Sufism has thrived in our region, long before our borders with India were sketched out, long before the English colonizers ever set foot on this part of the Asian continent, and even before the Mughal dynasties set off the golden age of culture in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Sufism, which arrived from the Afghan side of our borders, was a presence that not only preceded the modern era of the subcontinent but has also survived the many conflicts that have scarred the land since – not surprising, given its promise of deliverance from human suffering.
“In it lies the elixir that cures all ailments, undoes all wrongs – what can remain unvanquished in the presence of spiritual healing,” exclaimed Abida Parveen in an exclusive interview with Instep on Sunday, the night before the historic launch of her Shah Jo Raag album.
Abida Parveen has released an album comprising of her musical rendition of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s compendia of poetry, Shah Jo Risalo, which stretches over 30 surs (chapters) that relate the life stories of Sindhi folklore’s Seven Queens and epitomizes Bhittai’s message for humanity.
A 12-volume CD collection with a bilingual translation of the sung verses in English and Urdu, accompanied by a Roman transliteration into modern Sindhi, has been beautifully bound together to take the form of a holy book – a fitting presentation for a multi-format compilation of verses that can constitute a religious text. Indeed, Sufis believe that Sufic thought is directly derived from the Quran; Sufi music was an engaging means of spreading God’s word. “The word of God descended directly into the hearts of our saints,” elaborates Abida Parveen, “and they wrote it and sung it to spread the message to everybody. One doesn’t have to know the language to be moved by it. It has an inherent freshness that will never get old. That’s why it’s appreciated the world over.”
The Shah Jo Risalo (which translates to Shah’s message) bears broad messages for the listener under the overarching narrative of nine tragic love stories featuring the Seven Queens. The much-loved ‘Momal Rano’, made popular by Fakir Juman Shah’s version in Coke Studio, is one of the Shah Jo Risalo tragedies.
Performing against a backdrop of the Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai mazaar and accompanied on stage by Sanam Marvi and Humaira Channa, Abida Parveen celebrated the occasion with an evening of musical splendor at the Mohatta Palace, Karachi last Saturday. She sang the kalaam of Bhittai and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, with the accompaniment of the faqirs of Bhitshah and Sehwan Sharif, who were invited specially for the event.
The launch of the Shah Jo Raag is a momentous occasion indeed, for it represents the confluence of the pre-modern Sufic tradition with the contemporary dynamics of music in the very urban, very hi-tech, and increasingly commercial world of today. Carrying a price tag of ten thousand rupees – a surprisingly high amount for an anthology of populist Sufi music, which will unfortunately keep it out of the ordinary man’s reach — the Shah Jo Raag didn’t come out without effort or investment. Both faith and money can move mountains, they say – and it definitely seemed like it did on Saturday evening when Abida Parveen’s latest musical tour de force was unveiled.
Her first words in describing the project were “Never before has a project like this been attempted anywhere in the world.” The Shah Jo Raag project was a brainchild of Abdul Haroon Akhund, former Secretary Culture and Tourism Department of the Sindh government, who has long been devoted to the preservation of the rich cultural heritage of his native province. For this project, he had photocopying machines transported to Bhitshah for the reproduction of the original transcript of Shah Jo Risalo, handwritten in pure Sindhi, for Abida Paveen’s perusal, who has spent years since interpreting Bhittai’s written word to render its musical form. For this, she enlisted the help of Ustad Feroze Gul, who had long been composing for Abida Parveen. Upon Ustad Feroze’s demise in 1996, his son Ustad Majeed Khan took over his duties for the last few surs of the Risalo. Abida Parveen, who is based both in Islamabad and Karachi, chose to record in the latter city in five to six month stretch due to its superior facilities. The entire initiative stretched along a period of 20 years.
In our part of the world, Sufi music had long been alive in the shrines that dot all over the region, from the mazaar of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif to the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi. With technology, its listenership spread from the frequenters of the shrine circuit to the purchasers of tape recordings, with which the music travelled from one end of the country to the other, transported alongside the decks of cargo trucks – quite literally running in the nation’s veins. It arrived on television, however, with the efforts of none other than Abida Parveen.
Back in the day, a musical show called Awaz-o-Andaaz aired on PTV featuring the nation’s most popular singers, from Ustad Fateh Ali Khan to Salma Agha. “When I was invited to the show,” relates Abida Parveen, “I suggested that instead of the usual format of singing national songs and ghazals, I would sing two ghazals, but also one Sufi song.” Sultana Siddiqui, who then a producer at PTV, agreed to the suggestion, and thus it began – the performance of Sufi music on television, which gave everyone the opportunity to not only hear but also see the performance.
One would think as one of the foremost exponents of Sufi music in Pakistan, Abida Parveen would strive to retain its purity. While it remains pure in her own voice, its dilution and alteration (one wouldn’t want to go as far as to call it corruption) has occurred at the hands of many. But Abida’s key concern is that the message should spread.
“Like a tree that extends its branches skyward, as if in prayer, that is the role of a slave of the Maula, giving shade to those who seek it, without asking anything in return,” she explains with a smile.
While many laud her from being the foremost exponent, she negates any praise of herself, saying she is nothing, a keera makora in the eyes of God. “I am doing the work of the other world in this world,” says she, “You can call spreading the word of the saints a jihad, it is so important in the world today, which is divided, which is angry…
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