Sufi Kathak comes to town with Manjari Chaturvedi

Bulle Shah, the revered saint of Punjab, comes alive on stage with a Sufi Kathak performance.

“Dance is a language I know. Everything I do is a research project for me. Instead of writing a paper, I dance,” says Manjari Chaturvedi, a few days before her performance of Bulle Shah, the Sufi saint revered on both sides of the Punjab.

Chaturvedi, who introduced Delhi to Sufi Kathak in 2000, will be dancing to Bulle Shah’s poems for the first time as part of the ‘22 Khwaja Project’.

The project aims to promote traditional Sufi music and dance through artist collaborations, and by creating awareness about the relatively unknown 22 Sufi shrines located in and around Delhi through annual concerts. But it doesn’t stop there. The project also hopes to throw light on exemplary Sufi poets of Awadh.

This is why she balks when mentioning what passes under the name of ‘Sufi’. “Any song with ‘Allah’ or ‘Maula’ these days is considered Sufi,” says the artiste. The Sufi spirit, she says is best understood when seen in continuity with the lives of saints such as Bulle Shah.

Who was Bulle Shah? A Punjabi Muslim, Shah was a late 17th century seer born in the village of Uch, Bahwalpur, in present-day Pakistan. Shah is believed to have hailed Guru Tegh Bahadur as a religious warrior, which brought him under attack by the conservatives of his religion.

Baba Bulle Shah’s shrine in Kasur, Pakistan . The image is a part of photographer Amit Mehra’s ongoing project which traces the roots of Sufism as it spread in countries on the Silk Route . (Amit Mehra)

“The simplicity with which he talked, in verse, of everyday life, has been a large part of his appeal,” says Chaturvedi. “Did you know Mera piya ghar aya… was a Bulle Shah composition? We all know Madhuri Dixit danced to it but we don’t know the man who wrote it.”

Chaturvedi’s performance, ‘O Bullayah’ has been in the making for some years, but she had to be “ready” to dance to him. She had to be ready to drop her own inhibitions, she says. “He was a man who danced as a woman on the streets out of love for his master. It’s a huge letting go.”

Practical matters also played a part. It is difficult to find qawaals in Punjab. When she located Ustad Ranjhan Ali, who had been singing Baba Farid and Bulle Shah for years, it was easier for her to plan her performance.

How does the synchrony between a qawaal and a dancer work? “A qawaal does not sing for me, he is singing for his master. I’m just the medium,” says Chaturvedi. “A word might just set him off and he might get into a state of ecstasy, few dancers can handle it.” Sufi Kathak, she adds, is a “going beyond the body. I’m just the soul dancing.”

The Sufi Kathak Foundation presents ‘O Bullayah’ at The Zone at The Kila, Seven Style Mile, Mehrauli, 7:30 pm, May 16. For invites, call 9871310119