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  India   All India  17 Sep 2019  Faqeer Nimaana: Shah Hussain’s poems presented as music & dance by a quartet

Faqeer Nimaana: Shah Hussain’s poems presented as music & dance by a quartet

THE ASIAN AGE. | SUNIL KOTHARI
Published : Sep 17, 2019, 1:16 am IST
Updated : Sep 17, 2019, 1:16 am IST

There is always a buzz when it is announced that Beej and Sanjukta Wagh will be presenting a new work.

The song Charakhada as a metaphor of time itself — the cycle of life and death is intense, where Kathak and tabla rhythms interspersed with silences as the song charts time itself with kattanwali, the feminine weaver keeping time.
 The song Charakhada as a metaphor of time itself — the cycle of life and death is intense, where Kathak and tabla rhythms interspersed with silences as the song charts time itself with kattanwali, the feminine weaver keeping time.

Sanjukta Wagh is a name to reckon with in the contemporary Kathak scene. A performer, choreographer, teacher and curator trained under Rajashree Shirke in Kathak and under Pandit Murali Manohar Shukla in Hindustani music, she is the co-founder of and director of an interdisciplinary initiative called Beej in Mumbai. Her engagement with theatre honed by playwright director Chetan Datar, a year-long experience at Laban Centre in London, her love for literature and deep unease with comfort zones have led to an interdisciplinary and exploratory mode of work.

Her choreographies like Rage and Beyond: Irawati’s Gandhari, Khayal Geometries, Jheeni, Bheetar Bahaar, Ubhe Vitevari, Putana, And I among several others along with traditional solo and ensemble performances have won her critical appreciation across the country and abroad. Recently, she won the Vinod Doshi award for significant work in performing arts. She won two national awards for her theatrical work Rage and Beyond: Irawati’s Gandhari, the best female actress award for Gandhari and the best female actress award for her lead role in Gandhari at the 2015 META festival. And her music collaborator live guitarist Hitesh Dhutia won best sound for Gandhari.

There is always a buzz when it is announced that Beej and Sanjukta Wagh will be presenting a new work. Faqeer Nimaana, recently presented at Habitat’s 18th edition of the Old World Theatre Festival that was presented by her, was no exception. One looked forward to seeing it to see how she has explored new vistas. Sanjukta calls the work a performance by a quartet and not a solo dance piece. Her collaborators are live guitarist Hitesh Dhutia, singer Radhika Sood Nayak and percussionist Vivek Netke — and she a dancer, forming the quartet.

Sufi mystic Shah Hussain says that the path of love is a needle’s eye. Be a thread, go through it. He was a mystic weaver poet from 16th-century Lahore. His charkha, spins, a metaphor for life and death, perennial movement and time itself, but only a single thread can dare enter the needle’s eye. Beyond which all divisions of religion, caste, gender, sexuality and nation must break to find a new way of being.

The quartet of these four artistes paid tribute to Faqeer Nimaana, who was the egoless malang in his reverence, his defiance and wisdom by bringing to life his kafis in song and dance. Even today people celebrate urs, a festival of light in the name of Shah Hussain and his Hindu lover Madho Lal. The path of love is beyond borders.

The sonic scape of voice, guitar, ghunghroos, tabla and percussion cuts across genres of Indian classical, pop, folk, Kathak, and world music. Sanjukta’s choreography seamlessly moves between real, metaphoric, emotional and symbolic sequences, from minimalist to explosive, from traditional to contemporary.

When we enter the auditorium we see two platforms on either side with two lamps. From above streams blue light, designed by Gurteen Judge. Vocalist Radhika Sood Nayak’s booming voice reverberates the auditorium. From the entrance of the auditorium enters Sanjukta dressed in a white costume designed by Sonal Kharade, with white head band woven in her plate, holding lamp and singing in Punjabi “Kee keeta ethe aike?” What does one do having come here? “Kee karse othe jaike?” What does one do after going there?

