Return of the Classical Musical Session and the Male Singer Clad in a Sari:
Maijbhandari Songs from Chittagong on Video CD

Musical sessions (samāʿ mahfil) on Video CD

The production of Video CDs has been booming in the last few years and has become the state of the art in the mediatisation of Maijbhandari songs. There are such videos featuring established singers of pre-VCD times (Kalyani Ghosh, Abdul Gafur Hali, Shimul Shil, and also prominently Ahmad Nur Ameri whose videos are the focus of this article), but also by new artists (Sharifuddin, Alauddin Ameri, Shahjahan Ali).[6] As far as I have been able to verify, these videos usually use audio tracks produced in studios, but always have external settings for the visual part, often featuring scenes from the darbār. This, of course, raises the question how the darbār is staged in these videos, and in which way traditional performance situations of the types mentioned above are employed in this process. A detailed analysis of these issues is not the scope of this article and would require further research on a broader basis of sources, but some preliminary observations may be ventured here.

Two basically distinct modes of address are very common in the communicative set-up of Maijbhandari songs. In one of these, the lyrical self addresses the audience (whether the actual audience, an imagined group of co-disciples or a general public to be brought to the track) and ‘advertises’ the saint or spiritual guide to them as the proper destination of their wishes, spiritual longings etc. In the other, the living or deceased saint is addressed directly by a lyrical self either glorifying his personality and deeds, or asking for attention, imploring the saint, crying for his mercy etc. Mostly, single songs cannot be strictly assorted to one of these modes only, but switch between them.[7]

The Video CD recordings make use of both these situations. The first one does not require much refiguring but translates quite smoothly into the video mode: there would typically be a singer, standing or sitting alone or in a group of dancers, other singers and musicians, who directly faces the screen-watcher and thereby treats him/her as a mere extension of the audience within the performed scene. The second is slightly more complicated. Here, one typically finds a singer facing the deceased saint’s mausoleum with the side or even back turned to the audience, thus assigning it to a lateral perspective as witnesses of an interaction of singer and saint. The actual performance situations may occasionally allow such a lateral perspective, but usually would not do so intentionally,[8] whereas in the videos, this is promoted to a typical situation.

In addition to (and in combination with) these two situations, the videos, of course, use a much larger repertoire of visual designs that are specific to the video medium. Cuttings from live recordings of crowds at ʿurs festivals, focussing on the saints tomb or architectural features of his mausoleum, close-ups of the singers and their audience, especially in enraptured state, etc. are devices very commonly used in these video tracks. Interestingly, also the bhaṇitā (colophon), traditionally featuring the author’s name in the last verse of a song as a sort of signature, is occasionally represented in VCD recordings of songs by authors who are still alive. In an example, song writer Abdul Gafur Hali joins the singer physically, thus leaving a visual signature in the video.[9]

My particular point, however, is with a type of samāʿ mahfil that seems to be mostly extinct and is closely connected with the practice of ḏikr.[10] According to a prominent member of Ahmadiyya Manzil, one of the factions of the Maijbhandari movement, this constitutes the most suitable, ‘classical’ performance situation of Maijbhandari songs. This samāʿ developes from the group ḏikr that takes place after the Friday prayer and similar occasions. The liturgical prayers (milād, qiyām, munāğāt) after the maġrīb and ʿišāʿ prayers and the ğumma namāz include two loud ḏikrs that are recited collectively: one being the beginning of the fātihā, the Quranic confession of faith (Lā ilāha illā Llāh, ‘There is no God except God’), and the other the well-known Allāhu. Both rely on the notion of energetic centres in the human body (laṭīfa, pl. laṭāʾif); these are joined and set into vibration by the ‘circulation’ of the auspicious wordings through them in the course of the ḏikr. These ḏikrs are to be kept in motion silently until, at the end of the prayers, the music sets in. The music helps the ḏikr to acquire strength and build up long-lasting tension. This performance situation was said to be rare these days, and during my fieldwork I did not witness a single session of this type.

