R.I.P. Qawwali?

In June 2016, hardliners eliminated Pakistani qawwal Amjad Ali Sabri. His crime? Singing the qawwali ‘Ali ke saath hai Zohra ki shaadi’, live on Geo TV, which put him on the radar of people who thought the reference to Prophet Mohammad’s family was like blasphemy. And last week came news about a fatwa—a diktat of sorts—issued by Darul Uloom Deoband against a dozen Muslim women from Varanasi who had participated in an aarti during the recent Diwali. What a far cry from another story that featured the same city many moons ago. The great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib once visited Varanasi (also known as Kashi and Banaras), and here’s a translated extract from his poem called Chirag-e-Dair (meaning Temple Lights):

Morning and moon-rise my lady Kashi

Picks up the Ganga mirror

To see her gracious beauty, glimmer and shine.

Said I one night to a pristine seer

(who knew the secrets of whirling Time)

‘Sir, you well perceive that goodness and faith,

Fidelity and love

Have all departed from this sorry land.

Father and son are at each other’s throat

Brother fights brother

Unity and federation are undermined.

Despite these ominous times, why has not doomsday come?

Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?

Who holds the reins of the final catastrophe?”

The hoary old man of lucent ken

Pointed towards Kashi and gently smiled.

“The architect”, he said, “is fond of this edifice

Because of which there is colour in life.

He would not like it to perish and fall”.

Hearing this, the pride of Banaras soared to an eminence

Untouched by the wings of thought.

The question is, if Ghalib were living today, would they have issued a fatwa against him too? It seems highly likely. He wrote many more things which would have ticked off intolerant minds. Consider this couplet: Imaan mujhe roke hai jo kheenche hai mujhe kufr, Kaaba mere peechhe hai kalisa mere aage (Faith holds me back somewhat, but idolatry draws me, the Kaaba is behind me, as I face the Church). He went further in a thought that would surely invite some heat: Jab ki tujh bin naheen koi maujood, phir ye hungaama aye Khuda kya hai? (If no one but you is around everywhere, dear God what’s all this commotion about?).

Ghalib was not the only bard who said challenging things. Trawl the qawwali waters and you’ll find many others. Habib Painter was an exceptional Sufi thinker and qawwal, who ruffled many a religious feather. Look at this, from his poem Sada chakkar mein rehta hai: Idhar Pandit akadte hain ke wo Kashi mein rehta hai, idhar hain Sheikhji naadaan ke wo Kaabe mein rehta haiHabib ahl-e-nazar har shai mein usko dekh leta hai, wagarna dhoondne waala sada chakkar mein rehta hai (The one with the vision finds God in everything, otherwise the seeker always remains confused). In fact, qawwalis question our basic beliefs with alarming punctuality. Remember Sahir Ludhianvi’s long ode to love in Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)? The part where Rafi says, “…bande ko Khuda karta hai ishq” (love turns a man into a god) itself is enough to tick off fragile minds.

What is qawwali?

It all started with Amir Khusro, the 13th-century musician and writer whose father was a Persian and mother an Indian. His bi-cultural heritage furnished him with a wide understanding of human nature, and he gained more depth after he became a spiritual disciple of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi. It is Amir Khusro who fused the music traditions of India with those of Persia and Arabia to kick-start the idea of the qawwali. Therefore it is he who is known as the Father of the Qawwali.

The qawwali started off as a spiritual offering, sung at dargahs, which are tombs where saints lie buried. They were not, and are not, sung in mosques because official Islam doesn’t take kindly to any kind of music. In fact, essential Islam doesn’t even recognise dargahs, and as such there are none for example in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The idea is, there should be no one between us and the Almighty.

Over the years, the lyrical content of the qawwali has allowed other themes like alcohol, and love between humans, with touches of sexuality as well. The qawwali, unlike for instance the ghazal, is not a written form; it is really about the musical way the lyrics are composed that sets it apart. First of all, there is plenty of clapping for percussion. There’s a harmonium in the equation, and sometimes there are two. Bulbul tarangs are euphonically juiced in this genre, while more complete groups use a clarinet too. The main percussion consists of a tabla and dholak. Choral singers are important to qawwalis, and everyone in the team sings, especially to repeat the key verses, so that the main singer can arrive repeatedly with a fresh thought, an alaap, a taan or a sargam. This call and response, lead-and-follow route is varied with dramatic stoppages of the rhythms to deliver key imageries positioned for high effect.

On the stage too, there is a kind of protocol. There are typically 8 or more musicians in what is called a Qawwal Party. They sit cross-legged on a cushioned platform, on which the front row is occupied by the main and secondary singers as well as the harmoniumists, with the rear row taken up by the chorus and side-rhythmists.

Seating protocol and instruments in place, the qawwals often start slowly and rhythm-free, sometimes with a couplet or two thematically linked but not otherwise part of the main lyrics, and then they proceed to build energy and speed to induce both listeners and themselves into a kind of a trance.

