Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern South Asia is the new book of British author William Dalrymple who has lived in and written several books about the subcontinent. On Saturday night, Yoko and I attended an unusual event at the Asia Society in New York to launch the book.
The event was built around the theme of the book, which searches the expression of the sacred in the rapidly changing and increasingly materialistic region. On both sides of the stage, square platform covered with oriental carpets had been placed. William Dalrymple sat himself down on the one to the left and introduced the evening’s program. It was organized around four different performances all bringing out dimensions of the sacred and spiritual from the subcontinent. These would be interspersed with readings by the author from his book.
The first performer was Paban Das Baul. The Bauls are a group of mystics from the Bengal region of India who perform a specific type of folk song. Their beliefs draw from Vaishnavite Hindu and Sufi Muslim traditions. Paban Das Paul was dressed in a colourful outfit that contrasted with his long curly grey hair that surrounded his bearded face. His powerful voice carried the soulful melodies to the accompaniment of an equally colourfully robed lady, Mimlu Sen, who sat calmly next to the singer providing a serene rhythm by a pair of tiny finger cymbals. She is said to be a storyteller, musician, dancer and writer in her own right, who tours and performs with Paban Das Baul.
The order of the performances had to be slightly changed, as the Shah Jo Raag Fakirs were stuck in the immigration at the JFK airport (“Could you kindly step to the side, sir?”). Apparently the three traditionally dressed and bearded men from Pakistan had raised the suspicions of the homeland security types at the border. Ironically, these gentlemen were Sufi who, as Dalrymple explained, are at the frontlines of intra-Islamic fight with the Taliban hardliners who accuse them of adulterating the pure faith. Never mind that Sufism has been around much longer than the intolerant Wahhabism that has been imported from Saudi Arabia to the volatile region mostly by the Jihadists fighting in Afghanistan. The Sufis’ celebration of the mysticism of Islam through song and dance is too much for the narrow-minded soldiers for Islam. If only there was more intelligence in the homeland security crowd to understand this, sighed Dalrymple.
While we were waiting for the Fakirs, next came the Theyyam Dance Group from North Kerala in India, who performed an ancient dance that has a tradition of more than 1,000 years. The main dancer, Hari Das, is one of the characters featured in Dalrymple’s book. He wore a spectacular red costume not very much like anything that I had seen before. In fact, the costume was a huge square from the top of which the dancer’s masked face protruded.
After the intermission, the author informed the audience that the Sufis had been allowed entrance and were in a taxi approaching Asia Society. To fill in the time, Dalrymple read another passage from Nine Lives, a moving story of a young Jain nun who witnessed the death of another nun and her friend.
Then joy: Shah Jo Raag Fakirs entered the stage and sat down on the carpeted square to the right. The three Fakirs performed two numbers with high-pitched vocals and stringed instruments, the dhamboor, created by Shah Jo Raag himself. The intensity of the music was amazing and rose constantly towards a wailing climax.
The final performer of the evening—and at this time William Dalrymple exited the stage after having introduced the act—was by far the best known in the West: the famous Tamil performer from London, Susheela Raman. She is a composer, arranger and singer who over the past decade has performed and recorded music that crosses the divisions of genre and ethnicity, incorporating ample South Asian elements from her own cultural heritage. This time, she would perform Thevaram hymns from the temples of Tamil Nadu state of India. She had studied these spiritual songs, which she had arranged to her own style.
Susheela Raman was accompanied by her long-term musical partners Sam Mills on guitar and Aref Durvesh on tabla. This trio produced sounds that were hard to believe came from such sparse instrumentation. Mills modified the sounds of his acoustic guitar electronically adding a stronger bass and full effects. Durvesh’ tabla playing was superb. He created amazing rhythms and tones from the three small drums sitting on a table in front of him, playing complex patterns on the fingers of his right hand, while providing a fluid bass beat on the left. At the centre of attention was Susheela Rahman, dressed in black with her big curly dark hair flowing. Her voice is so powerful that it is an instrument in itself, which she used skilfully to deliver new meaning to these ancient songs.
The highlight of the evening was when at the end all of the musicians gathered on the stage for several additional numbers. The first was a duet sung by Susheela Rahman with Shah Jo Raag. The second, to me perhaps the high point of the entire evening, again brought to the forefront Paban Das Paul (with Mimlu Sen again sitting quietly alone on the carpet while the mood on stage was getting riotous). He sang and danced in a highly spirited manner his colourful robes flowing as he whirled around ecstatically. The final soloist was again Shah Jo Raag whose forceful falsetto captured the audience and the other performers alike. The concert was a true treat that demonstrated the variety and the beauty of South Asian traditional music.
A further treat was to continue to a reception in Asia Society’s beautiful café where we could mingle with the artists while sampling Indian fare and fine wines. A delightful evening altogether.