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Will the real Sufi please sit down?

music Updated: Mar 26, 2010 23:12 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Everybody today wants a piece of the Sufi soufflé. Every music company wants to be able to claim at least one album of 'Sufi music' under its label, whatever the songs, whoever the singers. As a result of what seems to be purely a scramble for a fast-growing market, we the listeners are left with a confusion: what is a Sufi song?

The scramble began in earnest when the cash register at Sony Music started ringing after the release of the compilation Teri Deewani five years ago. It was so successful that Sony released Teri Justajoo and Teri Sajni in the following years — and again made good. No one was any wiser on why affixing Teri to each album title made the clever compilations any more Sufic than, say, any other clever compilation of hits with an Islamic leitmotif.

Labels such as T-Series, Virgin, Nupur, Saregama and even the slow-moving giant that’s Doordarshan realised that they too could repackage some old or not-so-old songs and claim their yard in Sufidom. Not long ago, Music Today released the album, Tu maane ya na maane (Rs 125), which is nothing but its previous release, Sing with the Sufis (Rs 195), plus two songs.

At the listener’s post, the craze can be traced back to Nusrat Fateh Ali’s Afreen afreen, the album that was discussed more for the light-eyed beauty in its video than for the songs. Before that, Sufi music was pursued mostly by the cognoscenti, the head-shaking tribe found more in Delhi than anywhere else.

Then, Shubha Mudgal’s vigorous, foot-thumping rendition of Bulleh Shah’s Ali more angana made Sufi music fit for the discotheque, which is where the current scramble began.

It brings us back to our question. Does a Sufi song have to be written by a Sufi? Can a song of love that borders on the divine (well, it needn’t) qualify?

Muzaffar Ali, who has been bringing Sufi musicians from all over the world for his Jahan-e-Khusrau concerts, disagrees: “How can you write like that unless you have been through the journey of a Sufi, the burning? Even Ghalib couldn’t write like that except perhaps in a couple of verses. On the other hand, Amir Khusrau had Sufi sensibilities even in a song of bidai (send-off).”

I’ll not even get into the question of whether anyone can render a Sufi song in the right spirit.

Rather, let me make the best of what’s out there. Here’s a list of the best albums listed to fit that very Sufi idea: unity in diversity.

The Very Best of Soulful Sufi: With this double-disc, Sony has broken from its fixation on ‘Teri’. But the formula for the compilation is simple — it’s a best-of selection from the three best-of ‘Teri’ albums. It will quench the thirst of those who are looking for, umm, Sufi-ish numbers in not-so-traditional arrangements. All fans of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Kailash Kher, this is the album for you to take to a deserted island.

Sufiana Qawwalis: Trust the rusty Doordarshan to wrap a lovely collection from its priceless archives with a jacket that’s more likely to repel than attract. From ‘Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki’ by the toothless Habib Painter to one of the best renditions of ‘Man kunto maula’, by the Sabri Brothers, this album is a treat for those who are looking to retrace their steps.

Musically, that is.

Reverence: This four-disc Sony-BMG album, a recording of Nusrat’s 1989 programme at London’s Kufa Gallery, is for those who have the time for a proper Sufi concert. Of all the versions of Allah hoo by Nusrat, this is probably the most wrenching. Kahbren rasid im shabd, a ghazal in raag Kedar, is another exquisitely-cut gem. Ecstasy guaranteed for the head-shakers.