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     Volume 7 Issue 10 | March 7, 2008 |

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Music has no Religion

Madanjeet Singh

Salman Ahmad, making music for peace and international understanding.

Music has no religion like water, air and fire and it connects the world, rather than divide,” declared Salman Ahmad, founder of the Sufi-rock band of Pakistani musicians. He denounced the culture of intolerance and asserted that his music has been enriched because he worked with renowned musicians throughout the world. A devotee of the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism, Salman believes in humanity's oneness with the divine, and has furthered that vision in his lyrics by making the Junoon band a voice for peace and international understanding. Like the Sufi music patronised by Khwaja Moinuddin Chist who founded the Chistiyya order in Ajmer, Junoon invokes the necessary ideological support to Salman's musical mission to bring about emotional integration of the people worldwide.

Salman Ahmad does not subscribe to the notion of “art for art's sake.” The Junoon group recently performed at the prestigious Nobel Ceremony in Oslo, in honour of the laureates of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore, former US Vice President and Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN international climate panel. The acoustic Sufi music concert was dedicated to the lawyers' movement in Pakistan, the restoration of the Supreme Court judges, and the independence of the judiciary. It was yet another landmark in support of Pakistan's civil society, media, students, and rights activists who have heroically protested against the government's illegal action in imposing emergency in Pakistan. Like the western rock stars, Sting, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Bono, and Bob Geldof, among others, who are supporting worthy campaigns against poverty, disease, vanishing rainforests Junoon music is an antidote against religious extremism and terrorism. Salman Ahmad was designated a UN Special Representative for HIV Aids.

The multicultural and pluralist culture of India, which became a catalyst for the interaction between the traditional and modern music of today, may be credited to a number of male and female Bhakti saints Mahavira, Kabir, Chisti, Nanak, and Mirabai, among others poets, and musicians from all walks of life and religions. With the advent of Vedanta (end of the Vedas), also called the Upanishads, during the 10th-11th centuries, the intellectual basis for the Bhakti (devotion) movement was mainly provided by the great Hindu theologian and philosopher, Ramanuja. Several, often contradictory, schools of thought arose, representing an unprecedented diversity in beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, and atheism. In the Nyaya-Sutras, the overwhelming focus is on rational and scientific thinking and analysis that emphasizes human understanding as natural phenomena and physical processes occurring in nature.

However, it was not until Khwaja Moinuddin Chist (AD 1141-1230) arrived in India and promoted music and dance in centres called khanqah that a new composite culture of syncretism began to develop. Chisti skillfully combined the notions of Bhakti devotion with Sufi mysticism in order to fully assimilate India's multicultural plurality. These cultural centres gradually developed into gharanas, a system of social organisation in which groups of musicians are linked by lineage and/or apprenticeship and who adhere to a particular musical style. The gharanas also served as the cradle of Indian classical music. The phirat or 'free run' of the classical music, Raag, was devised and sung for the first time by Ustad Bade Mohammad Khan at the Gwalior gharana. Another stalwart, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, is credited with the invention of dohri or dugun ki phirat.

Devotees at a Sufi Shrine.

The interfaith lyrics Guru Nanak Dev (14691539) composed were based on both his Hindu and Muslim mentors Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, and Sheikh Farid. Sikh tradition has it that at the age of 30, Nanak Dev would say no more than repeating: “There is no Hindu; There is no Muslim.” Accompanied by Mardana, a Muslim rabab player, and another colleague Bala, a Hindu, Nanak travelled extensively in India and abroad as far as Mecca and Baghdad.

Today the great sitar player Ravi Shankar embodies this marvelous tradition. He was born into a Hindu Brahmin family in Bangladesh and studied under Allaudin Khan (18621972), the founder of the Maihar gharana of Indian classical music. Ravi Shankar married his guru's daughter, the sister of Ali Akbar Khan, a famous player of sarod. The Indian sitar is said to have been invented by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), a devotee of the Chistiyya order, after the Persian 'Setar', from the saz group of musical instruments. The international cultural connotation is also evident from the Persian musical ensemble, rabab, sarod, sarangi and tabla, which became an integral part of South Asian musical instruments.

