Festival of Sufi music celebrates the mystical tradition

Boston Globe, October 27, 2006

At a time when Islam makes frequent headlines for what some would call all the wrong reasons, the rich legacy and nuances of Islamic culture have received comparatively short shrift. Among these is the Sufi mystical tradition, which produced or influenced some of the world’s greatest works of art, such as the poems of Rumi, Persian miniature paintings, and the architecture and music of Mughal, India.

In 2001, Muzaffar Ali, an Indian filmmaker and impresario long fascinated with Sufi culture, launched an international festival of Sufi music that has become a major event on Delhi’s blossoming cultural calendar. That festival, titled “Jahan-e-Khusrau” or “The Realm of the Heart,” holds its first event outside India tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts, featuring rare performances by esteemed artists from Turkey and India, as well as Boston-based music and dance ensembles.

The Delhi-Boston axis grew out of a collaboration between Ali and Woodman Taylor, the MFA’s assistant curator of South Asian and Islamic art, who met Ali last year while on a teaching stint at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Taylor observed the success of the Delhi festival, which is now held over three days next to the ornate mausoleum of the 16th century emperor Humayun, with artists from across the Islamic world. Holding a Boston event seemed a natural fit with the MFA exhibition “Domains of Wonder: Masterworks of Indian Painting,” which is currently up at the museum.

“This is the first time that we’ve tied a cultural program so tightly to an exhibition,” Taylor says, noting that the MFA’s often-adventurous music programming usually occurs separately from its gallery presentations. It’s also a way, he says, to present what he calls “other images and imagery of Islam” than those that saturate the news.

And Sufism is indeed different. Like its counterpart mystical traditions in Christianity or Judaism, it seeks a direct connection with the divine through contemplation or through ecstatic practice, such as the “whirling” of the famous Turkish dervishes. It’s a natural fountainhead for artistic creation, and many Sufis have also been musicians or poets, such as the 13th-century Delhi mystic Amir Khusrau, to whom Ali’s festival pays tribute.

“The world of Amir Khusrau is a humane world,” Ali writes in his program notes for the Boston event. “A world without walls where all differences are resolved with love. … The immortal Khusrau, who lives in the heart of the lover, seeks his likes all over the world, to share the parallels and enjoy the diversity.”

Although the Boston concert is limited to one evening’s worth of material, it promises more than a hint of that diversity with its programming from India and Turkey. A special attraction is the presence of Niyazi Sayin, one of the masters of the millennia-old flute called the ney.

“Niyazi Sayin is probably Turkey’s most prominent living classical musician,” says Taylor. “He has been the leading ney player for the last 50 years and an innovator of new ways to play the instrument.”

Taylor says that Sayin, whose US appearances are extremely rare, embodies Sufi devotional practice in his many-faceted artistic life.

“He makes prayer beads, he loves photography, he raises finches, he grows roses – he’s a master of a thousand arts,” Taylor says.

Sayin will perform with a local Turkish classical music group, Cambridge Musiki Cemiyeti, whose leader, Feridun Ozgoren, is himself a cross-disciplinary artist in Sayin’s tradition and learned from the master yet another art, paper marbling.

The ensemble, which features an array of traditional Turkish instruments, will perform a repertoire of devotional hymns called Illahis, Ozgoren says.

“Illahis are traditionally performed in dervish lodges, so in concert form it’s a little out of context,” Ozgoren says. “But we wanted to give a taste of the music, although it’s not a religious concert.”

The concert also includes Indian singer Zila Khan, a rising star who hails from a prominent musical family. Her late father, Vilayat Khan, was a revered sitar player known for the finesse and emotional depth of his playing style. As Indian singing and instrumental music are intimately connected, Zila Khan’s training under her father has earned her singing a similar reputation.

Rounding out the program is Wendy Jehlen, a Boston-based dancer and choreographer whose work draws on close study of Bharat Natyam, the Indian classical dance form. Her piece “On Beauty,” to be performed at the show, adapts poetry by Kahlil Gibran. The choice is fitting: Although a Lebanese Christian, Gibran was inspired by Sufism – and spent his formative years in Boston.

The overall message of the concert, Ozgoren says, is the uniting role that Sufi music plays in Islamic culture – and beyond.

“Despite vast geographical distances, the music is a medium shared by people who share the same philosophical path,” Ozgoren says. “Sufism does not belong to any nation, or sect, or even religion. Because mystical thought does not belong to any one religion.”