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Among the Sufi poets

Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

Anita Singhvi has been invited to sing at the Urs of Nizamuddin Auliya. She tells Veenu Sandhu about her life in music.

The air is thick with the fragrance of roses. Narrow alleyways lined with colourful shops that sell perfumes or offerings to be made at the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya lead to the dargah where the saint and his disciple, Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau, have been resting for centuries. Close by, at Khwaja Hall, a gathering is in place. The hall is filled with men, many of whom are wearing four-cornered bright yellow caps (kulah), the kind Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciples used to wear. There is only a handful of women in this room, and they all sit in one corner. Facing them, at the far end, are the speakers, who, like everybody else, are seated on the floor. Among them is a woman wearing a saree of as bright a yellow as the caps. “That,” she later says, “was a coincidence.”

Anita Singhvi, ghazal and Sufi singer, makes an unusual picture in this setting. But she looks comfortable, and happy. In a sense, she’s in the world which has given her music — she used to confine herself to Hindustani classical — a new meaning. Singhvi has been invited because she is to be felicitated by Khwaja Hasan Sani Nizami, the spiritual leader of the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi, for her voice, which celebrates the music of Sufi saints in both Urdu and Persian. The Khwaja presents her with a copy of the Qur’an in Hindi.

The timing, Singhvi feels, could not have been more auspicious. It is the 707th Urs, or death anniversary, of Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya, a time when the devout from across the city and elsewhere come to this shrine to be blessed. Urs literally means “wedding”, which the Sufi saints referred to as a union with the beloved (the divine) after death. During this Urs, Singhvi has been invited to perform at the dargah.

It is a rare honour, because she is a woman and a non-Muslim. But Khwaja Hasan, speaking to the gathering, says: “Khwateen ko gaane ki koi pabandhi nahin hai” (“Women are not prohibited from singing”). He narrates a story to drive the message home, of a time when women were stopped from singing and the result was that for 300 years, “Dilli chiragh-heen rahi” (“Delhi remained in the dark”). Sufism, he adds, is all-embracing. Wherever the Sufi saints went, they learnt the language of that place and made it part of their poetry, says Khwaja Hasan.

Singhvi, who was born in Jodhpur and was married at the age of 18 to Abhishek Manu Singhvi, now a Congress leader, says she never imagined that her journey would lead her to sing the words of poets like Ghalib, Khusrau, Faiz, Momin, Meer, Daag and Rumi. “When I got married at a young age, my guru in Jodhpur made me pledge that I would never give up singing,” she says. She kept her promise. Now, mornings are reserved for riyaz (practice), though the evenings are mostly busy. “In the evening my house will be full of politicians who will accompany my husband, or else it will turn into a studio with television channels coming to interview him on one issue or the other,” she says. While she would rather be left with her music and books, she says she has also learnt to somehow balance these two aspects of her life — politics and the thirst for Sufism.

The turning point in her life came when she heard Begum Akhtar. The more she listened to her, the deeper she was drawn into Urdu and Persian poetry. More than 250 concerts and five albums later, Singhvi says she is finally getting to understand the depth of the language and the poetry. She has learnt to read, write and speak both Urdu and Persian. Once, at Jamia Millia Islamia, where she performs regularly, she sang Persian compositions for two and a half hours. In her second album, Sada-e-Sufi by Saregama India (the first, Naqsh-e-Noor, and fourth, Tajalli, were also from Saregama) three out of nine songs are in Persian. A translation, she felt, would rob them of their meaning and depth. Another album, Zah-e-Naseen, produced by Big Music, took shape after composer Khayyam and his wife Jagjit Kaur heard Singhvi sing Begum Akhtar’s ghazals. In the album, Khayyam, who has composed music for her, says, “Her voice is fresh and unusual... Inko Urdu aur Farsi se junoon ki had tak mohabbat hai” (“She is obsessively passionate about Urdu and Persian”).

Singhvi says she would rather perform at live concerts, where singing fine poetry that reaches out to the audience gives her a joy like no other. She’s performed, among other places, in West Asia, Europe, America, Pakistan (“where the audience left me overwhelmed”), back home in Jodhpur, and in California, which was one of the longest performances, close to four hours. Singhvi, who has a heavy bass voice, has also performed often at Ghalib Academy and at the Milad functions (the Prophet’s birthday) at Jamia University. In 2007, she received the Mallika-e-Tarannum (queen of melody) award from the Husn Ara Trust.

Trained in the Gwalior Gharana, Singhvi has gone from singing ghazals and dadra to Sufiana kalam. The range has equipped her to make her own compositions, where she at times adds Meera and Kabir to Ghalib. “In a way, my condition is like Meera’s,” she says. “One part of me wants to go out and visit every dargah, listen to the philosophers, soak in as much beauty as there is in Urdu and Persian poetry as possible. But another part of me holds me back.” In the midst of this, she says, she has created an atmosphere around her where Sufism coexists in harmony with politics.

First Published: Sat, March 26 2011. 00:19 IST
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