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Love, longing and pain in the lives of Bhit Shah’s raagi faqeers

Published Nov 29, 2018 02:51am
A view of the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai as seen from its place of ablution | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star
A view of the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai as seen from its place of ablution | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star

I heard many versions of the following story at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in the calmly thriving town of Bhit Shah in Sindh:

When Benazir Bhutto visited Bhit Shah during her term as prime minister, a delegation of raagi faqeers sought audience with her after she listened to them present Shah Jo Raag — the tuneful recitation of Bhitai’s poetry orally transmitted by raagi faqeers since the time when the 18th century saint lived. Referring to Bhit Shah’s colony for artisans, laid out and populated in the 1980s by the government, the faqeer representative petitioned for a similar colony for his community as well. “We faqeers don’t have houses,” he conveyed to the prime minister. To this she wittily replied: “faqeeron ke ghar toh laa-makaan men hote hain.”

Faqeer Manthaar Ali Junejo singing the Raag with his daughters
Faqeer Manthaar Ali Junejo singing the Raag with his daughters

To roughly translate this sentence (the residence of faqeers is beyond spatial limits) would not do justice to the savvy play on the web of meanings associated with the words makaan (house, dwelling, station, space) and laa-makaan (beyond space, inexistent, nowhere, a putative divine abode) within Sufi devotional discourse. Yet, for me, this story succinctly sums up the ambivalent and precarious realm that raagi faqeers navigate to live meaningfully and with dignity in contemporary Pakistan.

Raagi faqeers point out that they are different from conventional faqeers – religious mendicants who renounce all worldly ties – since they have families to feed and households to run. While big raagis of the past were ascetics who abstained from marital union, their present day successors define themselves through the particular “duty” they perform at the entrance to Bhitai’s mausoleum: groups of raagi faqeers follow a weekly schedule to recite Shah Jo Raag at morning, afternoon and all-night time slots every day of the week.

Children reciting the Quran in the shrine’s mosque on a Thursday
Children reciting the Quran in the shrine’s mosque on a Thursday

This act of haazri (attendance) – or as the faqeers colloquially call it in English, “duty” – can take various forms. Sweeping the shrine’s compound, fetching water for pilgrims, attending dance and song rituals of dhamaal, halqa and samaa, cooking and serving charity food, for example, are all ways of showing devotion for their beloved murshid (righteous guide) Bhitai. Those who practice haazri by reciting Shah Jo Raag thus add the descriptor “raagi” to their identity.

Anyone – that is, anyone who has social sanction to roam within the shrine and wander about on night roads alone – can potentially become a raagi faqeer. It is all a matter of ishq – love – as Faqeer Manthaar Ali Junejo, my mentor and a senior raagi faqeer, once said. “Some are struck by the Raag, and some are not, yet those who devote themselves to this particular path of love, they will never leave it, even when at death’s door.”

A woman peeking at the grave of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai
A woman peeking at the grave of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai

The faqeers do not belong to a particular caste or class. They come from different socially stratified positions in the agricultural areas surrounding Bhit Shah. Thus, while the majority of them are farmers or landless wage labourers, there are some who hail from landowning families or have genealogies going back to the prophet of Islam.

Theoretically, power relations derived from social status are redistributed when the faqeers sit down to present Shah Jo Raag together and a new hierarchy, organised according to a faqeer’s degree of knowledge on Raag performance, emerges.

Musicians gathered inside the shrine on a Wednesday
Musicians gathered inside the shrine on a Wednesday

Becoming a raagi faqeer capable of regular haazri requires memorising countless verses of Bhitai’s poetry along with acquiring the musical knowledge of how to vocally render each chapter of verses according to specific melodic rules. To become an agwaan – leader – of a group, a faqeer should further have memorised enough chapters to prompt other members of his group in presenting the verses; he should also have acquired mastery over playing and leading the instrumental preludes on the danbooro – a five-stringed instrument the faqeers use for accompanying Shah Jo Raag – and be able to lead the group singing of waa’i as well as say duaa (supplication) at fixed times.

