Excerpt -Symbolism in Poetry and Music

This is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote some years back, in which I describe Kafi, a musical form popular among Sufis in some parts of South Asia, and the theoretical approaches one could use to facilitate further research.


The poetry of a culture shares common symbols. Most poets use common symbols in order to better communicate with readers. For example, wine is a common symbol in Sufi poetry. Those who are familiar with that type of poetry know that wine is a symbol of Divine Love. The poet is using the object of wine to better communicate his or her poetry to readers or listeners, since wine is a tangible object and Divine Love is not. Sufi poets also compare a human’s ideal relationship with God with a relationship between two people, often referring to a well-known account such as that of Leila and Majnun. To those not familiar with Sufi poetry, these poems sound like they are about a romance between a man and a woman, but one who is familiar with this poetry knows that by “Lover,” the poet refers to a seeker of the Divine, and that “Beloved” represents God. Sufi poets use symbolism to communicate with readers by replacing an intangible concept with a tangible image that is familiar to the limited capabilities and senses of humans. Those who are familiar with Sufi poetry notice and appreciate the symbolism, while others simply may not grasp the deeper meaning. Thus, those who sing or recite Sufi music and poetry communicate with some on a much different level than with others.

South Asian performers also communicate with their audience through the use of the raga system. A raga is loosely comparable to a melodic scale or set of notes. It is also similar to the Middle Eastern maqam system. When performers improvise, they do so within the established raga. There are several ragas, some of which correspond to particular seasons, or to daytime or nighttime. Ragas are also associated with particular emotions or moods. Thus, when a performer chooses a raga for a song, he or she basically sends out a message, musically communicating with the audience that they should expect the song to make them feel a certain way. It is a way of preparing their emotions, arranging as many audience members as possible on the same mental page, and creating something of a psychological setting through which the performer can appeal to the senses of almost everyone in the audience. Of course, those unfamiliar with the raga system will have a completely different experience than those who have grown up with this musical convention. Raga is a culture-based form of communication.

Music is not merely an aural experience. The musical performance is a multi-channeled form of communication that can potentially occupy all five senses. One hears the music, sees the performers, decorations, and audience, and feels the beat of the music if it is loud enough. Audience members who dance experience a special form of aural, tactile, and visual communication. Music may also be associated with particular social or ritual events, where certain foods are traditionally served, or incense is burned. Therefore, it is also possible for a musical experience to acquire properties appealing to taste and smell. Communication can be achieved through many channels in a single musical performance.