‘Aaj rang hai’ - Qawwali revisited




From Khanqahs to the auditorium; from shrines to international pop charts, from spirituality and devotion to entertainment – the qawwali has travelled far and wide in its 700 year journey.

By Bushra Alvi for TwoCircles.net,

New Delhi: With the just concluded Annual Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, the great Sufi saint, and the various Amir Khusrau festivals taking place in the city, it was the perfect time to discuss the traditional art form of ‘Qawwali’.

A unique symposium, Understanding Qawwali was held at India International Centre on 2nd March. This is an academic initiative by Sufi Kathak Foundation and supported by ‘Sir Ratan Tata Trust’ and ‘Navajbhai Ratan Tata Trust’ under Arts, Crafts and Culture programme, the India International Centre (IIC) and the Indian Council for Cultural relations (ICCR). The Sufi Kathak Foundation is a non-profit registered society founded by Manjari Chaturvedi to create awareness about India’s intangible heritage in music and dance and preserve the gradually fading 700 year Sufi traditions in music. In her welcome address, Manjari said that Qawwali as a musical structure has always been associated with the mystical and the spiritual aspect of life. However, a disturbing trend that is emerging in today’s time is that a parallel form is developing for entertainment and we have to see where we find confluences and where are the similarities or dissimilarities. “We need experts to explain and discuss and address very basic issues which are in the minds of the youth today.” she said. “Does having the word ‘maula’ in a song make it sufi? Or is sufi song, sufi composition, sufi sensibilities something that is more confirming to some standards that are needed.”



Janab Rizwan and Muazzam Qawwals from Pakistan

In his inaugural address, Dr Suresh Goel, Director General (ICCR), said that Qawwali is an intrinsic part of our heritage. After all we have grown up with the Qawwali traditions and have listened to Qawwalis at the mazar of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and at Ajmer Sharif. It is therefore important to examine the origin of Qawwali, he said, and to understand what Qawwali means and how it relates to people and what the future of this art form could be.

The prevalence of Qawwali is mostly in South Asia especially in India and Pakistan where a linkage to religious ritual is easily derived. It is also not unknown in Bangladesh and Afghanistan and even in Uzbekistan. Sufi music lends itself not only to a religious interpretation, it is a cultural interpretation as well. He spoke of Sufism and Qawwali as a means which brought people together irrespective of traditions. Qawwali music is a cultural ideal emulated in practice. It imbibes within itself, elements from both Hindu and Islamic culture, which have uniquely fused together to develop what is practiced as its present form, rightly representing the essence of ‘unity in diversity’ of India. It is because of this universal appeal and blended elements of Indian classical music and Sufi traditions that Qawwali has often served as a mechanism to promote communal harmony, and unity between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India.

The daylong symposium raised issues about the authentic form of Qawwali and other perceived forms of this age old tradition. It also included papers by leading scholars of this art form. It is interesting to note that while Qawwali continues to be an integral component of Hindi film music and industry, the intrinsic nature of this traditional art form has faded away, replacing the spirituality and the devotion in the art form with shallow references. A need was therefore felt to understand the present situation of traditional qawwals with the purpose of outlining a clear framework to uphold the original form of Qawwali.

“Qawwali basically is a principal form of Sufi Sama’(spiritual concert) in the Indian sub continent, something that is formed of Sufi expression which is used mainly by them to express poetry and music,” said Sufi
vocalist, Dhruv Sangari. “What is most interesting is how Sama’ came to India, how it became Qawwali. Sama’ has been vital for many sufi sects especially the Chistis. If you talk to any Chisti pir they say that Sufis would experience spiritual death if they would not hear sama’ for three days. As sama’ is qawwali, the practice of zikr and fikr is also considered equal to Sama’. So zikr, fikr and sama’ are cornerstones of Sufi or Chisti practice. ‘Listening’ is a very important aspect in Sama’.”



Janab Wajahat Hussain Badayuni

History of Qawwali

Elaborating on this, Dhruv Sangari said that Chisti Sufi sama’ came to India from Persia and Central Asia with the advent of Islam. Many Muslims who were born outside India brought with them certain styles and forms when they migrated and over time these styles were blended into the local styles. Patronage was received by the musicians to come and sing at the khanqahs(hospice) of the sufis and so a very syncretic culture emerged over the centuries where Sufism became a sort of bridge where travel both ways was permitted and hence we see a beautiful culture which is called milli-julli tehzeeb emerging out of it. One of the most beautiful examples of this milli-julli tehzeeb is, of course, the Qawwali itself.

We see Sufi poetry and texts from 11th and 12th Century where we see the use of mixed language and local language like Hindavi which was adopted by Persian poets to express their art in. In Zihal miskeen makun taghaful, Duraye naina banaye batiyan Amir Khusrau employs two languages where each couplet of the ghazal has the first misra in Persian and the second in Hindi which so seamlessly flow into each other that unless one is familiar with the languages it is impossible to make out the difference between the two. Much later Urdu and Rekhti came on the scene and by the 17th-18th C most of the Sufi shaiyari was written in Urdu. Punjabi shaiyari runs on a parallel stream. Urdu and Hindavi shaiyari have now become the principal form of language employed in writing Qawwalis. Sometimes Awadhi and Braj words are also mixed giving it a beautiful wholesome experience.

