Young women are keen to break the monopoly of male raagi faqeers in Sindh’s Bhit Shah. They are now being trained to revive the tradition of women devotees reciting poetry at the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
Raagi faqeers is the name given to a group of devotees who dress in black and recite Shah Jo Raag (Bhitai’s poetry) and play the danboroo, a five-stringed instrument, in accompaniment at the shrine.
“Women raagi faqeers will join their male counterparts by the end of this year,” said Syed Waqar Hussain Shah Latifi, who is the 12th Sajjada Nashin or custodian of the Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai shrine.
Raag is Allah’s zikar (remembrance by a special act or observance), he said. Bhittai set the pattern on the way in which faqeers deliver raag. “We lack women’s voices in its recitation,” he added. “More women are learning Sufi music now,” he remarked. “We hope to have an equal number of women and male raagi faqeers.” At present, there are 150 raagi faqeers at the shrine.
Fifty-five-year-old Faqeer Manthar Ali Junejo took the initiative. He has been reciting Sufi poetry at Bhittai’s shrine for the last 35 years and started training his two daughters a year ago. “Four girls are training to become raagi faqeers,” Junejo said. “Once we have seven students, then will we let them recite Sufi poetry at the shrine.”
A seven-member group will allow each member to sing on a different musical scale, said Junejo.
Junejo, who worked as an agricultural laborer till he was 20, learnt the raag after being inspired by his teacher, Gul Muhammad Pahor. His love for Bhittai and sheer hard work made him an ustaad. He has produced over 20 students so far.
“To learn the sur [melody] you don’t need any formal education,” he said. “Any person, regardless of their caste and creed, can learn it.”
It is not guaranteed that every person will learn the raag. “Ye naseeb ki baat hai,” he said. It is a matter of destiny.
With love, from Taiwan
Winds of change started blowing in Bhit Shah with the arrival of Pei-ling Huang, a Taiwanese PhD student at Harvard University, in 2015. Huang is currently researching Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s musical repertoire and faqeers who are passing on the knowledge.
Huang also started learning the raag from Junejo. She has even recited them alongside other raagi faqeers.
“I made her my soul-daughter. She used to stay in my house with my family,” Junejo told SAMAA Digital.
During her stay, Huang even persuaded Junejo to teach his daughters the raag too. He declined at first.
“I declined because we do not teach our women raag. Our culture and customs don’t allow it,” he said.
But it was something Huang said that changed his mind. “She asked that if I could introduce my ‘soul-daughter’ as my proud student then why couldn’t I do the same for my own daughters?
“If foreign women can come to Pakistan for research Sufi saints, then why can’t we do the same? This thought encouraged me to enrol my daughters as my students too,” he remarked.
Huang has left now. But, she has left a legacy. Both of Junejo’s daughters are learning the raag.
“Huang helped revive the era when women had the right to self-expression. They were once free to recite the raag too. The revival of that era is a blessing of Allah,” remarked Latifi.
Sabira said that she has been able to learn the raag because of the support from her parents. She is Junejo’s daughter.
“Many of my relatives still stop me from learning it. My father, however, took a firm stand for us,” she said.
Fifteen-year-old Ghulam Sakina said that she developed an interest in raag when she saw her father teaching it to her brother. It was Huang who encouraged her to sing.
She performed in public for the first time with Huang. “The event was event attended by (Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari,” Sakina said.
She has mainly focused on learning Sassui’s raag. “I like Sassui’s folklore. I have been fascinated by the sacrifices she had to make. I am more tilted towards folklore,” she added.
Another teen who is equally ecstatic about learning Sassui’s raag is Falak Naz. She remarked that times are changing for women raagi faqeers.
Pakeeza, another of Junejo’s students, developed an interest because of her neighbours, Sabira and Sakina.
“I talked to my parents after watching my friends learn the raag,” the 14-year-old said. She has performed in other cities of Sindh too.
The Golden Days
Women weren’t always cast aside when it came to reciting Sufi poetry at the shrine.
“Before 1958, there were many women such as Thori Faqeer who used to sing at the shrine among others,” said Latifi. “Many faqeers have told us that their women ancestors have performed at the shrine.”
He thinks that the conditions changed after the government took control of shrines across the country and handed them to the Auqaf department in 1958. Before that, the shrines were under the administrative control of Sajjada nashins.
The Auqaf indirectly put many hurdles in way of women coming to the shrine, he said. “Women were banned from entering some.”
The tradition of women raagi faqeers was looked down upon and they were discouraged, he said. “Gradually, women moved away from the raag.”
The Sajjad nashins couldn’t even do anything about it, he added.
Latifi thinks there are number of reasons why more women want to become raagi faqeers now.
The Auqaf department has not been able to impose its decisions because of media, he remarked.
“I have been very vocal on women’s empowerment and other important matters such as inter-faith harmony. Being vocal is the need of the hour,” he added.
Waqar became the Sajjada Nashin of Shah Bhittai shrine in December 2014. He is also president of the Pakistan International Mashaikh Council which has 200 registered shrines.
“We have been promoting harmony not only this at dargah [shrine] but others too,” he added.
Bhittai and women empowerment
Bhittai is known as a great supporter of women’s empowerment. In Shah Jo Raag, he has given voice to seven queens of Sindhi folklore: Marvi, Sassui, Momal, Noori, Leelhan, Noori and Surath. They are known for their piety, loyalty, integrity and honesty.
Bhittai’s message of women’s empowerment has been forgotten in Sindh, Latifi remarked. “There came a generation which demoted women and because of that we all are facing incoherence in society.”
He said that it was high time to refocus on Sufism. The Shah Abdul Latif Foundation, which he leads, has started to teach people Sufi poetry. The foundation will join hands with other organisations so that music courses could be created and students can be awarded degrees in Sufi music education.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is a Karachi-based journalist. He tweets @ZulfiqarKunbhar