Shrinkhla Sahai tracked the three day Sufi Sutra festival in Kolkata
The media and market have increasingly morphed into reverent grounds for the combination of mysticism and music. With images of whirling dervishes, trance-like states and soulful strains, Sufi music has emerged as a panacea for the ills of urban life. In fact, the current year has already witnessed four international sufi music festivals in the country.
In its second consecutive year, Sufi Sutra 2012 was organised by Banglanatak Dot Com in Kolkata. A social enterprise formed in 2000, Banglanatak Dot Com focuses on developing community-led initiatives based on an intangible cultural heritage. The festival was also an annual celebration of its ‘Art for Life’ initiative which has been geared towards empowering marginalised community artists in West Bengal. Bringing together artistes from Azerbaijan, Denmark, Egypt, Hungary, Morocco, Delhi, Kashmir and West Bengal, the festival sought to present a ‘global perspective’ on Sufi music ranging from ancient, modern and folk to contemporary. Apart from the evening concerts, the festival also featured music workshops during the day, craft stalls, exhibition, shops, and a Q&A corner where people could interact with musicians. Along with the workshops, three akhras (musical groups) of Bauls and Fakirs from Bengal and Nirguns from Bihar also held baithaks where any onlooker could listen in and join.
The first day opened with the morning workshop by Elkawmeya Folkloric Music Troupe from Egypt. Explaining the tradition of Sufism in Egypt, the musicians presented a mix of folk and contemporary repertoire with unique musical instruments like rebec, reed pipe, cawala and arghoul. The ensemble from Azerbaijan continued the instrumental exploration further with an introduction to ancient musical instruments like chang, chagana, barbat, gopuz, santur, rubab, rud, chogur, gnun, ney, daf and nuzha. They emphasised that the instruments were part of the cultural life of medieval Azerbaijan and their effort is to revive the tradition. The Kashmir Music Society presented folk, Sufiyana and Rouf genres. They were joined by the Nirguni group from Bihar for an impromptu session as they found connecting points and similar tunes with the Kashmiri artistes.
The vast green lawns of Mohar Kunj were the perfect venue for the opening act in the evening concert by the Bauls and Fakirs from Nadia and Murshidabad. The carefree abandon and bliss of the performers set the tone for the festival. The intermingling of genres like Baul music and Qawwali was most interesting.
SÖNDÖRGÖ group from Hungary, founded in 1995, performs Southern Slav folk music. Drawing on the traditional repertoire, they presented a lively array of fast-paced songs with snippety and staccato beats. The musicians were joined by singer and actor Katalin Tompos. Marouane Hajji et L’Ensemble Akhawane from Morocco presented the concluding act of the evening with the Tijani and Skali style of Sufi music.
Although poorly attended, the workshop on the second day developed into celebratory jugalbandis between the various groups and akhras as everyone joined in. The evening opened to the sombre strains by the Orient West Choir from Denmark. Gregorian chant music, fused with Middle Eastern musical idioms and Hebrew and Jewish texts initiated a solemn mood. Followed by the high notes and entrancing vocalism of the Azerbaijan group, the evening concluded with renderings of Qawwalis of Amir Khusrau by the Nizami Bandhu from Delhi. The final day featured performances by the artistes from Egypt and Kashmir.
The festival was seamlessly smooth and well-organised, yet the grand scale also diluted the austerity that is organically connected with the concept of Sufism. That also makes one wonder, considering that Sufi music is in wide circulation now from international festivals, to Sufiyana music in Bollywood, to Sufi rock, is it as innately connected with the philosophy of the knowledge system we know as Sufism or is it limited primarily to being a style of music? While Banglanatak Dot Com has succeeded remarkably in bringing together Sufi strands from all over the world, it would also be important to promote younger artistes from the communities they have been working with to showcase artistic talent and facilitate sustainable livelihoods for community performers through such festivals.