Interestingly, the genre is heavily populated by male musicians, but the first qawwali in our films was an all-women’s affair in Zeenat (1945): Aahen na bhari, shikwe na kiya, kuchh bhi na zubaan se kaam liya was sung by Noor Jahan, Zohrabai Ambalewali and Kalyani. Over the years, significant and enjoyable qawwalis have featured many singers and actors, either mostly men, or then men and women. But the odd women’s-only qawwalis have shown up too, like Har baat poochhiye ye haqeeqat na poochhiye (Lata, Asha, Shamshad/Chaandni Chowk, 1954),  Sharma ke ye kyoon sab parda-nasheen aanchal ko sanwaara karte hain (Shamshad, Asha/Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960), Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge (Lata, Shamshad/Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), Kehte hain jisko ishq tabiyat ki baat hai (Shamshad, Usha/Aaj Aur Kal, 1963), Nigaahen milaane ko jee chaahta hai (Asha/Dil Hi To Hai, 1964), and Unse nazren mili aur hijaab aa gaya (Lata/Ghazal, 1964).

Composer Roshan has been the King of Qawwalis in our films, and his twin offerings, Na to caarvaan ki talaash hai, followed by Ye ishq ishq hai remain unmatched in lyrical content, rendering and overall composition till this day. But maestro Ravi is not at all behind; his work, both in numbers and quality just cannot be dismissed away.

Qawwalis, at one time breathing freely, are now on life support, at least in our films. But hardliners are not the only reasons why qawwalis may die. Over the decades, our society itself has downgraded poetry, making it highly difficult for any writer to consider making a career of it. As society chokes the entire universe of poetry—ghazals, rubais and nazms—it cuts off the oxygen supply to music genres like the mujra and qawwali as well.


Originally published on page 09 of DNA Jaipur on 29 October 2017http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2017-10-29

Featured image on top: Nigar Sultana in Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar

The song below is without video

16 Replies to “R.I.P. Qawwali?”

  1. You always amaze me with your repertoire and in-depth analysis.Never knew anything about Qawwali, till Roshan, initiated us to it in Barsaat ki Raat. Ever since then Jani Babu , Shakila Bano Bhopali et all have always fascinated me . But Manek , you today- take me on a journey , which I never imagined to be so exhilarating and intoxicating.
    I am reminded of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning ,I studied in school, while reading this and though I am unable to recollect the entire poem, I am reminded of a few lines- just before the end
    Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
    Piercing sweet by the river !
    Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
    The sun on the hill forgot to die,
    The lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.

  2. Another jewel in your crown, Manek. Your analysis and thorough inspection and research yields yet another thesis which will enlighten your readers. Every week is a new topic.. some of us do not even realize there is another topic to write about. Thoroughly enjoyed this presentation. Gave insight to so much. Kudos to your keyboard and salute to your passion.

  3. Manek, I have just come across another all-ladies qawwali that I thought to mention here – it seems to be Roshan’s first ever qawwali – for Chandni Chowk (1954) – sung by Shamshad Begum, Lata and Asha ‘har baat poochhiye, ye haqeeqat na poochhiye’.
    Thought I would mention it here.
    Thank you for making me think more deeply about this much-loved form of composing!

  4. Another completely mesmerizing, thought-provoking subject handled with clarity by you. Manek each week your expertise in research inspires. Your ideas, connections and research are something else! This is a definite contender for HTRN 2. Deep respect to the sincerity you bring to your passion each week.

  5. Manekji, the death of qawwalis in Hindi films has come about with the death of Muslim social films. Such films are not made because there is no audience for them. A musical form whose disappearance from films is to be much regretted

  6. Indeed we are losing the values that quawwalis brought with itself. As quawwalis itself are trending towards it’s end. Very awakening essay Manek as always …….

  7. Gosh, the way you research and the way you integrate and assimilate various aspects of the subject, its simply mind-boggling! Another brilliant piece, one that hardliners everywhere need to read and comprehend. If they cannot see God in music, its really tragic, its such a huge loss to their parched souls!
    Thanks for this study. My first exposure to Qawwali was when I had attended a live concert as a child I think it was Patkar hall in Mumbai, and the lady who set the auditorium on fire was none other than Shakila Bano Bhopali. Her gutsy, devil-may-care invitations to the men in the audience, her challenging anyone who began to depart from the hall with a verse challenging his very manhood to the extent that he was finally found magnetically drawn to the stage clapping along with her, what a power that lady had over everyone! Once I attended a competition match between Jani Banu and her and believe me, she beat him to the finish line with a gloating yet seductive smile! It was stunning. Maybe they will re-discover this fast fading genre and re-invent it to suit today’s world! In recent times I saw brilliant qawwalis in the Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusli which were simply stunning too, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dwlv1nfEIE); they reflected the thought you are expressing in your piece…looking forward to a more lengthy piece from u on this very subject, perhaps a whole 100 pages!
    Kudos once again!

    1. Shakila Bano was phenomenal Lata, and so was Jani Babu…and I heard them together too…what fun 🙂

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