EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
How do you define Sufi Kathak?
Sufi Kathak melds the depth of Sufi poetry with the beauty and grace of classical Indian dance forms. It uses dance to narrate and interpret Sufi poetry. Sufi poetry was always sung, never danced to. Its purpose was never literary but the poems are rife with implicit messages, which can be interpreted differently by the dancer. In the last decade, Sufi Kathak has acquired its own identity. The dominant thoughts of the formless Almighty, the nirgun brahma and poetry are different in Sufi Kathak from classical dance, as are the aesthetics, the use of language, movements, music and costume. I have practised it for 14 years, travelled to Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and worked with artists from Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco.
Sufism and Kathak drew influences from the Mughal era. Did that help you combine them?
Art has always drawn influences from the times in which the artists lived. For Sufi Kathak, it was not Sufism in India alone; the entire subcontinent provided the reference points. Each Sufi saint brought with him a different language of expression. The dance styles associated with Sufism over this region are spontaneous, and do not follow a classical format, except for the whirling dervishes in Turkey. These dance forms had not been extensively studied by Sufi exponents, so I had to recreate some movements by hearing stories from Sufi shrines.
Why aren’t Sufi traditions like Qawwali thriving like other classical art forms?
I wouldn’t say classical traditions are thriving; most are surviving in a refurbished format, fighting for space among various “entertainment” options. The lines between spiritualism and entertainment are blurring into one another. Often, I’m at a loss whether to see myself as an agent of spiritual elation or of entertainment. Qawwali, as it was originally conceived of and performed, seems to be heading to a dead end. It’s losing out to its entertainment counterpart. The recently held seminar “Understanding Qawwali” in Delhi was an initiative to create awareness around Qawwali, and the lives of the traditional Qawwals struggling for survival. It’s an important step to realise Qawwali as a serious form of art, necessitating its research and documentation in the face of its caricaturing in pop culture.
Would going back to syncretic traditions promote unity in these politically divisive times?
Going back is never the answer. Everything in India is dominated by politics. Cultural traditions have been relegated to insignificance even though they are experienced by people every day. Sufi Kathak represents the syncretic traditions of the erstwhile Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Awadh, where Qawwals sang in praise of Hazrat Ali as well as Lord Krishna. I grew up in Awadh where syncretism and secularism are a lived reality, not textbook fare. Justice SU Khan also mentions this in his recent verdict on Babri Masjid, “…inside the boundary wall and compound of the mosque, Hindu religious places were being worshipped along with offerings of namaz by Muslims”. I am proud to represent a futuristic vision of bringing people of different religions together through music and dance.
People watching a Sufi Kathak performance mention the spiritual trance it puts them in. What is its essence?
We traditionally believe the universe revolves and dances. I believe people perceive the energy that the artist wants them to feel. If I see my dance as a prayer, my audience will feel the same. Sometimes, performing is ecstatic, sometimes you feel the pain of being confined in a body. Sometimes, the dance transcends the body.