‘The I doesn’t matter’

Abida exists in a higher spiritual realm, speaks volumes in but a few words.

Farahnaz Zahidi January 13, 2013
Abida exists in a higher spiritual realm, speaks volumes in but a few words. PHOTO: FILE

Jo dum ghaafil so dum kaafir

Asaan ko murshad he parhaya hoo

Sunrya sukhan gaiyaan khul akhyaan

Asaan chit Maula wal laya hoo

Keeti jaan hawalay Rabb de

Aisa ishq kamaya hoo

Marran thee aggay mar gaye Bahoo

Taan matlab noon paya hoo

(Sultan Bahoo).

I am waiting to meet Abida Parveen. More than 100 interviews in my portfolio as a journalist, and I am as nervous as a rookie as I sit in the ‘Abida Parveen Gallery’ in F-10, Islamabad, waiting to be taken to her adjoining house. I’m nervous because of the power of this performer and of the words that seem to speak themselves through her. The walls of the gallery, replete with pictures and awards, pay homage to Abida’s journey. She is seen performing in the grandest of places, standing next to the biggest names in the music industry. In one picture, she is smiling along with heads of state. In another, she is receiving one of countless awards. But the ones I like best are those of Abida alone, lost in another realm, her face displaying both peace and a fiery passion with no contradiction whatsoever between such opposing emotions.

As I wait, I wonder what the legendary Abida Parveen is like in real life. My father, a Sindhi and a lover of Sufi poetry himself, always spoke highly of her. He had repeatedly offered to introduce me to her, saying that a tete a tete with the legend herself would be a learning experience for me. A bit too young and a bit too smitten by the glitz and glamour of the world, I paid little attention to him then. Now years later, with him having passed on, I find myself eagerly anticipating this long overdue meeting.

Abida 01

Her daughter leads me to the section where Abida resides. Resplendent with motifs from the heart of Sindh , her living room is a splash of colour. The thick carpet is comforting in Islamabad’s chilling winter. The sofas are carved. The ajraks are on display.

Her spiritual affiliations are visible in the form of wall hangings and scattered pieces of décor. A table on the side is laden with books on Sufi poetry — rich collections of Kaafis and Abyaat — Sachal Sarmast shares space with Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sultan Bahoo and Baba Bullhey Shah. Shams of Tabriz lays next to Sant Kabir. The works of so many kindred souls lay on one table, separated by time and space and yet converging in the same path. And the one silent echo I hear in this place is of all these souls chanting two words in unison: “Allah hoo”.

Abida 02

She has a distinctive aura as she walks in, wearing her signature plain shlawar kameez with buttons closed up to the neck. Her hands are small, gentle and soft to the touch as she holds my hands with warmth. Humility personified, she bends down so low while greeting me that I am afraid she will fall over! She may exist in a higher spiritual realm, but her social skills are remarkable. She instantly puts me at ease by talking about my father. The conversation begins.

The interview is shorter than expected. Abida speaks volumes in but a few words.

Abida 03

Her journey began almost six decades ago. Born in mohalla Ali Goharabad in Larkana, Sindh, Abida’s learning began at home with her father Ustad Ghulam Haidar, whom she proudly calls a “gawayya.

“All this is a gift from my father,” she says. “It is because of his barkat (blessing). But he never had to force me to sing. I was drawn to this myself. From the age of three, my earliest memories are that I would sit with the harmonium. I felt a pull towards music and Sufi poetry. I always felt an inner happiness when I would hear the Abyaat of Bhittai. I always felt attracted to dargaahs (shrines). Mujhe un se jor diya Maula ne. I think this connection is formed before one is even born”.

She then moves on to talk about the inner ‘spark’ within us, that eternal fragment of the divine. I find myself listening intently, my notebook forgotten.

I do not

“All humans have this spark. God has kept it in us. Once we come into this world, with this inherent spark in us for the love of the Divine, it tugs at our heart strings intermittently. This is a gift. It is in all of us. All Prophets and spiritual masters do is stoke this fire if it starts to die out. Visiting shrines or staying in the company of the pious or reading this poetry — it transforms the spark into a full-fledged fire. Once that fire catches on, then…” she chuckles knowingly, a glow on her face, and that uncontrollable signature mop of hair framing her face. The laughter has a child-like innocence and spontaneity. I’m wondering how she can talk about such deeply philosophical and heavy concepts with such ease.

Abida wants to quote a doha (a form of sufic poetry) but forgets, and with unflinching confidence in the divine forces says “aa jaye ga yaad”. She still can’t recall it after a five minute pause, and accepts her failing with a smile. Instead, she settles down to narrate the essence of the doha and says “when the fire is about to die out, it is rekindled by the mehboob”. Abida has studied the Quran enough to understand what her Creator is saying to her and has read the Sufiyana kalaam in depth as well. Both, she says, are products of love. She explains how verses of Sufi poetry are actually a reflection of the verses of the Quran. Many even have the same wazan (rhyme), she tells me.

In an era where it is fashionable to label oneself as “spiritual, not religious,” where Rumi is quoted out of context and the couplets of Bulleh Shah are memorized with little understanding of their meaning, here is a true spiritual being. Meeting her, I realize that true sufis don’t need to flaunt their spirituality.

They don’t need Facebook groups, twitter hash tags or a plethora of interviews to announce their spiritual quest. They are who they are. The aura of peace that emanates from them is the only identification they need.  If I were to praise her with all the qualities I see, it would only embarrass her.

And it is fitting, as the most basic tenet of Sufism is humility. Not the false humility that is pride in disguise, but the true loss of self. Abida, it is clear, is the real deal. How does she manage it? I ask. How does she keep the fame from going to her head? She starts shaking her head as I ask and replies, “I am so scared. May Maula keep me humble”.

