All for love, love for all: Meet three women who are spreading unity through Sufism
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All for love, love for all: Meet three women who are spreading unity through Sufism

Whether it’s music or food or clothes, a message of acceptance can find beautiful expressions in all aspects of everyday life

brunch Updated: Dec 01, 2018 20:49 IST
Lubna Salim
Lubna Salim
Hindustan Times
sufi ideology,sufism,sufi
Through their creativity, these three women are trying to spread a beautiful message

In these testing times, when people around the world seem to be driving each other away, meet three women who, driven by the Sufi ideology, are trying to spread the message of love and unity through their creativity.

Striking the Sufi chord: Sonam Kalra

Sonam trained in Indian classical music but found herself drawn to Gospel music and began performing it because she felt a desire to connect with God

For vocalist Sonam Kalra, who is synonymous with her band Sufi Gospel Project, Sufism is an acceptance of all humanity as equal. It is a way of life, a way of thinking, where you are so connected to the ‘Beloved’ that you see divinity in every being and in everything. “It’s the way I have always been, the beliefs I have always had. I think I’ve always been Sufi in nature,” she says.

“When I was invited to the Dargah in Nizamuddin, the idea of a Sikh girl singing Gospel music in a Sufi shrine moved me. I felt i needed to express the beauty of this through my music” —Sonam Kalra

Even though Sonam trained in Indian classical music, she found herself drawn to Gospel music and began performing it because she felt a desire to connect with God when she sang.

“When I was invited to the Dargah of Sufi Inayat Khan in Nizamuddin to sing Gospel music, that really impacted me. I was so moved by the idea of a Sikh girl singing Gospel music in a Sufi shrine – of all these seemingly opposing faiths coming together – that I felt I needed to express the beauty of this through my music,” shares Sonam, who maintains that religion is not God and God has no religion.

Since that moment of revelation, Sonam has shared her message of acceptance through the music of the Sufi Gospel Project at many platforms across the world including the Sydney Opera House, and for many different issues such as women’s rights marches, anti-hatred protests, animal rights and children’s rights.

“Each of these has been special because I am able to convey the message of Sufism: peace and acceptance. To be able to use my art to express what I believe in, to be able to change mindsets about acceptance of all religions as equal, and to be able to sing to the Divine and connect in your own way, is truly special,” she explains.

Sonam draws inspiration from everything around her. She credits her parents for teaching her about acceptance and adds: “I also draw inspiration from Rumi, Hafez, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Niyaz and Kabir Das.”

The Sufi philosophy
  • “This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you. If you scream good things,The world will give it back.If you scream bad things, The world will give it back.Even if someone speaks badly about you,Speak well about him.Change your heart to change the world.”–Sufi mystic Shams Tabrizi Sufism, like Bhakti movement, rose as an expression of protest against the rigidity that had crept into religion. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the foremost preacher of Sufism, said: “A friend of God [Sufi saints are called auliya – friends of God] must be generous like a river. We all get water from the river to quench our thirst. It does not discriminate whether we are good or bad or whether we are a relation or a stranger.”So, Sufi saints did not differentiate between rich and poor, castes, religions or sects. For them, all were creations of God and thus welcome and worthy of being loved.

An inclusive design: Yasmin Kidwai

Sufism for Yasmin means a sense of ease and that’s reflected in the clothes she designs

For filmmaker-cum-designer-cum-politician Yasmin Kidwai, Sufism is a way of life. “It is all about inclusivity; it’s a concept of love and peace and that’s how we have been brought up at home. So it’s part of who I am,” explains Yasmin who admires Rumi, Shams and Khusro. Her constituency in Delhi, coincidentally, is part of the Nizamuddin area, which pleases her. “Instead of me choosing Sufism, I’d say Sufism chose me,” she smiles.

Yasmin’s interest in fashion design came from her mother’s business of designing and retailing clothes from a boutique and various trunk shows in India and Pakistan. “So I was always used to wearing stuff especially designed for me, and my interest in clothes came as a natural transition,” she explains.

“A Sufi neither puts himself in brackets nor others into brackets, and that’s my philosophy behind the designs” —Yasmin Kidwai

Besides, as a filmmaker travelling extensively across India, she’d always collect weaves, and in her films she’s worked with a lot of craftsmen. “I’ve done a TV series on them and then I was asked to do a capsule collection for the Neemrana store while filming there three years ago. I did that for fun and it was an immediate sellout,” recalls Yasmin. “That’s when I decided to come up with my label, House of Qidwa.”

The label, Yasmin decided, would be a reflection of herself. As it happened, while defining her brand, she was also working on a film called Purdah, about a woman’s relationship with her veil. “People associate purdah with Muslim women, but there is a ghoonghat, a concept of modesty not restricted to Islam,” she explains. “Since I’m a documentary filmmaker, I had to get deeper and deeper into the subject and then I realised one’s choice of clothes is about freedom.”

That insight, which also, at a very basic level, reflects the concept of Sufism as she understands it, went into the definition of Yasmin’s label.

The cuts of her creations, for instance, reflect this Sufi philosophy. “There’s a certain sense of freedom in how you’d wear these clothes and how they’d fit on you,” she explains. So her kurtas can be worn also as dresses, and loose pants can be paired with T-shirts and tunics and so on.

“I believe simplicity and individuality let you stand out, and Sufism for me means a sense of ease,” says Yasmin. “A Sufi neither puts himself into brackets nor others into brackets and that’s my philosophy behind the designs.”

A mystic cauldron: Rana Safvi

Rana feeds people every time she goes to the Matia Mahal area of Old Delhi

For historian, author and blogger Rana Safvi, who specialises in food and culture, Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam and a Sufi is a person who has emptied his/her heart of ego and negativity, and filled it with remembrance of God.

“My cooking is influenced by the tenets of Islam. In fact the first stage of Sufism is shariat (following of Islamic rules),” Rana explains. “In Islam, food is divided into halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden), and I am very careful about that. Secondly, wastage is frowned upon in the Quran, so that’s something I avoid. And third, a meal is started by invoking the name of God and ends with a small prayer of gratitude.”

Asceticism is a very important aspect of Sufism, and most of the saints ate very frugal meals, often fasting through the day and praying through the night. Food was an expression of spirituality and communal living, and was distributed for charity.

“Langars, which are such an integral part of a gurudwara, were started in Sufi khanqahs,” says Rana. “Sharing food is a very important aspect of Islam, and thus Sufism. I try and feed people every time I go to the Matia Mahal area of Old Delhi, where one finds people waiting for a meal outside the restaurants.”

“Since people of all faiths and religions come to dargahs, the food served is vegetarian” —Rana Safvi

Rana, whose blog Hazrat-e-Dilli is a huge hit, is a firm believer in Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb. Sufi food, she says, is mostly focused on dal and khichdi and gruel, foods meant to be shared by all, with halwa for sweetness. Since people of all faiths and religions come to dargahs, the food served is vegetarian.

“As a mother, I draw a lot of inspiration from the life of Bibi Zulaikha or Maa Saheba,” says Rana. “She was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s mother, who brought up her children in the face of great adversity. At times there was no food in the house, and then she’d tell her son, ‘Nizam! Today, we are the guests of Allah.’”

The author yearns to achieve that kind of tawakkul or faith that makes one content in every condition, however adverse. “I often go to her shrine in Adchini to pray and to have the langar of dal and rice that is provided there.”

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From HT Brunch, December 2, 2018

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First Published: Dec 01, 2018 20:49 IST