An Evening with Saeen Zahoor

Sain_Zahoor_14_leugk_Pak101(dot)com

Written by Randeep Singh

On May 31, 2014, Pakistani Sufi singer Saeen Zahoor performed at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, sending the audience into trance, dance and inspiring reverence throughout.

The evening brought together local Indian and Pakistani performers, organizers and audience members. Indo-Pakistani band Naqsh IPB opened the evening with their blend of modern Sufi, rock, classical and filmi musical stylings. Through clashing drums, pulsating guitar riffs and the soaring vocals of Daksh Kubba, Naqsh warmed up the crowd for Saeen.

He entered in his long black kurta embroidered in yellow, ghungroo bells jingling around his ankles, carrying his colourfully decorated ektaara (one-string instrument). “I am not an artist,” he began, “I am a dervish who recites the name of His Master.”

Saeen didn’t just sing: he performed in every sense of the word. The spirit of Bulleh Shah poured through Saeen, his songs, his dance, his story-telling. His two hours on the stage was a musical theatre on the life and poetry of Bulleh Shah.

IMG346
After declaring his devotion to Bulleh Shah in “Ni Mai Kamli Haan” (‘Crazy I Am!’), Saeen sang “Aukhen Painde Lambiyaan Raavan” (‘Hard and Long are the Paths’), of how Bulleh Shah journeyed for miles in search of his teacher. On meeting his teacher, Shah Inayat, Bulleh Shah asks: “how does one find God.” Shah Inayat, planting spring onions, replies: “what do you want to find God for? Just uproot this from here and plant it there.”

Saeen then broke out ecstatically into “Nachna Painda Ae” (‘Dance One Must’) swirling on the stage in his ghunghroo bells just as Bulleh Shah had once for Shah Inayat.

Saeen also sang on Bulleh Shah’s rebukes to legalistic Muslim clerics in “Bas Kare O Yaara Ilm” (‘Enough of Learning, My Friend’). Saeen tells us, Bulleh Shah gave up the shariah for the way of Love just as Heer refused to marry another man according to the shariah because she had been wedded spiritually to her Beloved. On love’s path, Saeen sings “let’s go Bulleh to that place where everyone is blind” in “Chal Bulleha Uthe Chale.”

From his stepping onto the stage, the audience became disciples of Saeen. He sang with abandon, he whirled with frenzy and he ended the night to the boom of the dhol drum bringing the audience to its feet. The air was filled with passion, energy and devotion. People went up to the stage and paid their respects by touching their heads to the stage or folding their hands in reverence: the theatre became a Sufi shrine, a dargah.

Above all, Saeen ensured Bulleh Shah will live on as a shared heritage. His spirit and art were the spirit of love and unity. Says Saeen: “humanity is to love one another.”

White Canada Forever

chinese head tax

This year marks the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident. The celebration of that centenary has been marked by some as a historic episode in the story of Indians and Punjabi Sikhs in Canada.

The Komagata Maru however is not the history of any one ethnic or religious group: it is the history of Canada. It is a page in a chapter of Canada’s history whereby English-speaking Canadians sought to create a Canada of English values, traditions, language, law and institutions from sea to sea, a “White Canada Forever.”

There had been earlier attempts to exclude, marginalize or assimilate the aboriginal communities and the French in Canada. The Indian, like the Chinese and Japanese however, was considered an alien and unassimilable breed. His arrival on the west coast moreover threatened to bring hordes of Orientals to the shores of British Columbia.

What followed was the advent of exclusion towards Asian immigrants in British Columbia: the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 and the Chinese Head Tax; the Komagata Maru incident; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 which completely banned Chinese migration to Canada until 1947, and the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage in 1942 to name a few. The exclusion of undesirables was not limited to Asians. It included denying entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the internment of Italian-Canadians during the second world war.

H.G. Wells once said that history more and more becomes a race between education and catastrophe. Our history demonstrates that we have never been a multicultural utopia. We have our tragedies, follies and regrets like any country. Let’s open our eyes to the Komagata Maru, the Chinese Head Tax, the Indian Residential Schools, so we don’t close them again. Let’s remember them as the history of Canada, our reminder as how to best move forward.

Further Reading: Peter Ward, White Canada Forever (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).