Qawwali continues to connect India and Pakistan
Eisha Hussain and Intifada Bashir
“Chhaap Tilak Sab Cheeni Re…..” is a composition that resonates with Indians as much as it does with Pakistanis. A Qawwali, within the ambit of Sufi devotional music, it epitomes the art works under the syncretic tradition of Sufism. Pioneered by Amir Khusrow about 700 years ago, Qawwali has managed to survive the tests of time.
For Qawwali — that originated in undivided India — 1947 was a landmark year. Although Amir Khusrow’s disciples (Qawwal Bache) kept the tradition alive for centuries, the partition forced qawwals to migrate to cities across India and Pakistan. As a result of this migration, Qawwali diversified and spread further across both countries.
Apart from the differences in style because of geo-political factors, Qawwali has also evolved in terms of form over the years. Ahmed Sami, a Qawwal based in Karachi says, “The most prominent transformation of Qawwali has been in the art of singing. Initially, it just consisted of the vocal elements and was slow-paced, however, music has now become an integral part of qawwali.”
According to Azeem Sami brother of Ahmed Sami, another major way Qawwali has transformed in recent years has been in the way in which it has been consumed. “Qawwali used to be an entertainment or activity only for the elites and the royalty back when it started. Eventually, the general public was permitted to experience it and that’s how the concept of qawwali in dargahs came into being,” said Azeem.
However, many contemporary Qawwals like the Nizami Brothers, Ahmed Sami and even ethnomusicologist, Adam Nayyar agree that despite categorisation, all forms of Qawwali have one thing in common — the basic message of gnosis and inner love.
Despite highs and lows in Indo-Pak relations, 70 years later, Qawwali continues to be one of the remnants of the shared cultural heritage, known as the ‘Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb’, bringing both nations closer.
If Pakistani Qawwals like Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Ghulam Ali have performed in various cities across India, Indian Qawwals like the Nizami Brothers and contemporary Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari have performed in Pakistan. In fact, Sangari, also known as Bilal Chisty, was mentored by the Pakistani Qawwal legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Despite political tensions between the two countries, there has been a constant exchange of culture and ideas through art, especially Qawwali.
Today, with the advent of YouTube, social media and the inclusion of elements of Sufi music and poetry in Bollywood, Qawwali has become more accessible to people from both sides of the border over the years. Coke Studio is an example of an active cross-border exchange.
Additionally, events like Jashn-e- Rekhta (Urdu Literature Festival held annually in New Delhi) and initiatives like the Kabir Project have become platforms to revive the art form, popularise them as well as bring to forefront how vast and rich it is as an artform.
However, with its revival, Qawwali has also had to face two major problems — the issue of authenticity and commercialization.
Authenticity and the essence of Qawwali
Today, there is a power struggle and cold war between the Qawwal gharanas (traditional schools) and other Qawwali artistes. Qawwals who claim to be the descendants of the Qawwal Bache tend to express special rights and authenticity over the art, while other Qawwali artists like Sangari believe that Qawwali and Sufi tradition thrives on diversity and no one can claim to be the gatekeepers of this art. Sangari believes that any tradition requires an outsider’s perspective to survive.
“My entry into the Sufi tradition was as an outsider. An outside perspective is always needed for any tradition. Amir Khusrow, attributed with the creation of the tradition of Qawwali, was also an outsider (his father was Persian and his mother was Indian). He was rooted enough in tradition but also outsider enough to see it objectively.”
On the other hand, the Nizami Brothers have a different take on this issue. “True Qawwali is that which is performed in the darbars of our saints. Everything else that they call Qawwali these days is not actually Qawwali. Bollywood’s version of Rashq-e-Qamar and other such songs have nothing authentic. Don’t confuse them for Qawwali”, say the Nizami Brothers.
Commercialisation of Qawwali
Apart from the turf war of authenticity, commercialisation is another problem that plagues Qawwali. Historically, Qawwali never had a commercial aspect to it because of its roots in Sufism, which allows equal access to everyone. However, owing to the revival of the art form and its popularity, people have taken the opportunity to commercialise it. The commercialization has taken different forms; ranging from production of exclusive Qawwali albums by various Sufi artists and inclusion of Qawwali in Bollywood films to the illegal ticketing of Qawwali evenings at the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi.
