From which direction of the street is dawn appearing…?

It takes us to the other end of reason: a space of abandonment, where you realize it is time for the world to leave the violence of history behind and embrace the way gods embrace in Abida’s tongue

Manash Bhattacharjee Delhi 

I don’t remember which ghazal of Abida Parveen I heard first. It might have been the popular Bulle Shah song, Tere Ishq Nachaya. But the first lasting impression came from the ghazals in Muzaffar Ali’s Raqs-e-Bismil. I had never heard such a voice before. Her voice was a flood emanating from a mouth. It flooded my ears. As she uttered one word after another, you could hear the whole string of words drowning in her voice. She was devouring the words as well as throwing them into the microphone, into the air, into the world. As I kept hearing, I could not distinguish between singing and chanting. I realised it was her Sufi style of rendering, where every song addressed to the beloved was also a song addressed to God. Sometimes, she would bring in different gods together and merge them.

In Kabir’s Mann Laago Yaar Fakiri Mein, she sings a line, Pahan puje Hari mile, to main puju pahar (If worshipping an idol one finds Hari, I will worship a hill), where she follows the word ‘Hari’ with an interlude of ‘Allah’, and you are immediately struck by and sucked into a shared spiritual cosmos where two names echoing two different horizons of history and belief get strung together. Unlike the repellent borders of desh bhakti, the bhakti of the Sufi has no borders.

It was a cold winter evening when my Kashmiri friend, Najeeb, unexpectedly arrived from England at my hostel room in JNU. Even before we discussed life and spirits, he said, “I got Abida’s new album on Faiz.” It was a poetic event, with Abida rendering Gul Huyi Jaati Hai as intoxicatingly as the sun sinking on the horizon. I got goosebumps when Abida sang: Yeh khoon ki mahek hai ke lab-e-yaar ki khushboo/Kis raah ki janib se saba aati hai dekho… (Is this the aroma of blood or the fragrance of the beloved’s lips/From which direction of the street is dawn appearing).

When Abida sings Faiz, the Sufi spirituality in her voice doesn’t disturb the edge of Faiz’s revolutionary fervour; rather, it enhances that fervour. Without sharing Faiz’s atheism, Abida could perhaps still identify with the poet’s irreverence.

In the same fashion, while singing Ghalib, Abida wouldn’t have felt uncomfortable with the poet’s ironies about belief and God, despite the constraints between Ghalib’s self-affirming poetics and the Sufi’s self-dissolving spirit.

The strength of the modern Sufi spirit lies in its ability to encompass the worlds of both faith and atheism. It is possible because the Sufi spirit thrives on embalming the wounds of history. The quarrel between faith and disbelief does not deter the Sufi from engaging with the deeper historical problem today: the secular, materialist violence of the faithless as much as the faithful. Being a Sindhi from Pakistan, Abida would be aware of every cross-sectional story of that violence. In an interview, she said external differences are real and visible, but her desire is to address the invisible heart of  that conflict.

What history makes impossible to mend, Abida seeks to dissolve through her music: two strands of religious and nationalist fanaticism across borders and sometimes within the same border. Abida’s music seeks to render that border immaterial by insisting on the desire for ‘the possible’. When reasons for the possible become bleak, desire itself becomes the possible. Abida drives it home, singing Faiz: Nahi nigah mein manzil toh justaju hi sahi/ Nahi visal mayassar toh aarzoo hi sahi (If destination is not in sight, let it be desire/If meeting isn’t possible, let it be longing). Even if Faiz’s sense of fraternity may not be Abida’s, they wouldn’t come in each other’s way, as both dream of open and not closed fraternities.

What history makes impossible to mend, Abida seeks to dissolve through her music: two strands of religious and nationalist fanaticism across borders and sometimes within the same border

I finally watched Abida’s performance in Delhi during the winter of 2010. I was totally unprepared for the impact of hearing her live. Her body was a fountain of ragas, from where a devastating voice stretched the limits of the amplifier. There was nothing sectarian or religious about her performance. The spirit emanating from her body drew the crowd towards her. I saw how people rushed to touch her. As if she embodied a shrine.

But what did her body signify? Was she a healing musical resource? Or was she an exotic creature of spiritual fantasy? Or did she represent a missing historical possibility in the social lives of the elite and middle class?

Abida’s singing definitely opened up the realization of a void, paradoxically filled  by her earnest and powerful singing. But, what grounds this ecstasy of experience while hearing Abida?

I think there is an intense realization of the opening up of a new space, beyond the prosaic constraints of being a mere citizen. Abida’s singing takes us to what is unsolved within the secular spaces of our existence as modern subjects. It takes us to the other end of reason: a space of abandonment, where the elevating experience of hearing overwhelms you, where you realize it is time for the world to leave the violence of history behind and embrace the way gods embrace in Abida’s tongue. Her singing is cathartic in that sense; but the healing isn’t easy.

As Abida, singing Khusro, tells us about love: Jo ubhra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar (Who surfaces, sinks, who sinks, crosses over). Without abandonment, there is no escape from the borders of reason, and there is also no love.    

The writer is a political science scholar and writer/poet living in Delhi.