Jahan-e-Khusrau 2020: A photographer celebrates Muzaffar and Meera Ali's muse

A photographer celebrates his muse, Shivani Varma, a lawyer-turned-Kathak dancer, and a disciple of the Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj and Padmashree Shovana Narayan

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Jahan-e-Khusrau 2020 celebrates the spirit of oneness at the 15th edition of the Annual World Sufi Music Festival, Delhi. Designed and directed by noted film maker Muzaffar Ali and supported by Meera Ali,his wife who is both an artist and a designer, Jahan-e-Khusrau is the pioneer in presenting live sufi music to the country. My journey as a performing arts photographer and association with him began seven years ago when I was introduced to this dance form by Shivani Varma, a young and talented lawyer-turned-Kathak dancer,  at one of Muzaffar Ali’s shows in Agra. Disciple of the great Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj and Kathak guru Padmashree Shovana Narayan, Shivani made a mark for herself as a danseuse at a very early age when she discovered a thirst for dance and understood its divinity. This is my ode, not just to her but to all forms of dance and music that break the barriers of culture, gender and religion, bringing the various arts together — in the spirit of oneness.

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jashekhusrau 6 A stunning performance at Jahan-e-Khusrau, The world Sufi Music Fest, curated by Muzaffar Ali; Apparel by House of Kotwara, Meera Ali

She is the poetry of Rumi, She is the spiritual asceticism of a sufi.

She is the dance of a dervish, she is the mystical conversations of Shams, 

She is not a musical note, she is the music

She is not the danseuse, she is the dance 

She is the Goddess of a devout hindu;

She is Shiv &  she is His Shivani

jashekhusrau 4 Shivani, looking up at the lights, dancing. Curated by Muzaffar Ali; Apparel by House of Kotwara, Meera Ali

The yearnings are deep inside her; with childlike glee she looks up. She has the wings... all she wants is to fly and touch those stars. Run around them and be like them... shining bright.

She believes in the mystical world where magic exists.  

“Yours is the light by which my spirit's born: - you are my sun, my moon, and all my stars.” E. E. Cummings

jashekhusrau 5 Umrao Jaan at Muzaffar Ali's haveli in Lucknow; curated by the legend himself; Apparel by House of Kotwara, Meera Ali

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She is beauty, she is pain; 

She is tender & she is the strength; 

She is dreamy & she is the truth; 

She is love & she is the loss.

She is not just another sophisticated archetypal courtesan who is the epitome of exquisite beauty. She is full of lingering pain. Robbing her soul of its own desires, of love, she would ensnare as a dainty courtesan, and pretend to fall in love with her client; All the while, her own desire to be loved would die a thousand melancholic deaths.

jashekhusrau 2 She swirls; with Murad, Muzaffar Ali's son in the back ground, reciting as Rumi. Curated by Muzaffar Ali; Apparel by House of Kotwara, Meera Ali

She is Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan

She is Rumi's beloved. She reunites with him in poetry, and in his innermost core. No relationship can contain her wild originality until it becomes embodied in someone like him, who can be a bridge between a wild gnostic experience and a more traditional belief of one. She is not in love, but she "is" the love. 

"Drumsound rises on the air,

Its throb, my heart

A voice inside the beat says

I know you are tired;  but come

This is the way

Stars burn clear all night till dawn

Do that yourself,

and a spring will rise in the dark

with water your deepest thirst is for"

jashekhusrau 3 Thumri Radha: Curated by Muzaffar Ali; Apparel by House of Kotwara, Meera Ali

Andromeda - The chained queen by Rumi

With all the emotions of eight nayikas of "thumri" embedded into one, she is Radha in her myriad moods. She is Krishna's divine love. She meanders, caressing the flora in poetic sensuousness, she becomes the personification of shringar—rasa of love and romance. Her frivolity defies social norms as she raptures in her love for Krishna, expressing it in complete abandonment. She teases with rigid masculinity, she becomes jealous like the girl-next-door; she is full of pain in separation and she is joyous in celebration.  

jashekhusrau 7 Ghungroo

She is Advaita... She is oneness.

jashekhusrau 1 Champaran se Bapu

She ties the ghungroo to her ankles and her red alta-adorned feet, awakening the "prana" in her body. And as she rises to her feet, she loses herself to the music, to the entrancing never-ending chakkars like a drunk dervish, igniting the fire in her soul, and spinning herself into the hearts of millions like me.

Champaran, the land of great intellect, but extreme poverty. It is said that not a chest of Indigo reached England without the stain of human blood. 

And then, there is that sense of inevitability as if something momentous is about to take place. Unprecedented crowds gather to herald the arrival of the messiah, the magician... The Mahatma. 

"Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe tobe aekla cholo re"

If no one heeds your call, then march on alone.

Born of humanity and clad in a loincloth made of homespun khaadi, she leads a bloodless revolution and celebrates freedom. She is the sage and she is the saint.

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