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Return of the mystics

Lahore’s Alhamra Cultural Complex that had worn a deserted air for many years came alive again last week, with the sound of traditional and innovative sufi music

Return of the mystics

The sixteenth Mystic Music Sufi Festival spread over three evenings at Lahore’s Alhamra Cultural Complex last week was a reminder of a series of festivals of dance, puppetry, theatre and films that were held with regularity before the bomb blast at the venue ended it all in 2008. These festivals were then scaled down considerably and shifted to the Peeru’s Complex on Raiwind Road. This year the festival returned to its old home, the Alhamra Cultural Complex in Gaddaffi, but the organisers have not been feeling too happy with the procedures that have been put in place along with the various stated and unstated favours that the Alhamra administration seeks. Usman Peerzada has announced that the search for another venue with less strings attached would take place in earnest before the dates of the next festival are announced.

Many famous artistes participated in the three evenings and the lead was taken by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan who is not only a leading qawwal but also an icon. His star value is a draw and the audiences came in large numbers to listen to him perform. There was also Sanam Marvi, who I was glad to note has brought some kind of ‘thehrao’ to her singing. She is immensely talented but earlier it was as if she was in a hurry to wind up her performance, but with the passage of time she has probably gotten to know the virtues of dwelling on the note rather than rushing through it in a fast tempo. It seemed that some of our vocalists think that a racier performance means to sing in faster tempo, and just to skim over the slower pace, but this is not the correct reading of the audience’s taste.

Earlier a lot of foreign artistes used to come especially for the Rafi-Peer festivals but now with the drying up of funds and the country’s security issues this exchange has diminished completely.

There was also an innovative aspect of the festival this year, which was that a number of qawwals were made to sing together. Qawwals have their own groups or “qawwal party” as it is generally known, and do not sing together, but this time round there was a departure from practice and the qawwal parties were made to perform together. It was a sight that is rarely seen and the qawwals instead of taking cue from within the group were picking the tab from other qawwals of different groups.

Called the Qawwali Orchestra, their volume hit a new dimension, as the size and number of qawwals was unusually large thanks to the collaboration. The repertoire of the qawwals is mostly traditional and they sing the ahadis, the kalaam of the famous poets in Persian and then come to the vernacular. Here too the qawwals were picking the tab and then indulging in qawwali, linking one traditional number to another. Badar, Mian Miri qawwals, Faiz Chishti and Munir Chishti qawwals were quite  game in this innovation.

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammed performed well and to the expectation of the audiences. Both are the traditional torchbearers of their ancestors as is exemplified in the person of Munshi Raziuddin. Shah Jo Raag Fakirs too sang the wai in their inimitable style to the accompaniment of the dambori.

Nawab Khan started the proceedings with his soulful rendition of the ney and then there was other instrumentalists, like Akhter Chinal Zehri, who mixes it all up with vocals and dance.


There was also dhol fusion. Among individual performers Pappu Sain has made a place for himself among the modern dhol players and is primarily responsible for the playing of the dhol in current times as a concert item. His performance at the Shah Jamal shrine attracted attention to his playing and made him the harbinger of solo dhol playing. He was later assisted by his shagirds or those influenced by him like Gunnga Sain, Sabir Sain and Mithu Sain.

As far as the other art forms were concerned, especially in the performing arts, the dance  section was filled in admirably by Sheema Kirmani, Nighat Chaodhry and Wahab Shah. Though all of them have been making creative changes to their performances over the years the most modern, if that term can be used, is Wahab Shah. Under influences from other cultures he has taken dance out of its locale and habitat, presenting it as individual stand-alone numbers. The others too have married innovation with tradition.

Humaira Channa too sang her famous numbers much to the gleeful delight of the audience. Then there have been performers who became famous because of Coke Studio, like Javed Bashir, and as in that series it was a combination of the old and new with Javed Bashir playing to the gallery for greater response, especially to the younger set of audience.

But the most outstanding vocalist who moved seamlessly from the traditional to the contemporary with little loss of quality has been Arif Lohar. Here he was again at his very best, marrying his immense skill as a stage performer to that of a vocalist. He is very good at involving the audiences with his contemporary references and musical movements.

Sain Zahoor too has been a permanent fixture in the festival for decades and he was again at his most tuneful in his signature Allah Hoo. There were others giving a more local colourisation like Taj Buledi, Krishen Lal Bheel,  Wahdat Rameez and Bushra Marvi.

Rafaqat Ai Khan was there with his mixture of classical movements and more contemporary numbers, and it was all wound up by the participation of Baboo Band, a brass band whose art has been indigenised in the last two hundred years or so primarily because of the part it played in our marriage ceremonial parades.

Then there were the usual groups from Gilgit Baltistan, like Nagma Israfil, Khumariyaan and Maham Sohail.

It appears that some of the foreign funding that came Pakistan’s way has become a trickle and with it the cultural interaction between outside cultures and Pakistan has diminished further. Earlier a lot of foreign artistes used to come especially for the Rafi-Peer festivals but now with the drying up of funds and the country’s security issues this exchange has diminished completely. The relationship based on culture between the Pakistani community here and artistes and Pakistani immigrants there needs to be strengthened further. The two-way exchange will consolidate the gains made so far and also help in easing immigration blues in the years to come.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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