At this year’s edition of Sama’a: The Mystic Ecstasy—a scholarly presentation on philosophy, screenings of two documentaries inspired by the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, a concert on Bollywood Sufi music and an eclectic performance of Sufi poetry by artistes from across the country.

By Ornella D’Souza

In Urdu, Sama’a means ‘listening to’. At Sama’a: The Mystical Ecstasy, the annual celebration of Sufi music traditions at the NCPA, the goal is to orchestrate a mehfil in which artistes and audiences can reach a transcendental realm so that the human soul may connect with divine love. Ghazals, qawwalis, kafis, among other forms, are some ways in which the poetry of Sufi mystics like Rumi, Amir Khusrau and Lal Dedh is evoked, recited and presented to the audience. We speak to Sanskrit scholar and orator Dhanashree Lele, the eclectic Indian folk band Maati Baani and star vocalist, Javed Ali to find out what to expect at Sama’a 2024.

Philosophical strains

For her talk titled Sufiana Safar, Dhanashree Lele will elucidate Sufi philosophy and draw similarities between Sufism, Vedanta philosophy and Bhakti, along with excerpts of Sufiana kalam (devotional poetry) by bards, prophets, intellects, mystics and minstrels from across the globe. Noted for her discourses on spiritual literature in Marathi and Sanskrit, Lele says, “Both Sufi sampradaya (tradition) and Vedanta philosophy believe that God is within us, not outside us. And that we must find ways, by conducting experiments within us, to seek the divine. Luminaries like Kabir, Bulle Shah and Adi Shankaracharya believed that you must not get lost in worldly dualities of happiness and sorrow, but always seek the Supreme power in everything.” She expounds her point by quoting this verse:

Zarre zarre mein usi ka noor hai
Jhaank khud mein woh na tujhse door hai
Ishq hai usse toh sabse ishq kar
Is ibaadat ka yahi dastoor hai.

[His light permeates each and every particle
Look within yourself, he is not far from you
If you love him, then love everyone
As these are the rules of prayers to him.]

“These four lines encompass the whole concept of finding God within. Just as any Krishna bhakt will say, there’s Krishna in everyone,” she says.

Lele will demonstrate how ishq is the basis of the poetry in all three traditions. “Sufism is man’s lamentation about his separation from God. It says there is a veil between us and the Supreme Power, and in this life, we must remove that veil. This is also the crux of Madhura bhakti in Vedanta philosophy, the most intense form of devotion to God.” This love, explains Lele, falls within two broad categories: Ishq-e-Majazi (worldly love) and Ishq-e-Haqiqi (spiritual love). “The words in Sufi poetry and songs are of a dual nature. They sound like utterances that could be by both, a lover and a devotee. In his poem ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya’, Bulle Shah uses the word ‘piya’ to address his guru, not a paramour. Much of Sufi sampradaya celebrates the love between guru and shishya.”


Sound beyond borders

Hindustani classical vocalist Nirali Kartik and composer/music producer Kartik Shah, the husband wife duo of the band Maati Baani, have, over the years, collaborated with more than 200 artistes from 30 countries. They have named their concert Ishq Fakira Da, which translates to ‘a wandering minstrel madly in love’. “This phrase is from a Baba Farid poem that signifies a certain carelessness in the being, the kind that comes with being in love,” says Nirali. The duo will pay tribute to centuries-old poems by Rumi, Kabir, Bulle Shah, Mirabai and Baba Farid with compositions that will follow a geographical course with a storyline connecting north India to the regions beyond, encompassing Sufi traditions across India. For instance, playback singer Aashima Mahajan will extol Lal Dedh in Kashmiri Sufi andaaz, while Kutch Sufi folk singer Mooralala Marwada will perform in Sindhi Sufi style. The band will also perform some of their original compositions for the first time.

Staying true to Maati Baani’s unique repertoire of fusing Indian classical and folk music with world sounds, Ishq Fakira Da will use Indian instruments such as jodiya pawa or algoza (double flute) paired with a violin and string quartet, and performances by French saxophonist Madhav Haridas, who also dabbles in Persian instruments. “We want the songs to have a grand sound and textured layers. To achieve a unique setlist, we have dived into some less explored material,” says Kartik. However, certain popular songs made it to the line-up because these highlight a specific musical genre. Like Khusrau’s ‘Ae Ri Sakhi’. “As an Indian classical singer, I enjoyed bringing his poetry to the stage in Sufi style,” says Nirali, who resonates with Mirabai, for her fierce independence and free spirit; traits that a section of women still find aspirational.

Movements like Sufism are beyond religious boundaries. “For me, Sufi means just being in love with anything that makes me happy. Giving yourself completely to something that you love, while working on the ego and constantly evolving to feel connected to a higher power,” says Nirali. “For that matter, I consider myself a Sufi of music.”


Soulful core

Javed Ali—known for his Bollywood hit songs ‘Srivalli’, ‘Ishaqzaade’, ‘Tum Tak’, ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ and the more recent, ‘Chal Ve Watna’—began performing with his father Hamid Hussain, a noted qawwali singer, in childhood. He received training in Hindustani classical music and ghazal gayaki from ghazal exponent Ghulam Ali, and later in gratitude, even assumed his guru’s last name. His first brush with Sufiana music was in 2009 when A. R. Rahman asked him to sing ‘Arziyan’ for the movie Delhi-6, which catapulted his then fledgling career in Bollywood playback singing. “Rahman saab initially wanted a Pakistani singer to sing it. I was at the studio, recording ‘Jashn-e-Bahaaraa’ (Jodhaa Akbar), when Rahman saab told me, ‘We have one more song for you.’ He showed me this composition, and I sang in my normal andaaz. But Rahman sir wanted the Sufiana andaaz, which I had never attempted. He then helped me develop it, insisting that I sing with a fuller, deeper sound and throw of voice. When I sang it again, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehraji, who was also present, said he no longer had second thoughts about who should sing ‘Arziyan’.”

According to Ali, this ‘Sufi voice’ got him wide appreciation. “It became known as my style.” His other Sufi-inspired song that was well received is the 2011 ‘Kun Faya Kun’ (Rockstar), again composed by Rahman. The composer made Ali do the wazu (ablution) and wear a taqiyah (skullcap) to record the song in front of just one burning candle with all the studio lights switched off. “Rahman saab tried to create the right atmosphere to establish that divine connection, and the asar (result) is evident in the song. The song felt like a prayer while singing it. Jaise ki namaz padh rahe the (as if offering namaz). Even now, I cover my head onstage for spiritual songs.”

Despite doing regular riyaz (practice) and hitting the right notes, a performance of Sufiana music can feel amiss without one ingredient. The vocalist, says Ali, must have ruhaniyat or soulfulness, to sound ethereal and thereby connect to the listener’s soul. Songs by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen have that quality, he says. “That is the crux of Sufiana music. Otherwise, you are just singing the notes, showing off your musical prowess. Anyone can sing the right tune, but ruhaniyat is God-given. When that happens, the words and the composition flow intuitively.”


This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of the On Stage.