It was the perfect setting for an evening of Sufi music. A full moon rose through the branches of a peepul tree, illuminating the stage. Subhomoy Bhattacharya touched his ears in reverence to his gurus, and began to sing. The concert began with an alaap in raag puriya kalyan. The first song of the evening was based on the Sufi poetry of Khusro, praising Nizamuddin Auliya, a 13th-century saint of the Chishti Order. Bhattacharya, who had flown in for the performance from Kolkata, was accompanied by musicians on the tabla, tanpura and sarangi.
Increasingly, Hindustani classical music finds itself restricted to a niche audience. Urban audiences have to be coaxed into listening and engaging with the tradition, something made possible through musical events like the Kabir Festival.
Bhattacharya was performing at the seventh edition of the festival in Mumbai. Between January 12 and 15, organisers held classical music concerts across 14 venues in the city, including a bookstore in Fort, an open-air amphitheatre in Bandra and a garden in Borivali. Musicians, poets, singers, dancers and storytellers from across the country gathered to interpret the philosophy of Kabir, whose poetry influenced the Bhakti Movement.
The Kabir Festival was born in 2011 and is coordinated by Falguni Desai and a team of 16 committee members. Desai said the festival was run with the help of volunteers, all music lovers themselves. “We make no profits from the festival,” she added. Each of the artists invited translates the core ideas of Kabir’s teachings – love, brotherhood and compassion – through their art.
A Kolkata-based Hindustani classical singer, Bhattacharya was the perfect addition to the festival this year. He performed on the festival’s first day, at the Sangeet Mahabharati academy, and then on the final day at Kandivali. His performance was titled The Sufi Voice in Hindustani Classical Music. As the 46-year-old explained to his audience, the two traditions of Sufi influence in Hindustani classical music are deeply intertwined. “Hindustani classical music has its roots in the qaul and qalwana oral forms that used to be sung in dargahs,” he said.
“I am primarily a khayal singer,” Bhattacharya added. “I come from a traditional background, having devoted my life to studying with the best gurus I could train under.” Bhattacharya’s last mentor was the exponent of the Gwalior gharana, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan Saheb.
The Hindustani classical song form Khayal came from the Persian word khayalat, or thoughts, and was initially sung as a paean without a raag. “Khayal is attributed to Amir Khusro, the Sufi mystic and poet,” he said. “In the 16th century, the bhakti, or devotional songs of Kabir, began to be interpreted in the Khayal form, where raags were blended to create a seamless fusion.”
Bhattacharya expanded on other musical forms, such as Trivat, a composition based on three features: sargam, bol and tarana (or pitch, words and harmony). He explained the Khusro-invented form as a classical singing style, which Khusro sang at the gatherings of Nizamuddin Auliya. “It is not heard on a platform such as this,” he said, indicating the mixed audience before him.
He entertained listeners with his rendition of another Sufi poem in ghanam raag, before concluding his performance with a song based on a Kabir poem. Baul artists Lakshman Das, Sheikh Noor Ali and Nitai Chandra Das appeared on stage after Bhattacharya’s performance, accelerating the tempo of the night with instruments like the khol drum, ghungroos and dotara.
“Sufi music is a routine of my life and so coming here to integrate the two forms and to perform has been a great experience for me,” Bhattacharya said.