The Dust of His Feet
The film tells the story of two Muslim folk musicians in Bangladesh, Matal Rajjak Dewan and Abdul Hai Dewan. They are part of a group of musicians who represent an open, tolerant tradition that emphasizes love and mysticism over legalistic observances. Often they perform at one of the many shrines in Bangladesh, where the holy people buried there are still considered to be a force, able to help and intercede for the living.
Matal Rajjak Dewan was a wild, eccentric poet and singer who intrigued me the first and only time I saw him perform. When I returned to Bangladesh a year and a half later he was dead and his grave seemed to be a kind of shrine. Surprised, I set out to find out more and talked to his family, fans, neighbors and, most of all, to his ardent student, Abdul Hai Dewan.
Abdul Hai was twelve years old when he ran away from home to live with Matal Rajjak for three years and learn music. For him, Matal Rajjak was not just his teacher but “like my Allah”. “Nobody likes my songs”, he says, “unless Matal mixes in my soul and sings.” He continues to sing Matal Rajjak’s songs and even calls himself “Half-Matal”.
We see Abdul Hai performing in concerts and palagans, a kind of contest or debate where the singers are given a topic and then ask each other question, argue, tell stories and sing songs to support their side. These are lively, half entertainment, half serious affairs that can inspire both fights and embraces in their audience.
Matal Rajjak is described in many ways and not always positively. He did crazy things but people loved his madness. He could break the rules and get away with it. He drank alcohol in a Muslim country where drinking is widely disapproved of even his name, “Matal”, means drunk in Bengali. But “matal” can also mean “in a trance” like a spiritual trance and intoxication has long been a metaphor for spiritual ecstasy in Sufi writing as it is in Matal Rajjak’s songs.
Abdul Hai emulates Matal Rajjak but he does not have Matal Rajjak’s fame and his life is hard. In the end, however, performing music brings him satisfaction and brings his audience together to share their sorrows and their joys.
Filmed, edited and directed by Janet Best
Played at the 2011 Documenting Bangladesh Film Festival in Dhaka Bangladesh.
With Abdul Hai Dewan and his musicians after an all night concert. There was something very special about coming home after the show as the sun was rising.
Comments on The Dust of His Feet
A documentary, but no less entertaining than a feature film...the whole film unfolds like a beautiful novel ...successfully portraying the simplicity of heart of a marginal sect, with its lifestyle, rituals and depth of philosophy... love and respect for you janet... may god give you multiple returns of the love you carry in your heart for His men - from Banna's playlist
The camera, mounted on the prow of a small boat, goes among water plants and lush vegetation. Haunting music is heard in the background. Later, in a house in a small town, there is a gathering where we see and hear a white-clad singer.
Matal Rajjak Dewan, the 'drunken poet' of Bangladesh, created songs of great spirituality and mysticism. In some of them, as did some Muslim Persian poets of a millennium ago, he also sings of drink and the feelings that alcohol enhances.
The singer Abdul Hai Dewan, the central personality of The Dust of His Feet, Janet Best's documentary, a committed disciple of Matal Rajjak Dewan’s music, keeps alive the songs and art of his teacher, performing to audiences of devoted listeners.
Beside the songs, the places where they are performed and the enthusiastic public, we see snippets of the artist’s everyday life, his house and his family, and hear their comments about everyday life.
The Dust of His Feet has a special meaning for those who are ignorant of Bengali; for them, just the songs, the music, the enthusiasm of the listeners and their commitment to the message of Matal Rajjak Dewan’s make a frame for the mystical feelings in all of us.
Janet has made a heart-moving film showing an artistic tradition little known to the Canadian public, marrying deep religiosity and music, with songs of theological and existential messages, which touch the listeners of all confessions.
A description and review of the film by someone new to this type of music by Gustavo Arroyo