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A Sufi resurgence

Print edition : Jun 03, 2005

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The sudden spurt of interest in all things Sufi in Punjab is seen not merely as an assertion of marginalised people but also as a recognition of Sufism's secular ethos.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Jalandhar

IT is only when you visit the region called Doab in Punjab that you begin to understand Sufism and its impact on a country as diverse as India. This is the land where `cultural confluence' is a reality as solid as the Sufi tombs dotting the rural landscape. Images and symbols are seamlessly interwoven without any obvious sign of conflict.

It is this improbable magic of a unique socio-cultural tradition and the complex political situation that makes this possible that has been captured in Ajay Bhardwaj's documentary film Kitte Mil ve Mahi (Where the Twain Meet). Indeed, the twain do seem to meet.

There are temple bells hanging in one dargah. In another, the keeper of the shrine raises his hands in Islamic prayer - hands that are tattooed with the `Om' symbol.

The Sufi lineage in Punjab cuts across religions, for it does not matter what caste or religion one is born into. Once blessed by the Guru, a disciple takes on the name of the Guru, as well as his place, known as the gaddi (seat).

And yet, it was injustice and intolerance that first fuelled Sufism, and is now, perhaps, leading to its resurgence.

The history of Sufism is linked inextricably to Dalits and other marginalised sections of society.

Bhardwaj is aware that his film is not about the Sufi tradition alone. "The trigger was the understanding of Punjabi history in the past century. We think of three major milestones - Partition, the Green Revolution, and 1984. But parallel alternative realities have been ignored. The Dalit reality, the Sufi reality, has been made invisible. And as you will see in the film, there are moments when some Dalits refuse to talk about their own oppression. Part of the reality of marginalisation is that they stay silent. Despite all our talk of empowerment and reform laws, they fear too many repercussions. Two years ago, Talhan was the scene of a major confrontation between Dalits and Jats, and this was over the issue of management of a shrine. The film is set in the same cultural landscape."

The socio-cultural traditions are significant in a State such as Punjab, where the percentage of Dalits in the State's population (according to the 1991 Census) is 28.31 per cent, as compared to 16.48 per cent for the average in India.

One sees how powerful a Sufi symbol can be when one meets Najjar Shah, the caretaker of the shrine of Baba Choor Shah in Jalandhar.

Najjar Shah, who is 81 years old, is not only the current guru, but also a cobbler. He sits outside the dargah and mends shoes for a living. He said: "We trace our lineage from Ravidas Maharaj, who was also a Balmiki and a cobbler. I used to work as a mason on construction sites. But when I became a devotee of Baba Choor Shah, he told me I ought to become a cobbler. If Ravidas did not feel any shame, why should I?"

Bhardwaj explained: "It is a powerful statement. He won't collect money, not even for the urs (the annual fair), because begging is not part of Sufi tradition. By turning into a cobbler, he is affirming his Chamaar identity."

Ravidas, Kabir, Brahmdass and a host of other Sufi saints in Punjab were from the oppressed castes and stood for their own rights. This tradition continues; for example, at the site of Brahmdass' tomb, his successor is running an English medium school for Dalits. A powerful statement is also made by Bibi Channi Shah, the current murshid (master/guru) at Sufi Pind in Hoshiarpur. She traces her lineage to Brahmdass and Pritamdass. She recalls that her guru had once told her he would hang her up on the highest hook. "I had no clue that this is what he meant, that he would name me his successor."

The fact that a woman was named a Sufi saint's successor was a rare event, and the aura of power and equality around Bibi Channi Shah is evident, as she smokes a hookah, keeps hunter-dogs as pets and blesses lakhs of devotees each year.

Bhagat Singh Bilkha, now 98 years old, president of the Deshbhakt Yaadgaar Committee and formerly a member of the Ghadar party, believes that anyone who is against caste and for humanity is a Sufi. "In my own village, we have a mazaar called Miyan ka Dera. The gaddi went to Rang Shah, who was Muslim, and to Natha Singh, a Sikh, and to Shiv Kumar, a Hindu. Sufism is rooted in secularism."

