Went to Ruhaniyat last weekend – ‘a festival of a Sufi and Mystic music’. Event organisers Banyan Tree have been doing quite a bit for classical music this past decade and this festival devoted to sufi and mystic music is into its second year.
Mind-expanding stuff. Strictly speaking, the two-day event was more about performing arts than music per se. The people behind Ruhaniyat have managed to source and put together a fascinating set of traditions that are interesting by themselves but when juxtaposed give you this sense that India is indeed a many many layered thing and leave you to wonder how much more there is. Has anyone, anyone at all a grasp on the whole of it?
Just to give you a sample of the smorgasbord on offer:
Tibetan monks with mystic chants. Mostly sounds from what I could make out… sonorous, droney and calculated to work on your nadis or psychic nerve centres.
Shastanpaattu. Quirky chanting tradition from Kerala, which goes on all night in temples apparently. There is storytelling but the odd part is each singer sings in a different pitch. Bit startling at first but you get into the stride of things and you find yourself listening to distinct voices but together in a way that should be discordant but isn’t. We wondered about why people might have thought this a good thing to do and one of the reasons might be simply, concentration. To continue in one pitch when the person next to you is singing another requires a surprising amount of self-belief and a sense of your purpose. We tried it at home with cacophonous results.
Then there were the Jagars from Uttaranchal. I was really taken with this. Singers from this community are apparently called in when lots of things go wrong with a household… too many calamities, deaths, illnesses. The singers come and sing the jagars; it goes on till one member of the household becomes possessed and then questions are posed and answers are sought.
These artistes from the Himalayas, with their typical mountain voices, were so good. They rounded off with the hanthya jagar – sung especially for those who die young, I believe. They sang of Abhimanyu, whose spirit they say resides in Uttaranchal.
The Baul Movement. The Bauls of Bengal are very in at the moment. Wandering mendicants who sing. (I’ve always wanted to use ‘mendicant’... hee hee). The Bauls were generously sprinkled through the entire event. There was Parvathy Baul, dreadlocked sadhvi with a sweet gaspy voice, star of the ensemble.
But the others were most endearing. Old, learned men with almost-breaking folk voices, ek taras and small dhols. They sang, jumped, circled and danced, as frisky as four-year-olds and seemingly as innocent.
Something else about the Bauls that struck me. While the rest of the Sufis liberally use dariya and samandar as metaphors, these chaps like to be factual, technical even. What do they sing about? The subtle energy field. The charkas are described, we are asked to beware ‘the upturned lady’ in the mooladhara, coiled 3½ times. There is talk of sushumna, ida and pingala, and the lord who resides between your eyes, rhyme be damned.
There were other, more mainstream performers also: singers from Rajasthan, and an all-woman troupe from Assam who dripped honey and at least four groups of qawwals, who were the most disappointing feature.
From the perspective of anthropology/musicology, the festival offered much variety. But it achieved another thing for me – it expanded notions of what music must be and what it can be even outside the narrow confines of what we’re taught is melody. Glad I went, really.