Sufi-OperaTM is a new genre of music. It combines elements of both eastern and western classical traditions in one work. Until Saira Peter entered the music scene, it was thought that these two styles of singing were mutually exclusive. They use different forms of vocalisation, each requiring specific techniques that were thought to exclude the human capacity to acquire the other. Saira’s unique contribution to the music scene is her ability to sing in both styles. She allows them to interact and even meld together in one composition. She performs musical gymnastics, moving smoothly from Pakistani raag style to western classical mode in a single breath.
In a world where traditions meet, fuse, transform one another, this is more of a coming together than a taking over. The music itself, not just the words, becomes a means of expressing spiritual values in dramatic form, exploring moral dilemmas, emotional encounters of ‘the other’ and values of good and evil through the transformative relationships found in the midst of difference.
In the West, opera as an art form probably originated with medieval mystery plays. These dramatic presentations popularised the stories of Adam and Eve and the drama of Job/Ayub as found in sacred texts. The works explored tensions between married couples, the emotional impact of suffering, the birth of the Messiah and the problem of evil. These early musical dramas attempted to take an audience into a spiritual world, transcending the grind of daily existence. However, as the Enlightenment took hold of European thought, opera adopted a more secular journey. It became a predominately Italian means of exploring emotion through mythological symbolism, it became divorced from earlier liturgical or spiritual roots.
In the East, music within sufi movements was not always a common occurrence. The art form has often been suppressed. The Naqshbandi sufi movement, which arose in the 12th century, especially emphasised silence as a pathway toward individualised mystical experience. They opposed music as a form of devotion to the Almighty. The movement was widespread throughout North Africa, Asia and the Middle East and negatively impacted attitudes to musical expression.
The Pakistani sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689/1690 – 21 December 1752), a contemporary of Bach (1685 – 28 July 1750), was, however, both a poet and a songwriter. His sufi compositions quickly spread throughout his native region of Sindh in spite of encountering opposition from established sufi centres. He would not relinquish his belief in the importance of music in the world of spirituality. He pioneered a new pathway for mankind to express eternity in their hearts. Not only did he oppose the practice of ‘nothingness’, but he articulated his sufism through a collection of poems, each picking up the theme of the place of women in Sindhi society. His writings introduced seven heroines to his followers. His was a moral sufi pursuit of the Creator that promoted peace with man as well as the Divine, it included forging reconciliation, caring for the poor and promoting gender equality.
It is only through the unique legacy of this sufi leader that the genre of Sufi-OperaTM is possible. Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’ sufism demonstrates common ground with streams of spirituality in the West. He insisted his devotees sing to the Almighty. They studied his stories that embodied his belief in the supremacy of Divine Love and Peace. Today, at his shrine in Bhit Shah, devotees continue to follow his command to offer worship through song 24/7 throughout the entire year.
Saira Peter, also born in Sindh, draws from his legacy. In her journey from Karachi to London, through her disciplines in two classical styles of voice, she has created Sufi-OperaTM, a new form of operatic drama promoting peace and equality in our conflicted world.
Saira’s first Sufi-OperaTM work, built on the story of Marvi, one of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s heroines, is currently in development.