The Sufi Legacy in South Asia

nizamuddin

Written by Randeep Singh

On September 13, 2014, the Hari Sharma Foundation in association with a number of arts and cultural groups, presented the conference, “Spirituality, Humanity and the Marginalized: The Sufi Legacy in South Asia” and a musical concert “Songs of Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Lalon Fakir and Rabindranath Tagore.”

One of the musical highlights was the husband-wife team from Bangladesh, Farida Parveen (on voice and harmonium) and Ghazi Abdul Hakim (on flute). Ghazi on the bamboo flute turned music into poetry, filling the concert hall with the colour of Bengal, taking us beyond the streams and paddy fields.

Farida Parveen sang the songs of Lalon Fakir with a gusto and a tenderness in her earthy tones. The concert also featured Enakshi Chatterjee from Calcutta who opened with songs of Tagore and Madan Gopal Singh from Delhi who sang songs of Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah and others.

The highlight of the conference was Dr. Nile Green (UCLA) and the ensuing discussion. Green’s presentation, “Mazaars for the Marginalized” underlined the pluralistic, cosmopolitan dimensions of Sufism, of its journey across trade routes by caravans from Khurasan eastwards to Turkey and southwards through the Khyber Pass into Hindustan.

That plural and cosmopolitan spirit, Green spoke, is heard in the tradition of Sufi poetry and music which filtered into India from Khurason. It is in words like “Auliya” (Arabic), “Pir” (Persian) and “Baba”(Turkish), epiphets for Sufi masters and in the shajars (genealogical trees) of Sufis tracing their ancestry to Samarkand or the Hejaz. Sufi shrines included Greek Christians in Turkey as they did Hindus in India.

The appeal of Sufism to the marginalized according to Green was in its creation of a space where social power was redistributed more evenly. Sufis also acted as important intermediaries between the ruler and the common man in economic, political and legal matters and Sufi institutions provided food and medical care to the poor.

The piety and inclusiveness of the Sufi was questioned during the discussion period. Sunera Thobani mentioned how the Sufi pirs themselves had vast estates and wealth, whereas Habiba Zaman pointed out how Sufi spaces often clearly excluded women. Green himself pointed out today how Sufis became kings of Libya upon that country’s independence or how those of Sufi lineage sit in parliament in Pakistan. Green also reminded us of the hierarchy within Sufi orders, no where more uncompromising than in the relationship between the murshid and the pir.

One member of the audience asked whether Sufism or “Islam-lite” was a way of making Islam more acceptable and congenial to a post-911 West. Whether it is remains a topic for further discussion. But what Green reminded us is that Sufism has always had an appeal beyond just Muslims and the shariat and the importance of its role in shaping culture, Islamic or otherwise.

The Art of Madonna (Part I)

Madonna has always been a visual performance-artist rather than a classic singer songwriter in the way of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde.  While her songs and albums have enjoyed commercial and critical success, it is arguably in her visual medium, and her music videos in particular, where her artistic statements on sexuality, race and gender politics find their most potent and provocative expression.

Like a Prayer

Click here to play video: http://vimeo.com/44003277

 Like a Prayer (1989)

When Madonna originally envisioned the video for “Like a Prayer,” she wanted to tell the story of an interracial love affair in the South between a black boy and a white girl who run away together and then are shot by the Ku Klux Klan. Mary Lambert, the video’s director, felt instead that the song was about sexual and religious ecstasy. Madonna visualized this ecstasy as  making love on an altar, an image which finds its way into the video’s climax.

The video begins with Madonna fleeing the scene of a young woman’s murder. She enters a church and sees the statue of a black saint which appears to be weeping. She reclines on a pew, falls into a dream, and through a series of flashbacks, recounts herself witnessing a white woman being murdered by white men for which an innocent black man (who resembles the saint in the church) is arrested. In the video, Madonna kisses the feet of the black saint, experiences stigmata, dances before burning crosses and makes love with the black man/saint on the altar.

From the beginning of her career, Madonna had provoked controversy by toying with religious iconography and sexuality. The “Like a Prayer” video added race to create an unholy trinity. Religious groups across America decried the video as blasphemous. The Pope banned Madonna from appearing in Italy and urged a national boycott of Pepsi which had featured Madonna and the song in a new commercial. Religious and family groups in America urged similar boycotts. Pepsi quickly pulled the commercial from TV airwaves. The video nevertheless topped critics list, winning recognition from Rolling Stone and Billboard as one of the top videos of the 1980’s and of all time, and winning MTV’s 1989’s “Viewer Choice” Award.

The “Like a Prayer” video presents a number of themes for analysis. Although the black saint in the video may be a replica of Martin de Porres (the patron saint of interracial harmony), the narrative of the video – where a black man tries to save a white woman and takes the fall for the men that murdered her – implies that this saint may be in fact be a (black) Jesus, something likely given the resemblance between the black man and the statue in the church, both played by Leon Robinson.