Enviously, I ask her how one develops this spirituality. As expected, she takes no credit at all. “I do not deserve it. Besabab karam hai (it’s an unmerited mercy upon me). Mujh mein mera kuch naheen, jo kuch hai so tera. Tera tujh ko sonp dein, kya laagay hai mera. It is a bestowed blessing. You cannot work hard at it. Mehnat riyazat se naheen milta (you don’t get it by striving for it)”.

The conversation moves towards music. “I am still very nervous before a performance. I plan out in detail what I have to sing. Every time, it feels like it is the very first performance. I keep learning and practicing my music. Perfection is only for Allah. Ye insaan ka na-mukammal hona…yeh silsila bara acha hai,” (this state of human incompleteness is beautiful) she says with a smile.

Abida is no puritan and does not believe in boundaries in her music, so long as the basic etiquette of rendering mystic poetry is kept in mind. “I have tried my hand at fusion music, like in my CD Raqs e bismal.

But when singing sufi poetry, one has to bear in mind that the musical instruments or even the voice needs to be submissive to the kalaam; the message in the words of Sufi poetry must remain intact. Maintaining that balance is tough; music should just support the kalaam, and not by-pass it or take over, otherwise the message gets diluted. This is jalaali kalaam (powerful narrative) and a certain adab (respect) is required. Saaz se wohi kehelwao jo alfaaz keh rahay hain (make the instruments say the same thing which the words are saying),” she says.

Among the newer talent, she likes Ali Azmat and his rendition of gharoli. She admires the work of Shafqat Amanat Ali and Rahat Fateh Ali as well. “For humility’s sake, we must appreciate younger singers, otherwise we are not true to our craft,” she says.

But out of all the people she has worked with, she holds India’s Muzaffar Ali (of Umraao Jaan fame) in the highest regard. “I have been working with Muzaffar Ali Sahab for 12 years. He understands the etiquette of working with Sufi poetry”.

Talking about the Jahan-e-Khusrau World Sufi Festival, held at Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi last year, she says, “I have not witnessed anything like that in the whole world. The ambience, the understanding of the message, the level of absorption, the atmosphere … down to how they make the listener and the performer sit. Even if a president comes, he will have to follow the norms of the mehfil. This is the etiquette with which we must treat this kalaam”.

We talk about the poets she admires and understands. She tells me that her upcoming projects include the Persian works of Shams of Tabriz among others. Abida has an interesting take on Iqbal’s philosophy of Khudi and interprets Khudi as not the “self” but as the zameer (conscience), calling it “the voice inside that tells us when we go wrong”. Speaking of Iqbal, she quotes his famous verse which emphasises love for the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): Quwwat e ishq se har past ko baala kar dey …. Dehr mein ism e Muhammad se ujala kar de.

I then ask her why, as a jury member in the Pak-India musical showdown “Sur Kshetra”, she never really has any criticism for any of the performers and stays so neutral. “Because its music, not war,” she replies. I then ask her who she wishes wins the contest and she says, “I pray Allah makes a good decision. That’s all”.

I ask her many questions about many people but I don’t get a single negative comment about anyone. She says people and what they do or don’t do: “sub Allah ke raaz hain”, then goes on to say, “I am basically quiet by nature. But I love meeting people. Meeting people is also a form of the sharing of the Noor (Divine Noor). Banday se milna bhi baree baat hai. (it is a great thing to meet people)”. I marvel at those words.

Is this difficult work, I wonder aloud, to carry and convey such a spiritually charged message? “I wouldn’t call it that,” she responds. “It has a glow, a shafqat (softness). Paths on this way are pre-defined. Allah opens new doors when you are on this path,” she says and chuckles but also sighs, and pauses, misty eyed, going on to say, “rona mehfil ki ronaq hai”.

Does it exhaust or drain her to be the vessel of such rich messages? “Do i get drained? The ‘I’ doesn’t matter,” she replies.

Will the next generation keep this art of mystic renditions alive? “This kalaam will stay alive no matter what. It is not about age. It is about who is spiritually enlightened. Superior. More true. This will stay alive through the rooh (soul) of humanity. Allah has blown His rooh into us. Roohaniyat is God’s gift to humanity,” she says.

I have always wondered how she seems to become another person when she sings. It is as if she is in a trance and the words simply speak themselves through her. “Because I do not perform for people. I perform for Him. In that moment, it is Maula who connects me to the audience and to myself. Woh zaat nazar naheen aati magar karti sub kuch wohi hai. Whose eyes and hands are actually at work? Banda aur Khuda — they are never apart. My prayer is for myself is that Maula zaat mein zaat mila de. A relationship based on love between the Creator and Creation. You will find Allah as you perceive Him,” she says.

Living in this world whilst simultaneously existing in a higher spiritual plane, Abida has also led a very normal life as a mother of two daughters and a son. I ask her what she feels about the ascetic principle of renouncing this world and everything in it. After all, some do believe that spiritual growth is only possible when the one leaves the world and its trappings behind. “This earth …. we cannot renounce it! It is so precious. This is where Muhammad (pbuh) placed his forehead in sajda,” she says. Nothing more remains to be said.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 13th, 2013.

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anam | 8 years ago | Reply

Thankyou for taking and publishing such an interview! shook me to my nerves! Its beautiful! Its so refreshing to read such articles admist the political madness! :)

Aijaz Haider | 8 years ago | Reply

An excellent interview. The kalaam of Sufis is a tafseer of Quran and Sunnah. They are selected people. “This earth …. we cannot renounce it! It is so precious. This is where Muhammad (pbuh) placed his forehead in sajda,” she says. I want to add, this earth is so precious because this is where Muhammad (pbuh) is resting in the holy city of Medina.

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