As he approaches 77 years of age, Mehdi Bawa, one of East Africa's and Canada’s longest reigning ghazal, geet and ginan maestros is mystified to as to why three generations of his family, as well as all three of his siblings have turned out be natural musicians and particularly good singers. A bit of Khoja history may help.
In their six or seven centuries as a distinct Indian community, the Khojas reserved the title “Bawa” for those travelling scribes whose profession it was to copy the books of ginans & geets (devotional poetry) that were originally composed by the “Pirs” or holy men of the Khojas and which were passed down through the generations orally as well as in writing. Most of the material was bound in protective leather but the writing paper would deteriorate over time and the “Bawas” would visit different Khoja villages in Punjab, Kutch, Sindh and Kathiawar to copy the literature onto newer paper for the next generation.
Whilst these ginans and geets were composed in various North Indian dialects, the script (i.e. alphabet) was often Khojki, a unique writing system originally developed by the trading community of Khojas for their book- keeping. Not only were the Bawas well trained in Khojki, they were also quite good in singing the ginans & geets in the jamatkhanas (community centres) and at the private and public sat-sangs (gatherings) in the areas they visited. It is likely that Mehdi Bawa’s family descended from a distinguished line of musically-talented community historians, which may also explain why Mehdi has written a 100-page biography of his own life and why his father, Hassanali Nathoo Bawa also wrote his own life history before he passed away in 1969.
The Bawa family’s own oral tradition is that their forefathers were from the Brahman caste of hereditary priests of the Krishna Temple in Junagadh in Kathiawar. This temple is well-known as the place where the famous Gujarati poet, Sant Narsi Mehta, a bhagat of Lord Krishna (an avatar of the God Vishnu) used to compose his famous bhajans. Mehdi has been singing two of those bhajans ever since he first heard them.
Mehdi was born in Dar es Salaam in 1944 “a weak premature child born to a frail mother, who could not even breastfeed him”. His mother loved him dearly and taught Mehdi "Kutchi, the language of my heart”. His father on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian and from whom, Mehdi says, he learnt the “language of action, Gujarati”.
Schooling was not a success for Mehdi despite his father’s occasional punishment. On the other hand, his family taught him some unique talents that have lasted a lifetime. Hassanali Bawa was an excellent musician (in his youth, he had run away to India to play foot-harmonium in silent Hindi films) as were Mehdi's mother and elder brother, Bahadur Bawa. From them, Mehdi learnt to hum and sing at an early age and by age ten, he could sing a dozen songs from memory.
His father was very dedicated to his faith and instilled into Mehdi, a lifelong habit of going to morning and evening prayers in the jamatkhana. Mehdi says “He made me get up at 3 am EVERY single day to go to early morning prayers and similarly made me do daily evening sewa chores at the dharamsala (home for widowed ladies) as well as help with the nandi food-offering collection and then attend evening prayers DAILY”. Even when he started failing his exams due to falling asleep during class, his father would not relent. Every night, he says, his father told him fascinating stories of the miracles performed by the Imam, Agakhan lll, which put him to sleep soundly.
The Bawas were also known as excellent swimmers who could cross with ease the ferry channel (called “same paar”) of the sheltered Dar es Salaam harbour. Of his father, Mehdi says “He made me do sit ups, springs, stretches, dumbbells, aerobics push-ups and swimming every single day.
"On one such occasion, I counted myself doing 200 push-ups and 1260 sit-ups. I was rewarded with a new pair of shoes, pants and shirt and a special lunch treat at the Blue Room restaurant as well as a photograph at the Moonlight Studio in swimming trunks and double flippers.”
Mehdi’s father made him do back-flip dives from 4th level of pontoon platform, taught him not to fear the man-eating sharks lurking in the waters nearby and to build a strong muscular look that greatly increased his self-confidence. “My typical day was gulping down the yellow of an egg every morning followed by a banana and then doing a 45 minute walk or run to the Banda Beach.”
