Whenever or wherever a big congregation is held one holds one’s breath in fear of some act of violence or untoward incident killing and injuring many, so it was with a sigh of relief that the news of the urs of Shahbaaz Qalandar having taken place peacefully at Sehwan was received last week.
The famous shrine has been attacked and devotees killed and injured many times, more recently only a couple of years ago. Likewise many other big shrines in the country including Data Darbar, Baari Imam and Sakhi Sarwar too have been targeted in the last few years. It is all very ironic because the shrines of these Sufis especially in the Indian subcontinent were meant to be retreats and sanctuaries offering solace especially to those who were the insulted and injured of the world. If there was no place to accommodate such silent humanity, the shrine was always its last refuge for its doors would never be shut on them. Shrines in the sub continent have also been known to offer food to whoever asks and the institution of langar as a humanitarian gesture has been a very vital and effective institution. Though there have been many variations among the Sufis as such, but most followed this broad inclusive approach. These institutions have retained this essential character till now. Qalandars were supposed to be on the outer edge of the system, heavy on denunciation of earthly foibles, fully focussing on the spirit rather than the ritual of religion. They were thus denounced as heretical by the orthodoxy.
As symbols pf peace and refuge shrines have attracted people from all walks of life, from all strata of society and also from across the religious divide. It should not be forgotten that the Indian landmass was a non-Muslim majority area and it were the shrines that offered a platform for equality and non-discrimination. Free mixing of people was the building block of the rule of the minority over the majority. These thus became nuclei for the interaction of ideas, beliefs and practices that formed the matrix of the cultural dimensions of the people living here. It also gave adequate cover to human expression like music and dance. The urs of these Sufis thus became sites for the congregation of musicians and dancers while the weekly rituals too incorporated essential human expressions as part of regular practice, rather than being castigated by the more orthodox sections of the religious elite.
It has been rare in history that these places have been attacked, destroyed or vandalized but the state of Pakistan had to wear this medal of ignobility. Even in the reign of non-Muslim rulers these shrines were kept intact, although much happened outside to write the history of humanity with shame and remorse. During the Muslim rule in the subcontinent courts and shrines offered their patronage to music, painting, literature and dance. As the court by its definition was the preserve of the elite it was left to the shrines to engage artistes at the level of the common man as only these artistic expressions reaffirmed human belief in itself.
It is unfortunate that all the positive aspects that may have informed us from our history in the Indian subcontinent, with its rule of minority over the majority, have been largely cast aside by the more negative fallouts of being an independent Muslim majority country.
In the last five decades or so “lal meri paat rakhio bhala jhule laalan” has introduced Shahbaaz Qalandar to urban audiences, and all kinds of versions have been in currency since. It is very difficult to say whether this composition is by Shahbaaz Qalandar himself or by one of his devotees. It is equally difficult to vouch as to how old it is. Master Ashiq Hussain, who composed a myriad of unforgettable melodies for Pakistani cinema for almost five decades claimed that he composed what could safely be called the world’s most famous dhamaal for Pakistan cinema. This composition has propelled numerous artists from the subcontinent to international fame. According to Hussain, he composed this dhamaal in just a few minutes on the request of Saghar Siddiqui, an eminent poet who wrote it.
Once a recognized music director in Pakistan, Hussain lived in a slum inside Bhaati Gate in old Lahore. Hussain’s contribution to Pakistan’s silver screen was eclipsed as he gained very little appreciation in contrast to his contemporaries, like Nisar Bazmi, Rasheed Atray, Nazir Ali or Robin Ghosh. Echoed gloriously across the world in the voices of Noor Jehan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Runa Laila, Jagjit Singh and Abida Parveen “dama dam mast Qalandar” could be Hussain’s most popular number, He also composed evergreen music for movies like, Jabroo, Aakhri Dao, Billo Jee, Azmat-e-Islam, Shaam Savera, Aadmi, Kaale Log, Jeib Katra and Waris Shah.
Naubat, a musical instrument, is played on the shrine in Sehwan, either solo or collectively but it is a little difficult to trace the history of when it started being played on the shrine. It is an accepted belief that it had been played since the days of Shahbaaz Qalandar himself. Played twice in twenty-four hours – at dusk and dawn, it is accompanied by dhamaal. To many, dhamaal too started with Shahbaaz Qalandar and the tradition has continued till the present. It is a dance performed on the rhythmic variations of the naubat and is probably the most artistic manner of losing one’s identity and merging with the collective and bigger identity through invoking a state of trance that helps in obliterating the distinction between the self and the other.
One of the biggest congregations of musicians is held at the shrine on the occasion of the urs. Despite all the setbacks, security issues and opening of digital means of entertainment the occasion still attracts many musicians who are driven by the desire to perform but also as a quasi religious obligation which they call “hazari”, a homage to a sufi who created opportunities for artistes to express themselves.