‘Haq Maula,’ a Sufi song written in the praise of Imam Ali has been reinterpreted many times over the years, and artist Dhruv Sangari made a similar attempt for Coke Studio. What set apart this rendition was the fusion of classical Indian and western instruments, and an unprecedented level of detailing that went into perfecting this age-old Sufi song- be it in terms of composition, instruments or vocals.  

 In an interview with Journey India, Dhruv Sangari talks about the significance of the song, his own creative rendition and the musical journey that lies ahead

Journey Staff: ‘Haq Maula’ has been reinterpreted many times over the years. Could you please tell us about your rendition of this song?

Dhruv Sangari: ‘Haq Maula’ is a timeless classic. We have tried to trap a lion in a cage - literally! Compressing a 45 minute qawwali (a form of Sufi devotional music) into a seven minute rendition without losing the essence, context and devotional flavor was rather challenging! 

Journey Staff: Please take us through the history and significance of this song.

Dhruv Sangari: This song is a manqabat (a Sufi devotional poem) written in praise of Hazrat Ali, who is considered to be a fount of mystical wisdom. He is a vitally important figure in Sufi spirituality. The original poem was written by Allama Saim Chishti and composed for my guru Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In fact, it was a matter of great honour for me when Saim Chishty’s son called me up from Lahore to tell me how much he appreciated my version of Ali Maula and how often he listens to it at his Sufi Dargah! 

Journey Staff: What sets apart this rendition of ‘Haq Maula’ is the fusion of Indian and western instruments. Could you shed some light on this please?

Dhruv Sangari: ‘Haq Maula’ was created for Coke Studio rather organically. We put together a group of the most brilliant musicians, some from my band Rooh, and others with whom I jammed on a regular basis, and the band ‘Humble Mystic’ evolved. We tried to incorporate the best of everyone’s ideas and ended up having instrumental interludes ranging from hip-hop to Raga Bhairavi, and on instruments as diverse as Dilruba/Esraj to the mandolin! I remember Stephen Fitzmaurice, the sound engineer on season 2 telling me that he had never seen such an eclectic combination of musicians before. So, in hindsight having a wide variety of instrumentalists was a good idea. That is what makes our version so unique. It stays true to the melody, Raagdaari and devotional content, but at the same time brings in a global musical sound experience. 

Journey Staff: What was the level of detailing which went into perfecting the song, be it in terms of composition, instruments or vocals?

Dhruv Sanari: Years of practice go into honing any craft. For this song, showcasing Nusrat Sahab’s vision was important. He was the first artist to experiment with saragam-based classical improvs in Qawwali and then fuse them with western music. We tried to stay true to that. Each minute, each syllable of the track was revisited, broken down and looked at under a microscope. Each line was discussed and the pros and cons of each section were weighted with great care and concern. We wanted this song to be a historical record of the first such experiment of its kind. 

Journey Staff: Take us through your creative process, from understanding the lyrics of this song to composing it.

Dhruv Sangari: The lyrics of this song range from Persian to Urdu and Hindustani. The opening couplet, and one of the stanzas are by different poets. Only the main song is by Saim ji. This is possible because in Qawwali, the artist has the flexibility to switch poets, modes and even beats (a bit like jazz) if they feel it will add aesthetically to the richness of the qalaam. So with this freedom, I chose the most impactful verses, retaining only that which would have the deepest effect on the listeners. Sufism is a phenomenon loved by all communities regardless of creed. Over the years, all types of people have reached out to me in appreciation of this track. 

Journey Staff: What were some of your challenges while composing this song?

Dhruv Sangari: One big challenge was fitting the song in the Coke Studio format. Fusing together these diverse musical elements I talked about earlier was easier said than done. Without overproducing or digitally sanitizing the sanctity of the piece, we wanted it to be groovy and fun at the same time, while retaining its seriousness.

Another major hurdle was the stipulated time limit. We struggled hard with the seven-eight minute window but managed to crack it successfully in the end.

Journey Staff: Was it difficult to adapt a Sufi song for Coke Studio? What were some of the factors you had to be mindful of?

Dhruv Sangari: That was the crux of the exercise. To revisit, update and revive this whole genre for a new generation. Coke Studio as a concept has revolutionized the way we look at our musical heritage in South Asia and we are proud that we could play a small part in that revolution. From the days of Shakti and the seminal album Night Song, the debate over purity and dilution has raged in the music world. The basic question is one of ‘foreign influence’ and whether it is a threat to indigenous traditions. The fact is, everything came from somewhere.

Today instruments such as violin and harmonium which are European, have found a place in Indian classical music. So the main issue for us was not adapting to an Indo-Western musical idiom but maintaining the authenticity of the music we represent within that new format.

Journey Staff: What were some of your thoughts while bringing on board the other musical artists associated with the song?

Dhruv Sangari: I just wanted the best artists possible and those who understood my music and could engage with it passionately. Amjad and his brother Arshad Khan (a Coke Studio regular) are from the Delhi gharana (a system of social organization in Hindustani music) of music and have a 700-year-old legacy. They, along with Salamat Khan and Siraj who also hail from musical families, are great lovers of Sufism and Sufi Music and have been working with me for years. Abhinav Dhar the one who was the catalyst behind the band, is one of the finest drummers in India, and brought on board Anil, Anirban and the legendary guitarist Saibal Basu. This turned out to be a golden opportunity indeed. I commend them all for their soulful and creative approach.

Journey Staff: The song has very serious and powerful lyrics, what were some of the emotions you went through while producing this song?

Dhruv Sangari: As a lover of Sufism and the Mystic Saints, for me the song was an invocation. I felt connected to Imam Ali and felt his blessed gaze upon me throughout the process. I am really grateful to the producers for giving me unfettered access to such a platform. It was really important to present the lyrics and melody undiluted and they really supported me in that. 

Journey Staff: What was your favorite part of the whole process?

Dhruv Sangari: Those days on set. Seeing whole thing come together, from rehearsals to the final four takes. So many moments. Creating interlude pieces for transitions, sitting with each musician individually. The many kindnesses of the production team. The wonderful relations and friendships we made have lasted to this day.

Journey Staff: How does it feel to have your compositions evolve from idea to reality?

Dhruv Sangari: Trust me, every musician is a little child at heart. When something they imagine or envisage finally sees the light of day, it’s almost as miraculous as bringing a new life into the world! 

Journey Staff: What did you want your audience to take away from this song?

Dhruv Sangari: When I did the song, those days and weeks leading up to the final recording were all spent in a sort of ‘zone.’ I was honestly not thinking about audience response then, however, in hindsight it was an overflowing desire to share my journey as a Sufi musician and seeker within the world. People have told me they cry when they hear the song. That is the biggest reward. 

Journey Staff: What are you working on next?

Dhruv Sangari: I am currently working on a number of projects. One thing closest to my heart is revisiting four or five rare Sufi Qawwali compositions and presenting them in a completely new way to modern listeners. Another nascent idea is the creation of a world Sufi ensemble.