South Asian Aesthetics

University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2014

Session 16: The Aesthetics of Devotion Part II- Discipline and Connoisseurship

Mir 'Ali Haravi, "Dancing Dervishes," from Shah Jahan album.  1610.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mir ‘Ali Haravi, “Dancing Dervishes,” from Shah Jahan album. 1610. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Sama is a proving ground for men of spiritual prowess.”

— Nizam ud-din Awliya, in the Fawa’id al-Fu’ad

جاں کیوں نکلنے لگتی ہے تن سے دمِ سماع
گر وہ صدا سمائی ہے چنگ و رباب میں

Why does life begin to leave the body at the moment of hearing,
If that voice is contained in the mouth-harp and rabāb?


Coordinator: Yvonne

In this session, we will attempt to understand the aesthetics of spiritual practice in two important traditions of South Asia: Sufism and Sikhism.  In doing so, we will encounter questions about what constitutes the sacred, what distinguishes the sacred from the mundane, and what role corporeality, intentionality and context have in determining such distinctions.

Sufism, as you will remember from earlier sessions, is generally characterized as a ‘mystical’ tradition or form of practice within Islam (and is often contrasted with the ‘orthodox’ beliefs and practices of the ‘ulema, although this binary opposition does not hold up to scrutiny when studied in various historical contexts).  What is definitely central to Sufism (as it is found across northern and eastern Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, and Central, South, and Southeast Asia) is an emphasis on intentional, mindful spiritual practice and on the individual soul’s journey and relationship to Allah.

An important part of this well-defined and directed spiritual practice is samā— ‘listening.’  Just what this special type of listening entails, and why it is important, is the subject of two of the readings for this session: During’s “Hearing and Understanding in the Islamic Gnosis” and Nizamuddin Awliya’s Morals for the Heart.  The former is an exploration of the cognitive and aesthetic dimensions of samā across Sufi traditions, which usually involve the recitation (or singing) of religious songs, often to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and sometimes bodily movement (that has been variously characterized as ‘dancing’, ‘whirling’, etc.).  In South Asia, the musical performance of samā has come to be known as qawwālī (“to say much”).

The latter (of which we will only read some selections) is a collection of dialogues with the famous Sufi teacher (pīr) of Delhi, Nizamuddin Awliya of the Chishti Sufi lineage, recorded by one of his pupils, Amir Hasan Sijzi.  Nizamuddin and his contemporaries belonged to one of the earliest generations of Sufi teachers in the South Asian subcontinent, and played a major role in spreading and popularizing Islam.  You will notice from Nizamuddin’s utterances on the subject of samā that it was a disputed practice in his time (and continues to be even today in some areas of the Subcontinent).  Nizamuddin’s defense of samā contains important clues about how the ‘aesthetic’ dimension of spiritual practice was conceived by him and others.

Richard Wolf’s “The Poetics of “Sufi” Practice” takes us into the midst of a contemporary practice of samā and qawwālī in Pakistan, and explores the poetics that inform understandings of what goes on in them.  He draws our attention to the intentional and psychological but also to the physical aspects of samā, inviting us to return to the concepts of corporeality and ‘corpothetics’ discussed by Pinney (which we encountered earlier in the context of visual aesthetics).

In the Sikh tradition, the performance of ḍhāḍhī, sung and spoken narratives about religious heroes and martyrs, constitutes both an important form of spiritual practice and a central site for the constitution and enactment of community.  Nijhawan’s article, “From Divine Bliss to Ardent Passion,” investigates the aesthetic, emotional, and political dimensions of ḍhāḍhī, and gives us a bit of insight into how gender inflects these aspects.

It is only required that you go through the materials listed under “Conceptual readings” and “Case studies”; however, you may find it helpful to look at the materials given below under “General readings” and “For comparison.” Sakata’s article, “Spiritual Music and Dance in Pakistan” provides a general introduction to qawwālī music, samā, and their reception in the West.  Shannon’s article,”The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice,” addresses aesthetics and subjectivity in another tradition of samā, that of Aleppo in modern-day Syria.

Conceptual readings:

  1. During, Jean. “Hearing and Understanding in the Islamic Gnosis.” The World of Music 39, No. 2 (1997). 127-137.
  2. Awliya, Nizamuddin. Morals for the Heart (Fawa’id al-fu’ad). Translated by Bruce Lawrence. New York: Mahwah, 1992. (Selections.)
  3. Wolf, Richard. “The Poetics of “Sufi” Practice: Drumming, Dancing, and Complex Agency at Madho Lāl Husain(And Beyond).” American Ethnologist 33, No. 2 (May, 2006). 246-268.
  4. Nijhawan, Michael. “From Divine Bliss to Ardent Passion: Exploring Sikh Religious Aesthetics through the Ḍhāḍī Genre.” History of Religions 42, No. 4 (May 2003). 359-385.

General readings

  1. Sakata, Hiromi. “Spiritual Music and Dance in Pakistan.” Etnofoor 10, No. 1/2, (1997). 165-173.

For comparison:

  1. Shannon, Jonathan. “The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice and the Creation of Moral and Musical Subjectivities in Aleppo, Syria.” Ethnology 43, No. 4 (Autumn, 2004). 381-391.

Case studies:

  1. Sabri Brothers. “Wadah Tere Wadah-Takrar”. [Sound recording.]
  2. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “Shamas-ud-Doha, Badar-ud-Doja.” [Sound recording.]
  3. “Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah.” [Video recording.] Anonymous. 2013.
  4. “Qawwali at Nizamuddin.” [Video recording.] Recorded by Kabeer Lal.
  5. “Sarhind Dī Dīvār.” [Video recording.] Ḍhāḍhī Jatha Malerkotle Walian Bibian. 2011.
  6. “Ḍhāḍhī Jatha.” [Video recording.] Jathedhar Avtar Singh Bassi, Sarangi Master Balvir Singh Johal, and Dhadi Gurmit Singh Kushdil. 2013.

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