Can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but I always carry it around – this idea that the body is the soul. The body is all you have. It is the body that creates, the body that feels, the body that runs away, the body that gives up. You cannot lose more than a body. The body is ultimate.
This idea is reinforced every time I listen to good music. Being musically illiterate, (well, almost), I respond physically to most singing. In fact, my tastes can be summed up in one line: either the music should move me, or it should make me move. If it does neither, it’s not my sort of thing. But if it does, if it moves me, I feel it like food, like fabric, like flowers. Like, my gut responds to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Like, my mouth responds to the peppy fifties filmy songs. Like, my chest responds to Begum Akhtar and Farida Khanum.
Sain Zahoor… I think the back of my head and eyes have decided that he bears a little of that magic. This man, whom the world is comparing to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, this man who sings Sufiana kalam, they say, like the sufis did; this man was singing on the last day of the (awfully named) Hungry Hearts theatre festival. And I was listening. At first, with my eyes wide open. For he walked onto the stage carrying an ektara festooned with bright strings of multicoloured…. what is the word? They are like bunches of colourful parandas that village girls wear in their braids. Like the strings that auto-rickshaws in small towns will hang from their rear-view mirrors. Rarely have these strings acquired such brazen dignity as they did on that ektara.
We’d waited long enough for his performance, but the wait itself had been worthwhile. The first part of the evening, in fact, was absolutely enthralling. Sabir Sain and Abdur Ghafur Sain were on the dhol, in a jugalbandi with Warsi Ballu on the tabla. All I can say about it was that the drumming pulsed in my blood and despite the freezing air-conditioning, I felt warm. If I’d been in an open space instead of being confined to a seat in a packed auditorium, I’d have gotten up to whirl.
[The singer that followed this piece, Mohammad Hanif Multani was, well, alright. I suppose. He was followed by Inayat Ali Beli, who was fun. The energy was tremendous, and the audience was happily clapping along.]
And then, finally, Sain Zahoor walked onto the stage. With strings of ghungroos wrapped round both ankles, carrying his ektara in both arms, like you carry a sleeping child. Dressed in a shimmering, tinselled, red shalwaar-kameez, and a black turban, and quiet confidence. And he began to sing. And my eyes closed, my neck threw itself against the back of the seat; in minutes, I was filled with questions. About purity, about purpose. What is the purpose of this man here, his voice? What is the purpose of colour? Of sound? Of beauty? Of language itself? What are these words he is singing?
Bulleh Shah.. singing of dancing to please the beloved, and losing his caste, because a dancing girl has no caste. Bulle Shah… singing of black – his black beloved, the black letters of the Quran, and who wants the fair ones?
My heart is sold to words, and I only understand Punjabi in bits and snatches. Bulle Shah makes me work very hard. But Zahoor is making is easier – the words reach me, and even if they didn’t, they wouldn’t need to. His voice is translating them for me into a language that doesn’t beg understanding.
The accompanists weren’t helping. The harmonium was almost drowning out the ektara, the tabla and flute were irritants. I wanted them to stop, and when a stranger’s voice yelled out, between songs – ‘Sirf ektara!’ – it became obvious that that many others did, too.
This is a voice that does not need, and perhaps, does not even brook, any company. It is a voice you want to be alone with. Perhaps, it is not even a voice meant for auditorium and stage. It is a voice that calls to you as if from over a distance, and stops you, inside your head. It is the voice of a wandering singer. The voice of a sain.
Between verses, with a ‘ha!’, or is it a ‘haq!’, the voice snaps its fingers at you. That single syllable, that half-word is like a tap on the knee, and then he stamps his feet and begins to dance in circles, ghungroos filling the room.
And then, Zahoor is singing… Allah Hu…. Hu…. Hu….
And I’m wondering – what is the significance of this? All the sufi singers sing it so – ‘Allah Hu…’ In your prayers, you are supposed to say ‘allah hu akbar’. God is great. But they stop at ‘allah hu.’. God is. And sometimes, only ‘Hu…’ Just the verb. Is. What is this ‘is’? Is it an assertion of being, of existing, and thereby, of everything else?
Each time my mind wandered, with each drawn out, gently warbling ‘hu…’, Zahoor’s voice would drag me back. Like, being tugged at with muslin threads. Like, being woven in and out of a pattern. Of the here, and now. And forever.
Is he like Nusrat sahab? I don’t know. Not really. The great qawwal’s voice had something dry and crackling in it. I never heard him in concert, but even over the stifling distance of a CD or tape, even then, his voice would touch me like a fist. Zahoor is different. Like, something firm and baked.
And finally, when the accompanists are persuaded to stop, finally, after Zahoor has touched his fingers to his eyes and extended his hands to his listeners, and bowed, he is persuaded to sing one last song. There is his voice and his fingers on the ektara, and you can only draw in your breath once, deeply, and exhale.