“The production of Qawwali cassettes started in the 1970s. With the advent of CDs and VCDs, we also shifted to the newer medium. In fact, we shot and recorded them ourselves. All artists and the required logistics were sponsored by us. We spent approximately 4.5 lakh in shooting one such video. It was a thriving business. People from across the world bought these CDs. In fact, maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have also visited our shop,” says Sajid Khan, owner of Sonic Enterprise (renowned producer of the Chishti CDs) in Old Delhi.
But today Khan says that his business has come to a standstill because of the internet. To stay alive he now uploads videos on YouTube and provides his recordings as caller tunes to companies like Airtel and Vodafone. “But we only get a lump sum amount once a year. You can say our business has died but this does not mean that Qawwali has died. It will live till eternity because it is in praise of God and is rooted in our culture and tradition”, says Khan.
The commercialisation of Qawwali has, according to many, led to a compromise in its authenticity. These days any song with a sufi feel are marketed as a Qawwali. “After the success of songs like ‘Kun Faya Kun’ and ‘Bhar Do Jholi Meri’, every director and producer wants a Qawwali or a Sufi song in their films. However, the reality is that these Qawwalis or Sufi songs are not authentic but are only filmy songs that have a Sufi feel,” says Sangari.
“After we learnt of people selling tickets for the Qawwali evenings that were organised every Thursday at our (Nizamuddin) Dargah, we decided to call it off. We learnt from foreigners that they had paid exorbitantly high prices (approximately INR 2000) for tickets to the Qawwali evenings, when in reality Qawwali at the Dargah is free,” says Syed Mustafa Nizami, a Khadim (caretaker) at Nizamuddin Dargah.
However, this illegal commercialisation of the art has not really affected the artistes who perform it. For instance, Sangari and the Nizami Brothers have been able to sustain themselves through Qawwali. Mustafa Nizami even went to the extent of leaving his job to come back to his family business at the Nizamuddin Dargah.
It is unanimously believed that the form of Qawwali is nowhere close to its end. According to performing artists like Dhruv Sangari, Qawwali contains an undeniable potential to become a tool for soft diplomacy between India and Pakistan.
From shrines and royal courts to TV and ringtones – Evolution of Qawwali in Pakistan
Masooma Sherazi & Ahmed Jamil
The front lawn outside the main campus library of the Institute of Business Administration is covered with carpets. Bolster pillows line each periphery. Students and alumni, most dressed in traditional attire – shalwar kameez – are strolling around, trying to find the best seating place near and around the stage that is erected at one end of the lawn. It is ‘Qawwali Night.’ Someone looks around the place and observes, “Why isn’t there any rose or jasmine scent around here? It should feel like qawwali.” Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz will appear in a few minutes to perform qawwali.
They both belong to the Qawwal Bacha Gharana of Delhi – a fact lost on most of the young audience. They are here to listen to qawwali – the modern version of it to be exact, dance to the tunes and sing along the lyrics.
The history of Qawwal Bacha Gharana dates back almost 850 years. “Qawwali started in dargahs,” explained Muhammad Najmuddin – a qawwal based in Karachi and a descendent of the Qawwal Bacha Gharana. “It started with Amir Khusro [a Sufi musician, poet and scholar and an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent] who himself was a student of the Sufi saint Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia.”
It all started when a Hindu named Nayak Gopal challenged Alauddin Khilji [the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty in the Delhi Dynasty, who reigned from 19 July 1296 to 4 January 1316] to find a Muslim who could sing as well as him. “Khilji asked Nizamuddin to send Khusro to save the Muslims’ reputation. Khusro then mixed Iranian, Turkish and Arabic music to form the basis of qawwali. He used Quranic verses, Ahadith and Aulias’ teachings to form the first verses of qawwali,” said Najmuddin.