For the young Mehdi, all three activities were combined - after morning prayers, he would walk for miles on the beach, singing Hindi film songs to the top of his lungs ('which were pretty strong due to my childhood crying for food', he laughs) and then swimming to the many small islands around the Banda Beach in Dar es Salaam.
Banda Beach Swimming Club
In his early teens, life took a curve when his father suddenly turned deaf in both ears. His mother had to start a smoke-shop in their second bedroom and his brother went to work for a grocery store whilst Mehdi started work as an usher at the famous Avalon Cinema. There was a silver lining - Mehdi got to memorize even more Hindi songs. He kept failing class as he would be practising songs during class sessions with the result that he was shoved into the lowest stream, “D” but that did not bother him - he was beginning to become well-known as a frequent ginan-singer and a popular Indian musician.
He was now earning shillings 50 per month of which he paid shillings 20 to the Agakhan School for his education, although between his daily swimming, his part-time job, his helping at the family shop, his two times prayer ritual and his sewa at nandi collection, he hardly had time for study or do home-work. But every Saturday, he would get singing gigs which Mehdi did for free - by now he had almost 200 songs memorized and he loved the name-recognition
In the 60’s, he got his first big break - a chance win at a ginan competition caught the attention of Karim Master (Pirani) - a religion teacher at the Agakhan Boys School, who took Mehdi under his wings and soon enough, Mehdi Bawa was being selected almost twice weekly to lead the congregational singing of ginans in the Dar-es salaam Jamatkhanas. At another time, a well-known local Indian music band was a no-show and Mehdi put together a group of musicians to play at annual Khushali celebrations in front of a thousand people. Audio-tapes of his singing were soon playing in local homes and when a famous Indian playback singer, Kamal Barot, needed an accompanying male singer for a concert in Zanzibar, Mehdi was selected without an audition.
Kurban & Party
For centuries, ginans & geets were sung to music but in East Africa, this tradition was not followed and it was only in the late 50’s that some artists started to research into the many ancient Indian ragas behind the compositions. One such group was headed by the matriarch, Bhachibai Tejpar, whose family were important missionaries (preachers). When she heard Mehdi’s rendition of a ginan to music, she put her support behind the idea of a public musical ginan concert.
Mehdi was then singing as the youngest member of a popularly Indian music group called Kurban & Party and due to the support of Aziz Tejpar and the popularity of Kurban Dewji, the Ismaili authorities relented to permit the very first Ginan Party (concert) using complete orchestration.
The show was a resounding success and the group started touring East Africa, bringing the ginans alive with the wonderful ragas and music to which they were originally composed. Recordings of Kurban & Party were widely circulating in East Africa and as far away as Pakistan and India. Some even made it to Radio Tanzania Indian programs. In his autobiography, Mehdi proudly claims “No other group has been allowed by the Ismaili authorities to sing ginans with music anywhere in the world"
After failing grade 12 exams, Mehdi took some office jobs but eventually found a career as a driving instructor in a school setup with his brothers. This is also where he met his wife who was one of his students (he laughs that all the Bawa siblings also met their wives the same way!). Mehdi was becoming a talented musician, studying under some well-known Indian artists and being called to perform (for free) at major Khushali functions across East Africa. The driving school business eventually grew to four cars and a truck.
The next phase of his life started moving rapidly after his father, the strong influence of his life - who always said “I want to be eaten by a shark” - suffered a massive stroke and died within a week. At the same time, Mehdi’s own family started growing as he had two daughters in two years. And finally following the Nationalization of Buildings in 1971, business in Tanzania fell so much that in October 1972, Mehdi and his family immigrated to Toronto, Canada.
Even though he was among the first batch from Tanzania, Mehdi’s reputation preceded him and he started getting invitations to sing at the many community music parties and in private homes in Toronto. Eventually, he found a night-shift job which in turn led to a day-job at the airport jockeying cars at Avis Car Rentals. A freak accident put him into a customer service position and soon his gentle demeanour got him promoted as manager, where he had his own office, a secretary and a brand new New Yorker car for his business and personal use. “My secretary and I dealt with insurance, accident reports and rental issues on a fleet of 700 cars and on the resell of older vehicles ”. His wife got a transfer to a nearer bank branch and the Bawas moved into Mississauga, a nice suburb. In two short years after his settlement, things were going quite well - except that for Mehdi, life never quite plays itself out in a straight line or as Mehdi puts it “Existence has its own ways”.
