My article for Aman ki Asha, “hope for peace”, the India-Pakistan peace initiative launched in 2010 by two media giants on either side, the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India
The morning of Wednesday, 22 June 2016 dawned in New York with shattering news of the target killing of Amjad Sabri in broad daylight across the world in Karachi. The tragedy, devastating for millions of fans, was a personal blow for the legendary classical music maestro Naseeruddin Saami and his sons, on tour in the USA towards the end of their first ever visit to America.
Sabri was one of them – the dwindling tribe of Pakistan’s gharanas or clans of Sufi singers, custodians of a centuries-old classical tradition and art form.
“Believe me, we didn’t feel like performing that night,” Rauf the eldest of the four Saami brothers tells me me as we stand, united by sorrow in the sunlit atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, just north of Boston. His younger brother Urooj nods.
“I saw him grow up before my eyes,” says their father Naseeruddin Saami quietly when we meet later.
A slim, tall, ascetic looking man, he points upwards as do his strongly built sons when asked how they feel about going back to Karachi. I sense the steely resolution and determination behind his frailty, and their sparkling eyes.
Everyone has to die, they say philosophically. Life and death lie in the Almighty’s hand and they give themselves to His protection as they head back to Pakistan. There, they will visit Amjad Sabri’s bereaved family to offer their condolences and deliver an award for him from the City of New York that he was unable to receive during his visit to the USA.
Hearing about his murder, their initial response was to cancel the event that evening. It speaks for the courage and determination of all those involved that they rallied round.
“I am going to ask them to sing ‘Bhar de Jholi’ in tribute to the Sabri tradition,” said Dr Asmi Jamil, one of the organisers of the New York event held as part of the ongoing Sacred Music Festival series.
They also performed at an inter-faith open-air street Iftar at Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights, in honour of Amjad Sabri organised by the community organisation SUKHI (Social Uplift, Knowledge and Folk Initiative) that partners with the City of New York.
In Boston later, they also dedicated their sold-out performance at PEM to their fallen brother.
“Pakistan and Islam have lost a great asset,” Rauf told the audience in the packed auditorium. “There will be many musical events… we dedicate this to Amjad Sabri.”
The Boston concert was part of PEM’s ongoing “Imagine, South Asia” series featuring “Intersections“, a stunning installation by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha that will run through October 16, 2016.
Introducing the event, PEM’s Indian and South Asian art curator Sona Datta noted that the performers are direct descendants of a disciple of the great Amir Khusrau who founded of the Qawwali tradition in the 13th century. As such, she pointed out, they “represent the endurance of an 800-year-old musical tradition from the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.” (See her introduction below).
Thanking those who enabled the event, Datta made special mention of Indian origin professionals Dr Mahesh and Smita Patel, seated in the front row of the packed auditorium.
“We have been supporting the Museum for 40 years,” said Dr Mahesh Patel when we spoke later.
Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami – “one of Pakistan’s greatest living vocalists” to quote Sona Datta — opened the concert with a soulful Khayaal rendered with his trademark delicacy.
His meditative piece in the Raag Asavari, a melody of the morning expressing yearning and prayer “showcases some of the ‘lost’ micro-tones of 9th century Baghdad within an Indian melodic framework”.
Joining him for the first time on the tabla was Providence-based Nitin Mitta, originally from Bangalore. The young tabla nawaz has performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall in New York.
The Saami brothers performed a rousing medley of qawwalis giving the audience a taste of this devotional but also secular classical music form – devotional chants merge Sufi tropes with folk legends of Radha and Krishna.
Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami and his group received a prolonged standing ovation from the mixed audience that included several Pakistani and Indian professionals living in the area.
The response to the event was “unbelievable,” says Smita Patel who also serves on the board of PEM’s Overseers. “So many people are emailing me to say how much they loved it.”
A former dancer and dance teacher, she talks about the need to go beyond politics, narrow national identities, and religious labels like “Hindu”, “Muslim”.
“Art is about humanity. Sufism is part of India, part of a tradition that goes back centuries. And Sufism is everywhere. It is about humanity.”
Humanity is, after all, the common thread that runs through the arts, music, dance and cultures of the world.
Amir Khusrau and the roots of Qawwali
Introduction by Sona Datta, Indian and South Asian art curator, Peabody Essex Museum
The roots of Qawwali, the devotional chant-music of Muslim South Asia, can be traced all the way back to the 13th century, to the “culture lab” of sorts set up in Delhi by the poet, linguist and exuberant polymath Ameer Khusrau. This is the man who is credited with inventing the sitar, the tabla, and the modern Hindi language as we know it.
What might have brought about such a rich cultural flowering in the mind of a single individual?
From hagiographies, court records, and his own poetic output, we can reclaim a sense of Ameer Khusrau’s social and historical context.
Khusrau was a courtier and nobleman, a Turk by ancestry who was born in India some two hundred years after the heterogenous subcontinent was first conquered by Muslim invaders from the West. Growing up in such a country, and at such a time, Khusrau was surrounded by the fruits – and the terrors – of cultural contradiction. Here he was, a Muslim by birth, an aristocrat who knew Arabic, Persian and Turkish. But he was also a son of the Indian soil, a devotee of India’s musical and folk poetic traditions. How might he reconcile these disparate strands of his identity?
As for many people who lived in the Golden Age of Islam, the answer presented itself in the form of Sufism — the belief that the Quran’s universal message of peace and love was wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the contours of every human tradition. Thus Khusrau set about studying and deconstructing and merging the cultures of Islam with those of the Indian subcontinent.
In the course of his experiments, he invented two new musical forms: Khayaal, which is taken from the Arabic word “Takhayyul”, and means to “imagine” or to “improvise”; and Qawwali, which is taken from the Arabic word “Qaul”, which means “saying” or “utterance”. The first is a meditative form, the distillation of Khusraw’s inquiries into the nature of melody and its capacity for expressing human emotions; the second is an ecstatic devotional form, and encapsulates Khusrau’s unification of Hindu and Islamic metaphors for the attainment of an elusive, now-sacred, now-secular love.