Pappu Sain and The Drumbeat of Heaven

A bhang drinking, hashish smoking, dhol playing sufi can teach us a lot about resisting the oppression of extremism… Nimra Khan’s notes from a day spent with the iconic musician, Pappu.

As the sweltering heat of June poured down the streets of Lahore, I ventured into a part of the city I had never seen before. The old city on the outskirts was dying. Over time, the newer metropolis had grown along its peripheries, wrapping its hands around its neck, slowly suffocating it. The buildings were a sickly yellow with gangrene-like cracks running through. The sidewalks were dotted with garbage and the air was thick with years of neglect. I was there to meet Pappu Sain, a national treasure and an iconic artist in Pakistan, highly renowned for his drum playing abilities. Many people awaited Thursday nights eagerly, when his music cast an intoxicating spell on the throngs who travelled from afar to see him. Young, old, rich and poor – they all came to be part of the mystical evening, uniting them all as their hearts thumped in unison to the beat of his drum. Traditions in Pakistan have roots dating back many centuries, enriching its soil with arts and culture that have, overtime, been salted by the abuse hurled by different factions throughout its history. Neither the English during their sub-continental rule, nor the extremists in this day and age have succeeded in saturating the traditions that exist within its deepest fibres. The social fabric that holds the country together is slowly being torn asunder by forces that are trying to control the mindset of the people. Every day is a constant struggle to maintain a sense of sanity and a semblance of normalcy. Despite all this, the unsung heroes of Pakistan fight an invisible battle every day to give us a platform that unites us all through a cultural framework amid all the chaos and feelings of alienation.

Pappu’s house lay nestled in the area next to Shalimar Gardens, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Apart from its outstandingly beautiful architecture, the complex and intricate irrigation system of the garden built centuries ago baffles engineers even today It took a while to find his house, allowing me to explore the historic streets, bustling with people and seeped in a culture left behind by one of the greatest dynasties to rule the subcontinent for centuries. The gates of Shalimar Gardens greeted me at the end of the urban colony and I finally found his house, tucked between a row of similar brick and mortar houses that were all made in a style derived of the classic traditions of the Mughals. What looked like a simple house from the outside was actually a courtyard built around an old Bunyan tree. A pigeon coop stood at the top of the house and under the tree were two charpoys and a steel bucket filled with green bhang-infused milk. The courtyard was conjoined to two rooms, each for one of Pappu’s wives. They were almost identical except for the amplifier and cassette player, exhibited proudly in the room of the elder first wife, from which the sounds of Sufi ghazals wafted into the courtyard. The only furniture in each of the rooms was a double bed crafted out of cheap chipboard and a steel trunk covered in cloth, lit up by the one tube light that hung despondently from above. Even though he made a decent income, Pappu believed in the simpler way of life in accordance to his beliefs as a fakir.

Taking refuge from the glare of the sun under the shade of the Bunyan tree, Pappu sipped on his green drink from a steel glass as he began telling the journey of his life.  His hair was long, thinning and greased with mustard seed oil. A bushy beard cascaded down his neck, as if mocking his receding hairline. He wore a chequered dhoti under a dark green kurta, tattered and stained in places, which was draped over his tall and lanky frame. Fingers adorned with chunky rings and a multitude of beads around his neck, the colourful embellishment stood out in contrast against his dark skin and kurta. His greeting was neither warm nor welcoming, but, as time would reveal, that was just his general demeanour. As we sat down to talk, he got comfortable on the charpoy and huffed on a hooka before delving into his life story.

At a very young age, Pappu was drawn to the sound of the dhol and instantly knew that was his calling. Recognising his natural aptitude, his father encouraged him to follow his passion and pursue a career as a dholwaala  by sending him to the best ustaads in the area. While other children flew kites and played cricket, Pappu spent the majority of his childhood banging a dhol much larger than himself. His talent was unique extraordinary, and before long people from surrounding areas would travel especially to see him and his fame started to grow.

