These days anything goes in the name of Sufi music. A number of labels have made capital of this musical currency over the last decade. So much has been put out there in the market that it's become difficult to know what's Sufi and what's not.
All Sufi songs need not be qawwalis, or need not be handed down from the safe historical distance of a few decades, if not centuries. But this month of Ramzan it might be helpful to look at a well-researched work on the history of Sufism - Khalid Sultan's Sufi Tradition of India, a documentary funded by the foreign ministry.
Sultan takes us on a tour of all the major silsilas (Sufi orders) that have made a mark in this part of the world - the Chishtiyas, Naqshbandis, Firdausis and even Kubrawis. The two-part film spanning an hour takes us from the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and those of Bakhtiar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chirag in 'Dehli', to Ali Semnani's in Kichocha (Faizabad), Bande Nawaz Gesudaraz's in Gulbarga, Amhad Sirhindi's in Punjab, and Makhdoom Yahya's in Bihar. At almost all stops, the filmmaker takes in the sama, the musical gathering at the heart of the belief system. The various styles of qawwali that this yields is a rare bouquet indeed.
If there's a gap, it's of the Sufi tradition that spread east of Bihar. The annual festival in Patharchapri at the tomb of Data Baba, situated not far from President Pranab Mukherjee's ancestral village, is one of the largest Sufi musical gatherings in the country.
Let's follow the film on Sufism with a new collection of qawwalis by Kurban Farid Shahi and team from Ajmer.
The album, Fariyaad, can be characterised by the team's rendition of Amir Khusro's famous composition, 'Chhap tilak sab chheeni'. If there's anything that stands out from the dozens of versions of this song, it's the Ajmeri qawwals' robust approach to the devotional love poem. It's the difference between a kitschy living tradition meant for the common man, and one that's fetishised as a fragile art and parked aside for the connoisseur. Sufi music, though often lifted to the rarefied air of the latter, lives in India mostly in the leaden loudness of the former. So be it.
Of the other songs, 'Apke deedar se' and 'Khwaja Moinuddin to pe wari' are oft-heard paeans. 'Hariyala bana ladla' and 'Jise chaha dar pe' are so suffused with blue notes that they evoke more reflective moods. But however different their beginnings, the end of all qawwalis is the same - in the frenetic, trance-like throb of the crescendo. The Lohars of Pakistan
Ever since Arif Lohar's recording of 'Jugni' for Coke Studio Pakistan a few years ago, the Punjabi folk singer has had a special place in the hearts of listeners this side of the border. He was already famous in Pakistan and had been awarded, like his father Alam, the prestigious Pride of Performance medal. 'Jugni' made him popular here too.
Though online store Flipkart lists 41 tracks by Arif Lohar (bit.ly/lohararif) and he has already made it into Bollywood, few of his albums are available in stores. So Virsa Punjab Da, a collection of eight folk songs by Arif and Alam plugs a large hole.
They sing inevitably with the chimta (tong), often with the dadh (handheld drum), and rarely with the tumbi (one-string plucked instrument). The Lohars' large-hearted renditions are matched by the unpolished open voices of Bushra Sadiq and Bally Jatti. The song that stands out is 'Mirza', a gem from Alam Lohar's repertoire set to a rare 2-2-4 beat and accompanied by the amazingly folding voice of K Biba. The wrench of the classic Punjabi tragedy is all there.