Flight of the Bumblebee & Classical Qawwali: unparalleled inspiration


Flight of the Bumblebee & Classical Qawwali: unparalleled inspiration Tillism طلسم

A whiff of a familiar scent can immediately take you to the past — sounds do the same:  music, a familiar accent, even the faintest sigh. Join me in my journey in time between London and Malaga.

Malaga 2021

A whiff of a familiar scent can immediately take you to the past — sounds do the same: music, a familiar accent, even the faintest sigh.

The sound of rain always takes me back to London, to the time when I was a 9-year-old artist in the making, to the exact moment when music became part of my artistic process.

On this unusually wet morning in Malaga, my unfinished canvas sits on the easel, waiting. Next year, I’ll turn 60, but this doesn’t bother me at all. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I love doing.

For old time’s sake, I play Flight of the Bumblebee on Spotify as the rain taps gently on the window. Within seconds I am transported to my classroom at Mortlake Church of England Primary School.

London 1970

I sit with my head down on my folded arms. The rest of the class is doing the same. We’re waiting quietly for the teacher to press the PLAY button. I imagine myself floating up to the ceiling and looking down at twenty-two heads of hair. Nineteen in various shades of blonde, auburn, and light brown, two blue-black with tight curls, and one with wavy black-brown hair – this is me. And this is my first formal encounter with Western classical music.

The music starts suddenly. It’s fast, and just keeps going faster. My 9 year old mind goes berserk. The movement is chaotic. I have no idea what kind of instruments are making these sounds. Later, I’ll learn about oboes, clarinets and flutes, but right now I am lost in the energy of the piece, the speed of its movement. But what am I going to draw? Scribbles?

Before we started, the teacher told us to listen carefully and pay attention to how the music made us feel. “I want you to draw your feelings on the sheet of paper,” she had said.

I hear the click of the tape recorder button and the music stops. Almost all the children start drawing. A few of us look up at the teacher – confused. We don’t know what to do. The teacher realizes and clears her throat. 

I’ll play the music again, so you can draw while you listen.

My whirls of tight spirals look more like the scribbles of a baby. I use every color from the box of crayons, making loops, zigzags, and swooping spirals. This is ridiculous.

Then, the teacher plays more music, slower this time. We make another drawing. Then another. We look over at each other’s scribbles and smile. I’m beginning to enjoy this. By the end of the art class, I’m beaming. The drawings still look silly, but that doesn’t matter.  Music makes art fun, a lot more fun.

Malaga 2021

I lift my head up and look at my unfinished canvas and then at the window. It’s still raining.

I search Spotify for music that carries a much older me to a very different place — classical qawwali sung by Abidah Parveen.

The initial piping sound coming from the hand-pumped harmonium moves at a leisurely pace, so I use this time to prepare my workspace. I squeeze oil paints onto a new sheet of my disposable palette, and place old rags next to the bottles of linseed oil and turpentine. For now, I let this musical prelude percolate inside my head.

When everything is ready, I settle into the paint-stained armchair with my café con leche and wait for inspiration. Through the steam rising from my coffee mug, I can see the slender smoke trail from the rose-scented incense stick on the window sill.

I close my eyes and luxuriate in my senses. The drumbeats from the tabla and dholak pick up the pace. Amid the thumping cadence of the music, and frenzied hand clapping, the qawwal’s powerful voice invokes the divine. I follow her through the hypnotic rhythm and vocals on a journey to spiritual ecstasy. The fragrance in the studio gradually become more intense and I open my eyes again. Inspired.

White calla lilies whirling like dervish in the darkness of the deep blue-green universe. The yellowish centers tilting like the long woolen tombstone hats worn by Sufis. I paint non-stop through this qawwali and the others that follow, at times pausing to sway with the repetitive beat when it fills me. The qawwal starts building up to another crescendo and my brush moves on the canvas with a life of its own. 

  • Calla Lilies
  • Calla Lilies
  • Calla Lilies
  • Calla Lilies

I know the words and sing along, sometimes with the lead vocalist and at other times with the team of supporting singers. The poetry is a celebration of exquisite divine love in which one’s self is annihilated. 

You snatched away all trace of me
You said the unspoken (secrets of divine nature) with just one glance.
You made me drink the love of devotion.
You intoxicated me with just one glance;
The green bangles on my fair, delicate wrists,
You took them off with just one glance.
I give my life to you, Oh my dyster,
You dyed me in your color, with just one glance.
I give my whole life to you Oh, Nizam,
You made me your bride, with just one glance.
You said the wonder, with just one glance.
You took away my looks, my self, with just one glance.
You made me drink the wine of love,
You intoxicated me with just one glance.

~Amir Khusrau

چھاپ تلک سب چھین لی رے موسے نیناں مِلائی کے
بات اگہم کہہ دی نی رے موسے نیناں ملائی کے
پریم بھٹی کا مدھوا پلا کر
متوالی کر لی نی موسے نینا مِلائی کے
گوری گوری بیاں ہری ہری چوڑیاں
بیاں پکر ہرلی نی رے موسے نیناں مِلائی کے
بل بل جاوں میں تورے رنگ ریجوا
اپنی سی رنگ لی نی رے موسے نیناں مِلائی کے
خسروؔ نجامؔ کے بل بل جئیے
موہے سہاگن کینہیں رے موسے نیناں ملاے کے
پریم بھٹی کا مدھوا پلائی کے
متواری کر دی نی رے موسے نینا مِلائی کے
حضرت امیر خسرو~


Click here to read more about Selma´s creative process: Stealing like an Artist: How to be Creative

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art


  1. That was so beautiful and very special. I also love Flight of the Bumblebee and enjoyed classical music every morning at Assembly in Primary school. What a wonderful teacher, introducing music and painting together.
    I love your Calla lilies and enjoyed listening to Amir Khusrau. I think that you would enjoy the sounds of Flamenco, both instrumental and voice A Cappella. It’s very special, as you are. Elizabeth

    • Thank you, I have a special place n my heart for my teachers, especially ones that made a big difference like this. Showing someone (especially a child) how to be happy in a healthy way, is such an important thing. It’s been decades, but I can still see myself with my head on the desk listening to music at school. I often think of Ms. Newbold when I paint, and wonder where she is now.

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