“In this Sufi line of work your love, passion and devotion is all-consuming” – Saieen Zahoor

By Sonya Rehman

It all started with a dream. A dream which Saieen – at the tender age of seven – could not yet comprehend the implication of. And it was this very dream, which changed young Saieen’s life forever.

Saieen Zahoor - Photo: Mobeen Ansari
Saieen Zahoor – Photo: Mobeen Ansari

Seated in the Rafi Peer Workshop’s office in Lahore on a humid Saturday afternoon, Saieen Zahoor – in all his glory – sits before me; his frame petite and slim, his fingernails painted orange (with fading mehndi) and his stone and zircon encrusted rings (one on each finger) glittering ever so often.
His black turban is set firmly on his head, under which a dark and slightly greasy mane of hair just about touches his narrow shoulders.
Saieen’s face is dark and weather-beaten, with deep lines that seem to speak of voyages (both internal and external) and eyes – deep-set, kohl-rimmed, astute and alert.

“Beti”, (daughter) he answers, “it is a very long story”, when I question how his path led him down that of the ‘ek tara’ (the traditional instrument that Saien plays) and the ‘dervaish’ way of life.
Tasneem Peerzada (one of the directors of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop) is sitting with us as a translator.
This is because Saieen speaks Punjabi – the pure and thait kind – the kind that I understand little of, and the kind that Tasneem converses and understands with ease.

“I was seven years old”, Saieen elaborates, “When I started seeing a hand in my dream…a hand which would emerge from a grave. And after the dream, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. My parents would scold me and get angry – they would ask me; ‘Why can’t you sleep son? What bothers you at night?’ But I never told my parents about the dream and would pretend to sleep straight after. And every night for seven continuous years I would have the same dream.”
Relaying his mother’s reaction with a tinge of comic, Saieen says: “my mother used to hit me and say; ‘Are you a jinn born in this house…the ONLY one, having THESE dreams?’”

Was he afraid of the dream and what it depicted? “No, I never felt any fear because it was continuous – I used to see it every night for many years”.

During this time, Saieen met a dervaish who lived in a graveyard. The dervaish would play the ek tara and sing. He “had magic in his voice”…so much so, that it mesmerized the young Saieen, who began sitting with the dervaish in the graveyard (much to the dervaish’s vexation as he thought the little boy was too young to sit in a graveyard!) and contended himself by learning the ek tara from the dervaish.
What sort of songs would he sing and play at the time? “Oh they were songs about pain and loss”, Saieen states, “They were folk tales which I would sing only in Saraiki [a dialect spoken in the region Saien was brought up in].”

Since Saieen had told the dervaish about his recurring dream, the dervaish advised Saien “to look for a darbar” and when Saien would find one, he would then understand the significance of his dream.
“I kept looking for this particular darbar, and in the process I came across many dargas, and eventually I found a darbar at Uch Shariff – which also had a grave. So I sat there and started playing my ek tara instrument.”
Days which slid into weeks, weeks which fluttered into months and months that danced into years – Saieen’s travels, earnestness and hard work eventually paid off when he met Dildar Bhatti (now deceased).

Dildar, at the time was a very well-known compere on PTV who helped Saieen strike a deal with the channel, and this resulted in a recording (of Bulleh Shah’s poetry) sung by Saieen that was telecast across Pakistan. Three additional programs for PTV followed swiftly after the success of the first.

Saieen’s path then met with Taj Naseem Aqsi, who put him through to art councils (one major one being the National Arts Council) and Lok Virsa where he performed countless times.
These performances – which raised Saieen’s popularity to considerable degrees – led him overseas, where Saieen would perform at festivals.
From America, Canada, India, Europe and Japan – Saieen performed everywhere, and continues doing so ever since he began working with the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop in 2000.

And in 2005 – recognizing Saieen’s gift of music, BBC Radio awarded the musician its prestigious World Music Award, which further set in motion Saieen’s expedition of his career in music.
Not that award titles and publicity would matter to Saieen – since he is in essence, a true dervaish who sings Baba Bulleh Shah poetry for the love of it – yet, the recognition from a foreign media corporation to a humble, Pakistani artiste can be quite encouraging.
“I sang one of Bulleh Shah’s verses on love and devotion”, Saieen states regarding the song which managed to bag him the BBC award. “When you sing with sincerity, the message gets across to anybody – whether they understand it or not”.

This year in 2008, Saieen’s debut album (all songs of Bulleh Shah) was released by the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop.
How long did its recording take? “Only one and a half hours”, Saieen tells me proudly, “but it took nine days for the video shoot”, he says with emphasis all the while making several clicking gestures with his fingers.

Regarding local music, what does Saieen make of it? He ponders a little before answering: “I love and appreciate music about God. But for me – music about people or worldly things denotes greed…which I don’t like to be honest. But any song which carries with it the name of the Almighty and His praise, I love.”

Through the interview I realize one thing; and that is that Saieen Zahoor is an incredibly simple man. He’s no sage. He’s just an ordinary man, a dervaish – with an exceptional voice. Hear his music and you’ll know what I mean. It’s the kind of vocals and music that hits you – like one of those sturdy, antique sling-shots (that you get up North) – right in the heart.
“In this Sufi line of work”, he tells me, “Your love, passion and devotion is all-consuming”.

Much later, towards the end of the interview I learn that Saieen cannot read nor write. How then, does he learn to sing and memorize Bulleh Shah’s verses?
“I draw them” he states simply. I am incredulous. Tasneem hands him a piece of paper and a pen – and within five minutes Saieen draws four lines of verse.
They are chubby stick figures with round heads – some smiling and some sad – while other drawings denote flowers and pathways.
After Saieen is done drawing, Tasneem writes the verse in Urdu just below it. After she’s done, I fold it neatly and tuck it into my purse.

From darbar to darbar, and now to his frequent globe-trotting for Sufi festivals – how has the experience been for Saieen so far?
Answering in the affirmative, Saieen went on to narrate an unpleasant incident which he finds hard to forget.
“On one of our trips – we went to Denmark, Brussels and Belgium and from there straight to England. We did a show there, and during my performance I started spinning. Before I knew it, two foreigner girls had grabbed me by both arms and started spinning with me. At the time I was actually singing a verse about being very close and connected to God. Therefore I immediately stopped performing. A man from the Pakistani consulate then took me aside and threatened me…he said if I wouldn’t dance with those girls, things would get ugly for me. But I explained that I was a dervaish, and that what I was doing was spiritual – and this did not permit me to dance with women. But the man threatened me, and I was scared, and therefore had to comply. I had to dance with the girls by force. That was the only program of mine which made me feel terrible. Otherwise I feel elated during my performances.”

As stated above, this is exactly what I meant about Saieen being a humble and simple man.
When dervaish artistes such as Saien Zahoor come into the spotlight, almost anyone can get away with throwing their weight around, threatening and victimizing them on a monetary and even, emotional level. And when that realization hits you, smack in the face – it feels grossly discomforting.

“Music is nutrition for the soul”, Saieen says, “I can perform all night. Once you start reciting the Sufi qalaam, you forget your physical being”.
Apart from performing every Thursday night at Peeru’s Café, is Saien due to go on tour again anytime soon? “I get a lot of calls”, he tells me, “But I cannot tie deals over the phone – only in person”.

And what about the dream that he once had as a child – has it stopped? “Yes it has, but the blessings of that dream continue till this day,” Saieen says, his eyes lighting up like fireflies in the dark.

Images, Dawn


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