January 14, 2012 marked the 968th anniversary of the death of revered Sufi saint Abul Hassan Ali Hajveri, whose shrine lies in the city of Lahore in Pakistan. The event, which is attended annually by hundreds of people from all over the country, represents a side of Pakistani culture that many urban English-speaking Pakistanis are unfamiliar with, as they're less likely to relate to the rituals, desires, cares and needs of the lower- and middle-class people who most often congregate at this site.
Ali Hajveri, commonly known as Data Ganj Baksh (which roughly translates to "the master who bestows treasures"), was a Persian Sufi from Ghazni, Afghanistan who eventually settled in Lahore and died there in 1077. One of the oldest Muslim shrines in South Asia, his mausoleum is frequented daily by a large number of worshippers of all faiths. Devoted volunteers provide free security services while other citizens often sponsor the food provided around the clock, every day, by a public kitchen on the premises.
Photographer Usman Malik, an electrical engineer by training, argues that the people who are part of this subculture don't care who is the president of Pakistan is, since many of them are faced with more urgent concerns like getting that next cup of chai. "Life is tough for everyone," Malik observes, "but once you immerse yourself in the audience at the Urs (the death anniversary of a Sufi saint in South Asia), it just changes your whole thought process."
"I shot the complete series under the title of Desperately Seeking Spirituality in the Mela (Funfair)," says Malik. To him, the idea of this whole Urs is mainly an excuse for the poor, entertainment-deprived masses to enjoy themselves, with spirituality being less of a priority. After all, when your daily mission is to find enough sustenance to survive, you would rather spend your time trying to earn that meal or praying for strength than focusing on meditation and contemplation. "It might strike [some] as a bitter or negative analysis of this important aspect of South Asian life, but that is how I look at it," he explains.
"They all want to believe, and there they believe in the Data. Because if nothing else, his shrine offers them free food (even if after long queues) and a cool marble floor to stand on in the brutal summer heat. A few years ago terrorists who adhere to a school of thought which considers this all 'a heresy' tried to bomb this place, some people were killed and few more injured — security is quite strict now, but all this hasn't dampened the spirit of these people, who just have nothing to lose."
Watch below a video shot by Malik at the same event. (4 min.)