A young women stands in front of me, jumping ecstatically in the air, her simple orange garment folded loosely down to her shins, her anklets filling the room with the sound of a thousand tiny bells as she thumps the ground. She emits an eerie, passionate cry (“Oh Krshna, my beloved, why do you leave when you know I yearn for you so? You know no one but you can understand the depth of my love” ) and starts twirling around, her knee-long dreadlocks whirling around and around and around to the beat she drums out from the duggi hanging from her side,intertwined with the plucking of a the lone string of the ektara she holds clutched to her chest. She twirls faster and faster, her dreadlocks spinning around like the whirling dervishes long skirts, her high pitched eerie voice reaching the threshold of my ears until she finally stops, her face aglow with unmasked love and excitement.
This is not, as it may seem, a case of a waif that has taken a tab too many, instead I am watching a Baul performance at the annual Chennai Ruhaniyat Sufi Mystic Music Concert. Here they are showcasing the best of Sufi mystic music from all over the world. The Concert has attracted a very sophisticated Chennai crowd, which, as it turns out, is very much to my benefit. Especially impressionable, besides the Baul, is the Tannoura and the Qawwali.
The Tannoura, an Egyptian style of devotional dance similar to the whirling dervishes (Sama) is a spectacular show. Two young men in long heavy cloth skirts on stage hold themselves erect, almost like a ballerina might, and slowly start twirling. Around and around and around and around. I wonder how they manage to hold themselves upright without falling. The sense of freedom that must come with this is apparent in their faces as they lift their heads to the sky, opening up their arms up almost in a form of transcendental embrace of the celestial divine, their heavy skirts creating waves in the air,much the the vibrations of the Egyptian music that they dance to.As the music gets faster their skirts form a perfect circle, flying up over their heads, and much to my disbelief they pull up the top layer of the skirt, fully encapsulating themselves in it, re-enacting what seems to me the birth of a butterfly from a cocoon.It is a bizarre but strangely moving spectacle.
The best, however, comes last. Qawwali is something that cannot really be described but must be experienced. It is a musical performance, a praise to god, a poetry recital and a creative outlet all wrapped into one that often lasts for many hours. Similar to improv jazz, the singers and musicians have a main chorus which the return to and diverge from. The flow of the qawwali is full of peaks and ebbs, the singers and the Tablas battling until the bitter end at some parts, creating a fast and furious interplay. At other times the singer will sing a solo, his strong, deep clear voice carrying across the garden. The crowd is what makes it though in the end. See a qawwali is in many ways more about the wittiness and cleverness of the singer. His aim is to indulge the crowd, make them laugh and cry. And they in turn participate as they can. The old professor-like man in front of me, barely looking at them but listening attentively nods his head to and fro, his hands waving in the air above him in time to the clapping. Occasionally the singer will produce a very witty line, making him beam and yell out a praise (“Shabash Shabash”). The man on my right, probably around my age, secretly holding his girlfriends hand joins in with the chorus, adding his voice to the multitude of voices singing what must be, I assume, a known line and during the furious interplay, the singers voice going a mile a minute the whole crowd is sitting on the edge of their seats, enraptured by the performance and the tension.
Five hours of Sufi mystic music goes by. I am touched and enthralled to say the least. It is rare to hear such originality, to hear such passion and see so much creativity when music is performed. And perhaps it is my own expectation of Sufism, but I do feel that there is a unifying element in Sufi Poetry and Music that is quite exceptional.
As I cannot give you the music (and believe me I tried, but youtube has failed me this time–it just does not do it justice) I will leave you with this poem instead.
This was the first piece of Sufi poetry I ever heard. Tattooed on the slightly sun-burnt arm of a man that was later to become a close and dear friend was a poem from one of the greatest Sufi mystics, Rumi. I remember feeling similarly enthralled by the depth and beauty of that poem and since then those lines, and the memory of the peaceful, empty beach somewhere on the West Coast of India, have stayed etched into my mind.
Last year, I admired wines. This,
I’m wandering inside the red world.
Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I’m burnt kabob.
Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon’s reflection.
Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.
Don’t ask questions about longing.
Look in my face.
Soul drunk, body ruined, these two
sit helpless in a wrecked wagon.
Neither knows how to fix it.
And my heart, I’d say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mud hole,
struggling and miring deeper.
But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.