Melodies of the Heart

Written by Atiya Abbas  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The introduction of Coke Studio and the arrival of rock bands such as Overload have bought hidden gems like Arif Lohar and Pappu Saeein back into the limelight. The practice of expressing devotion through music has been alive for generations in Pakistan and India. Keeping this in mind, Jurgen Wasim Frembgen chronicles his journeys in Pakistan and his emotional association with Sufi music in his book “In Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis: Unheard Pakistan.”

Frembgen, a German anthropologist, was always fascinated with Pakistan as the transition region between the south, west and central Asia. He extensively studied devotional Islam and Sufism in the 1980s and during 1996 to 2010, he travelled across Pakistan, participating in melas and urs at the shrines of prominent Sufi saints while attending festivals which included devotional music and dance.

It is not easy to write about music, which is an entirely transcendental experience. In these five chronicles, Frembgen captures the essence of devotional dance and music to show man’s love for God through the rhythms of musical instruments, denoting that the musician and the instrument become one. It is interesting to read Sufism from a foreigner’s point of view as this book brings to life a side of Pakistan, which many Pakistanis might never have seen before.

These chronicles cover Frembgen’s journeys in Sindh and Punjab. The first chapter, Musical Nights in the Wilderness, charts Frembgen’s visit to a famous saints’ festival in the Salt Range. His description of getting a haircut and a massage from an Irani barber attracts the reader’s attention and seems as if he is conveying his admiration for the Land of the Sufis. His writing style gives detailed accounts of the culture, immediately grasping the readers’ interest and fascination. For instance, Frembgen describes how believers entrust their children to spiritual mentors, who guard them from demons and jinns. These children have their heads shaven with a single lock of hair on the right side, which they must wear until the age of 12. Many tales surround the saint, Imam Gul, known for loving animals and taking care of all the chickens in his parents’ courtyard. He taught one rooster the call to prayer and, as legend has it, from that day on the rooster would give the Azaan. One day, a farmer caught the rooster and slaughtered it. Imam Gul ran to the pot, knocked it over and put together the parts of the rooster and revived him! Such tales might appear unbelievable to skeptical Muslims but Frembgen’s documentations place the readers in an environment of peace, mystical stories and dancing dervishes. He takes the readers to the hidden highlands of Pakistan away from city violence, where people simply want to devote themselves to God.

Frembgen also describes the beautiful music played by the devotees, the complicated ragas and ghazals with devotional lyrics, such as the following written by the poet Aatish:

“Darkness blessed me with the sweetness of a wedding night

My spirit was blissful, happy was my heart

Seeing thus my eyes perceived the presence

of the nearness of God…”

“Nights spent at saints’ shrines and graves fill the spirit with deep, serene satisfaction and are considered to be full of blessings,” he writes, “their thirst is quenched by the wine of God’s love, as the Sufis would say.”

In the next chapter, The Music Rooms of Lahore, Frembgen details how his real initiation into “the traditional musical culture of the Indian subcontinent” began in a hotel room in Lahore. At the old Dehli-Muslim hotel he was drawn in by the sound of the tabla, coming from the inner courtyard. When it was confirmed there would be a mehfil, he decided to stay to watch the famous Maharaj Khatak perform. Frembgen’s anthropological training allows him to vividly recreate the scene to achieve ecstasy of a different level. The music reaches a fever pitch that enchants the listeners and cries of Wah wah! and Kya kehnay, fill the courtyard. For the reader who may not have experienced this kind of devotion, Frembgen provides an intimate look at an Islam that is completely devoid of the fundamentalist interpretations that it has become infamous for.

The chapter titled The Voices of the Fakirs at the King’s Court, focuses on the shrine of the Red Sufi, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan. Frembgen brings to life an amazing sight, where Hindus, Punjabis, and Sindhis come together in devotional prayer and dance to one of the greatest Sufis in this region. For those who are on a spiritual quest, they will find their calling in this setting, as Shah Latif explains in these verses,

“Whoever yearns for Saahar

Seeks not a ferry or boat

For whoever thirsts for love

The rivers are only steps”

“Only love leads the true Sufi to the truth and union with the Divine Beloved,” Frembgen writes. “If only the bigoted mullahs and others who disdain music would realize that music opens hearts and lifts the veil between man and God.”

As noted in recent interviews, Frembgen staunchly believes that the future of Sufism is bright because of the interest shown by the younger generation, “We should note that there is an increased interest in the East – take Pakistani music as an example. The Pakistani young generation finds interest in Sufism through the music of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, the great Sufi poets and their interpreters such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers and, of course, through Abida Parveen. The younger generation can find their identity reflected [in the music].” Through this book, Frembgen highlights an important part of Pakistan’s culture and provides useful information for those who may want to embark on such journeys themselves. 

Title: In Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis

Author: Jurgen Wasim Frembgen

Publisher: Oxford University Press (July 2012)

Pages: 168, Hardback

ISBN: 9780199065066

Price: PKR 625

Atiya Abbas freelances for various publications and writes extensively on effects of mass media.
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