GT Voice


Sanam Marvi wants to spread Sufi kalaam with her voice

By Saba Ahmed 


[fdropcap]A[/fdropcap]fter much insistence to please not bother with tea, I was served cold and refreshing aab-e-zamzam and dates from the umrah from which Sanam Marvi has recently returned. I began by asking Sanam ji about her childhood and the path that led to her becoming a Sufi musician. Sanam’s father was a Sufi singer and is a devout fakeer of Hazrat Shah Abdul Bhitai. Growing up in Hyderabad, Sanam Ji accompanied her father to the darbars of Sufi saints and attended the performances of very talented and spiritually powerful Sufi musicians. She got classical training from Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Gwalior gharaana and began singing at the age of seven. She serenely told me, “I pray for Pakistan, and I pray for our people. I urge more are more people to read Sufi kaalam and to read books by Sufi mystics and there will be more peace and calm in their lives.”

When Sehwan Sharif calls, Sanam goes. She works hard to give a performance that resonates with love and respect

At a UNESCO summit that took place recently in Tashkent, out of 80 singers from 80 different countries, Sanam ji won the first prize. It was a great moment of pride for her as the flag of Pakistan was hoisted high. Sanam is fluent in Siraiki, Sindhi and Punjabi. When you meet her, she appears to be a genuinely humble woman, true to the values of the long-standing Sufi tradition of peer and fakeer. She told me, for example, that she is not worthy of the knowledge she has gained, and has much more to learn. Spoken like a true Sufi gulukaara.


Sanam attributes her appearances in the PTV’s Virsa Heritage program as the moment when her career started. Virsa Heritage has been instrumental in the promotion of Pakistan’s Sufi poetry and has been able to portray the verse in such a way that young and old listeners alike enjoy it. It is because of shows like this, and Coke Studio, that we are beginning to see aspiring musicians come to the fore.

‘I do not know understand why ustaads nowadays do not pass on their education? When they have the honour of being the caretakers of this treasure, why would they take it with them to the grave?’

“Mian Yusuf Salahuddin is like a father, like a murshid,” Sanam ji told me. It was with the support and encouragement of Mian Salli, coupled with the exposure Sanam received from the Heritage program that she branched out to bigger ventures. Her performances at Coke Studio are beloved of Pakistan’s youth. Her Sufi-qawwal music has earned her vocal appearances in Bollywood films such as London Paris New York and The Dirty Picture. She is routinely invited to Sufi festivals and has toured France and Morocco as well.

Sanam joined Coke Studio in 2009 when they were producing their third season, and her powerful, rich voice was an immediate hit. She will appear in the much-anticipated sixth season that features musicians trained in both contemporary and traditional instrumentation. When asked about Coke Studio and the dynamic between everyone, she says that it is much like a family; everyone is caring, there is education and input and a back-and-forth that is quite magical. The improvisational nature of the performances has led the musicians to evolve and work together. Sanam ji told me she admires and respects the founder of Coke Studio, Rohail Hyatt. “He is always keen to listen and suggest ways of improving,” she says. “He treats me like a younger sister.”

Riaz, or practice, is something that Sanam is diligent about. Being a mother of two, as well as staying true to her musical talent, is not easy. She says she has immense support from her husband and her children. “If they weren’t with me, I would not have reached where I am today.”


She cooks, maintains her household (very nicely I might add), and is a loving wife and a national musical sensation.  “To keep a good home and to give my children a good life is my duty.”

And then she must perform at the darbars.  Sachal Sarmast’s shrine holds ‘Sufi Mela,’ where Sanam has an obligatory performance every year at the urs. For her it is part of her religion and of her worship. Shah Abdul Bhitai’s shrine holds a similar mela every year where Sanam sings the sacred verses of the Sufi saints. She also goes to the urs of Bedil and Bekas, a father and son from the pious family of Rohri who have upheld the Sufi traditions of the generations before them. And when Sehwan Sharif calls, she goes. Her attendance at the Lal Shahbaz Qalander urs is mandatory, she says. She works hard and meditates in order to give a performance that resonates with love and respect.

‘In 2009, when I had only just gotten started, Yusuf Sahib gave me the most shocking of surprises: I found out I was to be singing alongside Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’

When asked about artists she has most enjoyed working with, Sajjad Ali’s name crops up. “It was such a dream to have worked with him. He is a kind-hearted person who gave me respect and knowledge as one would to a shaagird.” The same way, she mentions working with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan as a wonderful experience. “In 2009, when I had only just gotten started Yusuf Sahib gave me the most shocking of surprises: I found out I was to be singing alongside Rahat bhai.” Of course, she has sung alongside Shafqat Amanat Ali, Arif Lohar and many others.

When asked if she would venture into pop music or perhaps the likes of Noor Jehan covers, she responded no. “I have the voice for Sufi poetry and it is my wish to continue to sing our Sufi kalaam.” Currently, Sanam is working on an album in India featuring Reshma ji’s songs. “Roots2Roots is a company in India that I have signed with and it is through them that I am recording the album featuring all of Reshma Ji’s classic songs with some improvisation of my own.”

With regards to the state of education of classical music in our region, she says musicians from the most knowledgeable gharaanas say that this art must die with them. “Knowledge only grows by passing it on” she says. “I do not know understand why ustaads nowadays do not pass on their education? If you are teaching Raag Aimen, you have to teach everything about it — what are the waadhi and samwaadhi surs, when is it sung? When they have the honour of being the caretakers of this treasure that has been passed down, why would they take it with them to the grave?” More power to Sanam ji for asking these questions.

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