Performance: Sufiyaan Konya Turkish Sufi Music & Whirling Dervishes Ensemble
Location: Prestige Srihari Khoday Center for Performing Arts, Bengaluru
To witness oud is to know rebellion. To witness daf is to know piety. To witness sema is to know the slow kneading of one’s spirit.
As the Turkish Consulate General of Mumbai brings the Sufi Musicians of Konya, Turkey, and Whirling Dervishes Ensemble to Srihari Khoday Center for Performing Arts, Bengaluru – one must note that for reasons, aplenty, one is witnessing history. As the audience is guided to not applaud, clap, or cheer in any fashion throughout the duration of the performance; it is just sinking in that it is not a performance at all. It is worship.
There are some facts that I will lay at the outset to make clear why the performance of the Konyan Sufis in the distant city of Bengaluru, India on the evening of February 5, 2023, was a significant event.
For one, the President of Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – declared 2023 the ‘Year of Mevlana’. Announcing a year to be spent in remembrance and propagation of the ideas of Sufi scholar Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi – 750 years since his demise. The Mevlevi order of Sufi scholars, which by far remains the most popular in modern history, was founded by the followers of Mevlana Rumi as an enshrinement to his death in 1273. What set them apart was sema, a unique dhikr ceremony of Whirling Dervishes.
As this dhikr, the ceremony of remembrance commences worldwide this year –from London to Hyderabad – a thought will go out to rhythmic Masnavi and the world of poetry forever changed by Rumi. The world will witness the whirlwind of Whirling Dervishes even as fact #2 stands true.
Two, the Islamic orthopraxy of Sufism, the sacredness found in melody and repetition, the inward journey practised by the Sufi orders have been banned in Turkey since 1925. Rumi’s Mevlevi brotherhood lost institutional support and was forced underground into quiet prayer – bereft of music, bereft of wind. A murky history shadows this day, rooted in knowledge of the persecution of Sufis worldwide.
Though the restrictions loosened, they were never formally lifted. So the part of sema and Sufi that remained was that which was perceivable in the eyes of the lowest common denominator – cultural tourism. So the ceremonies got shorter, the semazens got lesser, and the dhikr got more public and centred around Konya – the Turkish town where Rumi is buried. A fact that one can’t help but be aware of, as one sits in a state-of-the-art room, holding back applause, holding back tears – our fact #3.
Three, this is the first event at a brand new venue being added to the Bengaluru performing arts landscape – a 1000+ seater, Prestige Srihari Khoday Center for Performing Arts. Bringing a centrality to the live, living arts in a post-COVID, yearning city.
So, to arrive into this realm and to hesitate before giving yourself in because of the rather grey moral ground around prayer as performance, is but natural. Yet as the four vocalists take the stage accompanied by musicians on oud, an electric harmonium, def, nay, kudum, and a fleet of backup singers you breathe in the musical fragrance. The ensemble, arriving from their show in Hyderabad, begins verses of Persian poetry without much ceremony.
The backup singers breathe life, and death far still
Deep into the Sufi realm, surrounded by haunting melodies that you can only imagine meaning to, the cohort of backup singers is ready to pull you deeper still. The four men are younger than the rest of the orchestra and you can probably arrive at a logical conclusion why on your own. Operating only with guttural roars from their diaphragm, inhaling and exhaling, life and death – rigorously – they continue to provide a bass harmony for over 20 minutes. As they sweat and bounce from the waist-up in unison, the sound created is in itself a significant event.
As the four firebreathers leave the stage with a bow, the audience is calculatedly without applause, showing restraint in the light of instructions. The ensemble launches into prayer, with notes stretched out, hands gripping hearts in unison at every mention of Muhammad, and eyes to the heaven at every mention of Allah. They continue in prayer, sounding the arrival of the sheikh followed by seven semazens.
The sheikh takes position at the most honoured corner of the dancing place, which in this case is a pink mat on stage left. The semazen form an inward circle, some facing away from the audience, giving a sense of deep privacy. They take their flowing black cloaks off to expose the most exquisite white tennure – a skirted ankle-length dress.
With a bow to the sheikh they individually break into spins, at first hands on their sides, slowly mapping the length of their torso to their head and past the long sikke and finally rising to heaven. The motion repeated over and over is never different, yet never the same. It is cosmic, it is cathartic, it is the universe unfurling in pivoted, whirling, swift motions. It is calm, yet urgent, It is beckoning, yet reserved. A sema is just what the pamphlet said it would be – it is a meditation. Not just for the semazen, but for the onlookers as well.
The music accompanied till the very end – a blend of hymns in honour of the Prophet, written by Rumi himself, with short, enthusiastic songs in Turkish. The haunting melodies and intricate rhythms kept the audience entranced throughout the performance, ending with the sheikh taking all into final prayers.
The performance was also a testament to the ensemble’s skill and expertise, as they seamlessly blended traditional Sufi instruments with more modern elements to create a uniquely unforgettable experience.
So, the verdict stands that if you were to hear of the Konya Sufi Music and Whirling Dervishes Ensemble passing by your city – do grab a tissue, hold your applause, and witness with reverence. The Whirling Dervishes were a sight to behold, as they twirled and spun in a mesmerizing dance that showcased their spiritual devotion.
Finally, I leave with a revelation I found in my research leading up to the day of the performance. While art is self-expression, sema is selfless-expression. It is a practice of annihilating the self and surrendering to a power unseen. To give up not just control, not just ego, but to give the self up in the care of a bond based in purest trust. It is to experience fanaa.
*All images belong to the Prestige Group; Feature image courtesy: Nupur Saraswat
**Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Articulate and Kolkata Centre for Creativity.
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Nupur Saraswat is an international stage artist and a writer. She is the creator of the art form Theatrical Poetry. Through her work she explores the unbounded personal liberties as the ultimate beckoning of any social movement. She creates, directs, and performs shows that have been hailed as "urgent and engaging". She is currently touring with her show 'Live.Love.Loaf. An investigation into who gets to loiter' across Asia.