Monday, February 8, 2010

in the basti hazrat

8 feb 2010, new delhi

What I thought was hidden in mystery
I found in the marketplace.
(Sufi Qwali)

Delhi is as crazy as ever, but at least I know the place now and can plan around it. I got one night at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (thanks to Michaela, that is), which was a very nice quiet place with three light vegetarian meals for a very reasonable price. Now I am back at the same YWCA Hostel that I have stayed at four other times. It was a lot closer to the Sufi gathering that I came for, and near all kinds of other things like the Railway Station, Connaught Place and, as it happens, the Cathedral.

It worked out that I was going to be finishing my time down south and wanting to head up north at the same time that this Urs gathering was taking place that some friends of mine from California were also going to be attending, particularly our friend the great singer Lori-Gitanjali Rivera with whom I have performed and recorded several times now. It is in honor of Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan. Some definitions will help: an "urs" is actually a wedding and is celebrated on the death anniversary of a Sufi Master who is now one with the Beloved. "Hazrat" is something like a saint or holy one; even "sufi" is an honorific title, not just an adjective. To regard someone as a "sufi" is as if to say he or she is an authentic mystic. Inayat Kahn (1882-1927) was a "great Sufi mystic who came to the Western world in 1910"--hence this particualr Urs was celebrating the centenary of that--"and lectured and taught there until his passing in 1927." He is particuarly known for his teaching in three areas: general teachings about the Sufi way, the "Unity of Religious Ideals," and "The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word." I knew of him already to some extent from the latter topic, as a matter fact somehow winding up with two copies of the same book. His legacy gave birth to several Sufi orders--The Sufi Universal Way, Sufi Movement, Sufi Order and the Ruhaniyat, to name the ones I learned about--which have not always gotten along well. This particular Urs was special in that the various groups collaborated to organize it, whereas in the past one or the other has done so alone. I had heard of this gathering before, but mainly as a music festival, and indeed there was a lot of music. But it wasn't advertised that way. It was simply a Sufi gathering, but a Sufi gathering, especially an urs, and especially that of Inayat Khan, would always have music. Sufism has traditionally used music as a "means of transmitting the essence of mystical insight" and in a particular way Hazrat Inyat Khan integrates music "with elements like sound and silence, vibration and the word, thoughts and inspiration... recomposing a musical concept extending beyond the tradition of time and culture." (Quotes from a description of the above mentioned book.)

I almost never have the correct concept in my head for what I am heading into... Gitanjali said we'd meet here, and I had all the information as to where it was taking place, but I had the wrong area of Delhi in my head and was imagining a huge auditorium like the Anaheim Convention Center and an enormous gathering of thousands of Sufis from all over the world, and when I got an e-mail from her saying "I'll see you there", I wrote back and said, "How will I ever find you?" to which I never got a reply. So I got an autorickshaw from the ashram, who took me right to the front door. It was being held in an area called Nizamuddin (that "z" is pronounced like a "j," by the way) in Basti Hazrat--"basti" meaning "neighborhood" and "hazrat" again meaning holy--so in the "holy neighborhood." I assume it is holy because there are three dargahs (a "dargah" is a tomb) in this little neighborhood: that of the great 13th century Sufi Nizammuddin, as well as that of Inayat Khan and that of his son, who was also a much beloved Sufi teacher, Valayat Khan, who only died in 2004 and was the immediate pir ("teacher") of many who were there at the gathering. The street stretching out either side is narrow and bustling, and I assume some elements of it haven't changed much since the 13th century when it was home to Nizamuddin himself. (I am told he is famous for meeting with even the most simple of his neighbors but refusing to meet with the emporer. And it is one of his students--I neglected to write his name down!--who is credited with inventing both the sitar and the tabla.) It seems to be pretty much a totally Muslim neighborhood. There were lots of chicken and pork shops, and Arabic script everywhere. (One of the guys I visited with explained to me that at one time Delhi was the center of Indian Sufism.) There wasn't an convention center in sight. Hazrat Inyat Khan's dargah is a small quadrangular cloister of sorts. After entering in under an arch, the tomb itself is on the second floor (which to an Indian, on the other hand, is actually called the first floor as opposed to the ground floor), and immediately to its right there is a performance hall for music and then the small music academy hall itself. The place is very well kept; I'm told it is funded by many of his Western followers and has grown to its present form from its original simple structure in recent times. The place where the actual tomb is, is covered with a gazebo and Arabic style stone worked grated walls surround it. On the back wall etched in black marble are six of his most famous prayers. It is a powerful space; when people enter they reverence the tomb, usually by kneeling and placing their head on it. Many folks go to simply sit near it and meditate. The one rule, as is typical of Muslims, is that one's feet should never be pointed at it, just as one's feet should never be pointed toward Mecca. (There are several great Sufi stories about that--perhaps you've heard them already. My favorite one ends with the Sufi asking, "Show me where Allah is not and I will point my feet there!")

Anyway, I walked into the performance hall where a presentation was about to begin and ran right into Gitanjali. There were probably only under 100 people there, and the crowd varied from day to day. This is India after all: Swami Atmananda who I met in Rishikesh some years ago was also there with one of his students (I didn't get a chance to speak with him; and I was delightfully surprised to see our friend Michael Giddings there as well, who is a good friend of Shantivanam (famed for playing Father Christmas when he's there) and one of the most dedicated members of the Bede Griffiths Sangha in England. Besides Gitanjali, there were several other folks from Santa Cruz including Radha's friend Junayd, who spoke to our Sangha once and leads the Universal Dances of Peace in Santa Cruz.