To commit to being a faqeer entails sacrifice, embodied in the very act of sitting down to recite the Raag. The seat used by raagi faqeers is called adi, which literally translates as the butcher’s cutting board. Symbolically, the faqeers are prepared to give up their lives – “like meat on a cutting board” – in their recitation practice. Physically, too, their bodies suffer the consequences of strenuous and emotionally intense singing for long periods of time. As Faqeer Khan Muhammad Chandio put it: “This is not raag – [a melody] for dancing and happiness – but viraag – [a melody] for crying. This is the raag of the heart. This is the raag of the insides; it is of the lungs and kidneys ... I would die five years before my given time. Why? Because either my lungs or my kidneys would fail since all the weight is on them [when I am] singing all night.”

Kambar Faqeer performing with his group
Kambar Faqeer performing with his group

Yet devotion expressed through the Raag gives to life just as much as it takes away. When I asked the faqeers what it meant for them to do haazri, the predominant response was that it was ibaadat (worship) through which they gained peace. “When there is love, peace follows,” said Faqeer Shahnawaz Nizamani. “When I get sick, or have pain, I go sing the Raag and then I’m completely fine again. Sickness just ends,” Khabbar Soomro, another faqeer, told me. He had earlier confided to me that he has a cancer in the stomach but had no money for treatment. “The Raag is like this. No matter how sick you are, you never leave it,” my mentor said, “when we sing, our soul gets food. If you can’t sing, you will die.”

Even as they choose to live meaningful lives through devotion, the majority of faqeers, coming from resource-scarce socio-economic backgrounds, face a constant struggle to feed their families and meet their medical expenses. Some, including Junejo, also worry about job opportunities for their children which, in their world, are rarely available without powerful connections.

A woman  in a trance as Kamil Faqeer Thani sings the Raag
A woman in a trance as Kamil Faqeer Thani sings the Raag

Since the 1960s, state-run media and, later, the Sindh Culture Department, have introduced raagi faqeers to wider audiences, providing them prospects to earn some money by performing in urban centers of Pakistan as well as abroad. These developments are intertwined with a longer history of efforts by the Sindhi elite and intelligentsia, beginning around the 1920s, to shape Bhit Shah into a hub of Sindhi culture. Through the staging of musical programmes during the annual fair, mela, at the shrine and invitations to perform on radio, television and later in international music festivals, raagi faqeers have found new audiences to listen to their performances. These staged performances and other government policies such as stipends for senior faqeers provided by the Culture Department have slowly turned raagi faqeers into cultural subjects of the state.

But the heyday of state-sponsored initiatives is gone and only a handful of faqeers have gained access to new forums shaped by market forces and non-government entities. Helped by the rising fame of Bhit Shah and improvements in infrastructure for travel and communication, some of them have built extensive networks with followers of Bhitai all over Sindh (as well as in south Punjab), precipitating an increase in invitations to perform the Raag in devotional contexts outside Bhit Shah.

Faqeer Khan Muhammad Chandio  / Shahnawaz Faqeer
Faqeer Khan Muhammad Chandio / Shahnawaz Faqeer

Yet the very idea of seeking livelihood through the Raag is infused with ambivalence since the ideal of a godly faqeer, disdainful of material gains and thus closer to Allah, is the very basis on which they garner respect from other devotees of Bhitai. The faqeers, thus, must continuously negotiate an ethical path that balances remuneration, artistry, legitimacy and devotion.

These days, my mentor and many other faqeers live in modest houses built after Benazir Bhutto promised to provide a colony for all the raagi faqeers of Bhit Shah. The son of a landless farmer from a neighbouring village, Junejo had not expected this turn in his life when he was struck by ishq and committed himself to Shah Jo Raag as a young man, some 40 years ago. Now his life revolves around his haazri times and the making of danbooros, passing a day at a time.

There are loans to return, sons to marry, daughters to educate. “But by the grace of murshid Latif,” he told me, “we always get by somehow.”


The writer is a PhD candidate of ethnomusicology at Harvard University.


This article was published in the Herald's November 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.