The word Qawwali originates from the Arabic word ‘qaul’ which means ‘sound’ or ‘to speak’ or ‘utterance’ (of the Prophet). It was the transformation of an Arabic prose into a musical form. More people are of the consensus that Qawwali pre-dates Islam and it was an Arabic form of music which has very little or nothing to do with the form we have in India today. Qawwali was an integral part of any spiritual, mystic and religious gathering since its inception. Amir Khusro has been instrumental in popularizing, improvising and bringing uniqueness into the form and content of Qawwali.

A lot of Indian qawwali is based on semi classical notes. Here the raga structure is not employed the way we would hear it in khayal or dhrupad. More folk music structure is used in the actual bandish but through ornaments such as thirak and taan and bol baanth and through the use of sargam, swar and aalap, the music is expressed. Janab Nusrat Ali Khan used to call it “do ang ka gana” where he would say that the two streams are running together. The notes are the same but the style keeps changing; it goes back and forth between classical and folk, a lot of which depends on the kind of training, the gharana and the region, and the context which that qawwali is coming from. But it is the “do ang ka gana” which as a form makes qawwali so attractive to any listener irrespective of whether he understands the language or not. The universal aspect of Sufism or mysticism is very much evident in the structure or the form of the Qawwali.



Dr Suresh Goel and Dr Madan Gopal Singh - Lighting the Lamp

Types of Qawwalis

There are many types of Qawwalis. There is the hamdiya-natiya kalam where hamd is verses sung in praise of Allah and the angels and na’ats are verses in praise of Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him). These are often sung at the start of a Mehfil-e-Sama’. In a Dargah or Khanqah the structure of performance is quite unlike a concert. Within this Khanqah there is this adab, a manner or a sort of custom which has to be maintained. A Sama’ could start with a manqabat which is praise of the walis, the saints of Sufism or praise of Hazrat Ali and his family as, in the words of Hazrat Niaz be Niaz, he is considered as Shah-e- Shariyatun and also Peer-e-Tariqatun, the one who was the ‘master of the faith’ was also the ‘leader of the path’. Most of the Sufis trace their lineage to Hazrat Ali or Maula Ali as he is called. A lot of emphasis is given on the mystical side of Hazrat Ali and his family and it a very deep emotional and spiritual connection which Sufis have with them. The name of Hazrat Ali invokes something deep and engaging immediately in people in this part of the world more so than in the part of the world where he comes from. Such is the impact of his personality and his life and what he stands for, for the Sufis. Very often, a very famous composition of Amir Khusrau is used to start a sufi sama’ in the northern part of this country – “Man kunto maula, fa Ali-un Maula.” This is actually a saying of the Prophet - Whoever considers me their leader may recognize that Ali also is their leader. There is another one in conjunction with this that is also used. “Ana Madinat ul- ‘Ilm wa Aliyu Babuha.” If I am the city of knowledge, then Ali is the door.

Many centiries later Kamil Kanpuri writes in this very famous Sufi poem – “Ba tufail-e-daman-e- Murtaza, mai bataon ke mujhe kya mila,” What do I say what I found hidden in the cloak of Maula Ali. “Jo Ali miley toh Nabi miley; jo Nabi miley toh khuda mila.” From Ali I found the Prophet and from the Prophet I found God. So if Ali is considered Pir-e-Tariqatam it is a Sufi classical way of looking at this sheen which goes up to divine oneness, being close to the divine, so in the Sufi experience the pir or the yaar or that master would be that door, would be the one who takes your hand and leads you through that door.

A lot of the Qawwali poetry is directly structured at addressing this sentiment, this feeling and this is the cornerstone of Sufi practice. A lot of Sufi practitioners say that when you make dua or when you make some kind of spiritual offering or meditation, it is important to first concentrate on the visage of your Sufi master, your guru, the one who planted that seed in you. “Roo-e- yaar” i the face of the beloved where beloved could be anything, it could be the earthly beloved or the beloved who lived hundreds of years ago or even the heavenly beloved. So it is very interesting to see that the merging of love into the form of the beloved, be it the form of the formless is very much a very transgressive Sufi idea and Qawwali is a very powerful medium which addresses that idea.



Dr Najma Parveen Ahmed - Lighting the Lamp

Dhrupad maestro Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar gave insight into the musical structure of Qawwali and discussed how poignant and how heart wrenching it becomes as a music form. He stressed on tone and rhythm. According to him music has been a very important aspect of all of us. Chanting creates a “halqa,” a rhythmic pattern which creates energy. Musical notes energize the being. Sound brings harmony between ‘being’ and ‘greater being’. Halqa is important as the constant repetition helps to lose ourselves. Through music we attain the unknown source, a very important aspect of Qawwali. Music has tone and rhythym and also shanti, i.e., silence. Silence is also equally important as tone and rhythm. Sometimes silence takes you beyond.

