Gauri Lankesh was a modern-day Sufi, says Madan Gopal Singh

Gitanjali Diwakar | Updated on February 28, 2020

Eternal lessons: Singer-scholar Madan Gopal Singh believes music brings people together - Sampath Kumar GP   -  The Hindu

Musician Madan Gopal Singh on why Sufism’s radical path to love is more relevant than ever

“I have not been trained formally. (But) I could always sing to an extent, so I decided to start doing so,” says Madan Gopal Singh, the college professor-turned-lead singer of the Sufi music band Chaar Yaar. In Chennai recently for Ruhaniyat, an annual multi-city Sufi music show featuring artistes from around the world, Singh shared the stage with Iranian and African music, besides Qawwali and other forms of Sufi music from the subcontinent.

What was most striking about the centuries-old Sufi compositions was their emphasis on tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, and more — human values that are more relevant today than ever.

Little wonder then that one of Singh’s most recent performances was at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, the site of an ongoing protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Talking to BLink on the sidelines of Ruhaniyat, Singh points out that when Rabindranath Tagore pits the intolerant idea of nationalism against the encompassing nature of truthfulness, he is a Sufi without belonging to any particular order. In other words, the Sufis are essentially Tagorean, he says.

“The Sufi spirit is beyond the rhetoric of identities. It has always been creatively homeless, except that it has been invariably pushed into punitive exiles,” Singh says.

On the relevance of Sufism in today’s deeply polarised world, Singh says the world view of Sufi saints was an ecstatic and fearless negotiation between the known and the unknown. They were driven by love and compassion as well as a deeply creative outlook. They also desired the creation of a just and equitable order of living that encompassed not just humans but all living and non-living entities in nature. Sufi mystics such as Rabia Basri (8th-century Iraq), Mevlana Rumi (13th-century Persia) and Baba Bulleh Shah (17th-century in present-day Pakistan) extolled such views in their poetry. “Well, Gauri Lankesh was, in a manner of speaking, a modern-day Sufi,” he adds.

And, equally chillingly, like Gauri Lankesh — the Bengaluru-based journalist-activist who was killed in 2017 by suspected right-wing Hindu extremists — many Sufi saints too were hounded and even killed for their beliefs. Many of them wandered in a state of unending exile. These included Mansur al-Hallaj in 9th-century Persia, Sarmad in 17th-century Armenia and Shah Inayat Shaheed in 17th-century Sind among many more.

With a PhD in film studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Singh earlier taught cinema and English literature at Satyawati College and, later, the School of Convergence in New Delhi. Today he conducts workshops on the cultural histories of poetry and music.

How did the teacher become a stage performer? “I am a little crazy. I wanted a freer ‘technique’ to express myself, and music was one way by which I could connect with the people at large,” he says. Even in his teaching days, his classes were like concerts, he adds. “I would be physically exhausted by the end of a class on Shakespeare’s Othello.”

Singh (69) has been performing since 1979 and his shows feature a mix of classical, semi-classical, popular and folk music styles. The ensemble Chaar Yaar includes Deepak Castelino on the guitar and banjo, Pritam Ghosal on the sarod, and Amjad Khan on percussions.

Singh is currently working on a project called Music of Journeys, which explores the works of Sufi greats such as Rabia, Rumi, Attar, Hafez, Ghazzali, Lal Ded, Nund Rishi, Habba Khatoon, Baba Farid, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Hasan Raja, Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Lalan. “I am looking at a wide range of cultural productions from my position as someone living today.”

While stressing the power of music in bringing people together, Singh — whose favourite performers include the Sufi musician Abida Parveen, Hindustani vocalists Kumar Gandharva and Salamat Ali Khan, and sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan — adds that he is open to dialogues and discussions, especially since he is closely familiar with the horrors of divisive discourse. “My family was originally from Lahore. We had lost a lot during the Partition. I was in Delhi during the 1984 riots and have seen how terrible the situation was. Yet, today, I am open for discussions on Sufism. I will not bring up the past,” he declares.

He believes that Sufi poetry and music have the same gentle power to rouse people’s emotions and reflective core into loving action as any other spiritual music. “It isn’t demanding any specially elevated status for itself. It exists in the ordinary joys of day-to-day living,” the scholar-musician adds.

Published on February 27, 2020

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