She settles down on the stage with Hitesh Dhutia. On the other side is vocalist Radhika Sood Nayak and percussionist Vivek Netke. The set is designed as conversation through singing, playing percussion, guitar and the sound of ghunghroos. In order to reach a larger audience the languages used are Punjabi, Hindi and English.

Radhika’s voice is captivating. It has raw energy and echoes the pain, anguish, agony, desire and longing love that the poems speak of. Whether one follows the Punjabi kafis of Shah Hussain or not the songs rendered by Radhika invariably touches the audience’s hearts. The metaphor of the thread runs though the piece. A singular thread that dares to enter the eye of needle, the path of love — a thread that extends, bends, sways, flies, knots, breaks finds other threads and finally weaves into a chaadar to fray and tear and once again mingle with dust and appears from the pod as the charkha moves endlessly.

The piece explores Hussain, the weaver, the irreverent fakir, the malang who swirls unmindful of society, or propriety, mission or permission, who invites disgrace, the begger who begs that the world be granted all it desires.

As the performance progresses, Hitesh Dhutia speaks in English about the relevance of the 16th-century fakir’s relevance. It touches questions of gender and caste, resistance and surrender. It also tells the story of Madho Lal and Hussain. A love between “mureed” and “murshid”, a shishya and a guru that continues to be celebrated across border at Baghbaanpura, Lahore in Pakistan, like what is celebrated in India at the dargahs of Khusrau Nizamuddin, Jamali-Kamali. The narrow boundaries of love are abolished and one perceives “self” and “other”.

The irreverent fakir finds no difference in binary personalities. The song “Jet jet duniya” speaks of sugar or smoke, medicine or meditation, destruction or resurrection, knowledge or epiphany, good company or ecstasy and it is what it is! The thread plays heedless of the world.

The song Buriyaan is rendered with great intensity. The metaphor of thread here pulls, knots, breaks and repairs itself. The poet says: “We are bad, stay away, we tread unfamiliar grounds, we traverse dangerous landscapes, beware, our only thirst is to be one with Saai. In our quest we are heedless of the wind, the thunderstorm that rages inside out, we care not for family, caste, rules and rituals. We seek only the beloved. Sharper than the arrows and swords you hurl at us are the stabs of separation. If you think you are the prince of Takhthazaara we too are daughters of Sial no less. We rise from the ashes and dance unabashed as would Heer for Ranjha.”

Buriyaan unfolds with only voice, guitar and physical theatre movements. The dancer stays crouching, lurking and doubled over throughout the sequence.

It is during the fourth song that the story of Bagbaanpura dargah in Lahore, Pakistan is told and the relationship between mureed and murshid, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal, is told along with their living tradition where the twin graves are still celebrated.

“Maaye ni mai kinnu aakhan” the refrain goes, the thread lengthens and shortens, ebb and flow. In the imagery of the forest Shah Hussain longs for Madho Lal, the fantasy of erotic union unfolds in abhinaya in what is known in Kathak parlance — baithaki bhav, a dancer enacts abhinaya by sitting on the floor.

The song Charakhada as a metaphor of time itself — the cycle of life and death is intense, where Kathak and tabla rhythms interspersed with silences as the song charts time itself with kattanwali, the feminine weaver keeping time. Replete with improvisations with tatkar, footwork, ghughroos, and ends with a fast paced energy that creates a weave from multiple threads coming together. Sanjukta as a choreographer excels in using Kathak imaginatively.

The finale with Rabba mere haal da mahram tu “I am nothing. You are all” for finding the Sufi dervish continuing with the imagery of the thread which unwinds is a slow meditative unwinding to find the line between earth and sky. A combination of Kathak and tai chi meditative movement, a slow motion of whirling … the lights fade and there is silence.

Doubtless, the appeal of such a production lies in understanding the songs and the multiple meanings, symbols with which they are layered. I asked Sanjukta to enlighten me and send me the director’s note and a few songs in Punjabi, the background of how this production emerged. It was fascinating to learn about the whole process.

