Dancing on the Inside

In a village in coastal Tamil Nadu, three men wearing white kurta pyjamas and green turbans walk along the seaside with daflis in their hands singing a devotional Islamic song: "Give us love, ya Allah, give us tender care, ya Allah." We then see two sisters in headscarves in a boat in the backwaters of Alleppey, singing songs about religious figures such as Yusuf (Joseph) and Musa (Moses). The girls are Mappilapattu singers from coastal Kerala, who sing and recount stories from mythologies. This genre of Islamic folk music arrived when Persian rulers came to India around seventh century AD. We see silhouettes of ocean waves and in the backdrop are fishermen in boats.

A kaleidoscopic opening shot reveals 'Sama: Muslim Mystic Music of India' by documentary filmmaker Shazia Khan. After six months of intensive research Khan started shooting the film in early 2012. It was completed in three months, keeping to 12-15 hour schedules a day. The film travels across India, exploring how mystic music absorbs cultures and flavours, yet retains its original texture. Sama... shows the scope of Islamic culture in India, its contacts and conflicts with indigenous elements, particularly Hinduism.
 
Khan grew up in different parts of the country, which helped her learn about Islamic mystic music and how its origins had less to do with religion, and more to do with a sense of identity. "I had being toying with this idea for many months. When we finally put pen to paper, I realised it was the only way in which we can see what unites India, even if we had to take a religious route," she says.
 
The film includes the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, the Manganiyar community in Jodhpur, the shrine of Ajan Pir in Majuli, Assam and the Baul Fakir Music Fest in Kolkata. Each rendezvous with the respective folk musicians is interspersed with cinematic visuals of the area. The grandiose forts of Jodhpur sport the Manganiyar community who speak of singing devotional Hindu songs for the royal family. They also sing Sufi qawwalis at dargahs in the evenings, as they are Islamic by birth. The leafy forests and bamboo huts of Assam act as a beautiful backdrop as we learn about the Assamese Zikr — a melodic call to god that has been practised by Muslim families for generations. The message of the Zikr is Islamic but the music is borrowed from the Hindu Vaishnavite sect.
 
Offering an almost boastful series of visuals of the Indian landscape was an intentional move on Khan's part. "I wanted a sense of resonance with the audience across the world, where I could show the culture, landscape and multi-ethnicity of my country. Through the film we've also been able to show how geographically, different regions play an important part in influencing music customs," she says. Khan, who is originally from Srinagar, is also the cinematographer of the film.
 
Perhaps an interview with Sufiana Kalam musician, Aabid Tibetbakal, at the shrine in Anantnag, Kashmir, describes the beauty of mystic music. His face appears tranquil as if in a meditative trance. Surrounding him is a misty river bank and a wooden plank upon which musicians are playing Sufi music. While we learn about how Sufiana Kalam music is an amalgamation of 54 music notes from India, Iran and even Carnatic, Tibetbakal says, "The practice of sama (audition gatherings) and music is like a rosary. Man carries it within his being. It's a sort of music that gives you peace, placates your soul, not just a temporary respite."
 
Swetha Ramakrishnan
The Indian Express
15 November 2013
 
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