Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Musical memorials: the barsi, and death anniversaries in South Asia

In South Asian musical culture, the annual observation of the barsi--or death anniversary--of a deceased musician in a memorial concert is an important event.

In any musician's family--particularly if the one being honored is a hereditary musician--this occasion is one of the high points of the musical year, and provides a unique opportunity for surviving family members who are also practitioners of the musical art, as well as disciples and other musicians, to perform in tribute to and veneration of the departed.

At the performance, the venue may range from a musician's simple home to a large public auditorium. Prominently placed will be a portrait of the singer or instrumentalist being honored, with the customary flower garland (mala) or set of garlands draped around the picture, as are the pictures of some revered religious deity in a home or temple. In some cases the musician's instrument may be given a place of honor.

The occasion combines elements of both joy (in celebration of the life of the one being honored) and grief--the latter particularly in the first year anniversary of the honoree's death, and especially if the death was untimely. But as the number of years pass, the celebratory aspect gradually displaces the element of sadness and loss.

The word barsi is derived from the Hindi word baras, or year, which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit barsh, of the same meaning, and similar observations are conducted in a wide variety of non-musical--but very often religious--contexts. For example, a simple Google search of "barsi" in combination with "death anniversary" yields some 5,500 hits, many referring to the event in Muslim or Sikh culture.

As in many areas of South Asian life, there are consonant practices between musicians and religious mystics. For example, the discipline of chilla--a forty-day retreat focusing on practice (for the musician) or meditation (for the Muslim mystic)--is found both in Hindustani classical music and the mystical Sufi tradition in Islam. (Forty day austerities are found in other cultures as well, as in the examples of Christ and Buddha, the latter having attained enlightenment after a forty-day fast under the Bodhi tree.)

The celebrations of the death anniversaries of Muslim Sufi saints are among the cultural highlights of religious life in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The event is known as an 'urs, from the Arabic root for "marriage"--i.e., the marriage, or union, of the saint with the Divine--and takes place at the dargah, or tomb, of the saint, usually with performances of the style of group singing known as qavvali (also qawwali)--the genre of Muslim devotional singing brought to worldwide prominence by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan. (You can find numerous examples of his dynamic performances on YouTube).

For example, the annual 'urs for the great saint Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1230) in the Indian city of Ajmer, lasts six days, and draws pilgrims of all faiths--Hindu, Sikh, and Christian as well as Muslim--from all over the Subcontinent, with nightly singing of qavvali

When I was in Pakistan in the mid 1970s, I was able to attend the last night of the 'urs for Ali Hujwiri (990-1077), popularly known as Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, in Lahore. The death anniversary of Hujwiri draws hundreds of thousands every year, and is a moving and memorable experience for anyone attending, both for the spirited qavvali reverberating through the night, as well as the passionate devotion of the saint's followers. A three-part video of a recent qavvali performance at the shrine can be found here (in a YouTube search for "Data Darbar").

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