Khusro trained 12 students in qawwali, of whom only five are known today. Mian Samad (leader of group and descendent of Mian Nigahi, Mian Dargahi), Hasan Sawant, Behloul, Tataar and Fughani are the five names given in the books of history. It should, however, be borne in mind that though qawwali owed its development to religious and mystic tradition, its technique borrows heavily from classical music, which is not only an accepted and patronised form of art, but also has its roots in the religion of the sub-continent. “And now only one name has remained, from whom qawwals of today come from. We are the 26th generation. The leader of those 12 students was named Samad Bin Ibrahim and we are direct descendants of Samad,” said Najmuddin.
In the Islamic context, several of the ‘great saints’ have been associated with music and Sama, which was accepted as a form of prayer in certain religious orders back in the day. With the advent of Islam in Indo-Pakistan, new cultural values were introduced. Despite being a centre of traffic from Central Asia and Western lands, the region had kept its Aryan tradition and alien winds found the door closed.
In the beginning of the eleventh and twelfth century AD, it was quite difficult to introduce a new religious value-pattern based on monotheism. The preachers of Islam, particularly the mystics, played a major role in determining the character of the Islamic faith in India. In India, prayers were associated with music and any disassociation from music and propagation of ascetic life could have resulted in failure.
One renowned mystic of his time, Hazrat Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz, was fully aware of this peculiar socio-cultural tradition. It is a well-established fact that Sama was modified in the form of qawwali in his times. It is also said that he had a dialogue on qawwali with Hazrat Abdul Qadir Gilani of Baghdad, after which they attended a Mehfil-e-Sama. Following his example and bearing in mind the necessity of music in the cultural values of the people of sub-continent, his successors and disciples used the way of Sama more to propagate Islam and instructed their disciples also to learn the local languages.
There is also evidence of qawwali being sung during the time of Mehmood of Ghazni. Even before Khusro, many famous mystics promoted and patronized qawwali. Masood Saad Salman Lahori has mentioned a duo of qawwals, namely Mian Hisamuddin Nigahi and Mian Salahuddin Dargahi – companions and disciples of Hazrat Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz, who lived about a century before the birth of Amir Khusro.
From all this, however, the authenticity of Amir Khusro as originator of qawwali is not challenged. He played a pivotal role in the formation, regulation and proliferation of qawwali in the sub-continent, said Najmuddin. He also introduced Qaul and Qalbana along with other ragas and coined the word ‘Qawwali’ for the Indian form of Sama as it exists today.
Ahmed Sami is another popular qawwal based out of Karachi. Sami, also a descendant of Qawwal Bacha says the changes in the form of qawwali have come gradually. “Initially qawwali’s emphasis was on the voice and the way it was recited,” he explained. “Then, about 100-150 years later, qawwali moved towards the style of anthems. After another 100 years, it moved towards love and addiction. Then around the late 1800s, ghazals [love poems or odes] also got mixed into qawwali. Then around 40-50 years ago, to modernize qawwali, western music was added to it but that reduced the original style of qawwali,” he said. These changes were intrinsic in essence; as qawwali lost its exclusivity as an art form only for dargahs (the only form of qawwali out of religious shrines was in Kings’ courts as a luxury for the royalty) to becoming more accessible to the public.
Fast forward to today and we see that qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, particularly in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan; in Hyderabad, Delhi and various parts of India as well as in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet and many parts of Bangladesh.
Apart from the differences in style due to geo-political factors, qawwali has also evolved in terms of form over the years. “The most prominent transformation of qawwali has been in the art of singing. Initially, it only consisted of the vocal element and was slow paced, however, music has now become an integral part of qawwali,” said Sami.
Another way in which qawwali has transformed over the years is its consumption. Azeem Sami, another prominent qawwal based out of Karachi says, “Qawwali used to be an entertainment or activity only for the elites and the royalty back when it started. Eventually the general public was permitted to experience it and that’s how the concept of qawwali in dargahs came into being.”
However, many contemporary Qawwals like the Nizami Brothers, Ahmed Sami and even ethnomusicologist, Adam Nayyar, agree that despite categorisation, all forms of qawwali be it in India or Pakistan have one thing in common, i.e. the basic message of gnosis and inner love.