In Bangladesh, Ravi Shankar was inspired by the Baul tradition that is a unique heritage of Bangla folk music. Bauls are wandering minstrels and itinerant singers who do not belong to any religious denomination. The lonely Baul roams places, trying endlessly to find his identity through music, devotion, and love. Their songs invoke traditions that can be interpreted as a revolt against the conventions and bindings of established religions. They believe that the 'spirit' does not reside in an unknown heaven but instead can be traced within us through love and compassion for one other. In the Proclamation issued by UNESCO in 2005, Baul traditional songs were included in the 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.'

Aware of the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism to the Bangla secular folk and classical music, Ravi Shankar, together with his friend Paul Harrison, organised 'The Concert for Bangladesh' at the United Nations headquarters in 1971. He also played with Yehudi Menuhin and attempted to synchronise South Asian and Western music, as Salman's band Junoon is doing at present alongside international artists like Alicia keys, Melissa Etheridge, and Annie Lennox.

Ravi Shankar

Supporters of the Taliban and other Islamic extremists groups have attacked music-related shops and cultural institutions. DVD and CD shops were banned and became the targets of hardcore militants' homemade bombs. They championed General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamist legacy of fundamentalism in Pakistan. The military dictator tried his best to suffocate Pakistan's traditional Sufi culture by emulating Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam. He banned all forms of cultural activities, including figurative painting, singing, dancing, and music, categorising them as blasphemous. He also banned the all-time classic 'Heer Ranjha' in Pakistan by the renowned freedom fighter and theatre personality, Sheila Bhatia and her troupe. The ban was on the ground that “Islam does not permit a show where Heer would be enacted by a woman.”

The most effective harbingers of sanity today are the secular artists increasingly stepping forward to uphold the multicultural ideals. Recently, several groups in the genre of Sufi-rock groups have sprung up in South Asia. Among them is Falu, a Bombay-born singer whose formidable vocal style complements a mix of Indian classical and alt-rock, and Jeet's band of musicians called Singh, which combines rock with Indian music. The band of Pakistani singers Abrar-ul-Huq was cheered and applauded by young people at Trafalgar Square in London as he sang to a massive crowd.

In 2006, the South Asia Foundation invited 40 performing artists from the eight SAARC countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who put up a spectacular show at UNESCO House in Paris on the theme, Oral and Intangible Heritage of South Asia. India's foremost ghatam player, Vikku Vinayakaram, and the famous Sufi singer from Pakistan, Saeen Zahoor, were clamorously applauded. Zahoor learned kalams of poets like Bulleh Shah and lyrics of Rumi from his guru, the Indian Sufi Ustad Raunka Ali of Patiala. Born and raised in Okara, a village, Zahoor became a 'street singer' performing for decades at Sufi dargahs, shrine, and festivals in Pakistan and India. The international community discovered him in 1989, when he performed his first concert on stage, and he is now world-famous.

As if it were a prelude to the shape of things to come, more than a million people participated on the eve of Pakistan's recent general elections in the commemoration of the anniversary of a Sufi saint from the Punjab at the village of Pakpattan. Waleed Ziad, a Pakistani economist who attended the feast, described the pageantry of dance, poetry, music, and prayer. He noted that religious life in Pakistan has traditionally been synonymous with the gentle spirituality of Sufi mysticism, the traditional pluralistic core of Islam. Even in remote rural areas, spiritual life centres not on doctrinaire seminaries but on Sufi shrines. Recreation revolves around ostentatious wedding parties, Hollywood, Bollywood, Lollywood, and Pollywood in the North West Frontier Province.

'Peshawar Spring' is how the people of NWFP have jubilantly called the landslide victory of the secular and liberal Awami National Party, founded by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. “We Pushtuns are the children of Badshah Khan's progressive thoughts and ideals,” declared Asfandyar Wali Khan, a grandson of the 'Frontier Gandhi,' as thousands of people took to the streets and bazaars, dancing Punjabi Bhangra and playing local Pashtun folk music. Thousands of bus drivers once again slipped cassettes or CDs into the stereos of their over-decorated vehicles. “Now I have music, I love my job again,” one of the local drivers was reported as saying. “I can breathe once more.” The newly elected members of Parliament are already planning public concerts.

Indeed, fundamentalist and archaic politicians are barking up the wrong tree. Never ever has any obstruction or suppression of culture stopped the arts and music from transcending national boundaries. Nor is there any question of this happening in a globalised world of new technologies, the market economy, individualism, diversity, pluralism, and mobility the markers of 21st-century life.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008