Blurred musical lines in South Asian religions

South Asia has seen more than its share of horrific religious violence, whether it was the mass displacement and mass killings of Partition in 1947, or the genocide during Bangladesh’s 19671 war of liberation, or the pogroms of the 1980s in India, or the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat or of 2013 in Uttar Pradesh.

But present in this backdrop of religious divisions are cultural and musical traditions that blur the lines that have been imposed between Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.  Take, for example, the musical collective of Riyaaz Qawwali, based in Texas, whose work fuses the musical and philosophical tenets of the various South Asian religions via the medium of Qawwali, a traditional form of Sufi Muslim devotional music.  Here is a video of them singing a Hindu bhajan from 15th-century Gujarat in Qawwali style.

This kind of syncretism isn’t just present in the diaspora — it is present in the homeland too.  Indeed, this style of inter-communal tradition is precisely the target of far-right extremist groups like Islamic State who abhor the notion of religious harmony, diversity, and heterogeneity.  The recent attack in the Sindh province of Pakistan, which killed over 70 people and injured hundreds, was an attack on a shrine whose popularity and meaning transcended religion and culture:

Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalized into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in [Pakistan], he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

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