Seeking Solace in Sufism

By Renuka Deshpande for Daily News & Analysis

The city’s metamorphosis from a sleepy town to a metropolis has left most of us long for peace and contentment. This is why Punekars are taking to Sufism as a quest for harmony and the need to seek refuge in the promise of hope and love.

Sufism or Tasawwuf, the mystical arm of Islam, which is inwardly directed, deals with the soul’s relationship with god. It advocates oneness with god and urges that everything men do, be driven by one sole motivation — the love of god. The word Sufi means ‘clothed in wool’, reveals Dr Zubair Fattani in his article The Meaning of Tasawwuf, and is metaphoric of the inwardness of Islam wrapped in its exterior expressions.

Over the centuries, it has found expression in the ecstatic and reflective poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hafiz, Rabia and Moinuddin Chisti and others, which is increasingly popular in the city.

Bookshelves laden with books on Sufism and its various expressions in poetry, music and dance are a common sight, as are the collections featuring Sufi music maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Kailash Kher and the Sabri brothers, among many illustrious others.

Jyoti Mate, a city Sufi music and dance therapist, uses this mystical dimension to heal all those who seek solace in it. The whirling dervishes, the most iconic symbol of Sufism, are the basic element of Sufi dance and represent the earth rotating around the sun, also symbolic of the universe.

“Sufi dance helps stir pent-up and suppressed emotions within oneself. The hands are outspread while whirling and the head is thrown off-centre. A lot is metaphorical in Sufism, dance being no exception. The raising of the right hand and facing it skyward indicates absorption of knowledge from the heavens and the left hand which is pointed downwards, palm-down, passes it on to others.The head thrown off-centre is an urge to be non-egocentric, so that the ego doesn’t grow further. The cap used by Sufis is made of camel hair and is of a specific height, again symbolising the curtailing of the ego,” she says.

Mate adds that response to her therapy sessions has steadily grown since she first started in June 2008 and people often break into tears after the session is over.

On the music front, there is Ruhaniyat, the all-India Sufi and mystic music festival presented by Banyan Tree, which has been coming to Pune for the past eight years. The seven-city festival brings with it Baul musicians from West Bengal, comprising Sufi Muslims and Vaishnav Hindus, the Manganiars from Rajasthan singing Sufi folk music from the state, qawwals like the Sabri brothers and Turkish Sufi musician Latif Bolat, among others. Nandini Mukesh, director of Banyan Tree, who also emcees Ruhaniyat, says that the festival has elicited phenomenal response in the city.

“Last year, our attendance read around 1,800 people. We found ourselves continually adding chairs,” she says adding that the audience in Pune is very evolved and sophisticated and comes with an understanding of the music played at the festival.

Speaking of the musical response she receives at Ruhaniyat, Nandini says, “Baul songs are incredibly symbolic and metaphorical and touch a chord within people. Qawwalis comprise incredibly powerful musical compositions and progressions, but the Hindi and Urdu lyrics are simple to understand. Beyond a point, however, words cease to matter and the musical experience turns mystical and takes precedence.”

The popularity of Sufi rock bands like Junoon from Pakistan, along with Coke Studio, has also led to the emergence of Sufi rock bands like Chakra in the city, which does a lot of covers of Pakistani Sufi music songs, along with some original compositions featuring dohas of Baba Bulleh Shah and Kabir.

The Osho Meditation Resort in Koregaon Park, has whirling meditation sessions every Wednesday. Ma Amrit Sadhana of the resort, says the eyes are kept open and unfocused while whirling, which forms the first stage of the meditation technique, the second being rest.

“The response to these sessions is great. Watching so many people be a part of the session, and the sight of them totally engrossed in whirling is beautiful,” she adds.

Sheetal Sanghvi of The Urban Ashram, which hosts many Sufi music and dance workshops, is bringing Sheikha Khadija to Pune in November for a whirling meditation workshop. Khadija is a Sheikha in the Mevlevi Order of America.

“Sufism promotes unity and love and the response to our Sufi workshops is really growing. This is because orthodox systems of religious beliefs sometimes don’t narrate to the soul as well as they should. Sufism, with its teachings, gives hope to people,” he adds.

Islamic scholar Anees Chishti, who isn’t a Sufi but has studied it, is skeptical of this current trend of what he feels is pop-Sufism.

“Sufism requires penance and meditation. Sufi rock and dances are nothing but a Western concept. They call the whirling movements dervishes, but the term, is durvesh, dur meaning pearl and vesh meaning hanging, in Persian. So the composite means ‘hanging like a pearl’. In Turkey, during the time of Rumi, the head of the khanqah or mystic hall, was a durvesh. When he played the daf and sang mystical poetry, people listening to him would go in a trance and start whirling. So ‘durvesh’ refers to a person and not a bodily movement. All this pageantry is a marketing tactic,” he says.

Opinions on the topic are many and varied, but most will agree that Sufism in its numerous interpretations in literature, music and dance does feel divine.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– Amongst literally hundreds of favorite Rumi quotes, one of our top one sums up life very well when he said: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

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  1. November 26th, 2011

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