The tale of 'Qawwali': A genre defined by songs of praise

Sunday, 1 December 2013 - 8:06am IST Updated: Sunday, 1 December 2013 - 11:00am IST | Agency: DNA
Qawwali exponents Iqbal and Sarfaraz Chisthi speak to Yogesh Pawar about the journey and sacredness of a genre defined by its songs of praise.

Please turn it off,” he says. The gentle way in which this command is issued doesn’t match the angry glint in the kohl-lined eyes of Sufi qawal Iqbal Chishti. Unmindful of the banter and the music on the radio in the car, Chishti continues talking till the harmonium strains begin the popular Tumse Milke Dil Ka Hai Jo Haal Kya Karein track. “Maafi chahtein hain,” he quickly apologises, the anger vanishing as suddenly as it arrived. “Bollywood should know what it is doing. You can’t make a mockery of a genre in which the soul of this subcontinent resides. They may have their compulsions to sell their product but how can something so spiritual and devotional be debased commercially like this?”

Chisthi glances at the huge film hoardings and reminisces about a bygone era. “My father was a great fan of Raj Kapoor saab. See how intelligently they used Laaga Chunari Mein Daag which speaks of the union between the mortal and the divine.” Trained by his father in the family’s tradition of qawwali, he has fond memories of watching him perform at the Nizamuddin dargah. “To sit at the holy dargah and sing always feels special.”

Remembering the tough times when the family had to make do with collections gathered in a chadar spread out before the performers, his elder brother Sarfaraz says, “Thanks to patronage, some of us get invited to concerts, yet many, very talented qawwals still live in penury.”

Derived from the Arabic qaul, meaning ‘to speak,’ the qawwali (a group performance by largely male musicians called qawwals) renders Sufi messages musically. Besides the lead vocalist/s, a chorus of clapping qawwals join the refrain, a harmonium player, whose melodic support and improvisations complement the singing, often to wah-wahs from the audience. A dholak and/or tabla player complete the ensemble with percussion. “Supporting such a large troupe is very difficult. Sometimes it can be very tough dividing up the modest honorarium offered by some organisers. At such times, we have to pay them from our own pockets to keep them happy,” says Chishti.

A qawwali essentially takes place in the context of a mehfil-e sama, (a gathering for enlightened listeners keyed into its ruhaniyat (spirituality). Little wonder then that festivals of sufi music have borrowed these names. While the 13-year-old festival by Banyan Tree is called Ruhaniyat, the one started by National Council of Performing Arts (NCPA) in response six years ago is called Sama.

“While the most significant of these gatherings happens at dargahs on the death anniversary of the patron saint, lesser mehfil-e samas, happen throughout the year on Thursdays, when Muslims remember their deceased, or on Fridays, the day of prayer. Concerts and special qawwali performances on popular demand have also become more common.”

From the famous Chistiya School of Sufi Silsilas (CSSS) in India, credited with creating qawwali, the brothers should know what they’re saying. The earliest records show how Al-Gazali(1085-1111) refined and codified the genre’s principles. These were expanded by the CSSS which led to the propagation of qawwali in the Indian sub-continent. Another respected Chishti, Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325) began marrying these tenets with Islam.

Though Auliya’s disciple Amir Khusrau (1254-1324) lost his Turkish father when eight-years-old, his exposure to Turkish and Persian poetry left a deep impact. His compositions which mix elements from Turkey, Persia and India, still form the qawwali repertoire which also includes works of poets like Rumi and Hafez. “Given a choice we’d only sing these but in order for them to be accessible to young audiences we include newer compositions in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu,” says Sarfaraz.

Most qawwalis are songs of praise. Praise for teachers, saints, or Allah, yet the bulk of the repertoire addresses spiritual love in terms of worldly love and intoxication. “To the unaccustomed listener, these songs may seem antithetical to the teachings of orthodox Islam, but qawwals and their audiences readily recognise the imagery as a metaphorical expression of euphoria on communion with the Divine,” explains Iqbal.

Dismissing what he calls “ill-informed right wing opposition by some hardliners in Islam,” he explains, “The Holy Koran asks man to silently or vocally remember God. Qawwali does this.
Variations and repetition bringing out deeper meanings of words soon cease to have meaning and the listener is taken to a state of enlightenment. How can anything which takes you closer to Allah be wrong?”

We couldn’t agree more!

On 7th & 8th December 2013 at 6:30 pm at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

Sufi Trail
Sufism made its beginnings in Persia and Turkey in the early 11th century before making the Indian sub-continent its home. Now, Ruhaniyat — India’s oldest, largest Sufi and mystic music festival — organised by Banyan Tree, takes that journey full circle. The festival will travel to Istanbul for the first time. Through the journey of 13 years and 9 cities each year, the festival has touched the lives of over 2,000 artists and ensured that near-extinct art forms get a new lease of life. “The appreciation and enthusiasm from audiences, performers and partners has been overwhelming, says Mahesh Babu, founder, Banyan Tree. “Many performers discovered through Ruhaniyat have become known faces and are invited for festivals all over the world.”

This year Ruhaniyat will feature an Indo-Turkish production Rumi-Emre meets Khusrau-Kabir. Latif Bolat, the Turkish composer and scholar of Turkish folklore who specialises in bringing alive works of Sufis and mystic rebels will play the Saz, a Turkish instrument.

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