His rendition of ‘Kabeer khada bazaar mein, maange sabki khair...’ sure worked wonders on a few hundred souls gathered at Vanaranga in Mysore recently. Evoking the mysticism and deep sense of spirituality which are the essential elements of Sufi music, Mukhtiar Ali filled every bit of space. His voice alternating between honeyed and lilting tones, soothed many a hearts and filled them with love and deep sense of total surrender.
Mukhtiar Ali, who is the 26th generation Sufi singer from Rajasthan belonging to the Mirasi community, insists that Sufi kalam is about looking for Him — evoking Him who is present within ‘us’. Living in the hot and arid Pugal in Rajasthan, Mukhtiar has been witness to many contradictory shades in the world of music. Much like the music he sings, his talks too, are not devoid of hidden meanings.
“Bahut dekh liye. Par abhi bahut kuch dekhna baaki hai (I have much, but there is a lot left to see),” he says when asked about whether Sufi music is ‘back’ for good. After the success of ‘Had - Unhad’ — a documentary film made by Shabnam Virmani that shot him to fame; Ali has seen a lot of ‘shift’ in attitude in his own community. Ali admits Sufi was not his first love, but will surely remain his only love. “I tried my hands at agriculture, tailoring, weaving, and worked with Urmul Trust for few years before finally turning towards Sufi,” he says.
The carrier of an oral tradition, with no written notes to refer to; or formal documentation of learning process of Sufi music, Mukhtiar slips into notes with ease. Has it ever unnerved him before others? No, he says. Recollecting his experience with formally trained musicians, Mukhtiar says he was in Chennai recently to attend a mega music festival. Musicians from various disciplines had gathered for the same. There was a 10-day rehearsal as a run-up to the final recording and everyone was “counting something” at their finger tips and asked Mukhtiar to do the same, as he was to join them at the middle note of the song. He was nervous initially and then gathered enough courage to tell them “Bhayya, aap gao. I will catch the note perfectly alright, wherever I am to join you. But, don’t ask me to do this counting. I have never done it all my life!” After that, it was a smooth sailing for Ali who recorded well on the final day, while most others had lost their energy owing to the 10-day rehearsals!
Expressing his discomfort over closed spaces, Mukhtiar feels he sings the best when he is ‘with’ people. “I love open air theatres or informal gatherings. I feel euphoric when people egg me on. I am the best Meera, or Radha they would have heard. I surrender totally when I sing for people... like a woman who sings for her lover. ‘He’ is my focus and I look for Him in the gathering. Get me into an airconditioned, sound-proofed studio, I am a restless soul who is at his worst fidgety self,” he says.
Have the generations of singing eroded Sufi of its essence? Do they still sing Bulle Shah with as much dedication? “Bulle Shah is still the same. He still churns your stomach when you listen to anyone sing his kalaam. But the contemporary Sufiana Kalam (Sufi songs) has no ‘dum’. You don’t feel a thing when you sing them,” he reveals. How does he best describe the contemporary Sufi writing then? Pat comes the reply: “Clever play of words, but minus the essential essence.
“Bollywood has ‘used’ Sufi, often, to cater to the taste of its audience. Everything is diluted and coloured suitably to be served to them. At the same time, we cannot refute the fact that Bollywood has been the best vehicle Sufi music has found to reach the masses. ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’ is as necessary today in concerts as is ‘Kabir Khada Bazaar Mein, Maange Sabki Khair’.... We cannot deny this,” he observes.