Music echoes across Mohar Kunj as Babu Fakir and his team play the ektara, khamak, dhol and duggi, and sing in trance. Babu is a Baul from Gorbhanga, a village 250 km from Kolkata, and this is Sufi Sutra, the second edition of an international Sufi festival in the city that ends on Saturday. The backdrop of the festival is the Victoria Memorial.
The Bauls are wandering minstrels of a syncretic sect and musical tradition which shares much with Sufism. Some of their songs have been passed on for generations. Babu Fakir’s group of 10 has both qawwals and Bauls.
Musicians from Azerbaijan, Denmark, Egypt, Morocco and Hungary perform alongside their peers from Delhi, Kashmir and West Bengal. Sufi Sutra is organised by Banglanatak.com, an organisation that works with Bengali artisans to help them earn a living through traditional art forms. The festival is supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Unesco, the state tourism department and corporates.
The Azerbaijan State Ensemble of Ancient Musical Instruments, the Orient West Choir from Denmark, Egypt’s Elkawmeya Folkloric Music Troupe, Morocco’s Marouane Hajji et L’Ensemble Akhwane, and Sondorgo from Hungary present folk and religious music.
The Indian groups include the Nizami Khusro Bandhu from Delhi, qawwals who specialise in the poetry of Sultan Quli Qutub Shah and Roshanara Begum, daughter of Shahjahan.
The Kashmir Music Society will perform Rouf, Sufiyana and folk. The festival concludes with the Bauls and fakirs from Nadia and Murshidabad districts.
Amitava Bhattacharya, director of Banglanatak, says, “Sufi music is all about love and brotherhood. It is prevalent in West Asian and Persian countries but this year we are bringing in variations with groups from Denmark and Hungary, as their songs are not restricted to Islam.”
Samrita Dutta, a 12-year-old from London here on holiday, has come with her grandparents. Her grandfather whispers explanations in his granddaughter’s ears. “She hardly understands Bengali but is clapping her hands to the rhythm,” says Samrita's grandmother. Samrita says she likes the songs, they sound nice to her ears.
The European music magazine Songlines has partnered with Banglanatak; its editor Simon Broughton will write about Sufi Sutra and has put up an exhibition to showcase his documentary, Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam.
Directed by Broughton and narrated by popular historian William Dalrymple, the film is about Sufism in Syria, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and its role in spirituality, culture and worship. It also documents performances by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and Youssou D’Nour, among others.
Golam Fakir of Gorbhanga says of his fellow Bauls, "Our village is very poor. We all used to work as labourers in the fields. Sometimes we didn't have money to eat, but this music is our companion. We used to earn Rs 100-500 in a month by singing Baul songs, but now we earn Rs 4,000-5,000. Some singers earn Rs 10,000-30,000 a month."
The organisers say Sufi Sutra is appreciated by the government of Bihar, which wants to give folk musicians a platform for their talent and the chance to earn a better livelihood. A particular focus is on the Nirguns, who sing Bhojpuri songs written by Kabir and woven around the theme of the soul meeting with a formless God.
With inputs from Debaleena Sengupta