What was once confined within the walls of select dargahs has moved into films, night clubs, rock festivals and parties. Sufi music is everywhere today. "When someone sings Damadam mast kalandar on stage these days, nine-tenths of the audience knows the words and joins in," says William Dalrymple, author and historian. The song in question was composed by the legendary Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh (Abdullah) Shah in the 18th century. "This song has become part of the universal culture and shows what a wide audience Sufi music now has," he adds. Dalrymple is creator of the documentary Sufi Soul and curator of the album The Rough Guide to Sufi Music. Sufism is a branch of Sunni Islam which emphasises its mystical dimensions. Sufi music, or the devotional music of the Sufis - of which the qawwali is the most popular expression in North India - began with the renowned 13th century poet and musician Amir Khusro, but its widespread popularity is a recent phenomenon. "Such music was known only at dargahs," says Mahesh Babu, Managing Director of Banyan Tree Events, which has been holding the well known Ruhaniyat Sufi and Mystic Music festival in different parts of the country for the last 12 years. In the last few years, he says, awareness has increased considerably.
Sufi poetry expressed love for the Divine, but Hindi film directors were quick to realise that the music could be used to play up romantic love too
Primarily responsible for the change, most observers agree, is Hindi cinema. "Many of these filmmakers have introduced a sufiaana kind of melody into their music," says Neeraj Roy, CEO and Managing Director of Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt Ltd. "Earlier, such music came largely out of Pakistan but now Indian singers are embracing Sufi music, too." Babu also notes that Bollywood has taken Sufi music in unexpected directions. "Different versions of Sufi music are now emerging," he adds, pointing to the song Khwaja Mere Khwaja from the film Jodhaa Akbar, which has a Sufi theme but employs the scale structure of a classical raga.
The man who initiated the renaissance, however, was the noted Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - who passed away in 1997 - with his album Magic Touch in 1991. "That was how the trend really started," says Varoon P. Anand, an avid follower of Sufi music. Hindi cinema awoke to its possibilities soon after. "Then it was A.R. Rahman's compositions for the 1998 film Dil Se, and the music programme Coke Studio Pakistan. These were the real milestones," he adds. Dalrymple, in his introduction to The Rough Guide to Sufi Music, similarly acknowledges the seminal role of the music programme, produced by The Coca-Cola Co. "The series has quickly become a huge hit as millions of middle-class Pakistanis discovered the amazing musical riches lying scattered across their country in provincial Sufi shrines, and has brought Sufi music to a whole new urban audience who had previously regarded it rustic and deeply uncool," he says.
Coke Studio India too has featured such renowned Sufi singers as Kailash Kher and Salim Sulaiman. Indeed, Kher's Allah ke Bande is an iconic Sufi number, far surpassing the popularity of the film it was sung for Waisa Bhi Hota Hai (Part II), released in 2003. "We took Sufi music with respect, and recreated it in a contemporary form," says Kher. "We made it a little more interesting with contemporary sounds but retained the deep thought and meaning." He maintains it was an experiment for him and his band Kailasa, but it worked wonders. "I wanted to make the song both popular and meaningful. Young people connected with it big time," he adds.
With so many singers and albums and recording studios now promoting Sufi music, an overall estimate of its success is hard to make. But Sufi music sales have risen by about 25 to 30 per cent in the past three years at Hungama, says Roy. The digital platform is also bringing in new audiences. The number of times Sufi music was streamed this year rose by about 15 per cent from the previous year, he adds. Hungama now has a Sufi song playlist category. At Universal Music Group, Sufi music sales contribute about five per cent to overall music sales. Devraj Sanyal, Managing Director, South Asia, expects this to go up to seven to eight per cent by 2014 or 2015.
What is it about this centuries-old art form that appeals to modern sensibilities? Dalrymple attributes Sufi music's commercial success to its capacity for assimilation. The harmonium, for instance, he says, much used in Sufi singing, was brought to Indian shores by Portuguese missionaries. So too the tabla was never part of Sufi music when it began. Again, the language of Sufi poetry is the easily accessible vernacular, not the classical. "It's never been a pure high classical form," he adds. "It's something that was composed to be popular and accessible with catchy rhythms that you can clap and sing along to."
Originally Sufi poetry expressed Man's love for the Divine, but Hindi film directors were quick to realise that the same kind of rhyming pattern and accompanying music could be used to play up romantic love as well. "Sufi poetry and music are about love and devotion to God, about reaching a higher power with one's voice," says Anand. "But in Hindi films, it is about love for, or devotion to, a hot chick. It's full of passion and so speaks to a young audience, which no other form of Indian classical music is able to do." He too stresses the adaptability of the form. "Sufi follows a certain pattern and beat that is very similar to Western music. It lends itself easily to remixes."
And given its adaptability, Sufi music's possibilities are endless. "Sufi will not die any time soon," says Sanyal. "Maybe even electronica will do Sufi, maybe even rock and metal. Sufi music is cool and contemporary. Everyone seems to like listening to it, and it has some great poetry at the back."