Since 1998, when she conceptualised the genre, Manjari Chaturvedi has been propagating Sufi Kathak, a dance form that combines the gestural storytelling of Kathak with the sublime spinning meditation of Sufism. Chaturvedi, 39, grew up in Uttar Pradesh, the cradle of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. The daughter of a space scientist and homemaker mom, she has a Masters in Environmental Sciences from the University of Lucknow. On the eve of a performance at the India International Centre last week, where she whirled to the words of Bedam Shah Warsi, Chaturvedi discussed, among other subjects, why the simplicity of Sufi lyrics cannot be a justification for indiscriminate marketing. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about Sufi Kathak...
In Sufi Kathak, I’ve incorporated the mystique of Sufism (the moving meditation) into Kathak, thereby blending both the Hindu and Muslim divine traditions. It is a dance form that spans the earthly romance of folk to the evolved Sufi imagery of love in Persian poetry, from a beloved in flesh and blood to the abstract presence of the Almighty, from form to formlessness. It brings out the nuances of Sufi music and poetry through the language of body, which expresses the rapturous heights of spiritual ecstasy. It takes forward the traditions of the erstwhile Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Awadh, wherein qawwals sang in praise of Hazrat Ali as well as Krishna.
Who are the world’s favourite Sufi saints whose kalam continues to inspire qawwals and performers?
The best known Sufi poets are Hazrat Amir Khusrau and Mevlana Rumi, and I think Rumi is the most translated poet in the world! However, there are many other exemplary saints and poets who have written on Sufi thought and are sung even today by performers. Hazrat Bedam Shah Warsi, Hazrat Shah Niyaz, Rashid Safipur, Muztar Khairabadi (Javed Akhtar’s grandfather) are some of them. There are many more who have written words that continue to inspire us even today.
Why was your concert a tribute to Hazrat Bedam Shah Warsi?
It is an initiative by the Sufi Kathak Foundation under the 22 Khwaja Project, a series that seeks to revive the written words of lesser-known but extraordinary Sufi poets of Awadh or Uttar Pradesh. It brings to the foreground people who’ve written insightful poetry that is sung till today at the shrines. However, the general public is unaware of the lives and works of these marvellous poets. Warsi, for instance, wrote under the pen name of “Bedam” and his shrine is situated in the small village of Dewa of Barabanki. India is a politically volatile country, where our cultural traditions are somehow relegated to insignificance. Our foundation tries to keep these traditions alive.
Why is the popularity of classical music forms like qawwali waning?
Most classical traditions are surviving in a refurbished format today, fighting for their own space in the diversity of options available as “entertainment” for the audiences. The lines between a spiritual connect with the art form and the entertainment connect are blurring and almost mingling into one another. So, most of the time, performers like me – who are part of mystical traditions – are at a loss about whether we are part of a spiritual elevation process or plain, simple entertainment.
From Sufi rock to Punjabi pop, why is there a profusion of genres being marketed in the name of Sufism?
Art has always drawn influences from the times in which the artists and performers lived. Having said that, since the Sufi saints wrote in easy spoken language, people relate to it and try and adapt it to their own medium of expression, which is fair in creativity. But unfortunately this is leading to the usage of such terms with complete ignorance. For example, the mere use of word ‘Maula’ in a song doesn’t make the song Sufi! Whenever something succeeds, a lot of rubbish gets on the bandwagon. But time is the best judge. Only art forms with substance shall stay and the rest will wither away.
As the only practitioner of Sufi Kathak in India, how have you seen the genre evolve?
Poetry, music and dance have been important aspects of Sufi traditions in the Indian subcontinent. So I accept all mystical conventions and take them into the fold of Sufi Kathak, with particular influence of the Chistiya Silsila and the Mevlevi tradition. Over the years that I have been a practitioner, Sufi Kathak has evolved its own visual entity distinct from other classical dance forms, although it follows the same grammar (see box, left). The overriding thought is following the concept of the formless Almighty, the nirgun brahma. Its poetry is distinct, the use of language, the use of movements, the music, costumes and the aesthetics are all specific to Sufi Kathak.
What is Sufi Kathak?
Chaturvedi on the differences between traditional Kathak and Sufi Kathak
Inspiration: In Kathak, the mudra, taal and abhinaya are inspired by a deity. In Sufi Kathak, I reinterpret the gestures to depict a nirgun (formless) deity.
Lyrics: In Sufi Kathak, the lyrics are not limited to one language. They could be in Punjabi, as penned by Bulle Shah, or even in Persian.
Form: Unlike Kathak, where the dancer stops after a set number of revolutions (chakkars), in Sufi Kathak, the dancer goes into a trance-like state where she doesn’t realise how many times she is turning, which could go into hundreds.
Costumes: Since Kathak began as storytelling in royal courts, the idea was to draw attention to the physical beauty of the dancer and to ornate costumes. Here it is just the opposite: The Sufi Kathak costume isn’t eye-catching and is in muted colours such as black or white.
From HT Brunch, October 13
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