A. R. Rahman’s marvel of light and sound – but where’s the music? (part 2)

I have so much to say about the AR Rahman Bay Area concert, a show that was stunning as a spectacle, but thin on the ground as far as music went.  You cannot have Benny Dayal, Neeti Mohan, Javed Ali, Shweta Pandit, and Blazee as showcased singers and get a good music program.  OK there was Hariharan, but he sang maybe three songs and was hardly present.  The one exception, and possible late addition, was Shaan.  But Shaan has not sung much for ARR so we did not hear any of his signature songs!

Rahman himself sang some of his gems and one such number was Khwaja Mere Khwaja from Jodhaa Akbar.  Dressed in traditional costume, with a turban, and sitting on the steps on stage with a harmonium, Rahman did do justice to the song!  The crowd was in transports even though this is not a song that can elicit much audience participation because of its introspective nature.

Missing were the whirling dervishes, and the feeling of being in the presence of something unknowable.  Kudos to Mr. Rahman for not introducing that element in a loud and crowded concert, no matter how missed it was.  But then just three days later I got to see the real thing! In Istanbul there is a Cultural Center called Hodja Pasha with a half hour every evening of the whirling dervishes.  We decided to go and see them live.  This entailed getting into a taxi and giving directions to the cabbie.  Telling us he understood perfectly and negotiating a fixed price with us (we thought it was a deal!), he left us near the Spice Bazaar and told us it was simply a couple of blocks inside there but it would take much longer to drive than to walk.

Spice Bazaar

So after giving him US$ in fare (it is absolutely standard in Istanbul to give 1 dollar for 1.5 Turkish Lira or 1 Euro for 2 Turkish Lira – so civilized, no need to change money and you even get change back in your own currency!) we set off briskly with plenty of time to spare.  No one on that street had heard of Hodja Pasha or of the dervishes – one of us even tried to twirl to demonstrate what we meant!  We asked directions of no less than six people, three did not know where on the map we currently were, and the other three did not know where the street we were looking for was!  We saw two policemen and thought we had finally found someone who would not only know how to read maps, but also to locate their current position on a map.  The two consulted furiously in Turkish pointed in various directions, then reached a consensus and sent us along up a hill (misdirections always take you uphill – Murphy’s law).  Even our befuddled minds told us that we were on the wrong track.  So we walked back to the two policemen, told them they were wrong (got shrugs in response), and decided to criss-cross a section of 4 by 4 blocks on the map.  Finally dusty and weary we arrived at the Hodja Pasha Center.

Hodja Pasha

We paid up our money and were shown into an auditorium that seated less than 200 people and had a cave-like solemn feel to it.  The floor was glowingly lit from below and there was a small stage.  We were told to stay absolutely quiet as this was a religious ceremony.  The musicians filed in first and played a series of tunes that included the flautist and a couple of singers (unfortunately the singing was in Turkish) who sang in a curious mix of chant-like and tuneful singing.  Then five dervishes filed in in black coats.  After a period of bowing and obeisance they took off their black robes and revealed the pure white underneath.  Then they began to whirl, slowly at first and in complicated formations that seemed somehow paired even though there were only 5 of them.  The whirling grew more and more intense and the arms went from horizontal to slowly one raised up to the divine and one down as if to gather it all together earthward.  Their necks were always bent at an angle, and they would slowly stop as the musical piece reached an end.  Then the singing and whirling would begin again.  There was pin-drop silence in the theater, and the faces of the dancers seemed to glow with some inner energy, and then it was over all too soon.  We were in a solemn mood, and did not even clap very loudly ,and then we filed out into the Istanbul night, figured out exactly where we were relative to our docked ship and took a cab straight back to our rooms.  It was an amazing experience, with the dervishes providing a connecting a thread straight from the Sufi poet Rumi to current times, an experience that gave the feeling of being in the presence of the immutable and profound.

Whirling Dervishes


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