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Original idea of Sufi whirling

To everything, turn, turn, turn

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What do a Mumbai businessman and Turkish dervish have in common?

I was spinning fast on my right foot, gaze locked on the centre of my palm. The task of keeping the mind free of niggling thoughts took longer. Musings on whether I was spinning at the right speed, whether there was such a thing as the right speed, and where the hipster spinning alongside had bought her gorgeous pink skirt, kept resurfacing. By the time the lilting background music had floated away, though, it had seemed, even if for just a few moments, like I had been the only person in the room.

Judging from the murmurs of the other participants, my experience clearly hadn't been unique. The motley group of students, young professionals, housewives and businessmen who had trooped in for Zia Nath's whirling workshop couldn't have been more different from the Turkish dervishes of the Mevlevi order, founded by the 13th-century mystic, Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi. That, however, hadn't stopped us from spending a Sunday morning picking up the basics of Sufi whirling.

The past few years have seen whirling move out of its traditional setting and into city workshops. Nath, who conducted her first session in Mumbai in 1999, said the concept was unfamiliar one at the time. "I could only reach out to a small number of people - close friends and their friends, through word of mouth, " she recalled, adding that Sufi festivals, and performances organised by Banyan Tree Events and the National Centre for the Performing Arts have helped bring the public closer to the Mevlevi practice. The popularity of Rumi too has spurred interest, as has a flood of Bollywood songs featuring Sufi-inspired choreography.

But while a Hrithik Roshan doing a turn in Khwaja mere khwaja or a band of dervishes providing backdrop to Emraan Hashmi in Ishq sufiyana might provide a ready reference-point, some in the field insist the on-screen renditions have no connection to the original idea of Sufi whirling.

"It's a ridiculous idea, not worth discussing, " said Anupa Mehta, arts consultant and India coordinator for the Mevlevi Order of America. "It's a trend, it will pass. " Mehta has been organising workshops for the US-based dervish Khadija Radin. The latter too disapproves of Bollywood choreography serving as an example of Sufi whirling. "The Bollywood songs have nothing to do with the way it is actually done, " said Radin. "They are just copying a form and they don't even copy it accurately. "

Nath, however, felt that incorporating whirling in film-songs had been "instrumental in popularising Sufism for today's generation". She emphasised, though, that the practice involved more than a set of movements and balancing techniques. "I tell students that (by doing so) you will achieve nothing, " Nath said. "You have to surrender and allow whirling to carry you away. "

Legend has it that Rumi became enlightened as he discovered whirling, and continued turning for 36 hours. The rituals of the Mevlevi order he founded have specific meaning. The dervish's felt hat represents a tombstone, the black cloak he sheds before whirling symbolises his grave, and the white tunic his shroud, while he turns to the left towards the heart with the left palm facing the earth and his right hand turned up to the heavens.

"Whirling is like a mirror, " Nath said. "Whatever you have inside you is going to come out. " Those happy and settled in their lives feel similar emotions after the first whirl, while others report fear, tiredness or depression, which is what they are already going through. Once the emotions are out, they can be dealt with and the process of "centring" can begin.

Nath said the style she practices differs from the original practice. Having been inspired by a whirling performance at the Osho meditation commune in Pune, she attended a series of intensive workshops, dipping into the theory and practice of the art form. Today, Nath weaves sacred dances by the Greek-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff and Odissi dance into whirling. "This makes learning faster and more applicable for people in the 21st century, in our hectic, over-stimulated daily life, " she explains.

Every teacher brings his or her own interpretation to turning, said Radin, who has run the Dervish Retreat Centre in New York for two decades, teaching Sufi studies and the different forms of whirling. She remembers the first time she saw a Mevlevi turn at a California ashram, where she was studying yoga: "Within 15 seconds, my life, as I knew it, was over, " said Radin, who went to the Middle East and India, to meet the dervishes.

For Siddharth Jhaveri, who headed to Nath's workshop in Mahalaxmi last week from his Nepean Sea Road home, the trek to experience whirling had been a much shorter one. The 56-year-old businessman's interest in Rumi and Gurdjieff's work had led him to attend a previous session by Nath as well. "It was a great experience, " he said. "I was brimming with energy afterwards, and it lasted for the entire day."

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