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Sufi Music: The Place Where Three Religions Intersect

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A tiny grocery store tucked away in a suburb of Ottawa, Canada, called the Desi Price Club. We go there very often to buy Indian groceries as they have the best prices in town and, as a bonus, the owner is very soft-spoken. For a long time, we did not realise that the word “desi” referred to Pakistan and not India, as we had assumed. Of course, this discovery did not stop us from going to the store.

One day, while we were shopping at this store, we heard beautiful Sufi music playing on the video at the store, set to a very modern beat. There were drums and guitars and even a trumpet; only the words were in Urdu, and we could not even understand many of them. On an impulse, we bought a CD of this music and took it home. This was the beginning of our love affair with Coke Studio.

coke studio
Coke Studio is popular in Pakistan as well as in India.

Later, we discovered more Coke Studio music on Youtube, with English captioning. With the help of captions, we began to understand the lyrics much better and were carried away by the spiritual beauty of the compositions. We discovered that Coke Studio was quite a phenomenon in Pakistan as well as in India. Newspapers called it the best thing that came out of Pakistan in recent times.

I had grown up in a typical Hindu family and had formed typical stereotypes about Muslims in my mind. We didn’t know too many Muslims personally, as they lived mostly in different parts of the city. The most recognisable feature of this area was the burkha that many women wore. I always thought these people were very different from us, dressing very differently, eating different food from us, praying differently and following their strange customs. My image of Pakistan was even worse; after all, this is the enemy country that keeps attacking us.

Listening to Sufi music from Coke Studio Pakistan shattered many of these stereotypes for me. I discovered that many Sufi saints were born in India or, at least, in the Indian sub-continent as it then existed. Then I made a major discovery that changed my thinking even more — the Sufi tradition is the meeting point for three of the major religions of the world: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Sufis go beyond any particular belief, although they imbibe elements from every culture. I wondered to myself: why can’t all of us do the same?

There are innumerable references to these three religions in Sufi poetry. The words change a bit, but the essence remains the same. Yogi becomes JogiSavla (a name for Lord Krishna) becomes Sawal Yaar. Moses becomes Musa, Mother Mary becomes Mariam, while Noah becomes Nooh. We say Guru in Hinduism, but the same person becomes Murshid in the Sufi tradition. 

I discovered that the Sufi Qawwali artform was born in India, perhaps around the time of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro. It was a form of music developed by the Sufi mystics, involving repetition of key phrases and melodies, until the audience reaches a trance-like state, along with the singers. My own belief is that the name Qawwali itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Kavya, meaning poetry, although not many Muslim scholars would support this viewpoint. Regardless, this art form has found deep roots in India and Pakistan.

nusrat fateh ali khan, jagjit singh
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jagjit Singh.

Both the Sufi Qawwali and Hindu Bhajans developed around the same time, the heyday of the Bhakti movement in the Indian sub-continent. In essence, Qawwali is not any different from bhajans, as they are both devotional. Both achieve their effects using the same foundation of the Indian raga structure. Both can lead to trance-like states.

The Indian ragas use particular notes, and particular combinations of notes, to appeal to our deep-seated emotions. The raga Bhairava, for example, uses mostly flat notes to induce a spiritual feeling. The word Bhairava is a name for Lord Shiva, and the raga has been used very often in Shiva bhajans. I recently heard a song from legendary singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, set to raga Bhairava. However, it was a Sufi song in praise of Allah. I made another discovery: for a Sufi, Allah and Shiva are the same. Can inter-faith love ever get closer than this?

As I listened to Coke Studio, I also discovered that Muslim society, even in Pakistan, is not at all backward. There are plenty of women Sufi singers, and many of them, like Sanam Marvi and Abida Parveen, are extremely talented. Some have travelled all over the world to showcase their music. Many Indian singers have followed the Sufi path, and it is becoming more and more popular as people realise it is essentially secular and goes beyond any individual religion.

Politics is dividing the world today, promoting national disharmony. Perhaps, Sufi music can bring things back into balance and make India the tolerant, inclusive country that is its basic nature.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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