Paddling in the murky pond of Delhi, every now and then I accidentally swallow some culture. (Don’t worry—I take prophylactic measures—just yesterday I found myself hurling spheres of fluorescent urethane in ‘India’s most advanced cosmic bowling centre’ with a bitterness I usually reserve for courgettes, iceskating, and the Daily Telegraph.)
First stop was Nizamuddin dargah, the shrine of the great Indian Sufi saint Shaykh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Back in March, Hannah and I brushed close to one of its more urine-soaked corners when we hopped on our delightful 25-hour train to Calcutta. This time I was back for real, albeit with a headscarf and a kindly friend to guide me through the alleys of staring eyes and pirate DVDs on the path to spirituality.
Sufism is a mystical, ascetic brand of Islam, which over the centuries fused bits and bobs of magic and other devotional traditions with Quranic meditation—to the extent that ‘un-Islamic’ Sufi shrines are frequent targets for suicide bombings in Pakistan today. People of all religions visit to pray for favours. As a young William Dalrymple’s (Sikh) landlady told him:
‘Well, if you’re not going to wear a turban then you should at least go to Nizamuddin,’ said Mrs Puri. ‘The saint there is very good at solving all sorts of calamities. Mark my words. Your baldness will be reversed in a jiffy.’
Nizamuddin preached the power of music to bring believers closer to God, and it it is for these hymns of devotion and remembrance, the sacred qawwalis, that small intrepid packs (hordelets?) of tourists join the praying crowds on Thursday evenings. Two harmonium players struck up a dirge, two tabla players drummed, and another two joined in as they began to sing, a high throaty tremble. It was gritty rather than melodious, but oddly gripping—especially because the musicians were like One Direction inverted in a funhouse mirror, a motley collection of snouty, battered men with gnarled mouths dripping lurid red paan-juice onto the tiles.
The music began to build with a clatter of tabla and a collective howl. This evening, alas, devotees didn’t fall into a trance and whirl like the famous Sufi dervishes. Fat drops of rain began to pelt the musicians. A rather impressive stripey roof whirred down—but alas, there was a tear just above Toothless Wailer and the wads of devotional rupees were getting wet, so God was packed up with the harmonium case for another day.
Today was another cultural mouthful, this time in the cotton-wool-safe farmhouse of modest patron ‘Zorba the Buddha’. Surrounded by burbling brooks and art-loving beetles, I took big gulps of not one but four major styles of Indian classical dance.
First was Kathak, a lovely North Indian style which seems to involve a lot of elegant pirouetting. It is apparently often associated with the Mughal courts, but in fact is much older (she says sagely).
Next was Bharatanatyam, a flouncy genitalia-obsessed Tamil style I’d once somehow heard a talk on, set to fluttering beats and syncopated religious chants rather than music. It was (is?) traditionally performed by devadasis, girls who were ‘married’ off to deities—and frequently acted as high-end temple prostitutes. Third was Odissi, a 2,000-year-old style from Orissa in eastern India. This was also associated with devadasis, as well as gotipuas—young dancing boys who dressed as girls. It started out sedately, before building to a frantic climax of vermillion-coated stomps.
The final demonstration was of Mohiniattam, a frankly deranged style from Kerala of swooping arm movements and ridiculous facial expressions. With the gurning, fake prayer hands, and ooh-it’s-Shiva miming, it was how I imagine Richard Dawkins would do Hinduism. Finally, they all came back for a mash-up dance-off battle to a big cheesy Heal the World-style tune—a micro-repeat of the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony. Because Delhi loves being reminded of how well all that went.
What a lovely time we all had. It makes me worry slightly about how successful the ‘…IS GREAT britain‘ advertising posters scattered around the city are in comparison, especially because when I ask people what they think of ‘contemporary Britain’, they seem to pick out two slightly disheartening things: our uselessness in cricket, and mildly-offensive-yet-inexplicably-popular-here ’70s sitcom Mind Your Language. I have faith that Wallace & Gromit, a sinister robot hand, and a small Tellytubby hill are going to turn all that around.