You don’t go to a Reggae Rajahs show for a quiet evening. With them, you punch the air, thump the floorboards and shake every muscle to Caribbean beats. For the niche crowd that reggae draws in Delhi, Zorawar Shukla and his bandmates are stars. It is less known that Shukla — called Mr Herbalist in the band — is also a filmmaker, who has worked on Midnight’s Children with Deepa Mehta, and an anthropology enthusiast with a stint at the Smithsonian in Washington DC under his belt. Both these interests converged in 2012 in a short film titled A Prayer for Aliyah, about a tribal community in the Northeast that claims to be the lost tribe of Israel. This year, Shukla will release his second film, Sulh-e-Kul (Peace to All), an exploration of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah at Ajmer Sharif.
“The two films are about communities with immense belief in a higher power, whether it is the Manipuri Jews who practise orthodox Judaism or the thousands of people who live around Khwaja Gharib Nawaz and Ajmer Sharif,” says Shukla. Sulh-e-Kul was commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, a Delhi-based organisation that had also produced A Prayer for Aliyah.
Though the dargah is one of the most visited shrines in India, its history and sociocultural impact are largely unknown. The 49-minute film sets off to cover these points by taking the viewer to Ajmer Sharif, literally.
Sulh-e-Kul begins with a ritual journey called Chhariyon ka mela, which is made by the faithful on foot, from Bilaspur in Haryana, 350 km or 13 days away. While the pilgrims travel, the film unspools a number of narratives using expert interviews, maps, paintings and enacted scenes. It traces the life of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti from his birth and loss of his parents, and gives a glimpse of the Hindustan of his time as a feudal society with a deep economic divide and rigid caste system (“He gave those who had no position in society a chance to feel human,” says Salman Chisty, Shrine Custodian, in the film).
Religion and commerce entwine in a series of shots of business establishments called KGN Sweets, Gharib Nawaz Restaurant, KGN Kulfi Centre and Gharib Nawaz Meat Shop while interviews with foreigners indicate how passion can blur national and cultural borders. The film also highlights the importance of the langar that has been prepared for the last 800 years. “I learnt a lot about Khwaja Sahib and Sufism in South Asia. The most interesting fact I found out during my research was that not a single thing had been recorded about Khwaja Sahib for more than 200 years after he died. Whatever we know about him is from secondary sources, adding to the mystical aura around him and the place,” says Shukla.
Weaving the strands together is the music, from the azaan and the Chhariyon ka mela chants to the high-decibel songs of pilgrims walking from Bangladesh, and the heady qawwali at the shrine. “For me, spiritual music is the original trance music. There are no two ways about it. While I had heard plenty of bhajans, chants and qawwali before, it never touched me as deeply as during this shoot. I realised that the environment has a huge effect on the impact music can have. Listening to spiritual music in a posh Delhi auditorium is not the same as experiencing it in its natural environment,” says Shukla, whose travelled with four crew members and used DSLR cameras that are not intrusive.
Five years ago, Shukla had visited the dargah for the first time “for no reason, just to see what it was all about” and had come away unimpressed. As he worked on the film, however, Shukla found himself captivated. “My journey with the fakirs from Delhi to Ajmer was life-altering,” he says. Sulh-e-Kul attempts to capture that magic.