On a recent VCD, however, Ahmad Nur Ameri’s Semā o jikir śāne hayˡrat kebˡlā (‘Music and ḏikr [session] to the glory of Haẓrat Qibla’)[11], we find something coming very close to it. The recording starts with a solo recitation of Arabic formulas in praise of Allah and the Prophet. In a linguistic transition typical of many parts of South Asia, this is followed by a solo recitation of praise of the saint in Urdu, interspersed with Persian. Thereupon follows a group chanting of the šahada, the full Islamic confession of faith, and this merges into an accompanied group chanting of the two above-mentioned ḏikrs: first lā ilāha illā Llāh and then Allāhu. This increases in emotional fervour, and builds up to a collective shouting of this ḏikr with instrumental accompaniment. Only when this has built up properly does the singing of a Maijbhandari song set in, still with shouts of Allā-hu, Allā-hu in-between the lines. The following six cuttings from that clip show the stages of this build-up from the first ten minutes or so of the performance.
[Play video track 1]

This remodelling of what was portrayed as a classical performance situation in six initial steps uses the original location in front of Syed Ahmadullah Maijbhandari’s mausoleum (mazār / rawḍa šarīf) and features a group of adherents to the respective branch as well as local faqirs. The singer and his group are the centre of the camera eye which, however, turns very frequently to the saint’s tomb, the mausoleum and architectural details. In the ḏikr part, camera direction plays with the words that are being recited by closing up on Arabic writings of lā Ilāha illa ‘Llāh and Allāhu on the walls of the mausoleum, in the rhythm of the ongoing chanting of these very phrases.

Use of a central location on the spot, unity of space and time, and the staging of a group of actual adherents to the darbār in their usual attire lend this representation a particularly high degree of verisimilitude: the watcher is to decode the recording as an actual samāʿ mahfil at Maijbhandar. On closer analysis, there may be a certain displacement as regards the location: typically, such an ‘integrated’ ḏikr and samāʿ performance would take place directly in the respective mausoleum and not on the stairs of a near-by Manzil; and thus the location of the screening seems artificial. Even then it is clear that the attempt here was to represent truthfully an ideal-type performance of Maijbhandari songs in their specific spatial and ritual framings. Given the fact that the person who had outlined this ideal setting to me during my fieldwork is one of the heads of the Maijbhandari faction on whose precincts the session was performed, it is not unlikely that the darbār authorities had their say in the design of the video. However this may be, and before discussing the issues of mimesis and authenticity that this example brings up in greater detail, I want to add another interesting revival of a traditional motif in the following section.

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[6] I have about a dozen videos in my collection, most of them by Ahmad Nur Ameri and Shimul Shil. The ones I engage with in this article are: Āhˡmad Nūr Āmirī, Chemā o jikir śāne Hayˡrat Kebˡlā (Amins: Chittagong; no year) and Āhˡmad Nūr Āmirī, Śāntir doẏār Jiẏā Bābā (Amins: Chittagong; no year).

[7] These are, of course, not exhaustive. Another mode that could be added occurs usually in biccheder gān and has a female first-person lamenting to a female friend (sakhi).

[8] Except one type of samāʿ mahfil, in which the singers present to the pīr present in the assembly and only indirectly to the audience. I have not witnessed such performances in front of mausolea though, but only with living spiritual masters.

[9] Āhˡmad Nūr Āmirī, Śāntir doẏār Jiẏā Bābā (Amins: Chittagong; no year), track 7.

[10] Literally meaning ‘mentioning’or ‘remembrance’, ḏikr entails the repetition of formula usually containing the names of God, may be performed silently or loudly, and can be accompanied by fist beats on the respective positions of the laṭāʾif (see below).

[11] Ḥażrat is a honorific appellation preceeding names of holy Islamic personalities, and qibla (Arabic) usually denotes the direction of prayer facing Mecca/the Kaʿba, but is also used as a suffix to saintly names (often as qibla kaʿba) in order to highlight their importance. Reference in this VCD is to Syed Ahmadullah Maijbhandari (1829-1906), founder saint of the Maijbhandari movement.

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