The seed for Faqeer Nimaana was sowed when Sanjukta heard Radhika Sood Nayak’s compostion “Buriyaan” at Liniyakhedi, the village with the Kabir Ashram run by Prahladji Tapaniya near Devas, MP. A few friends had gathered to mourn the sudden death of a dear friend and dastango artist Ankit Chadha. Radhika and Ankit were to develop Shah Hussain as a musical storytelling piece .So she was sharing her work which unfortunately was left unfinished. Sanjukta says: “I still remember the first rendering of Buriyaan. Just the notes and words reverberated in my body. Here was an urgency of a collective women’s voice asserting them in an energised call. I had never encountered such in my study and research of Bhakti literature before. There are thousands of examples of a male poet taking on a woman’s voice. But Shah Hussain’s embodiment of the collective empowered by the feminine outcaste in Radhika’s voice was raw and alive and called out to me.”

The Indian Cultural Foundation invited Sanjukta and her team to collaborate and develop something of Punjabi Sufi poetry in dance and they decided solely to focus on Shah Hussain and create new music with live guitarist Hitesh Dhutia and percussionist Vinayak Netke who had worked with Beej for several productions. Radhika had already a few melodies she had been working on .From those they chose Buriyaan which Hitesh layered with a deliberately fragmented sound score for the voices of the daughters of Sial to be given centrestage.

Sanjukta further informs: “The other piece was ‘Asaan’ which speaks of the many aspects of fakiri, but the image that stayed with me was ‘Ishqa faqeeran di toni’. Passion is fakir’s walking stick. And as I began to imagine the song as a walk towards fakirhood, the back and forth, the hesitation, the fear, doubt and revelation. Through the walk my body language keeps moving from the swaying of the fakir to the classical Kathak upright position when I explore the path through tatkar, the footwork.’

Radhika had done extensive sound work and research for the fakir. Main reference book was Naveed Alam’s translations of Shah Hussain, Verses of Lowly Fakir: Madho Lal Hussain translated from Punjabi by Naveed Alam. He has an introduction, “The Disgraceful Saint”, which helped them to get a context of the poems. Radhika wrote them down in the Devnagari script. The song Jeti jeti duniya which depicts the “masti” of the malang and “Ghoom charakhda ghoom” which plays with metaphors from weaving to speak of life and time itself. Ghoom charkhda had to be in Durbari raag as the circularity of the raag — which was perfect to carry the meaning of the words. The song Maaye ni mein kenu akhaan about the pangs of separation between two lovers and the last song about the divine Rabba being the only solace to our wounds.

Sociologist Gita Chadha saw the rehearsal and wrote a beautiful introduction which the artistes play in the beginning about how they wish to celebrate this poet from 16th-century Lahore, how he resonates today and also about how he breaks dualisms of caste, gender, sexuality, nature to weave a fabric of diversity in unity, each individual thread spun and woven to make a cloth of camaraderie beyond imagined borders.

This helps a rasika, a viewer in appreciating this “out of the box” thinking approach of Sanjukta and her collaborators. Sanjukta concludes: “We call ourselves a quartet and not a solo dance piece. There are some spaces where music is enough and dance must take a backseat to let the music unfold. There are others where the dance leads. We decided to have male voices speaking the text and rhythms as well and this lends itself for a collective unfolding of music, dance and literature which is not singer or dancer led. Faqeer is a journey and we have just started out .As we meet again on and off stage, may Madho Lal and Hussain lead us to more and more unexpected discoveries.”

Sanjukta quotes her professor Mitra Parikh’s remarks: “The work is intellectual and emotional — a play of inter-textuality where strings, tabla, ghughroos, voice and dance all become a simultaneous unfolding of text. Literature which is not singer or dancer led.” It is a work which invites audiences to visit it again to relish the subtle nuances and haunting music.

The writer is an eminent dance historian

Tags: kathak, indian cultural foundation