From Dance to Trance

From Dance to Trance

Sufi song Dama dam mast qalandar has entered the popular culture in its various renditions by Bollywood composers and musicians across genres

For a wedding scene in his film D-Day,director Nikhil Advani was looking for appropriate background score. It was especially a challenge because it wasn’t about a celebration alone,but also a lead-up to an important sequence in the action film. Since it was set in Karachi,Advani — whose family is originally from Pakistan’s Sindh — turned to his roots for inspiration and got music composers Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy to create a version of the well-known song Dama dam mast qalandar.

“A spiritual folk song,I grew up listening to it at Sindhi weddings. It is equally popular across the border too,which encouraged me to use it for the scene set in Karachi,” says the director. He asked the composers to come up with a “band-baajaa version” for the movie,set to release on July 19. The song,however,is closely associated with the Sindhi community. Advani explains that Sindhis don’t rigidly worship a god and instead follow saints or spiritual leaders,of which Jhulelal is the most revered,and Mast qalandar is a prayer to him.

It is rare to come by a song that alone inspires a number of musicians from across genres,but this Sufi nazm has cut across to find takers. Renowned Pakistani Sufi singers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,Abida Parveen and Runa Laila,the Manganiars,indie rock band Indian Ocean,folktronic Papon and The East India Company,playback singer Kailash Kher and Bollywood composer Mikey McLeary (for Bejoy Nambiar’s film David) are a few among the many artistes who have come up with renditions of the song.

Sindhi poet Nand Javeri explains that there are several misconceptions regarding the song. He says that apart from Jhulelal,it is dedicated to the Sufi mystic Ali Shahbaz Qalandar. “But people believe the words lal and shahbaz qalandar in the lyrics,Lal meri patt rakhiyo bala Jhulelalan,Sindri da,Sehwan da Ali Shahbaz Qalandar,refer to Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar,” says Javeri,adding that the word qalandar is a high-ranking title given to spiritual leaders of which there have been very few.


Mast qalandar is also widely believed to have been penned by mystic Amir Khusro (13th century) in Hindavi and rendered by Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah (18th century) in a dialect that is a mix of both Sindhi and Punjabi. However,Gurgaon-based musicologist Madan Gopal Singh says there is no clear origin and authorship of the song. According to him,Mast qalandar’s appeal isn’t limited to Sindhis alone but extends to both Hindus and Muslims. “Jhulelal,considered the river deity,was worshipped by both communities,” he explains,pointing out that the thought is integral to Sufi ideology. Mumbai-based,Sindhi poet Anju Makhija believes this aspect helps the song transcend boundaries and allows everyone to make it their own. “It is open to interpretation,like the hymn Silent night,” she says.

According to Papon,the beat and structure make this song memorable and easy to adapt to genres. “My musician parents would often jam on this song when I was a child. When our band came together in 2007,I decided to make a version with electronic music,” he says. But the song,adds McLeary,needs powerful vocals. He had singer Rekha Bhardwaj alongside Monica Dogra lend their voice to his version,also picturised on a Muslim wedding. The version in D-Day is sung by Mika Singh.

Singh,however,believes that Mast qalandar has turned into a Sufi cliche today as very few people understand the lyrics and some even get them wrong. “Sufi music has a strong tradition of girah,a technique where the singer will enter another poetry altogether at the point in a song where lyrics are open for interpretation. Mast qalandar is one such song.

Take for instance the lyrics,Chaar charaag tere baran hamesha,panjwa mein baaran aayi (four lamps are always lit at your shrine,I bring the fifth). Here,it is for the singer or poet to interpret what does the metaphor of ‘four lamps’ mean. This allows him to explore their repertoire of poetry,maybe Khusro or even Rumi,before coming back to the original song. But this rarely happens,” says Singh. Yet,he doesn’t underestimate the power of the song,which he says can induce “both trance and dance” in people across cultures.