IN AGRA’S Fatehpur Sikri, Tansen and Baiju Bawra, both legendary Hindustani musicians, used to sing at the palace of emperor Akbar. Once, goes an apocryphal story, Akbar decided to make them compete, declaring that the winner would be the one who could melt a marble slab with the power of his music. That evening, Tansen and Baiju Bawra sang for a spellbound audience. As the sky changed colour, nature listened and surrendered to Baiju Bawra’s divine rapture. By the end of the performance, the marble slab placed in a corner of the courtyard had changed form and flowed, melting itself in his melodious voice. For the first time, Tansen was defeated. The re-solidified marble lies there even today, a symbol of faith, explained away by tour guides as a charming story. But if you take a moment to imagine what that evening must have been like, you might believe it really happened — that music has a sublime force, that each raag has the power to bend nature to its will, like raag malhaar is known to bring down unseasonal rain. You might believe it wasn’t just legend, but a moment of truth, of pure bhakti. ‘Bhakti’ is a Sanskrit word that has no English equivalent. Although equated with devotion, it is more a state of emotional intoxication where one loses bodily consciousness, consumed by a moment of divine love.
Organised by Seher, Bhakti Utsav was a three-day music festival from April 3 to 5 at New Delhi’s Nehru Park, bringing musicians from across India. Running for the seventh consecutive year, the Utsav has come to be known as a rich and diverse platform for renditions of bhakti. This year, the fakirs from the Nagore Dargah, Tamil Nadu were one of the most fascinating groups at the Utsav. Dressed in white dhotis, kurtas and green turbans, they wore beads around their necks and sang to the percussions of the mridangam (a south Indian classical carnatic instrument) and a rabahna (a framed drum). “Our music speaks of both Islam and Hinduism. They coincide for us — both Allah and Ishwar,” smiles Abdul Ghani, the oldest of the fourmember group. Ghani is happy to pull out stories from his songs, where Brahmins and Muslims find friends in each other, and realise god while journeying together. One can’t help but wonder if, in these times of aggravated communal hatred, are they not being naively utopian? “But, we’re here to bridge that gap and there is no better way than music,” assures Ghani. When Ghani and his band sing with eyes closed, banging the rabahnas, in typically Tamilian tunes and blending Tamil and Arabic words, describing the love of god in traditional Sufi style, you can’t help but smile at the melting pot of cultures the fakirs represent.
The marble slab changed form and flowed, melting itself in his melodious voice
Appai Dikshitar, a famous Tamil literary poet, once wrote a verse on lord Shiva. Describing Shiva’s body and all that he adorns, Dikshitar says, “The sandal wood on your body, the snake coiled around your neck, the river Ganga erupting from your hair, and the snowcapped Himalayan mountains that surround you… all of these are so cold. Where do you get the warmth to withstand such cold?” Towards the end of the verse, Dikshitar answers his own question, “By sitting deep inside the cave of my heart”. Chennai based Carnatic vocalist, TM Krishna narrated this story at the Utsav as a prelude to his rendition of Dikshitar’s composition. Krishna has more modern views: “To me, bhakti is beyond religion or god. It is getting lost in anything, to an extent where ‘you’ don’t matter. To me, it’s music. I could be singing a composition on two people falling in love, and that can have bhakti too,” says the artist.
Although the festival brought an eclectic choice of musicians from across the country, some of the performances were oddly dissonant. The Manganiars from Barmer, for instance, looked slightly forlorn on the large stage, their soaring music faltering under the glare of the blinding spotlights and the 2,000-strong audience. Perhaps, they would have performed more ‘soulfully’ under the desert moon back home.
In sharp contrast, 22-year-old Harshdeep Kaur, protégée of Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and winner of two reality shows, occupied the same stage an hour later, sporting a pearl-studded red turban, glistening in Swarovskis. Kaur sang her acclaimed Sufi renditions like Il Onkar from Rang de Basanti, Allah Hoo and Bandeya Ho, interspersed with English verses in an American accent — epitomising a highly popular, yet faintly alienating image of a newer, more savvy spirituality.
‘Who is greater? Devotee or god?,’ Das asks. ‘The devotee, because god is born out of him’
BACK IN the green room, 53-yearold Paban Das Baul from West Bengal, catches his breath having just performed to an enthralled audience, singing and dancing elegantly in his colourful robe. Das was 6 years old when he started singing with his father, Dibakar Das, travelling from village to village in Murshidabad. Today, he is a renowned Baul singer, the carrier of a centuries old tradition. Das’ troupe was rolling a joint as he sat under the fan, letting sweat beads dry off his forehead. He says, “Tell me, who is greater? Bhagwan ya bhakt?” He pauses dramatically and says, “The devotee, because god is born out of a devotee’s bhakti!” A troupe member speaks, as if from a trance, “There is a flute inside our heart. After the tune is played out, our bodies will fall.” Everyone claps in agreement. The Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels. Their music carries Hindu and Sufi influences. “It’s tough. We get paid wherever we go. God helps us,” Das laughs and then says his troupe has been invited to play in Mexico next month.
Suddenly time stands still, you step aside from life’s race and feel like a speck in the universe, humbled by the music and its passionate exponents. And you smile, because you have waited for this moment all through the festival. And you realise bhakti exists still, only if you can manage to search through the fluff and not lose heart on the way.