On Thursday evening last week, at Delhi’s Stein Auditorium, a Malayalam musician rendered a song called Darvish, which alluded to a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. It is a soliloquy to the clouds by a Palestinian woman as he watches over her son’s blood-drenched body, raising questions of death with dignity. The soul-baring sorrow may have wavered a little in terms of the tune, but what stayed intact was the earnestness and the pain in the recital. This performance happened just hours after a family in Dadri, almost 45 kms from Delhi, had buried their patriarch after a mob killed him over rumours of eating beef, and a mother wailed for her son battling for life in the hospital. Shahabaaz Aman, 46, seemed to have embodied a little more that day through his concert, which he calls “Malayalam Sufi Route”. For every song from Aman — be it Narakathil theeyilla (There is no fire in hell; no garden in heaven either) or Iccha mastaan’s mix of Tamil, Malayalam and Arabic poetry, he received a rousing response from the audience. As the songs began to reach a crescendo in the middle of the concert, young women and men began to dance to the thumps of the drums and dholaks. Aman lifted his hands and encouraged them to clap along.
A self-taught musician who was Mohammad Rafique before he became Shahabaaz Aman (a name a mystic gave), he says that the idea is to propagate a secular philosophy across the world. “There is a spiritual core to every religion but there are also the conventions and other paraphernalia. I am trying to remove the conventions and create a format to arrive at the core philosophies,” says Aman, about his songs, which are a combination of devotion, patriotism, political consciousness and queries.
Growing up in the hilly town of Malappuram in Kerala, where the only music Aman heard were his mother’s lullabies and shahadat kalema in the house, his knowledge of Sufism and its musical gems came from readings of older poets such as Rumi and Rabia. “My mother would also make up things and sing to me,” says Aman. “I read, travelled, met mystics in various parts of the world, and all of this brings about the music that I create,” adds the vocalist, who has called his autobiographical book Om Allah.
“This Sufi quest is ancient. I am just trying to propagate it in a language I know and understand,” says Aman, who didn’t want to sing poetry that was already written down by the greats but work on the same path and create a philosophy of his own. “The responsibility is not just to sing them but to create a space where I would compose and sing new things but based on the same philosophy,” says Aman, whose latest project is called KEF 1126, derived from the number of the jeep in which he used to go with his friends to play football.
The songs in KEF 1126 draw from Sufis such as Shahabaz Qalendar, Rabia, Rumi and Darwish. Aman has composed and sung for a few Malayalam films but this might take a backseat now. “Cinema may come to me later if I arrive at a point of fulfilment,” he says.