Opinion

Pakistan’s attempts to secularise qawwali are unnecessary – it has always been pluralistic

A secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.

One of the characteristics of the modern weltanschauung (worldview) is to identify religion as distinct from culture.

Islam, and Islam in Pakistan, doesn’t escape this bifurcation either. One popular example is qawwali.

The recent secularisation of qawwali – the shift away from Sufi dargahs to concert halls and recording labels – has led to a re-imagining of qawwali as expressive of the cultural traditions of Pakistan and (North) India, related only marginally and incidentally to the religion in whose cradle it developed.

Such a secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.

The Chishti order, the most prominent Sufi brotherhood in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, has long celebrated the normativity of qawwali as an expression of divine love. Annemarie Schimmel has noted the phenomenon in the Mystical Dimensions of Islam as “the most widely known expression of mystical life in Islam.” American author Leonard Lewisohn, in his article “The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama in the Persian Sufi Tradition”, points out that qawwali is stressed upon by some South Asian Sufis not only as legally permissible (halal), but as a required religious practice (wajib).

Inherent religious pluralism

Qawwali also has a long history of engaging with multiple religious traditions. The religious landscape of North India and Pakistan provides a literary context of diverse religious motifs, metaphors and symbols.

Such a pluralistic approach is evident in a representative qawwali, Kanhayya (Krishna), composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm and performed by Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz. The qawwal sings of his love for Krishna and relates a heart-wrenching account of the afflictions he endures through separation with his beloved.

Kahuun kyaa tere bhuulne ke main vaarii 
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii 

What can I say, even for your neglect 
I could give my life. 
Do you remember me a little, 
O’ my tormenting Kanhayya! 

Radha-Krishna as the archetype of spiritual love is based on the 12th century lyrical epic, Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord), composed by the saint-poet Shri Jayadeva of Bengal, and is considered a religious work in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

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It describes the seeker’s longing for the divine through the idiom of human love and courtship. Metaphorically, the epic narrates the yearning of the devotee to achieve union with the beloved.

It corresponds roughly, in terms of spiritual symbolism, poetic beauty, and literary influence, with the Layla-Majnun trope in Persian poetic tradition.

Payyaan parii mahaadev ke jaakar 
Tonaa bhii kar kar haarii 
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii 

I threw myself at the feet of Mahadev; 
I even tried wizardry but lost. 
Do you remember me a little, 
O’ my tormenting Kanhayya! 

Expanding mental horizons

In the popular Muslim imagination, Hindu beliefs and symbols have sometimes served to illustrate ‘inferior’ forms of belief. In the Sufi tradition, however, such symbols were often inverted to evoke the highest form of love, ishq-i-haqiqi.

Sufis favoured paradoxical and perplexing statements and symbols in poetry and music to encourage listeners to transcend the norms and conventions. Such hermeneutical exercises share some parallels with the tradition of Koan in Zen Buddhism – Koan is a paradoxical statement or question intended as a rhetorical tool to guide the seeker towards a higher level of Selfhood. Perplexity (hayra) in the Sufi context seeks to de-stabilise pre-supposed categories – the understanding of Islam learnt by rote.

Sufis have long criticised this type of adherence to Islam limited to exteriorised and formal aspects of the religion. The abandon with which Sufis treat Islamic rituals and forms has been misinterpreted to support a view of spirituality, or Sufism itself, disassociated with religion. Through such daring and critical statements, Sufis entreated the Muslims to transcend these forms through spiritual realisation – the ascending stages of human perfection resulting in proximity to God.

One can only transcend what one has mastered, and these Sufis sought to master the external religious forms to access their inner reality, which as veil, al-hijab in Islam and maya in Hinduism, at once hides and manifests.

Krishna in qawwali rests on the paradox of religious forms, where an Islamic tradition valourises Hindu forms and symbols. Such performances of perplexity signaled the move to de-exceptionalise Islam in the treatment of other religious traditions, to the ire of stricter theologians. Sufis exhorted the listeners to see beyond forms (surat) to the underlying spiritual meanings (ma’na) – towards the realisation of an inner kinship of religions.

Hindu symbolism in qawwali signifies, above all, the possibility of many religious paths leading to the summit of salvation and enlightenment. Qawwali seeks to guide the listener beyond the multiplicity of religious forms to the underlying unity at the heart of religions.

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.