29 November 2010

Hanging out with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

It was a Thursday night so I could have gone to the movies or to a nice restaurant, but instead I spent the evening with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the fourteenth-century Sufi saint. Every Thursday there is a performance of qawwali music in front of the dargah [shrine]. The musicians sit facing the dargah because technically they're not playing for the spectators but for the saint himself.

Hazrat Nizamuddin was the head of the Chishti order of Sufis in India and was a friend of the great poet Amir Khusrau, whose tomb is nearby in the same complex. Although in the West Islam has an aura of being against music (and against fun in general), Sufis have long embraced musical performance as part of their worship. It plays a role in zikr, the meditative remembrance of God. In South Asia, the act of remembering God often turns into a rollicking good time.

The whole neighbourhood around the dargah complex is called Nizamuddin, and in some ways it feels like it has barely changed since the saint himself was roaming the narrow alleyways. There are goats tied up contentedly chewing on sticks (unaware that many of them were going to become that evening's biryani) and a couple of young men were tossing bits of food up to the circling crows as a hawk eyed them expectantly from a powerline. The smells from all the restaurants, which range from spacious multi-storey establishments to a guy on the street with a stove and a carton of eggs, mingled with a not unpleasant earthiness. It was crowded and busy, even by Indian standards, and there was an amazing diversity of Islamic clothes on display. People dressed in everything from Saudi robes to a tight but flowing Chinese (probably Uighur) shirt and a long pigtail. The only constant was that almost every man had his head covered.

Of course some things have changed. Some monuments, like the courtyard around the tomb of the 19th-century poet Mirza Ghalib, have been refurbished with money from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The effort is appreciated and yet the place ended up looking a little too clean and generic, like a moorish-revival shopping mall in the States. Hazrat Nizamuddin's tomb itself is lit with blindingly bright lights.

The way into the shrine complex is through a warren of narrow streets lined with tiny shops selling devotional offerings and places to store your shoes. There was one slightly out of place travel agency by the main gate, a reminder that besides being a tourist attraction this is a place where people like and work. We left our shoes with the official shoe-keeper at the main gate, who dutifully baled our group's footwear with a length of rope and gave my friend a token. (Leaving one's shoes outside is required at Muslim holy sites--violators, like one unfortunate boy who carried his family's shoes right up to Hazrat Nizamuddin's tomb itself, are driven out with dramatic verbal and physical abuse.)

Inside the shrine was pandemonium. Dozens of beggars, many of them children or old or disabled either sat under painted signs saying things like "do not sit here without invitation" or mingling with the crowd. First we visited Amir Khusrau's tomb, which was stacked high with flowers and cloth. Very serious looking bearded men turned their palms up and prayed as others like myself tried to shuffle past them in the narrow space. Just about everything here was sacred. You could touch the doorway, touch the offerings on the cenotaph, take a bit of offerings which had been sanctified, give offerings and then touch your forehead to the feet of the saint. I took a petal and keep it on my desk for good luck. Nizamuddin's tomb, which was much bigger and brighter, presented the same experience, except here there was a metal bar to keep traffic flowing, which did not stop a man from zooming beneath the barrier and putting his head on the cenotaph for what seemed like a long time just as I was about to take my turn. Interesting that my friend, who is Hindu but also a qawwal (which is to say someone who sings Sufi music), stopped to pray in the tomb, apparently reciting in Arabic. Not just Muslims but Hindus and Sikhs also brought offerings.

By the time we reached, the performance had started and space was at a premium. My friend knew the old man who was in charge of crowd control as well as being a member of the troupe. In a lordly way, the old man made a place for us at the front, next to the two harmonium players. He was gaunt but sprightly and managed to juggle his roles. He scolded people who blocked the way (people had to be able to circulate around the tomb but also there was meant to be a clear path between the singers and the tomb, because technically the songs are being addressed to the saint). When he did sing—it was more belting than singing, with grand sweeping gestures—it seemed as though he was having a conversation with the saint. Hazrat Nizamuddin didn't reply, but it was very moving. The technical quality of the music was less important than the abundance of feeling. One of the old man's other duties was collecting money that was offered, so he kept jumping up to collect notes being passed to him. He would sweep a note in the dust in front of the saint's tomb and if you were important, he would touch it to the tomb's threshold before dropping it in the money pile in front of the harmonium players. Sometimes he would make change for people, which struck me as funny even though it's perfectly reasonable.

Of course, this being India, someone started up a saw in the background and sparks flew across the crowd. (Because why not do your construction work in the middle of the most crowded time?) Also, behind a screen that was shaped like a zoo-cage some women were in ecstasy and making howling noises, literally like beasts. Their flowing black clothes made them like ominous shadows behind the white-latticework screen. Eventually they had to be told to shut up.

The crowd of a few hundred people, which included maybe a half a dozen rather confused looking white people, was enjoying it although they made less noise than I would have expected. One youngish man with his iPhone out filming was rocking out to the music, and a few other people were keeping time with their fingers out.

The music only went until seven-forty or so because it had to finish in time for the last of the five prayers of the day. The troupe were divided over whether to end the concert or play one more song. They did, finishing just a couple of minutes before the call for prayer sounded. The faithful went to pray, and we went to eat kebabs and tandoori chicken.

Here's a video of part of the performance. The building at the beginning is Hazrat Nizamuddin's tomb. The elderly usher/singer/money-collector features prominently.

BONUS: It's a very odd discovery but I've found that Duke Ellington's version of "Take the 'A' Train" (which features Ella Fitzgerald on vocals) is the perfect accompaniment to most walks down a not-very-busy Delhi street. I'm not sure why it works—the contrast between the slow start and the orgiastic trumpet solo maybe or the soothing effect of Ella's voice?—but I've tried it a few times and it, along with some Hindi film songs, is my travelling music here.

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