Some traditions and practices of qawwals that were popularized in the early days of this format, and that are not directly related to music, are also kept alive by the qawwals, on both sides of the border. One of them is to keep women out of the practice of singing. While there is no compulsion that women cannot sit and attend qawwali functions, there are no women qawwals – except for a few like Abida Parveen, who is not accepted by Sami brothers, or members of the Qawwal Bacha Gharana as one of their own. “Women can invite younger qawwal boys to perform in their gatherings, but we don’t teach our daughters the art,” said Najmuddin.
Younas Khan and Qasim Humayun, two avid fans of qawwali from Lahore, remarked that they had attended dozens of qawwali events, but they had yet to come across one where there was no segregation for men and women in the seating area. Khan said, “The intensity of the poetry sometimes necessitates that there are no women around. It’s only natural to project what you are hearing on what you are seeing.”
Najmuddin concurred. “Men are made to desire women, and since the basic purpose of qawwali is to keep it pure, mystic, and noble, women and men are kept separate and women are not allowed to perform.”
Other traditions like chewing paan while performing qawwali are also an age-old practice. Najmuddin had an elaborate explanation for that as well. “Qawwalis are often sung for hours at a time and that can make your throat dry and sore. Now consider a hot tawa [frying pan], if you put water onto it, it’ll sizzle and make noise. Similarly, drinking water on a hot and sore throat will make the qawwal’s voice break.” He said that paan is used to keep the throat moist yet not let it harm the voice. The tobacco in paan is for taste and the gutka is to balance the intensity of that taste, while other ingredients are used to ensure that paan doesn’t quickly dissolve as soon as you chew into it. “These things were introduced with a lot of thought put into it, they aren’t just to put on a show or present an image. There are always reasons behind such traditions,” Najmuddin said.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is renowned worldwide for making his listeners go wild with ecstasy irrespective of their own language or culture. In a way then, qawwali is a leveller of social distinctions, as it deals with a non-material, spiritual theme. But through the passage of time, the qawwals themselves have come to observe certain rules of the art. Since they know that their theme is spiritual, and words and music are to appeal to the intuition of the listener.
Every qawwal knows that the magic of his performance resides as much in the verse as in its rendering. The words are largely responsible for creating a state of transport. The continuous repetition of certain words is therefore imperative, if the words are to produce the effect. A good qawwal, in this way establishes his communication on two levels; he reaches his listener through intuitional, non-communicative and individual experience, yet he reaches not one but many individuals at the same time. This combination, of the personal with the universal, makes qawwali unique in its appeal.
Almost 70 years post partition, qawwali is one of the few remnants of the shared cultural heritage, known as the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, of the two neighbours India and Pakistan. Najmuddin opined that that with the advent of YouTube and the inclusion of elements of Sufi music and poetry in Bollywood, qawwali has become more accessible to people on both sides of the border and this cross-border exchange has tremendously blossomed over the years. Coke Studio is one example of an active cross-border exchange.
Many Pakistani qawwals like Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Ghulam Ali have performed in various cities across India, while their Indian counterparts like the Nizami Brothers and contemporary Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari, have performed in Pakistan. In fact, Dhruv Sangari, also known by his alias, Bilal Chishty, was mentored by the Pakistani qawwal legend, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Additionally, events like Jashn-e- Rekhta (Urdu Literature Festival held annually in New Delhi) and projects like the Kabir Project have become platforms to revive, popularise and bring this art form to the forefront. In Pakistan, initiatives from Coke and Pepsi have also somewhat allowed for a revival of classical music and qawwali.
Malahat Awan, who heads Tehzeeb Foundation, an NGO working for the preservation of classical music, fine arts and literature in Pakistan, believed classical music and ghazals are becoming endangered. “Singers of these formats are getting fewer because everything is becoming more and more commercialized,” she lamented. “Even Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan is singing softer music despite his family’s strong heritage in the classical form.”
She said that people need to realize that it is important to promote these formats and support them financially by buying CDs and music from such singers, so this form of music doesn’t become extinct. Applauding initiatives like Coke Studio and Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Malahat said, “State should also do more though. Everywhere in the world, there is state patronage for music, especially in the formats that speak of culture and heritage, but in Pakistan it’s not that much.” She added that the mainstream media should also try to redefine these musicians in the same fashionable appeal as they are in our neighbouring countries. For Awan, the biggest challenge to classical music, including traditional qawwali, is commercialization.
