Grant Period: Over six months
Mukhtiyar Ali, a Sufi performer hails from a mirasi family in Pugal, Rajasthan. He began a journey to rediscover the sufiyana kalam.
Mukhtiyar Ali has been concerned about neglect of the rich and vibrant popular musical traditions of Northwest Rajasthan, especially those that represent the cultural contacts of the Pugal region with the bordering regions of Bahawalpur and Multan in Pakistan, and Punjab in the north. The musical tradition of sufiyana kalam developed in a predominantly pastoral context in early modern times. The singers of these mystical songs, mostly of the mirasi community, are locally called mirs. These are sung in Sindhi, Punjabi and also in Siraki, a dialect having strong affinity with Sindhi and Punjabi.
There are several causes for the decline of this musical tradition, like the cessation of free movement and the seasonal migrations of pastoralists to Bahawalpur after Partition, the decline in the fortunes and authority of the princely state of Bikaner, which was the chief patron of the mirs, and shrinking patronage from the rich Muslim community. The Pugal region has also been undergoing a fairly radical transformation.
The major NGOs of the region have consistently viewed these musicians in narrowly instrumental terms – as merely communicators of messages for their development programmes. The NGOs largely locate these singers as casual wage earners or as entertainers who fill the ‘cultural’ gaps in meetings or help gather people in villages. As opportunities for performing dwindled, the old singers were forced into solitude, and the young singers began resorting to other means of survival.
Mukhtiyar Ali had sought support under IFA’s arts collaboration programme in 2004, for a set of activities to reinvigorate the tradition. A significant part of the proposal was then devoted to research and documentation in order to constitute a ‘representation’ of this tradition vis-à-vis other folk music traditions of Rajasthan and the two great traditions of Sufi singing in Sind and Punjab.
The current project, therefore, aims to lay the foundation for a community initiative. In this preparatory phase, the focus will be on building a group of representative musicians who could play a key role in facilitating a series of public performances, from local mehfils and small baithaks to large public shows in different cities. Mukhtiyar Ali’s experience over the last few months has demonstrated that public performances will provide the crucial platform for bringing the mirs together. While a plan for extending performance opportunities for the group will be developed, this phase will mainly be devoted to reaffirming ties with old patrons and making new contacts.
From the initial discussions with the members of the community, it seems that the most feasible structure for the trust is one that will have two levels – the first comprising the artists from the community, and the second a working board of trustees that will include musicians, music scholars and enthusiasts from outside Pugal. The board will also include representatives from the working committee of musicians. Strategic decisions regarding the reinvigoration of the musical tradition will be taken jointly.