Melodies of the Heart

Southasia - - Book Review - Atiya Ab­bas free­lances for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions and writes ex­ten­sively on ef­fects of mass me­dia.

The in­tro­duc­tion of Coke Stu­dio and the ar­rival of rock bands such as Over­load have bought hid­den gems like Arif Lo­har and Pappu Saeein back into the lime­light. The prac­tice of ex­press­ing de­vo­tion through mu­sic has been alive for gen­er­a­tions in Pak­istan and In­dia. Keep­ing this in mind, Jur­gen Wasim Frem­b­gen chron­i­cles his jour­neys in Pak­istan and his emo­tional as­so­ci­a­tion with Sufi mu­sic in his book “In Noc­tur­nal Mu­sic in the Land of the Su­fis: Un­heard Pak­istan.”

Frem­b­gen, a Ger­man an­thro­pol­o­gist, was al­ways fas­ci­nated with Pak­istan as the tran­si­tion re­gion be­tween the south, west and cen­tral Asia. He ex­ten­sively stud­ied de­vo­tional Is­lam and Su­fism in the 1980s and dur­ing 1996 to 2010, he trav­elled across Pak­istan, par­tic­i­pat­ing in melas and urs at the shrines of prom­i­nent Sufi saints while at­tend­ing fes­ti­vals which in­cluded de­vo­tional mu­sic and dance.

It is not easy to write about mu­sic, which is an en­tirely tran­scen­den­tal ex­pe­ri­ence. In th­ese five chron­i­cles, Frem­b­gen cap­tures the essence of de­vo­tional dance and mu­sic to show man’s love for God through the rhythms of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, de- not­ing that the mu­si­cian and the in­stru­ment be­come one. It is in­ter­est­ing to read Su­fism from a for­eigner’s point of view as this book brings to life a side of Pak­istan, which many Pak­ista­nis might never have seen be­fore.

Th­ese chron­i­cles cover Frem­b­gen’s jour­neys in Sindh and Pun­jab. The first chap­ter, Mu­si­cal Nights in the Wilder­ness, charts Frem­b­gen’s visit to a fa­mous saints’ fes­ti­val in the Salt Range. His de­scrip­tion of get­ting a hair­cut and a mas­sage from an Irani bar­ber at­tracts the reader’s at­ten­tion and seems as if he is con­vey­ing his ad­mi­ra­tion for the Land of the Su­fis. His writ­ing style gives de­tailed ac­counts of the cul­ture, im­me­di­ately grasp­ing the read­ers’ in­ter­est and fas­ci­na­tion. For in­stance, Frem­b­gen de­scribes how be­liev­ers en­trust their chil­dren to spir­i­tual men­tors, who guard them from demons and jinns. Th­ese chil­dren have their heads shaven with a sin­gle lock of hair on the right side, which they must wear un­til the age of 12. Many tales sur­round the saint, Imam Gul, known for loving an­i­mals and tak­ing care of all the chick­ens in his par­ents’ court­yard. He taught one rooster the call to prayer and, as le­gend has it, from that day on the rooster would give the

Azaan. One day, a farmer caught the rooster and slaugh­tered it. Imam Gul ran to the pot, knocked it over and put to­gether the parts of the rooster and re­vived him! Such tales might ap­pear un­be­liev­able to skep­ti­cal Mus­lims but Frem­b­gen’s doc­u­men­ta­tions place the read­ers in an en­vi­ron­ment of peace, mys­ti­cal sto­ries and danc­ing dervishes. He takes the read­ers to the hid­den high­lands of Pak­istan away from city vi­o­lence, where peo­ple sim­ply want to de­vote them­selves to God.

Frem­b­gen also de­scribes the beau­ti­ful mu­sic played by the devotees, the com­pli­cated ra­gas and ghaz­als with de­vo­tional lyrics, such as the fol­low­ing writ­ten by the poet Aatish:

“Dark­ness blessed me with the sweet­ness of a wed­ding night My spirit was bliss­ful, happy was my heart See­ing thus my eyes per­ceived the pres­ence of the near­ness of God…”

“Nights spent at saints’ shrines and graves fill the spirit with deep, serene sat­is­fac­tion and are con­sid­ered to be full of bless­ings,” he writes, “their thirst is quenched by the wine

of God’s love, as the Su­fis would say.”

In the next chap­ter, The Mu­sic Rooms of La­hore, Frem­b­gen de­tails how his real initiation into “the tra­di­tional mu­si­cal cul­ture of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent” be­gan in a ho­tel room in La­hore. At the old Dehli-Mus­lim ho­tel he was drawn in by the sound of the tabla, com­ing from the in­ner court­yard. When it was con­firmed there would be a me­hfil, he de­cided to stay to watch the fa­mous Ma­haraj Khatak per­form. Frem­b­gen’s an­thro­po­log­i­cal train­ing al­lows him to vividly re­cre­ate the scene to achieve ec­stasy of a dif­fer­ent level. The mu­sic reaches a fever pitch that en­chants the lis­ten­ers and cries of Wah wah! and Kya kehnay, fill the court­yard. For the reader who may not have ex­pe­ri­enced this kind of de­vo­tion, Frem­b­gen pro­vides an in­ti­mate look at an Is­lam that is com­pletely de­void of the fun­da­men­tal­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tions that it has be­come in­fa­mous for.

The chap­ter ti­tled The Voices of the Fakirs at the King’s Court, fo­cuses on the shrine of the Red Sufi, Lal Shah­baz Qa­lan­dar in Se­hwan. Frem­b­gen brings to life an amaz­ing sight, where Hin­dus, Pun­jabis, and Sind­his come to­gether in de­vo­tional prayer and dance to one of the great­est Su­fis in this re­gion. For those who are on a spir­i­tual quest, they will find their call­ing in this set­ting, as Shah Latif ex­plains in th­ese verses,

“Who­ever yearns for Saa­har Seeks not a ferry or boat For who­ever thirsts for love The rivers are only steps”

“Only love leads the true Sufi to the truth and union with the Di­vine Beloved,” Frem­b­gen writes. “If only the big­oted mul­lahs and oth­ers who dis­dain mu­sic would re­al­ize that mu­sic opens hearts and lifts the veil be­tween man and God.”

As noted in re­cent in­ter­views, Frem­b­gen staunchly be­lieves that the fu­ture of Su­fism is bright be­cause of the in­ter­est shown by the younger gen­er­a­tion, “We should note that there is an in­creased in­ter­est in the East – take Pak­istani mu­sic as an ex­am­ple. The Pak­istani young gen­er­a­tion finds in­ter­est in Su­fism through the mu­sic of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, the great Sufi po­ets and their in­ter­preters such as Us­tad Nus­rat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Broth­ers and, of course, through Abida Parveen. The younger gen­er­a­tion can find their iden­tity re­flected [in the mu­sic].” Through this book, Frem­b­gen high­lights an im­por­tant part of Pak­istan’s cul­ture and pro­vides use­ful in­for­ma­tion for those who may want to em­bark on such jour­neys them­selves.

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