Then there is also a sort-of power struggle and cold war between the qawwal gharanas (traditional schools) and other more modern qawwali artistes. Those qawwals who claim to be the descendants of the Qawwal Bache tend to express rights and authenticity over the art while other individual artists like Dhruv Sangari believe that qawwali (and Sufi tradition in general), thrives on diversity and no one can claim to be the gatekeepers of this art.
Sangari believes that any tradition requires an outsider’s perspective if it is to survive. He says, “My entry into the Sufi tradition (of Islamic mysticism) was as an outsider. An outside perspective is always needed to any tradition.” He said that Khusro, who is attributed with the creation of the tradition of qawwali, was also an outsider as his father was Persian and his mother was Indian. “He was rooted enough in tradition but also outsider enough to see it objectively,” he said.
On the question of authenticity, the Nizami brothers say that true qawwali is that which is performed in the darbars [courts or shrines] of saints. Everything else that they call qawwali these days is not actually qawwali, they claim. Bollywood’s version of Rashq-e-Qamar, for instance, and other such songs have nothing authentic according to traditional qawwals.
“Don’t confuse them for qawwali,” Najmuddin concurred, “With time, new generations of singers have adopted the form of qawwali, but they have introduced their own elements that cannot be considered qawwali by those who know its true form.” It is also notable here that all three qawwals interviewed in Karachi did not accept Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as directly related to any qawwal family. Najmuddin said, “People who do modern qawwali earn a lot more than those who do traditional qawwali. We are associated with traditional form and that’s what we are passing down to our generations.”
That also explains another problem that plagues qawwali today according to its torch bearers – commercialisation. Historically, qawwali never had a commercial aspect because of its roots in Sufism which allows equal access to everyone. However, owing to the revival of the art form and its consequent popularity, people have taken the opportunity to commercialise it, which has taken different forms ranging from production of exclusive qawwali albums by various Sufi artists, to the inclusion of qawwali in mainstream Bollywood films, to the illegal ticketing of qawwali evenings at the Nizamuddin Dargah.
Sajid Khan, owner of Sonic Enterprise (renowned producer of the Chishti CDs) said, “The production of qawwali cassettes started sometime in the 1970s and then with the advent of CDs and VCDs, we also shifted to the newer medium. In fact, we shot and recorded them ourselves. All artists and the required logistics were sponsored by us. We spent approximately 4.5 lakhs in shooting one such video.”
He said that it was a thriving business and people from across the world bought these CDs. “In fact, maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have also visited our shop,” he reminisced. However, for the past 10 years or so, his business has come to a standstill because of the internet and platforms such as YouTube. “We have incurred a huge loss. And like other huge music companies such as T-Series, even we have uploaded our videos on YouTube. Additionally, we have also put out our recordings as caller tunes and/or hello tunes with companies like Airtel, Vodafone, et cetera,” said Sajid. “But we only get a lump sum amount once a year. You can say our business has died but this does not mean that qawwali has died. It will live till eternity because it is in praise of God and is rooted in our culture and tradition.”
The commercialisation of qawwali has, according to many, led to a compromise in its authenticity. These days any song with a Sufi feel is marketed as qawwali. Dhruv Sangari said, “After the success of songs like Kun Faya Kun and Bhar Do Jholi Meri, every director and producer want a qawwali or a Sufi song in their films. However, the reality is that these qawwalis or Sufi songs are not authentic; they are merely filmy songs that have a Sufi feel.”
A Khadim (caretaker) at Nizamuddin Dargah, Syed Mustafa Nizami said, “After we learnt of people selling tickets for the qawwali evenings that were organised every Thursday at our dargah, we decided to call it off. We learnt from foreigners that they had paid exorbitant prices (approximately INR 2000) for tickets to the qawwali evening, when in reality qawwali at the dargah is free.”
It is unanimously believed that the form of qawwali is nowhere close to its end. According to artists like Sangari, qawwali contains an undeniable potential to become a tool for soft diplomacy. Today the qawwals are carrying on a popular tradition with a very wide appeal, if not the widest. In an age where classical music has become a dying art, they are the most popular singers.