Four musicians sit cross-legged on the floor of the stage for the entirety of the concert. The lead performer, a singer in her 60s, sings songs of love, wisdom, and experience. Her lyrics are inspired by the poetry of old Sufi saints, her music and her thoughts are all addressed to Allah, the divine. There is nothing gimmicky about this show – no fancy tech effects, no wild lighting, no video projections – just a harmonium, a tabla, a dholak, and the other-worldly voice of Sufi legend Abida Parveen, an apostle of ishq. The energy in the room is unmistakable. It is not every day that you see the majority of a packed audience at Hamer Hall rise from their seats and dance in place, with several people even leaving their seats to dance their way down to the front before the end of the final song.
To much of this predominantly South Asian audience, Abida Parveen is a beloved household name, well known for her resonant voice and charismatic persona. Her musical prowess, complemented by her magnetic aura, is known to routinely move her audiences to emotional highs that feel almost like a state of delirium. Her concert at Hamer Hall, presented by Arts Centre Melbourne and SalamFest as part of Asia TOPA 2020, was no different. From the moment she took her seat with her team of musicians (Manzoor Hussain, Abid Hussain and Karam), the audience was already brimming with expectancy, primed to embrace the spirit of love that she has made it her mission to disseminate through her music.
The start of practically every song was greeted with claps and cheers, sometimes cheers of recognition, and at other times, anticipation. The audience was eager to connect with the lyrics and sounds, both the familiar and the unfamiliar, fully expecting it all to land with them and for their soul to be nurtured by the experience. Parveen’s songs have in them much gentle preaching and poetic discourse of near-universal appeal. The audience lapped this up, breaking into applause at every new thought or idea that was expressed in the songs, sometimes accompanied by a spoken exposition. These ideas ranged from experiential anecdotes to spiritual opinions, from observations about human behaviour to perceptions of the divine. Among the ideas that personally resonated with me during this night, there was this shair:
Aap gairon ki baat karte hain
Humne apne bhi aazmayein hain
Log kaanton se bach ke chalte hain
Humne phoolon se zakhm khaayein hain
This shair to me was a gentle reminder of the futility of ‘othering’. A rough translation is “you speak of outsiders, but we have tested those who are our own. People take care to avoid thorns, but we have been wounded by flowers.” This thought felt particularly poignant to me in the light of the communal distrust and disharmony currently devastating my hometown, New Delhi. Parveen’s music, filled with messages of love, simplicity, and hope, are like a soothing balm for that sort of pain.
The concert, and indeed all of Abida Parveen’s musical work, can be summed up by the refrain in this song:
Yaar ko humne ja ba ja dekha
Kahin zaahir kahin chupa dekha
Which roughly translates to “I saw my beloved in everything: sometimes revealed, at other times concealed.” The word “yaar” as a description for the divine has a unique sweetness to it, implying an intimate and personal friendship. The spirit of seeking and indeed seeing her beloved, the divine, in everything is Abida Parveen’s signature approach, one that she conveys to all her audiences with artistic mastery, grace and impact. Her Melbourne audience was no exception.