There was news this week of a charity concert by students of Kashmir University to raise money for orphans. There were apparently some objections to the event title, 'Ilhaam', meaning 'intuition of the Prophet Mohammed'. Since the students did not want their good intentions marred by any controversy, they applied to cancel the event. The word 'Ilhaam' brought back fond memories of Sultanat Apa in Tashkent. This affectionate lady would frequently say 'Ilhom' with the Uzbek pronunciation, the way we say 'Inshallah' or 'Mashallah'. She was a vivid, colourful personality with many grandchildren, a great love of song and dance and a huge collection of Hindi film posters. A God-fearing soul, she did a lot of charity work and went out of her way to be kind to strangers, including me.
Religion came up. I told her that though unfair views and customs were unacceptable, I adhered to the faith of my ancestors and believed in the One-ness of the One. Sultanat Apa nodded. She too was a mixture of tradition and modernity. Her view, translated for me, was, "Sometimes the ancient thing is more suited to modern life than we think." She swept me into her warm, hospitable word and made me dance to the Uzbek songs that she sang and played the daf for herself.
I thought about Sultanat Apa's remark when I saw Naseeruddin Shah in the film 'Khuda Kay Liye' in 2008. As the maulvi who enjoys music, he cites the powerful example of Hazrat Dawood (David), considered the author of the beautiful Book of Psalms in the Old Testament, who sang and danced before the Lord.
Another powerful example of music addressed to God with good intentions is in Exodus, when the Red Sea has been miraculously crossed. 'Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea/The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation' (Exodus15:1-2).
'And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances/And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously' (Exodus15:20-21).
Sultanat Apa's song lilts across the mountains still, in tune with many honourable ancient voices.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture