A fan of her songs and voice, an interview with her has made me admire her as a person as well. Haven't met a famous artists as humble as her...
The road leading to Humayun’s Tomb is jam packed. There’s a long queue of people; many couldn’t manage passes but are here hoping for a chance. There are arguments and even fights to get inside. It’s the third day of the 11th edition of Jahan-e-Khusrau. All the rush is to see the legendary Sufi singer Abida Parveen perform.
What is it in her voice and music that enthralls people all across the world? What is it that makes hundreds willing to wait for hours to hear her sing for a few minutes? The answers unfold in a freewheeling conversation with the doyen of Sufi music.
Parveen ranks among the world’s best-known Sufi performers, a female amongst many males – a distinction she says she doesn’t understand. My question evokes in her a child-like, infectious laughter. “Since childhood I never saw myself as a woman. Jab ishq hota hai toh yeh sab cheezein mayane nahi rakhti (These things do not matter when you are in love with Him). What we are seeking ... despair of separation from Him is same in all of us – whether a man or woman. Moreover, He doesn’t see us differently,” says Parveen, whose name incidentally means one who worships.
The singer has been coming to Delhi to participate in the annual three-day Sufi festival for over a decade now. Has the audience’s interest changed in all these years? “Yes, certainly. It has grown tremendously from the time we started coming here mainly because Bollywood movies now increasingly have music with Sufi touch,” says the 59-year-old singer. No puritan, she rather believes that there are no boundaries in music and has experimented with fusion music as well.
Parveen sings in Urdu, Sindhi, Persian and Punjabi. Most of her audience do not completely understand the meaning of the words used. Yet they are captivated. “Whatever be the language, the heart can comprehend it. Music, after all, has no religion or language. The idea is to spread Allah’s message,” she reasons.
Her association with Sufi poetry and music goes back to when she was just three years old. Born in Sindh, Pakistan, she remembers sitting with the harmonium learning lessons from her father Ustad Ghulam Haider, a prominent Pakistani vocalist, who defied convention and encouraged her to sing. That he has been the biggest inspiration in her life is obvious from the fond tone she uses while talking about him. “I was very attached to him since the very beginning and all this is a gift from him. He never forced me but I found myself inclined to music as well as Sufi poetry. I was also attracted to shrines. It all came so naturally as if it is all decided even before one is born.” Parveen has two brothers and two sisters; none of them, she says, is interested in singing. Besides her father, she credits her husband (the late Ghulam Hussain Sheikh) for always motivating and encouraging her. In fact, it was he who nurtured her development as a singer when she began her career at Radio Pakistan where he was a senior producer.
What are the thoughts in her head before a performance, I ask. “There’s always tension and nervousness. It’s as if it is my first performance and my last,” she smiles. What keeps her going? “The inspiration comes from my murshid (guide and teacher). It’s His will that keeps one inspired,” she says. “God has blessed us all with a spark. Every soul has a connection with Him. Some of us have a greater connection; some are yet to develop,” she speaks mystically.
She clearly exists in a higher spiritual realm. I wonder if there is any regret or any unfulfilled desire she has. It’s the desire for perfection, she says. “Mukammal toh khuda ki zaat hai. Only Allah is perfect. We just try to better our rehearsals and music so that we can reach as many people as possible,” asserts Parveen.
During the entire interview she rarely uses ‘I’ and talks of herself as one of the many entrusted with the responsibility of spreading the message of unity, love and peace. How does she manage to remain so humble and grounded even after all the fame? That ingenuous laughter returns as if she’s embarrassed to hear that. “Mujh me mera kuch nahi, jo kuch hai so tera; Tera tujh ko sonp dein, kya laagey mera (Nothing is mine, whatever is all belongs to thee; I shall return what’s yours for nothing belongs to me),” she answers, quoting Saint Kabir’s famous couplet.
That’s the hallmark of a true Sufi, they say. Humble, they do not make a show of their spirituality. Wise and worldly yet unfeigned, their music mesmerises people the world over (even if they don’t understand words completely) and makes hundreds wait for hours to hear them sing for a few minutes…
This article was published in Atelier Diva April Issue