Continuing this semester’s stellar lineup of performances and panels, the CFA’s Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan program brought the legendary Pakistani classical singer Riffat Sultana to campus on Thursday night for a concert and a panel discussion on her trials and triumphs.
Recalling her struggle against strict patriarchal traditions to pursue her passions and lifelong dreams, Sultana captivated the audience with her tale of fervent resilience. Sultana descends from a long and highly established line of Sufi Pakistani classical singers. She was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, a city deeply rooted in tradition. Joyfully describing her background as one of beautiful culture and music, she recounted how her father, the classical singer Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, was the primary source of her musical knowledge.
“I’m very lucky to be his daughter,” Sultana said.
Despite her family’s love for music, they were not tolerant of women singing or performing publicly due to the patriarchal structure of their culture. Khan ultimately excluded Sultana from his formal teaching of his children. From a very young age, Sultana felt wronged by this division.
“My soul is a musical soul,” she said. “I wanted to be part of the party, too.”
Her mother encouraged her, however, to start singing among the family, especially during religious festivities. An extremely talented singer as well, Sultana’s mother played a huge role in these family celebrations and pushed Sultana and her sisters to join them.
While Khan and the vast majority of other males in her sphere remained adamant that Sultana should not sing in public, tradition determined that a family celebration, even in large numbers, was a different matter. The fact that Sultana’s mother sang exquisitely did not hurt either, as Sultana joked.
“My dad fell in love with her because of her voice,” she said.
Sultana kicked off her singing career at a religious gathering during Muharram, one of the four sacred months of the Islamic year and a major festivity across the Muslim world. She was granted the opportunity to sing before a large crowd of women, an experience that rapidly built up her confidence and determination. With the help of her mother, Sultana soon mastered the basics of Pakistani classical singing.
Sultana recalled that she had grown extremely weary of how often she was judged for not marrying at an early age, as per the expectations of her community, so she implored her father to permit her to join him on tour. Khan finally allowed Sultana to accompany him in the late ’80s as he traveled and performed throughout Pakistan, India, Europe, and North America.
“I told [him], ‘I’m not staying here,’” she said. “I’m going with you.’”
The first show she attended with him was organized by a local Sufi group in Holland. Sultana said that she found the experience extremely spiritual, and it was a definite sign that she needed to pursue the performing arts.
Khan then began teaching her his methods under the assumption that she would sing for herself and not professionally. Things soon changed, however, when she, in her travels with Khan, ended up staying at her brother’s American home in New York City.
Sultana’s brother, Sukhawat Ali Khan—who also sat on Thursday’s panel—disagreed strongly with their family and culture’s oppression of her dreams. Much like their mother, he pushed Sultana to continue singing and to begin building a career for herself as a classical Pakistani artist. Eventually, this led to the both of them collaborating and starting a small band.
“It’s such an honor for me to have such a talented female singer after my mom,” Ali Khan said.
The siblings went on to explain how, despite their frustrations with the entrenched patriarchy of their culture, they have remained proudly attached to their Sufi heritage, especially in the face of post-9/11 Islamophobia.
Sufism, a set of beliefs to which they both ascribe, is a branch of Islam that places its primary focus upon ecstatic spirituality mostly through meditation and the performing arts. Ali Khan went on to elaborate that the mainstream stereotypes associated with fundamentalist and extremist forms of Islam were inapplicable to the core teachings of the faith he had grown with, which he believes are universal.
“It’s about compassion no matter what faith you are,” Ali Khan said. “It’s spiritually intoxicating.”
Sultana added that Sufism has been her crutch as she has dealt with her own issues with her culture.
“It’s healing, relaxation, and prayer,” she said.
There is no doubt that Sultana has already made a difference in the greater landscape of female Pakistani singers. The notion of a woman singing professionally is becoming more and more plausible thanks to her example, and the scene’s diversity is rapidly changing. Sukhwat concluded the panel by affirming that the determination Sultana exemplifies is what will, and already does, push culture forward.
“The more you try and suppress something, the stronger it comes out,” Ali Khan said.