A new weekend Jamatkhana was established for Mississauga and Mehdi was appointed a Mukhi, a prestigious position. Faithful to his vigorous life-training, Mehdi quit his managerial position after two short months, as it was interfering with his sewa, which was a demanding early morning and early evening prayer schedule, including the administration of a newly settled jamaat.
Instead he took a self-employed assignment with a local school as a driving instructor. But then more sewa came calling - he was appointed as Mukhi of a second, daily Jamatkhana and was required to cut short his instructor hours at 5 pm every day. The two Jamatkhanas were each 40 mins from his home and he needed to get home every day to dress for his position. By early 1979, Mehdi had lost both his home and his car for non-payment and was now was back to living in a rental apartment with his young family.
In Oct 1979, the Ismaili Imam made a visit to Canada and Mehdi chose to upgrade his spiritual status in the Imam’s presence. He got to seat with 100 other “promotion seekers” on the floor in front of the Imam and later a missionary (preacher) gave him his new “bol” secret mantra. Of the experience, Mehdi says he felt his “body-mind identification was melting away”.
With a new driving instructor job, he moved his family back into the inner city. His older brother and his family also settled in Canada and his beloved mother passed away in mid-80’s. His singing became sporadic as he juggled to make ends meet.
Eventually, he secured a good job with Toronto Transit Commission but soon another sewa made him quit the well-paying job “against the wishes of the lady of the house” he says. Apparently Sir Eboo Pirbhai, the administrative leader of the world Ismaili Jamaat, had heard a geet in which Mehdi praised the Sir and so he asked Mehdi to come to Nairobi, Kenya to perform in front of him on the occasion of the Imam’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. Sir was so impressed he sent Mehdi on a tour of more Silver Jubilee events in the UK. Although he did not receive any payment, for the devout Mehdi, it was a call that he could not have ignored.
Failing to get his TTC job back upon his return, Mehdi unsuccessfully worked briefly as an insurance agent. As he puts it in his book “what was supposed to be an addiction became the major part of my living. My daily Samadhi prayers had become 4-6 hours out of 24.” At one point, Mehdi moved to an ashram in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was about to fly to the Osho Ashram in India when his older daughter persuaded him to return home. He went on unemployment insurance, read many Osho books, did his prayers for 4-6 hours daily and generally made himself useful in the house.
When he was divorced, another phase of his life started with plenty of music concerts in Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal where he experimented with Sufi music and taught classical harmonium. He frequently visited some old Dar es Salaam acquaintances in Atlanta to sing. He also became a tutor of meditation and spiritualism.
Another old friend bought him a stick-shift car to start him off as a self-employed driving instructor but there was not sufficient demand. Many people helped him materially during his life and he says he is very grateful for their support. But Mehdi himself was most happy when he was reading his spiritual materials and meditating.
In the 90’s, Mehdi lost his brother, Bahadur whom he loved dearly - a brother with whom he had never spoken in a loud voice ever, he says.
Also during this decade, Mehdi went to sing all over North America with other artists from East Africa. The highlight of his singing career, he says, has been performing at the laying of the foundation of Ismaili Centre in Portugal.
He now lives in a beautiful apartment subsidized by the Canadian government surrounded by the memories of an eventful life and enjoying the frequent visits from his extended family. He does not sing anymore but prays a lot.
Mehdi is aware that his life will be judged unfavourably by some people. In his defence, he says: “In every society that I have lived, success is predominantly a status, defined by society…. I have lived my life according to Mowla Bapa’s (the Imam’s) firman.”
Mehdi's life story is taken from his fascinating book, which on his KHOJAwiki perosnal page soon. (co-written with Mehdi Bawa)