I didn’t know till recently that the Sufi music festival Ruhaniyat is an annual affair held across cities in India, and that it is quite famous in Bangalore. I jumped up when I heard of the concert being held in the Jayamahal Palace grounds last weekend. It sounded so very mystical and interesting, and it promised a performance by whirling dervishes from Egypt, something I have longed to see ever since I have read about them in books. As soon as I got to know of the concert, I pinged the OH, and he said that he would love to go, too. That’s how we made our way to the Jayamahal Palace grounds the chilly night of last Saturday, with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The concert, I’m happy to say, didn’t disappoint.
Ruhaniyat 2012 (the 12th edition of the concert since its inception) started with a performance by Rifayi fakirs from the dargahs of Andhra Pradesh, called Zikr-e-Rifayi. It was a lovely, mesmerising performance full of spirituality, and the audience was captivated by the throaty, deep voices of the fakirs.
Next was the turn of the Vaya Quartet, a group of artists from Bulgaria. They presented a couple of polyphonic songs, which consist of different types of sounds, ranging from shouts to low wails to ecstatic noises. This was a very interesting performance, quite unlike anything I have ever heard so far. I was charmed in equal measure by the music of this quartet and by the dresses that the performers wore.
After the Bulgarian quartet was the turn of a group from Egypt, who played some haunting, haunting, haunting music. It was simply beautiful.
Then came the Manganiars from Rajasthan, with their desert songs. This one was quite a rustic performance, a lively one, and had the audience clapping and tapping their feet. Later, the Manganiars combined with the musicians from Egypt to perform a fusion piece, and it was so, so, so beautiful I can’t describe it in words. It touched me immensely, and made me realise how much beauty can be created if we are willing to collaborate our creativity and intellect and let go of our boundaries. It was but sheer magic.
Then, Parvathy Baul came on stage, reminding everyone of Mirabai with her appearance and her Bengali songs on Lord Krishna. A woman of many talents, Parvathy has a crystal clear, captivating voice, which she lent to three songs as she revolved on stage in a spiritual daze, playing her instruments simultaneously.
Next in line were the Egyptian whirling dervishes. They took on the stage, and how! It was just enchanting to see them whirl and whirl, keeping tune to the lively beats of the music that accompanied them, never once fumbling for balance. They surprised everyone by pulling out flags of India from their garb, and dancing with it, to honour the country that had invited them to perform so lovingly. Another surprise was in store for the audience when the dervishes whirled down the stage, whirled their way through the audience and then moved back up on stage. I had always thought that whirling dervishes just revolve in a frenzy brought on by the love of God, but this was beautiful! I hadn’t been prepared for the way they did unimaginable tricks with their skirts, called ‘tannoura’, sliding it to their legs, lifting it above their heads and twirling it till it looked like a frisbee. I hadn’t known that they wear multiple skirts, too! Each of these motions has a special significance to it. Their performance brought an element of fun to the concert, and was one of my personal favourites. And, oh, I was stunned to know that each of the skirts that these dervishes were twirling away so effortlessly weighs more than 20 kilograms! Needless to say, the audience was on the edge of their seats, watching them with bated breath.
I couldn’t get good pictures of the whirling dervishes, as they were constantly in motion, never stopping, even for a moment.
After the whirling dervishes, a group of Qawwali artists came on stage, who had come all the way from Pakistan. Some of their quawwalis were devotional, some were about love, and some were pure fun. These artists, with their magnificent voices and liveliness provided a fitting conclusion to the concert.
The efforts of Banyan Tree, the organisation behind the show, in bringing so many Sufi artists from different parts of the world on a common platform are commendable. It was beautiful to see so many different ways of conveying the same thought, the same feeling – love, spirituality, and love for God.
It was quite evident that the performers had been carefully hand-picked, and the songs chosen after a lot of consideration. The quality of the performances was wonderful; there was no doubt about that, and they did attain their objective – to hold the audience spell-bound. The sound and light effects, too, were lovely. The concert began sharply at the time that had been announced, and that was commendable.
We did experience a few minor glitches at the concert, too, though. For instance, the open-air venue got quite chilly as evening turned into night (it was a 3.5-hour program that began at 6.30 PM), and there were disturbances due to loud music from other events in adjacent plots. People were trying to bundle themselves into their shawls and sweaters, and trying to concentrate hard on the music so as not to feel the cold air that nipped at them. Maybe, a closed auditorium would have been better suited to such an event?
Also, the plastic chairs that were provided were quite uncomfortable to sit in for as long a period as 3.5 hours, and the lack of theatre-style elevated levels of seating made it difficult for people in the back rows to see the performers.
Food had been arranged in an adjacent space, but it got so very crowded during the 10-minute break that was offered that many people returned disappointed. It would have been great if some refreshments had been served at the seats itself. Everyone got quite hungry towards the end of the concert, as the time for dinner was past! I think the price of the concert tickets (Rs. 500 per head) was justified, considering the quality of the performances and the fact that so many artists from across the world had been (probably) flown in and accomodation had been arranged for them. That said, we felt that the audience could have been given the option of getting some refreshments delivered at their seats, maybe for a little additional cost.
There was a gang of guys whistling and hooting and shouting at the top of their lungs, distracting people. Many from the audience were clearly irritated. This, in spite of the anchor’s constant reminders that whistling and hooting does not go with the spirit of Ruhaniyat. An event like Ruhaniyat deserves to be attended in a quiet, respectable, contemplative way, to imbibe its true spirit, but these guys were clearly not interested in doing that. Some bouncers would not have been out of place, honestly.
We just wished that the organisation of the concert had been a little better managed; we had no complaints with the performances.
Overall, I loved the concert, and so did the OH. It was a wonderful, very different, transforming experience. ‘Ruhaniyat’ means ‘soulfulness’ in Urdu, and the concert pretty much lived up to its name. It lived up to our expectations of a mystical, magical, interesting evening, too. You have to experience it at least once to completely comprehend what I am talking about. I cannot say I understood everything that was performed on stage, but I sure loved everything. That is the beauty of music, I feel – it has the capability to enchant and enthrall you, make you fall in love with it, even if you do not understand it at all, or do not understand it fully. Moreover, it was special in the sense that it was the first real concert that I have attended; hopefully, the first in a long line of concerts to come!
It is pretty clear that we are going to be regular visitors to Ruhaniyat, whenever it is held next in Bangalore.