Sufism and Bollywood
A glittering antidote

Bollywood pop songs are currently fostering an Indian Sufi revival. Adored by millions, the music, spearheaded by A. R. Rahman, promotes a message of love and tolerance in the tradition of the Islamic mystics. By Marian Brehmer

Everyone is waiting for the big entrance. The Qutub Minar, a red sandstone minaret dating from the Moghul era, is bathed in dreamy yellow light. For a few hours, against the backdrop of a black new-moon night here in the south of Delhi, the tower provides the perfect Oriental setting. Hundreds of concert visitors are staring expectantly at the huge stage. A sound system plays Turkish music rather like that of Istanbul′s dervish tekije. The sense of anticipation is palpable.

This Saturday-night concert was announced weeks ago, on posters around the Indian capital and in the Times of India. Dubbed "The Sufi Route", it unites the great singers of the Indian Sufi music scene on one stage, performing styles like qawwali, ghazal and Sufi folklore. Ticket prices range from 70 to 300 euros – well outside most Indians′ budgets. And yet the organisers were certain the concert would be a success.

The "Mozart of Madras"

When A.R. Rahman finally makes an appearance, the audience cheers and screams. The next two hours are one long musical earthquake. No other musician has reached similar popularity levels in India over the past three decades. The Tamil film composer has sung his way into India′s hearts from one hit to the next. It was Bollywood that made him famous, but by now Rahman embodies more than just Hindi film soundtracks. His talent for mixing various musical styles into tasteful and memorable melodies has earned him the nickname "Mozart of Madras".

Rahman, originally Hindu but a convert to Islam at the age of 23, is a self-declared Sufi and follower of the twelfth-century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti. Rahman′s spiritual orientation is reflected in his music. In recent years particularly, he has composed a series of catchy Sufi hymns melding mystic Islamic elements such as the zikr, songs of praise to the prophet or ecstatic love verses to God, with Indian beats.

That Islamic symbolism has been a hit with million-strong audiences, for instance in the Bollywood blockbuster "Jodaa Akbar". In a now legendary scene, the actor Hrithik Roshan, playing the Moghul ruler Akbar, sits before a gathering of dervishes. Qawwali music is played and dervishes whirl in white robes and brown felt hats.

As out of place as the whirling dervishes – at home in the rites of the Turkish Mevlevi order – may be on a Bollywood set, the new form of Sufi popular culture known as "Sufiaana" is now established in India as a genre in its own right.

Beautiful face of Islam

The music spearheaded by Rahman promotes a message of love and tolerance in the tradition of the Islamic mystics. A moving and yet mass-compatible Sufi cocktail, its fans celebrate it as a beautiful face of Islam. Many in Indian society harbour prejudices towards "standard" Islam, often stoked by the mass media.

Under President Modi, smear campaigns against Islam have led to increased attacks on Muslims, especially on the streets of northern India. Fascist mobs assault Muslims suspected of having consumed beef, rumours that all too often turn out to be unfounded.

This is where the Sufi composer Rahman would like to bring people together, as an envoy for peace. During his show, the star invokes unity between all Indians: "We are all India! We are one!" The audience goes wild. Music against divisions and prejudices – that hits the right spot at the "Sufi Route" concert. The influence of hugely popular artists like Rahman on the mood of the masses should not be underestimated.

Blurring the boundaries between Hindu and Muslim

Rahman′s stage set is made up of flickering computer animations projected onto four large screens: spiralling Koran verses, pillars of a Moroccan-style mosque and the Sufi mantra "HU", floating in hundreds of iterations like a swarm of bees. When Rahman strikes up "Khwaja Mere Khwaja" at the end, a hymn to Moinuddin Chishti, the crowd sways and sings itself into a trance. The boundaries between Hindus and Muslims seem to blur, achieving a unity beyond confessional borders in musical bliss.

In fact, the dargahs, India′s Sufi shrines, have been visited by Muslims and Hindus alike for generations. Religious practice in India is deeply syncretic. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Islamic symbolism at Rahman′s concert is well received by all. Many of the Sufi rituals on the subcontinent are similar to those practiced in Hindu temples – for instance making offerings of flowers and lighting incense.The Sufiaana boom has meant Sufi shrines like the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi are now flooded with visitors, especially on Thursday evenings when qawwali music is performed.

″This is a very new development; I′ve never seen so many visitors before,″ comments the Sufi researcher Sadia Dehlvi from Delhi, who has been visiting Nizamuddin Auliya′s shrine since her childhood.

A.R. Rahman during a concert in the Indian city of Bhopal in 2012 (photo: Rajeev Gupta/AP)
A.R. Rahman during a concert in the Indian city of Bhopal in 2012 (photo: Rajeev Gupta/AP)

"Rescuing Sufism from Bollywood"

Islamic music as a mass phenomenon? Is Sufism as embodied in Bollywood nothing but a fashionable feel-good package made up of music and dance? Though Rahman plays an important role as a cultural ambassador with his access to the hearts and minds of millions of Indians, the accusation is not easily dismissed.

A Sufi musical performance staged by three independent artists from Mumbai last year was headlined on the popular news site as aiming to "rescue Sufism from Bollywood". The show′s makers had consulted Islamic scholars beforehand and read up on the history of Sufism. They criticise that Bollywood glamour has co-opted Sufism and led to subtle wisdoms being watered down.

Often embedded in a slushy love story, the Sufi scenes transport nothing of the real spirit of Sufism. And yet, Rahman′s music may well prompt fans to dig deeper into the rich heritage of Sufi Islam in India – immersing themselves in the unifying world of mysticism, one that has acted as an antidote to many a burgeoning division.

Marian Brehmer

© 2018

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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