The love-making on the altar can also be interpreted symbolically. On the one hand, the image – along with the scenes of the burning crosses, the bleeding eye of the statue – can be seen tragically as the martyrdom of black men by White America for kissing, gazing or even wanting white women. On the other hand, Grant interprets the love-making as the most poignant scene of the video, driving home the message of racial equality.

Why the video provoked such a religious outcry is also a question. Robinson describes the video as “great for anyone religious – it shows Madonna witnessing an attack and then going to a church for guidance” – in this case, to confront the police as an eye witness to the crime the black man was wrongly accused of and have him set free. The Black Jesus alone was perhaps going too far from some. In this sense, Madonna’s dancing in front of the burning crosses not only symbolizes racial hatred in America and how it is institutionalized through iconography, but how it can be smashed as well.

Written by Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Santiago Fouz-Hernandez and Freya Jarman-Ivans. Madonna’s Drowned Worlds.

Thriving on the Culture of Exclusion: Punjab Auqaf

Durbar Baba Bulleh Shah

This is the resting place of a great Malamti Sufi Poet Baba Bulleh Shah (1680 to 1790) in Qasur, Pakistan. Every year in August, people come here from all over Punjab and Pakistan to celebrate his work and person. Bulleh Shah is part of the proud tradition of South Asia that nurtures equality and celebrates diversity; that takes a clear stand against discrimination on the basis of religion, sexuality, race and gender.

Bullah in his verses taught us that people who follow different religions or are born into them, are equal; that organized religions are discriminatory idealogies; and through his life, he showed us that the highest form of spirituality may sometimes reveal itself in gay love; that whatever our race, the basic fact that must rule is that we are all human beings; and though he did not preach feminism, i have yet to read a verse written by him that smacks of gender discrimination. Then why, in the name of Bullah, women are not allowed to set foot in his shrine?

Durbar Baba Bulleh Shah

The red line on the right highlights the notice that says that women are not allowed to go beyond that point; that means we can not go through the door, can not touch the stone that surrounds Bullah or pick up a couple of flowers from the top; and, we can not receive a rose and jasmine garland from the caretaker inside.

The two lines on the left, frame a part of Bullah’s verse now etched in stone but still not heeded. He says, and like most of Bullah’s verses, this one is also known to people throughout Punjab by heart, ‘Jis tun lugeya ishq kamal, naachay bay sur tay bay taal’. It means a body that has been touched by devotional love, dances without rythm and without beat or out of rythm and out of beat.

The line on the floor shows how far i can go; and, the person standing smack in the middle of the door is there to guard against the possibility that i may try to get in. His fears are not unfounded; this is what i did when i came in the courtyard ten minutes back because I knew that my only chance was to take them by surprise. And so, by the time they stopped me and then pushed me out of the shrine, i had done it. I had gone in, touched the stone, and took a few flowers lying on top of it.

It is important for me to tell you why i did that. I did that to tell myself that Bulleh Shah is as much ‘mine’ as he is anyone else’s in this world, and that i am not going to let Mehkma Auqaaf define Bulleh Shah in terms where the culture of lokai people is again taken over by religious bigots. And the reason i knew that ‘surprise’ will work, is because i faced the same situation at Jeevay Madhulal Hussain’s in Lahore time and again; caretakers at his Durbar would become alert upon seeing me enter the courtyard even when i had only crashed the prohibited door on my first visit.

At the place of Baba Sohna Bulleh Shah, I did not ask for the garland when i went in because the caretaker was busy pushing me out but that is okay because my friend Amarjit Chandan who was welcome inside with Afzal Sahir and Abdullah Malik, was kind enough to give me his garland. Here is this ‘privileged’ group of people; or should i say here are some of the ‘privileged’ members of my group; or simply, a group of ‘privileged’ people flanked by two additional distinctive individuals.

Durbar Baba Bulleh Shah

The fourth person from this group, Akram Varraich, though also equally privileged can not be seen in this photo because he was taking it.

Of course, i am lucky to have so many distinctive friends but i want their privileges to increase in quality as i try to expand mine because the advantages granted by the Department of Religious affairs in Pakistan may not be worth enjoying as they exclude over half the population of the Punjab, and Pakistan. And if ‘thriving’ on the ‘culture of exclusion’ seems like an exaggeration to you, consider that segregation is or was sanctioned in so many dominant cultures, and humans in power have always created their societies by excluding ‘other’ peoples and beings.

For now, we know that the ‘Religious Affairs and Auqaf’ of Punjab Government controls over 37 shrines in the province under the Punjab Waqf Properties Ordinance of 1979. Meanwhile, here is the email address of Lieutenant General (Retired) Khalid Maqbool, Governor of Punjab since 2001: governor.sectt@punjab.gov.pk

Chief Minister Punjab, Dost Muhammad Khosa is here: www.punjab.gov.pk

Photos by Akram Varraich first published at http://www.apna.org/

Sufi Movement
Muslim Culture
Punjabi Culture