When Pappu was still a young man, his father fell ill and passed away. His last wish was to have his funeral procession uplifted with his son playing the dhol at front. Raising eyes filled with sorrow, Pappu recalled that it was the most difficult thing he ever had to. With each thump, the grief resonated from his soul and transfused the beat that echoed from his dhol. Upon his father’s demise, he started questioning his life and purpose.

He started to question God and found his answers in a particular Sufi way of life that exists within society rather than renouncing it. He learnt to transcend the reality of his life through his music. He learnt to spin in circles like the whirling dervishes of Turkey, but he learnt to do this while playing the dhol. He recalled the feeling of going into a trance and equated it to sitting at the feet of God, immersed in a conversation with Him. He said that he feels most at peace when he performs dhamaal, and for him it is the epitome of worldly achievement.

As the sun started to set, the day got cooler. With the bucket almost half finished, Pappu continued to explain how he started playing at Shah Jamal Mazaar, the tomb of Sufi Saint Baba Shah Jamal. He used to play in the main mazaar but was forced to stop due to an issue with the religious parties of the area and was replaced by another dhol player. To protest this, he started playing at the entrance of the mazaar at the bottom of the stairs in a courtyard and gradually, a counterculture grew up around his performance, which eventually became one of the most celebrated events in the city.

On Thursday nights, hundreds of people started flocking to his performance mystified by the sounds of his drum and mesmerised by his perfect whirling to the beat.

When the story finished, we decided to continue our visit further into the night and to trail Pappu in his evening routine. One of his disciples packed his dhol up in a purple velvet cover with the names of God inscribed on it in black. Seated in the car, Pappu was disappointed to find no cassette player and but asked to hear one of the CDs that were in the car. To his further disappointment, it was house music; he was not very impressed.

Our first stop was at the mazaar of one of Pappu’s pirs (patron saints) hidden away from the main road. It was empty except for its caretaker who greeted us very warmly. The mazaar was built on a large, arid, grassless plot that seemed like all the colour had been drained out of it and replaced by a brown monochromatic tint –  except for the green leaves of the large, old tree that stood in isolation in the centre and a few pieces of colourful, tattered cloth reflecting the hopes and prayers that many had tied to the tree in the form of mannats. On the left was a shrine where Pappu’s pir was buried. As we walked in, Pappu went over to the shrine and muttered what sounded like a prayer. He then picked up the beads around his neck, kissed them and touched his eyes with them as a sign of love and respect for his pir. Beyond the tree lay a makeshift abode that resembled the tent of a gypsy. The caretaker obviously lived there, and from the looks of it, he lived alone.

Any question as to why we were there went up in smoke as the caretaker brought out some fresh bhung and rolled hashish cigarettes for everyone. Sitting on a charpoy, Pappu, his disciple and the caretaker cons\umed the whole bucket in a span of an hour. Having my curiosity piqued, I asked him why he drank so much and what it did for him. He laughed and said that it was now like breathing air. He started very young as a means of quelling his bad temper as the substance ‘cooled him down’ and when he played his drum under the influence, it elevated him to an ethereal state; when he spun, he felt he was lifted into the heavens and was closer to God than ever before. I asked him to comment on the religious prohibition against intoxicants and the fact that making a correlation between such practices and any spiritual experience was more than frowned upon.  He responded by simply stating that God would not disallow us from things He Himself had placed on earth.

The sun had now set and it was time for us to head out to our final destination, the grand event at the Shah Jamal Mazaar. As we walked in, a crowd started to gather around, as men, both young and old, kissed the rings on Pappu’s hands as a sign of admiration. The courtyard was engulfed in a thick cloud of pungent smoke. Hundreds of men cramped together smoking hashish in the strangest ways – fruits like apples and watermelons were stuffed with as many as twelve rolled joints at one time and was being communally passed around. Pappu was met by three of his other disciples and they started a performance orchestrated to send shivers down your spine.

