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The unwavering devotion of Waai singers

With only 5 remaining Waai singers in the country, the form based on the poetry of sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai is one of India’s rarest forms. They are working tirelessly to keep the tradition alive.

Sarif Jat, Sumar Jat and Bhachaya Jat during a performance. Photo: Asif Rayama
Sarif Jat, Sumar Jat and Bhachaya Jat during a performance. Photo: Asif Rayama

In the village of Bhagadia in Banni (Kutch), Gujarat, Sumar Khan wakes up at 5am, milks his cattle and then sends them out to pasture. He then sets off for work as a daily wage labourer—this entailed making coal earlier, but has been difficult during lockdown—comes back by 4pm and brings home his cattle. At night, he sits down to sing and practice Waai or Shah Jo Raag.

The 55-year-old is a descendant of the Jat Muslims from Baluchistan, who traversed rugged terrains through Sindh to bring Waai to Kutch. He is also one of only 5 remaining performers of the Waai in India, among the country’s rarest art forms.

Waai, a complex Sindhi genre with high- pitched notes set to the accompaniment of a five-stringed instrument called the dhamburo, is based on the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, an 18th century Sufi saint from Sindh, now in Pakistan. It’s poetry Sumar feels in his rooh (soul), he says. “Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai is a Sufi saint but his poetry is based on dua, or prayer, it is for people of all faiths,” he says. Bhagadia, home to Waai teachers, now only has four performers. The fifth is from Jhalu, another village in the region.

Sumar was fascinated by the form when he first heard it one Jumme raat (Thursday night) in his village. The 25-year-old was instantly drawn and very keen to learn. The tradition, or parampara, he explains, is that of handing down knowledge over generations—Sumar and one of his contemporaries, Mitha Khan, learnt from ustad Sumar Khan, who had been taught by Khair Mohommad, who in turn had learnt the form from Haji Ameen. These teachers, it is believed, trace their knowledge to the fakirs who were the original disciples of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.

“In Sindh and Banni (Kutch), no conversation of any kind, literally, is possible without someone quoting a bayt from the Risalo. It is so common to hear, ‘Shah saab chayo aa...’ and then a verse that can explain anything from the absence of rain to the betrayal of a lover, from the names of plants to the dilemmas of a spiritual life,” wrote Rita Kothari in Scroll in December 2019. Shah Jo Risalo is a compilation of Bhittai’s poetry.

The themes of Bhittai’s verse may be diverse but what’s striking, says Sumar, is the leitmotif of firaq, or separation and longing, that runs through all the 30-plus surs, or chapters, compiled over years in the Shah Jo Risalo. Typically comprising two kinds of pitch—the heavy (gauro) and the thin (sanho)—in Waai, falsetto sanho denotes separation. “When I sing, it takes me back to my father, to cousins I have lost, to friends who are no longer with me, to mohabbat (love) that is no more,” says Sumar.

For 40-year-old Sarif Jat, who has been learning Waai from Sumar, it is the verse about the life of a sailor, alone at sea, and the challenges he encounters that really stays with him each time he sings. “But whenever I sit down for riyaaz, I ensure my children sit with me and take it all in. The only way to keep this form alive is by performing for those outside our village and keeping the next generation engaged and interested,” he says.

The singers used to travel to Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, and other places in Gujarat for performances, in an effort to keep the art form alive, till the pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Even in normal circumstances, though, access to them is limited, and the number of Indians who speak Sindhi is dwindling. The only way to keep the Waai form alive, says Asif Rayama, who helps coordinate the performances, is to create an institution to support these singers financially and take forward the form.

“For anyone keen to learn, it is important for them to visit these remote villages, make a connection with the singers and live and work with them. This is difficult given the infrastructural challenges. If things go on as is, the form will remain limited to one qasbah and will not progress,” says Rayama.

Still, the singers remain optimistic, hopeful that their devotion and the interest of fellow villagers will not let the form die out.

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