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A celebration of women

Saturday, 28 June 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Friday, 27 June 2014 - 10:02pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Sufi poetry and the Bhakti tradition opened a window to freedom, denied to women in real life.

Ik Tunaa Achraj Gaaunji
Mai Rootha Piyu Manaunji
(Baba Bulle Shah, 18th Century sufi/poet from Punjab)
A wondrous spell I’ll sing
I’ll placate my beloved
Who’s turned away from me…

(Translation by Dr Madan Gopal Singh)

Media reports on violence against women in various parts of the country and the world never cease to disgust. The gruesomeness makes it hard to believe men could actually commit such crimes. The UN's site on women says violence not only has negative consequences for women but also for their families, the community and the country at large. There have been numerous interventions -- conventions, laws, charters, conferences. Yet, the fight -- it's needless to say -- must go on. 

But what about the world of culture -- can this world be a binding factor? After all, culture defines the way we live, the way our lives have evolved over centuries. Can we celebrate pluralism in a way that's not merely some track 1, 2 or 3 for “peace” between countries -- a mere shindig! Can we not look at bringing culture into the mainstream discussion? Can these not be powerful tools to engage people in conversations that can bring people closer? Allow people to see the worthlessness of violence? Perhaps a na├»ve proposition in the times of reality TV. But even so it's worth taking a look at. 

One solid example of this transgression, that questioned social differences (created particularly by religious orthodoxy), lies in mystic poetry. This is the world that doesn’t demean the feminine but rather celebrates it. That's when men use the feminine narrative to express love, passion, sorrow and belonging towards their love, mentor, God. A lot of music passes off as Sufi these days, with very little reflection on what makes it Sufi or the intent behind it. New genres have been christened and created to entertain audiences – Sufi rock, Sufi pop, and so on. But here’s a ready reckoner tip -- there is no such thing as “Sufi music”. Sufism was a movement and poetry/rendition emanated from this philosophy. 

Music and poetry have made conversations of peace, equality and even parity through centuries. Much of the poetry in these traditions in the Bhakti and Sufi movements is an attempt to induce, imagine and invent a gentler, humane and loving society. A look at both these movements raises some curious thoughts about the presence of the feminine, in its expression, and the very base on which it rests. And how quickly we have forgotten it, perhaps not even noticed it. This poetry is mostly authored by men but narrated in the feminine voice. Wherever this genre might have been from – the Deccan, Lucknow or Punjab, the language was that of the feminine -- tracing an aesthetics of love with its roots simultaneously in Sufism and Bhakti movements. A lovelorn concubine, a woman pining for her love, a woman confiding her love for another woman, a woman in love with God – these are some of the characters who speak to us through this poetry. 

In Indo-Persian literature for instance the seeker and the sought is often described through through the dynamic of the Ashiq or the lover who speaks, and is the seeker. And there is Ma’ashuq or the beloved who is being addressed. Seeking versus being sought creates a power structure in the relationship – where the ashiq is seeking the attention of the beloved who in turn is cold and rarely speaks to the ashiq.

But one look, even if it is a dismissive one from the object of one’s desire, becomes the most treasured communication.  

Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakar or better known as Baba Farid again adopted a feminine narrative voice as he spoke of the suffering -- the longing he felt for his absent beloved. This narrative known as the Virahini (or she who dwells in separation) becomes the protagonist in much of the Sufiana Kalam.  Much of the literature from Punjab especially conforms to the convention of love. The idea of the Virahini is also very much a part of the Hindu idiom – Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda for instance, in which the full story of love is told, Radha not just is the Virahini, pining for Krishna, but makes the journey in the middle of the night, a reunion that culminates in celebrated passion.  

In Shah Hussain or Madho Lal’s writing, Radha is replaced by Hir, the beloved heroine of the Hir-Ranjha legend. This 16th Century poet (said to be clearly articulating a gay relationship in Punjabi poetry) in another radical expression, writes a tribute to his mother. The song, Saloo, speaks of a bond through a piece between perennially dislocated women  -- the mother and the daughter. There is also an address to the Sayyo -- a feminine friend from childhood with whom one has shared innocuous secrets and sometimes even forbidden joys.  

Women too have expressed themselves by centuries of questioning the very confines of patriarchy that they have been always subjected to – Mirabai included.  As women in patriarchal societies, we are familiar with its limitations, constraints -- its confining spaces. We live in confining spaces— both physical ones and ideological ones — appropriate jobs, notions of family honour and  chastity. Women have dealt with these limiting and confining spaces in many ways — by enduring them, by claiming them to be meaningful and powerful, by acquiring power through the manipulation of what is available. In fact unlike the high caste male saints who had to undergo suffering and privation in order to free themselves of an inflated ego to pursue Bhakti, women bhakts(and low caste saints) had nothing to shed. While even today womanly “dharma” within the normative tradition is defined by sexual containment through marriage and wifehood, Bhakti was a movement that was subversive of orthodoxy, and inverted the societal norms prescribed by the religious texts.

These are the forgotten men and women. Their ideas show up in contemporary entertainment -- music and poetry, but with a crassness whose depths are unfathomable. But as the saying goes “umeed pe duniya qayam hai” (The world rests on hope!), perhaps the next time the young “grooving” to a DJ-Live Qwali, will come to know the deeper meanings of words like Sayyo, or Jugni.

The author is a musician

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