Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mystic minstrel

Jamila Verghese on how Rev. Barakat Ullah used Christmas carols in Punjabi to bring together the rural and urban members of his congregation

Rev Barakat UllahIT was the December of 1933 when a young Punjabi priest and his beautiful Pathan bride, both fresh from the academic world of Lahore and Delhi, came to serve in the towns of rural Punjab.

During the years that followed, their problem was, how to bring together the largely illiterate rural and urban members of their varied congregation into an integrated community.

The more Barakat Ullah and Sarah wrestled with this puzzle, the more elusive remained the answer.

Touring extensively through the disparate and large parishes in their tonga, drawn by a almond silky mane horse Rakhsh named after the steed of Rustam, the fabled Persian hero, they soon discovered that their area of work was spread over a number of far-flung villages. To bring a meaningful cohesion among these seemed an almost impossible task.

One day, when he heard a shepherd sing to his flock, it struck Barakat Ullah that music might be the answer. He got together an enthusiastic group of friends to deal with the task. Local singers were rediscovered, small groups organised, simple words put to the beat of the rural dholak and the plain, slim, yard-long musical tongs, the chimta, which emphasised the beat of the dholak. A number of familiar local tunes emanating from the gurdwara and the mosque were adapted. Familiar Urdu ghazal forms and qawwalis were used to form a corpus of easy music to follow.

The lively verses composed by Rev. Rahmat Masih Waiz, and a number of many compositions by other friends and local singers furnished a veritable library of memorised songs. Groups of wandering minstrels began to sing with others, adding zest to the powerful beat of the dholak and the rhythm of the long slim iron chimta. Before they realised it, a miracle began to happen. So much so that Bishop S.C. Bannerjee touring the area in November 1931 wrote, "I was struck by some very good bhajan mandalis (local hymn singing groups) organising kathas and nagar kirtans in good singing."

On the Christmas Eve, despite cold weather in Fatehgarh Churian, then a small town in Punjab, Rev. Barakat Ullah, dressed in his thick black cassock, stood against the mission gate ready for the results of a yearís hard work. He waved a kerosene lantern above his head ó a shining bright welcome at the open gate of the mission compound in Fatehgarh Churian.

The beat of the dholak and the rhythm of the chimta heralded one village troupe after another throughout the night. Some families walked 15 miles throughout the night, their children on menís shoulders, and young mothers with babies at the breast.

Wrapped in a homewoven khes, their children cuddled closer to their motherís body for warmth.

The lead singer sang a line in Punjabi, a musical homegrown drone, not yet accepted as a Christmas carol in Punjabi which sounded a little like a melody from the Sikh kirtan from the gurdwara next door. This would be repeated enthusiastically though not always tunefully by his shivering followers.

"Jag vich aaya aap ghafaar, keeta jiss nay bayra paar!" (On this great day, the one who has steered our lifeís boat across the turbulent ocean has come into our world in human form).

"Been barbat vajdee o piyarayo, aa jao Masih day nayray!"(Can you hear the music announcing the coming of the king? Come quickly to Him!)

All shoes were left outside the priestís house. Shivering in the winter chill, they stepped into the warmth of a large drawing room with its fireplace blazing a welcome. Tea was served in metal glasses by the padriís wife and the three of us children, straight from the glowing hamaam in the open verandah. Peanuts and oranges were the main dish of welcome, and were taken thankfully and place was found for them in the voluminous thick cotton kheses (wraps).

There they all sat, on the warm durries, holding the metal glasses, frozen fingers thawing and tingling with the warmth. They relished the hot tea allowing themselves the liberty of savouring each mouthful with a contented roll until it reached the throat and was swallowed with satisfied slurps, making room for the next toli of villagers from a neighbouring village, 15 miles away.

The churchyard, warmed by great crackling fires, was dotted with tents for the guests, making room for the next group. Tomorrow, they nodded drowsily, will be the Bara Din, the great day, our Vadda Din.