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Hinduism ‘As I Sang Khwaja Moinuddin, I Could Hear The Voices Of The Dying In Gujarat’ (Tehelka)


1947-2014 (Archived)
personal histories

‘As I sang Khwaja Moinuddin, I could hear the voices of the dying in Gujarat’

Sumathi Murthy is a hindustani classical musician and composer. Is in her mid-30s. Lives in Bangalore. Is also active in the queer rights movement

I think I was six or seven years old when I was first asked to sing during Ganesha puja. In a Brahmin family, a girl needs to be ‘cultured’. She is supposed to know some music, some dance, some traditions. Being Brahmin is itself a pressure, but being ‘cultured’ is pure drudgery. All along my extended family, I had cousins who wouldn’t even wait to be asked before they’d exhibit the prizes they’d won in temple music competitions. I have seven uncles — while they took turns to boast about their children’s brilliant talents, one called me a dimregoddu (a dumb ***) for not knowing any songs. Another advised my mother to send me to play with his children more often so I could become ‘cultured’.

I was nine when I started learning Hindustani classical vocal music, what my family called ‘non-brahminical, Muslim’ music. Another Ganesha puja rolled around. My uncles and grandmother asked me to sing. I began singing Allah Jaane Maula Jaane in Raag Todi. I sang what I was taught and did not know what songs were considered appropriate to be sung ‘in front of God’. My uncles and my grandmother stopped me mid-note. “Learn some songs that show bhakti,” they scolded me. I really did not understand what they meant. I was obviously not cultured enough to be a Mulknadu Brahmin.

I continued to feel like a failure even though, at age 11, I had become the youngest in the family to perform in public. Years later, these memories returned once just before a performance, bringing with them troubling feelings of being an imposter. My guru (my dearest friend) suggested a change in my repertoire. He asked me to sing the Sufi bandish, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, in Raag Shree, and I complied. Singing this bandish while trying to control my thoughts was a strange experience. Chishti dragged me to notes that soothed, yet I felt a desire for revenge that disturbed me and my notes. It unsettled me when I should have been expressing bhakti.

I never understood my family’s notions of culture but I walked the most unexplored paths of music with my guru. He was a staunch Brahmin who would fast and change his sacred thread almost everyday. He was also a man who had lived and worked in a Muslim guru’s house so he could learn music. I trained under him for 17 years of my life. It was not a child’s life. It was a thousand years of music and his company.

When I showed signs of climbing the lofty tower of ‘being’ a musician, he drew me down to earth, to this world and its reality, with his very unmusician-like behaviour and his profound understanding of music.

I am now in my mid-30s and have found a path that makes music, a path that makes me a human being. People, friends and relatives still occasionally disapprove. Anyone who practices an art form for more than 10 years has to become a superstar, preferably world famous. My desire to be a queer rights activist, or sometimes to just have a life without labelled identities, does not impress most people. Sometimes even my music does not impress them.

A few years ago, a ‘cultural association’ asked me to perform on Guru Purnima — I did not know then that they had links with fundamentalist organisations. This was soon after the Gujarat riots. The mazaar of my guru’s guru, Ustad Faiyaz Khan Saheb, had been destroyed in the riots. Those months had been devastating for many people, and this incident around Faiyaz Khan Saheb’s mazaar had made my feelings on Gujarat very raw.

I was in the green room, practicing for my performance. Something one of the organisers said made me connect the dots that read ‘RSS’. Within a few minutes I was on stage and by then I had changed my entire performance. I dedicated the programme to all my gurus and to Ustad Faiyaz Khan. I talked about the Gujarat carnage and the destruction of Ustad’s mazaar. To the outrage of some, I made it a point to sing only Sufi bandishes. Again I sang Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Raag Shree. Those intense notes had humbled me often enough. They had taught me about the life of struggle. They had questioned my ideas of what being a musician meant. I still could not express the much-expected bhakti though. Singing Chishti now in front of this audience was a surreal experience. I could hear the voices of those running in terror for shelter. Moinuddin Chishti’s notes became the dying screams of the pregnant woman who had been raped and whose foetus had been pulled out of her.

I am not cultured. I’m not settled. I can’t be Brahmin. Probably ‘not being settled’ is going to be a permanent feeling as long as ‘being settled’ requires certain labels. Very recently, I composed a verse for my lover in Shree. It has no bhakti. Like love, it is merely itself.


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