The musical performances alternated with presentations by various Sufi teachers from the different orders, but I'll just describe the music performances here. Friday evening after the simple but delicious dinner buffet there was a performance of some qwali singers right in the burial room itself. I believe it is the first time I have ever heard qwali music live. So powerful, and I hadn't realized how largely improvistory it is, with a leader shouting-singing out a line from a devotional poem and the rest of the singers echoing and repeating and doing variations . I didn't make it back until Saturday afternoon, in the midst of transfering from the ashram to the Y. Saturday afternoon we heard from some of the students from the academy there, young men all, starting from about six years old up to what seemed to be late teenagers. They were impressive, especially the first little guy we heard and the last older teenager who already had the confidence of a Bollywood star. What was most impressive to me was first of all to see these strapping young men learning their traditional classical music and making it look so cool, and then to see what reverence they showed their teachers, touching the feet of the teacher before beginning and after finishing each piece. Such a heritage! Saturday night there was a woman sitar master with an amazing tabla player (I was more fascinated by the latter).

After that to finish the day off an ensemble from Turkey called TUMATA played, led by a Dr Oruc Guvenc. They say they are dedicated to keeping alive the heritage of Turkish music in general, but what they played for us was all Sufi songs, "ilahis," a word I already know from Kabir Helminski. As a matter of fact, I recognized two of the songs immediately from Kabir and Camille's recording "Garden in the Flames," songs for which Kabir wrote new English words. They had three ouds, one saz, (all men who also all sang), plus two women singers who played small frame drums, I believe called a tar. At various times Dr Guvenc or another of the group also picked up a ney flute as well. They were tremendous. After the first three songs I said to myself, "Surely this must be what the music is heaven sounds like." The muted tones of the three ouds together, the gentle pulsation of the tars, and the blend of the unison voices, no one sticking out, no sharp corners anywhere, mesmerizing, soothing and kind of urgent at the same time. They went seamlessly from one song to another like a long medley with dhkr (some repetition of either the name of Allah or another phrase) in between, all the while. And from the third song on a woman wearing the white robes and tall hat of a dervish was whirling in the small space left her between the tomb, the crowd and the ensemble.

Sunday morning there was a breathtaking performance by a woman named Ruth Wieder Magan from the Theatre Company of Jeruslem called "Ancient Jewish Prayers from Israel and the Diaspora." She sang some of the melodies--"landino, hasidic and cantorial"--that she has set about collecting from archives and recordings, but she presented them in her own unique very visceral dramatic style. Her pieces were alternated by reading from the story of creation from the first chapter of the book of Genesis done by another woman with an obviously trained theatre voice. Both Gitanjalai and I immediately thought of how much our friend Shannon Frediani would have enjoyed her, since there is a similarity in style and execution. It was very well received, and people flocked around Ms Magan afterwards. (It was about that time I started imagining the kind of program I would put together if I were ever asked to such a gathering, by the way. I thought what John Pennington and I do would be very well received there as well.)

Sunday afternoon there was a performance titled "Western Spirituals and Gospel Music" by a young woman named Sonam Kalra who has studied both Western and Indan classical music traditions, but fell in love with the American style some years ago. Even as she explained it, it was quite a hybrid: a young Indian woman singing African American music that she learned in Singapore from an Australian teacher. She launched into some non-traditional songs as well, Sarah McLaughlin's "On the Wings of the Angels" and, what was quite a surprise, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." During her entire performance I must admit was wishing they had asked Lori to sing, but it was good to see the other side of the marriage of East and West, an Asian doing stylized Western music.

The last performance I attended was a rudra veena master with a mrdungam player. The veena is the stringed instrument, called the grandmother of the sitar, from the south of India. The rudra veena, unlike mine, has too large equal sized gourds top and bottom rather than the large body and the top gourd resonator. The most notable feature of the performance was this: There is in classical Indian music what's known as an "alaap," in which the soloist improvises on the raga in an unmetered way for time as an introduction before the other instruments, especially the rhythm instruments, join in. The alaap introduces the tonality, shows that the performer really knows it, "moves the sound around in the room a little," as I say, and, in a sense, invites the raga. I've heard it said that Western music has a tendency to state a theme and then restate it and then vary it and say it over and over again in many different ways, whereas Indian music dances around a theme, touching it and backing off and coming close again. I know that alaaps can sometimes last for quite a while, but I never knew how long: this one lasted an hour! (I timed it.) That was just the introduction, mind you, while the percussionist and the tambura player sat idly by. It went so long that when he was done the mrdagam player had to make a phone call to see if he could stay longer to play the rest of the raga.

When that performance was over, I was saturated for the day and didnt stay for the final perforance of Indian classical music. A new acquaintance named Robinson, who happens to be a Christian theologian and an expert in Sufism, by the way, semi-scolded me for paying for an auto-rickshaw, and accompanied me across town in a careening city bus, all the while regaling me with stories and facts, poems and opinions about all things Indian, Sufi and Christian. I think there will be more to say about him later. But for now, it's a rainy evening in Delhi, the ever-present music of the Sikhs at the Bagla Sahib Gurudwara right behind the Y is pushing its way into my room, and I'm gonna put myself to sleep reading Hazrat Inayat Khan on "The Unity of Religious Ideals."