Saieen Zahoor

By Sonya Rehman

At Columbia for my ‘Art of the Profile’ class I had to pen a profile on someone engaging. I was confused. I knew too many interesting people who had a story to tell.

Finally, it hit me. I thought of the day I met Saieen Zahoor in Lahore, over a year ago. I was interviewing him for DAWN’s Images section here in Pakistan.

I thought I’d re-write the interview in a descriptive, profile form for my class – unlike my first published piece.

Here it is:

He’s sitting awkwardly in his chair: to the side, with his knees pressed closely together. He’s not used to chairs or fancy cars. He’d prefer sitting on his haunches, standing, or walking by foot.

Saieen Zahoor is a wanderer whose lifestyle comes close to that of a gypsy. A slim, small man in his 50s, he started out as one of Pakistan’s most underrated classical musicians in the country. But much of that has changed now. Where the younger Pakistani generation upheld pop/rock bands that wailed into their microphones and strummed their guitars over new love, lost love, unrequited love, platonic love, demonic love, Zahoor sang at shrines about love in its purest of forms: the love for the Almighty. The love for God, Allah, the Eternal One.

Zahoor speaks Punjabi – the language of the flat, arid, contradictory province of Punjab. He is soft-spoken, earnest and rarely makes eye contact. Perhaps it’s because I am a woman and he is uncomfortable, but on the other hand, perhaps he evades my gaze out of respect and a little bit of shyness.

Saieen Zahoor – Photo: Mobeen Ansari

Zahoor scratches his head as his black turban tips a little to the left. His hair, well-oiled and greasy falls below his slender shoulders. Some loose strands cling to his forehead like mini claws. His finger nails are painted with henna and have now faded to a dull orange hue, the kind of orange which resembles the earth of the Punjab: dusty, rich, desiccated, and deep.

He’s wearing a freshly starched shalwar kameez (a traditional dress worn by South Asians) and has on long silver, ethnic necklaces – that rest near his torso – with stones and zircons (just like the rings on each of his ten fingers) that would’ve put Snoop Doggy Dogg to shame.

His lower eyelids are heavily accentuated by kohl – eyeliner mostly worn by the people of the East. It is said that kohl if worn regularly, improves ones eyesight. That may just be a superstition, but the usage of kohl brings out the eyes. Just like Zahoor’s, whose deep-set brown eyes shimmer like damp black pebbles in the moonlight from an angular, weather-beaten face.

His journey started many years ago at the age of seven when he became incessantly haunted by a recurring dream. A dream that lasted for seven years, which, Zahoor says, led him to where he is today – a legendary classical musician who was awarded the BBC’s World Music Award in 2005.

In the dream, Zahoor recalls a hand reaching out to the sky from a grave. Where most children would’ve been scared out of their wits having dreamt disturbing visuals of hands and graves, Zahoor said that he never felt fearful. The only problem he’d have after waking up from the dream was going back to sleep.

Perhaps the dream really did affect the young Zahoor on a subconscious level.

After a few years as the recurring dream continued to haunt Zahoor, he happened to meet a man who lived in a graveyard who would sing songs of pain and loss on an instrument known as the Ek Tara, a traditional one-string instrument played by people in the regions of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

It was this man who recommended Zahoor to play the Ek Tara at shrines – and it was through this process, Zahoor was advised, that he’d find the answer to his dream.

And so Zahoor did just that. With his Ek Tara, he played at many different shrines till he came upon one at Uch Sharif – a historical city in Punjab. There, Zahoor discovered that the shrine also had a grave.

The chips started falling into place and for Zahoor, the dream began making sense.

Consequently, he began singing and playing his Ek Tara at the shrine. From thereon, Zahoor’s journey to recognition began steadily. It wasn’t instantaneous. From a few TV appearances to performing at concerts and events, Zahoor started gaining popularity.

People in the media industry in Pakistan saw Zahoor’s talent and over time, supported him – getting him shows, interviews and public performances – leading him to getting his first record deal.

Zahoor’s music, which mainly revolves around the poetry of an honored Punjabi Sufi poet, – Bulleh Shah – is moving and intense. Since Zahoor is illiterate, he draws symbols which aid him in reading and singing Bulleh Shah’s rich poetry.

Having someone recite the poems to him, Zahoor, with a pen and paper, draws small flowers, arrows, faces and other symbols to represent the Sufi poet’s words. The drawings are like mini caricatures which Zahoor draws out slowly, lovingly.

One of the drawings sits in the breast of his pocket which he takes out and displays proudly after which he folds it carefully, pops it back into his pocket and pats it, close to his heart.

“In this Sufi line of work”, Zahoor says, “Your love, passion and devotion are all-consuming.” He smiles, the wrinkles on the sides of his mouth deepening. He scratches his head again, his turban tipping. He fidgets, sitting awkwardly in his chair.

Class assignment – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism


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