He quotes an Urdu couplet to explain: "Aye Ishq kahin le chal, ye dair-o-haram chore,

in dono makaano mein jhagdaa nazar aata hai (Come, love, let us turn away from both temple and mosque; between these two houses, there is an on-going feud). Bulle Shah, Baba Fareed, Shah Hussain, Namdev, Baba Nanak, Kabir - all Sufis. This legacy is being destroyed, unfortunately. Powerful people are misusing spirituality by dragging people away from their true faith."

The impact of Sufism in Punjab, as it exists now, is highly debated. Lal Singh `Dil', a noted writer, said: "Sufism doesn't solve anything. It favours Dalits, though, because of their need for a place of refuge." He added: "Sufism can be defined as a critique of society. That was the root. Although Sufi songs are nice to bond over, they must not be de-contextualised. The logic of this Sufi tradition lies in non-Brahmanical culture, and not in secularism."

Punjabi journalist and writer Desraj Kali adds a twist to the tale. "These places are the scene of cultural-literary marginalisation. Gurdwaras used to be like community centres, but no longer. After the Green Revolution, land-value went up. Community land was captured."

This is most in evidence in Noor Mahal, in Jalandhar district, where a dargah dedicated to Shah Fateh Ali Shah was demolished. The tomb was destroyed and taken over by a group that claimed it was built on the site of a gurdwara. Now, the board outside proclaims it as the site of a gurdwara again, and some of the land has been let out to shopkeepers and is being used for commercial purposes. There is only a mattress, where the tomb used to be, but devotees continue to visit the place. The irony is that according to popular belief, this site was given to Shah Fateh Ali Shah, known as one of the three roshni ke fakir, by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan Singh.

Kali added: "Now, there is discrimination from Sikh religious leaders too. There are reports of Dalit sarpanches being killed or beaten up. Sometimes people will not allow Dalits to go into the fields to relieve themselves."

In the given situation, the return to the non-Brahmanical Sufi tradition comes as no surprise. Kali himself is a devotee and his father took the guru-diksha from Pritamdass, whose lineage is traced back to Baba Fareed, one of the oldest saints. Kali said: "At first it was only my father. Now my elder brother and my cousins and nephews have become Bibi Channi Shah's chelas (disciples). There are often 200 disciple families in a single Sufi village."

A devotee we met at Phillaur village also agrees that the ranks of Sufi devotees are swelling. Prem Singh, a mason, regularly visits the shrine at Phillaur. "It is a family tradition but it is much bigger now. There are at least one lakh visitors to the urs, even in Phillaur village. And the urs used to be a day-long affair; now it goes on for three days."

The new wave also owes its resurgence to renewed cultural interest in the Sufi tradition of song and music. Satish Gulati, who owns Chetna Publications in Ludhiana, vouches for it. "I have a new reprint of Bulle Shah's books and posters of all the old Sufi saints. I expect each edition to sell out within the year. Another factor is that people are sick of remixes and repetitive entertainment. They are buying, reading and listening to Sufi kalaams (poems/songs). We plan to bring out the collected works and histories of Sultan Bahu, Shah Hussain, Baba Fareed and so on."

The dissenting voice is that of Dr. Seva Singh, a retired Professor, who held the Kabir Chair at Guru Nanak University. Although he agrees that Sufism is crucial because it gave India a new ethical code, something that had not happened on the subcontinent since Gautam Buddha's era, he also believes that this new resurgence is a false one.

"The new wave is not of Sufism. Whenever there is an economic crunch, when there is frustration and insecurity and apoliticisation, people turn to spiritualism. Now, people are deprived of ideology. There are only rough, caste-based power equations. People may have more money but they have no mooring and are afraid to lose the little they have gained. They turn to mysticism or to religion, because they need some kind of faith."

He points out that the crowds might be swelling at Sufi dargahs but it is equally true of Kumbh Melas, mosques and gurdwaras. "There is no Sufi thought there, because people like Bulle Shah were against all kinds of institutionalised faith."

Seva Singh is also suspicious of this new resurgence in that it seems only to encourage those philosophies that will strengthen religious institutions. "Sufis lived with truth and self-respect. They broke free from the shackles of property. Nowadays, people use the folk songs of Bulle Shah and Kabir but ignore their criticism of priests, or Baba Fareed's criticism of property laws. They romanticise Sufism and indulge in it like nostalgia. But they refuse to let it become an agent of change. This amounts to cultural appropriation."

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