On Sunday, while scores of American children prepared to don their best ghost, witch and pumpkin costumes for Halloween, I was heading towards the Old City of Hyderabad in an autorickshaw. After a flat-tire break (conveniently, next to a street vendor selling fried stuffed chili peppers), Stephanie, Priya and I arrived at the Chowmahalla Palace. It was a Halloween to remember.
According to Wikipedia, the Chowmahalla “was a palace belonging to the Nizams of Hyderabad…it was the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty and was the official residence of the Nizam. In Urdu, Chow means four and Mahalat (plural of Mahel) means palaces, hence the name Chowmahallat/four palaces.”
The palace is tucked into a corner of hectic, noisy Old City Hyderabad, competing with narrow alleys, bustling shops and endless crowds of people for attention. Frankly, if you didn’t know where it was, you wouldn’t find it. Our autorickshaw driver needed 3 directions stops himself – and he’s a local!
We were at the palace to hear Abida Parveen, a noted Sufi vocalist. Haven’t heard of her? Neither had I, until my colleague Misbah mentioned her in New York (she did a concert in Union Square, which, shame on me, I missed). Thank you, Wikipedia (again) for telling me a bit more about her: “Abida Parveen is…one of the foremost exponents of Sufi music (Sufiana kalaam). She sings mainly ghazals, Urdu love songs, and her forte, Kafis, a solo genre accompanied by percussion and harmonium, using a repertoire of songs by Sufi poets. Parveen sings in Urdu, Sindhi, Seraiki, Punjabi and Persian, and…is considered one of the finest Sufi vocalists of the modern era.”
Good enough for me. Quite frankly, the general dearth of arts offerings in Hyderabad made me super interested in this (and almost any) concert; that it was Abida Parveen (!) was a bonus.
Arriving, we were greeted by muscle-bound security guys in tight black t-shirts and a red carpet plus photographer setup. They were definitely interested in snapping photos of the foreigners (wait, you’re interested in Sufi music!?), so Stephanie and I turned and smiled as we walked in.
We settled into plastic lawnchairs towards the back of the crowd (I may be a farangi, but we both work for NGOs…we went for the cheap seats!) and ran into Tracy and Anita, two other friends. Molly, Priya, Deepti, Tricia and Tyler sat further ahead, having purchased their higher-tier seats at a discount some weeks back.
The lights went up – purple, blue, green and gold splayed across the white marble of the Chowmahalla’s Khilwat Mubarak. Abida Parveen and her band settled onto cushions arranged on a low-slung stage, and the gentle hum of the harmonium and drums began to drift across the crowd. As she sang, a light breeze picked up and we hastily zipped our sweaters and jackets, bracing against an unexpectedly cold night.
For two hours, we were transported to a different time, when the Nizams ruled Hyderabad and artists like Parveen performed for private audiences of kings and courtiers. Luckily for me, modern India means that a couple of middle-class kids from the US can tap into the same experience. And it’s also lucky that, despite modern India, the Chowmahalla has retained some of its luster and magic, set amidst the madness that is Hyderabad.