What happens at the shrine is an enigma. Hundreds of people form a circle on three levels around two dholwaalas and a multitude of disciples. The men have all sorts of beads around their neck and pieces of cloth tied around their wrists and waists to symbolise the hopes and dreams of loved ones they claim to take up to God on their journey of transcendence. Whirling is a form of meditation in Sufism; a customary dance performed within the worship ceremony through which dervishes aim to attain the source of all perfection. They spin in harmony with the universe and transfer all the energy of the heavens through them into the ground beneath their feet. Pappu slowly meandered his way through the courtyard and sat down in a corner. One of his disciples slowly started playing the dhol in an ominously quiet way. The crowd settled, the food vendors stepped aside and the people in the front sat down. It had begun.

Another disciple wearing ghungroos (musical anklets) moved them in punctuation to the silence following the steady thumping of the drum. Adding to the treble of the ghungroos and the bass of the drums, one of the oldest disciples (probably in his fifties) blew a horn-like instrument that produced a deep, harrowing sound that made my hairs stand on end. The other fakirs who spun around the drummers started to come to life. With their heads hung low, they began to shake them with their long, oily locks dancing in the air.  Faces veiled by their hair, they moved their heads in circular movements to the droning of the horn. Slowly, as the dholwalla picked up the pace, so did the rhythmic banging of their heads. Reaching a frenzied state, the violent movement of their heads was now beginning to take over their entire body. When it looked like they were going to spontaneously combust, they started to spin slowly. With their hands stretched out, the fakirs’ spellbinding whirling seemed like an optical illusion. People sitting up front often flinched when one of the fakir’s whirled inches away from their faces but not once did they collide with each other or the onlookers. Once the momentum was built, Pappu started getting ready. The crowd sensed this and a low murmur washed over them.

Pappu draped a thick cushioned scarf around his neck and hung his dhol underneath his chest. Standing behind his disciple, he started beating the sides of his drum; a slow steady beat that was the metronome to the beat being played before him. He, too, had his head hung low and eyes closed. Ever so slowly, Pappu began to take centre stage. As he picked up the pace of his drumming he took a few gentle turns and positioned himself in the centre. As the drumming reached a crescendo, the fakirs started to spin around Pappu who was now spinning so fast, the centrifugal force was lifting his heavy dhol in the air. The crowd roared as he played for an hour. People climbed trees to get a better look at the hypnotic sight of Pappu and his disciples engaged in a holy communion. Even the most sceptical of people could not deny the aura of mysticism that hung in the air. It appeared as if many came here to get in to a haze, allowing them to connect with God on a deeper level. It was a church, a sermon, being led by a preacher who beat his drum so hard that it spoke with the voice of God. With their collective belief in that sermon, each person was having their own quiet conversation with the Lord.

The long day came to a loud and insightful end. I bid farewell to Pappu and disappeared into the thick of the crowd, composed of people from many different social strata and with many different beliefs.

In a country racked with extremism, Pappu represents the kind of resilience that makes Pakistan strong as a country. He wakes up every morning, straps his dhol on with a belief in a better tomorrow. Hope can be hard to come by in this day and age and when an entire country of people stands at its darkest hour, the slightest glimmer of hope can establish a sense of normalcy. The situation in Pakistan, as it currently stands, is dire. Culture and society are being poisoned by rancid extremism, eradicating the carefree essence of the country.

But Pappu is not alone in bringing people together. Amidst all the chaos, many of us are now starting to turn towards our common interests and outlets that unite us, bind us, and allow us to feel like there is more to our existence than what the extremists want to force down our throats. Musicians, film makers, painters, writers are all now becoming a beacon of light keeping us pointed in the right direction. Surrounded by perpetual anarchy, people like Pappu take a stand against a cancerous institution that is eating away Pakistan’s soul. In the face of violent opposition, people like him choose to stand up undeterred and do what they do, as loud as they can, for everyone to see and hear the unbroken spirit of the everyday man. They announce to all those who will listen that come hell or high water, somethings cannot be burnt, broken or washed away. People like Pappu show us that even when the world around them has been set on fire they will stand amidst the flames and shine brighter and longer than the violence around them possibly can.

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