|Sanam Marvi. Photo: Jinsaar Kandhro|
Since its 2008 debut, the Pakistani version of India’s popular Coke Studio TV show has helped popularize Sufi devotional music throughout South Asia. Along with rock and hip-hop, the show delivers a slick yet uncompromising blend of traditional songs in contemporary arrangements played on acoustic and electric instruments by the sort of youngish, long-haired studio virtuosos you might see in Los Angeles.
For her 2010 Coke Studio debut, Sanam Marvi sang “Manzil-e-Sufi” (The Sufi’s Destination) by the mystic poet Sachal Sarmast (1739—1826), whose Sindhi verses described the great lengths the singer would go to in order to merge with the divine. “I’ll become a yogi,” she sang in her powerful voice, “an ascetic in pursuit of my beloved.”
|Sanam Marvi, courtesy of the artist.|
Sanam Marvi was born in 1986 in Hyderabad, whose desert location, some believe, permanently lent her higher notes something special. She began singing at age four and began training with her father, the Sindhi folksinger Faqeer Ghulam Rasool, at age seven. (He had her sing outdoors near a radio station in hopes she’d be noticed, she recalls.) In addition to other teachers, Marvi studied for two years with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a Hyderabad singer associated with the Gwalior gharana, the oldest lineage of modern Indian classical music. It is distinguished by its relative simplicity, emphasis on the composition, and use of well-known ragas.
Marvi specializes in the compositions of Baba Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, and Baba Sheikh Farid—Sufi poets of selfless love and peace whom she hopes will provide comfort to listeners. Marvi’s dedication to the devotional is serious and complex. If she weren’t singing, she admitted in a 2013 interview, she would have “chosen to remain a housewife,” adding, “Our lives have become so fast-paced that people feel an emptiness within and are in the quest for inner peace. Sufi music is soothing and there is much solace to be found in the meaningful lyrics.”
Baba Bulleh Shah’s poetry, and a large proportion of the combined Sufiana kalam (devotional music), is written in the female voice. And it is only fairly recently, beginning with Abita Parveen, that women themselves sang this music in public. Parveen and Marvi regularly combine verses by different poets, even in different languages, to arrive at an extremely personal yet ultimately universal language. Issues of gender, class, and caste simmer in these verses for those with ears to hear them.
Accompanied by harmonium, sitar, tabla, and the two-headed dholak drum, Marvi sings Sufi kalam with the humble flair of a gospel diva and, in ghazal mode (a type of lyric poem), a relaxed and romantic luxuriousness. She transcends the divide between secular and sacred, both through her material and a performance style that puts an earthly spin on theological affairs. Body and soul come together in songs about lover-believers driven to madness through their recklessly passionate attraction to the sublime.
While she once expressed a mild disdain for popular music, Marvi has more recently contributed music to the 2012 Bollywood romcom London, Paris, New York; the 2013 Punjabi romance Ishq Khuda (Love Is God); and numerous television series. She performs at prestigious Sufi festivals and alongside Indian playback singing stars like Rekha Bhardwaj. Indeed, Sanam Marvi’s career is in many ways only beginning and, like all great Sufi artists, it embraces seeming contradictions.
In 2013, Marvi returned to Coke Studio, where she’d become a semi-regular, and performed “Yaar Vekho” (Look at My Beloved) with the show’s house band. The song’s mash-up of verses by Sultan Bahu and Sachchal Sarmast is solemn, deeply introspective, and yet ultimately hopeful. “I am neither Sunni nor Shia,” Marvi sings in a voice grainer and far more imbued with experience than her earlier appearance. “My heart is troubled by both sides.”
Sanam Marvi will perform on April 6 at the Howard Gilman Opera House.
Richard Gehr writes about music for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Bandcamp, and elsewhere.