India, it is only support from the cities that will endow their commercial viability, and hence survival.

While most distinguished performers at this concert are well beyond their 40s, Arash Asady stands out by being 28. Born and brought up in Shiraz and Tehran in Iran, he moved to India six years ago because “I always longed to visit this land of such diverse and tolerant spirituality”. It is whilst finishing his MCom in Pune that Asady incorporated poetry by Hafez, Rumi, Jami and classical Persian literature into self-written compositions featuring the Iranian setar. He has performed in Iran, Turkey and Uzbekistan, and in Goa, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Mumbai in India. Taught by his grandfather at age six, he considers man as his only inspiration, refusing to follow the style of any Sufi master for fear that his listener may be reminded of a music style other than his own: “My music reflects simplicity and sense. When projected with feeling, this can be far more effective than a structured and complex composition.”

Arash Asady (L) and Damaund Parshi (R) from Iran

Arash Asady (L) and Damaund Parshi (R) from Iran

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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