Unique documentary traces Sufism's amazing history
Artistes from India's first interactive musical documentary theatre take a road trip to trace the journey of Sufism from 8th century AD to now
With live renditions of 14 songs in languages including Kashmiri, Urdu, Farsi and Punjabi and narratives in English and Hindi, Sounds of the Sufis is an act that sounds unique even before we begin our chat with its performers. With the help of research and interaction with scholars, Anuraag Dhoundeyal, Priyanka Patel and Karan Chitra Deshmukh have explored the essence of Sufism by telling their stories and singing tunes that have been written and performed by Sufi saints over time. Through poetry, songs and storytelling, Sounds of the Sufis (SOTS) touches upon the lives and messages of 12 mystics including Amir Khusrau, Rumi, Kabir and Meera.
An earlier performance of the Sounds of the Sufis
After about 20 successful shows, including ones at the Kala Ghoda Festival and Prithvi Theatre Festival, to ones at The India International Centre and India Habitat Centre in Delhi, Nehru Centre and Royal Exchange Hall in London, the trio is now on 10-day road trip from Mumbai to Delhi, where they will stop at numerous Sufi shrines including ones at Ajmer, Fatehpur Sikri, Jama Masjid and Vrindavan. They hope to document this journey and release it by the end of August. We managed to catch up with them while they were on the road. Excerpts from a chat.
Karan Chitra Deshmukh
Q. How is Sufism relevant today?
Priyanka: While people today have limited time, they yearn for mental peace and to figure the purpose of their existence. Sufism allows you to explore answers.
Q. How did the idea of an interactive musical documentary theatre come about?
Anuraag: I am a musician. I am trained in Hindustani Classical music, and I am also a music educator. Priyanka is a psychologist and an arts educator. Together, we run The Looking Glass, a company that works with building life skills through arts. Karan has been a tabla player, drummer and multi-percussionist. He has been performing with me for a few years. He conducts music workshops for us. SOTS was one such workshop, to spread awareness about the works of Sufi saints and explore what Sufism in India stands for.
Priyanka: However, since the workshop involved us singing live and sharing stories, we were asked to convert this into a performance, so that we could reach a larger audience. So, in 2014, Anuraag, Karan and I decided to set out on a journey, to be able to discover what Sufism means to different people. We met nearly hundred people, from experts on Sufism and scholars, to enthusiasts, qawwals and dervishes. After six months of deliberation, we realised that the most honest representation of this journey would be via the documentary theatre format.
Q. Tell us about this format.
Anuraag: Documentary theatre is a form where pre-existing documentary material is used as source material to develop a piece of work. Actors represent themselves in the play, talking about their own life experiences. Documentary theatre is a personal take on a historical event. It always strikes a chord with audiences, especially with a subject like Sufism.
Karan: With the historical journey of Sufism, and all the music that we do in the performance, the narrative holds the piece together. Hence it is India’s first interactive musical documentary theatre performance. The debut show was held in October 2014.
Q. What lead to the road trip?
Anuraag: Our research has taken us to places of spiritual significance. At every place, we met scholars and people connected with the Sufi journey and we were guided further to read more, and to visit more places. One such inspiring discussion with Faraz Mariam Arif Ansari, a renowned director, writer, producer, over chai, after our performance at Kala Ghoda led to us planning this trip.
Priyanka: He felt it was imperative to make a promo-video for SOTS. The performance takes the audience on a journey, makes them experience liberation. It was difficult to capture all of this by merely shooting the performance within an auditorium space. Hence, the idea was to take a road trip, visit places of relevance in the Sufi journey and capture the spirit of the performance at those locations. The trip culminates with a performance at the prestigious Stein Auditorium at India Habitat Centre in Delhi.
Q. How has the journey been so far?
Anuraag: We have had some great experiences. When we entered the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, a shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, we met someone from the lineage of the famous Chisti brothers. He encouraged us to perform songs with the qawwals who were already singing there. It was an unforgettable experience. However, right there, a man objected that Priyanka, a woman, was singing with us. But we overcame that.
Q. What can one expect at your performance in Mumbai?
Karan: It will be an interactive performance. We don’t trace just the historical evidences of the epic movement of Sufism, but also speak of the lives of the performers through music and poetry. The audience identifies with a performance that brings the 800-year-old philosophy alive in the present. It includes episodes from our personal lives, which makes the performance relatable. We also provide the audience with booklets that carry the lyrics and their meaning.
This allows them to understand the content better.
On: July 10, 7 pm
At: The Mumbai Assembly, KCA Hall, 16 Veronica Road, Bandra (W).
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