Talking about another aspect of Qawwali, musician, scholar, Dr Madan Gopal Singh said that when he was getting deeper into Qawwali and becoming more academically interested in it, the one thing that struck him so deeply was the idea of taqrar. “When we talk of the idea of taqrar we are talking of obsessive returns. Taqrar is argumentation; it is the opening up of dialogue.” In the 10thCentury, Sufism had reality but no name whereas today, Sufism has a name but no reality. In this context the repetition of the word maula, maula, maula, is then just like the skeleton without the flesh. In taqrar, repetition of maula is the opening of a dialogue with someone, maybe with God; it is the opening of an argument. This is not just the opening of an argument in surrender but through surrender there is a re-discovery of the self. So there is a re-positioning of the self as well which is happening. You lose the self at one level and at another level you recover a different self altogether.”

Several musicians, writers and scholars associate Qawwali with Hazrat Amir Khusrau. Qawwali is an innovation of Amir Khusaru and is sung on a pattern laid down by him. It was on account of this contribution that Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya gave him the title of Mufta ul Sama’, said Dr Najma Parveen Ahmed, Dept. of Music, University of Delhi. Differentiating between qual and qalbana, Dr Najma said that qual is Arabic verse whereas qalbana is compromised of Arabic and Hindi verses. Also, qual had only one taal, in qalbana the taal keps changing in every antara.



Manjari Chaturvedi - Lighting the Lamp

“Qalbana is a very difficult style of performance as taals keep changing in every tuk or antara and unless the tabla player is completely familiar with the composition and the points where the taals have to be changed, he will not be able to give proper accompaniment,” she added.

Two short documentary films on the art form of Qawwali and the lives of Qawwali musicians by filmmakers Youssef Saeed and Amit Mehra were screened at the symposium.

While Saeed’s film Sufi Sama gave an introduction to Qawwali and Sufi sama’ and also brought out the connection between classical music and the Qawwali form, Amit Mehra’s film dealt with the harsh realities of qawwals. It focused on the current life of these practitioners, who keep this tradition alive yet have to struggle each day for their survival. It brought to light their pathetic plight and why the present generation is not interested in continuing this tradition.

“Most qawwals are facing financial problems; they do not get concerts and even if they do, the remuneration is barely sufficient,” said a concerned Mehra. “Most qawwals turn to other professions like carpentry or driving an auto rickshaw,” he elaborated. “The qawwals hope that their descendents will survive on their music and the music will survive on their descendents.”



Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar

One of the qawwals, who did not wish to be named, said that his family had been keeping alive the tradition for over 450 years and wished the government would step in and address their monetary needs in the form of monthly stipends.

A few student researchers also presented their papers at the symposium. Shadab Alam, a student of MA Media Governance, Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Milia Islamia, traced the journey of Qawwali from sacred ritual to entertainment. He said that Qawwali found its way into Hindi films in the 1960’s, thus beginning the genre of ‘filmy qawwali’ and more recently identified as ‘techno-qawwali’ with the advent of hip-hop and other funky music with heavy beats.

Aditi Krishna, a student of MA Sociology, South Asian University, talked about the changes in Sufi Qawwali as a musical genre in the contemporary age of mechanical reproduction of the art.There is existence of an immense plurality within Sufi music today from traditional qawwals to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to ‘Yo-Yo’ Honey Singh. While Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Aziz Mian are also appreciated today, the major question that arises now is that - is merchandise and commercial value of these two traditional qawwals equivalent to the pop form today as represented by Kailash Kher and Honey Singh.

The consensus at the end of the day was that there is an urgent need to enlighten people, especially the youth, about the essence of Qawwali in particular and Sufism in general. Government endorsement is essential to keep this form alive. Corporate houses too can do their bit by organizing qawwalis at various corporate functions.




The Qawwali Heritage Museum was launched later in the evening by Motilal Vohra. The museum is responsible for maintaining an archive of audio recording, video recordings, books, instruments and other items that truly represent this tradition. Currently the museum is a digital interface that is accessible across the world through the internet.

No discussion on Qawwali would be complete unless accompanied by a live demonstration of the art. As dusk fell, the Rose Garden at IIC sprung alive to mesmerizing, soul searching music and song. Delhiites witnessed superb performances by Janab Wajahat Hussain Badayuni from the family of legendary Ustad Zafar Hussain Badayuni who, in keeping with the spirit of the season, sang “sakal ban phool rahi sarson” - a kalaam in honour of Hazrat. Nizamuddin (ra). This song describes the beauty of the mustard field and thereby reflects the beauty of basant (spring). Another popular Khusrau song “Chaap tilak sab cheeni re” was an instant hit.

The atmosphere was charged with energy and ruhaniyat when, in the second part of the concert, Janab Rizwan and Muazzam qawwals from Pakistan, the nephews of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali, took the stage. “Allah hoo,” “Shabaaz Qalandar,” “Akhiyan udeek diyan” had the audience swaying and clapping alongside while “Nami danam che manzil bood shab jae ke man boodam” transported the audience to another realm.

Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar had rightly said earlier in the day about music being ‘rooh ki ghiza’ and the performance certainly did more than just please the senses and entertain - it nourished the soul!

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Bushra Alvi is a writing and editing professional based in New Delhi. All photographs are by the author.