World Music Day: Transcending Borders Through Qawwali & Sufism

“Sufi music is all about experimentation and cultural assimilation,” says singer Dhruv Sangari.

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Art and Culture
5 min read

Chhaap tilak sab chheeni re mose naina milaike...

A chance meeting between Hazrat Amir Khusrau and Chishty Saint Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya led to the composition of this verse sometime in the 14th century. But the distinct allure of the song has kept it alive till today, most prominently in the form of Qawwali – a form of Sufi music – that enjoys a huge fan base across the globe.

Such is the case with most Sufi songs as we know them today. Dating back centuries, these earthy compositions tap into the audience’s subconscious and make them one with the divine — sometimes with help from Bollywood.

When we met Dhruv Sangari (Bilal Chishty), prominent Sufi singer and scholar, he weighed in:

Of course, Bollywood has done a great job of disseminating Sufi music but we must also make the distinction that that is not what authentic Sufi music is.

Dhruv Sangari’s Sufi journey is unlike any other. Trained under musical stalwarts such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dhruv’s tryst with Sufism began at the tender age of seven. For Dhruv, a childlike fascination with Qawwali turned into a potential career pursuit that also resulted in a spiritual reckoning along the way.

In this exclusive conversation with The Quint, he touched upon the various facets of Sufism, its changing manifestations and his personal journey.

Oneness, Peace and Love: The Essence of Sufism

File photo of late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at one of his concerts. 
File photo of late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at one of his concerts. 
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@ahsankhan919ak)

Lamenting the increasing commercialisation of Sufi music, Dhruv says,

A Sufi night at a discotheque or any random song interspersed with words such as ali, maula, allah do not symptomise Sufi music. It is sad that today we take them for an authentic expression of Sufism. To understand the essence of Sufi music, we have to turn towards our Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

A product of our sanjhi viraasat (shared heritage of the Hindus and Muslims), Sufi music is all about experimentation and cultural assimilation, says Sangari. Its larger message is connecting with the whole of humanity and putting to rest the eternal conundrum about differences — of faith, religion and gender.

Music Beyond Religion

Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi.
Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi.
(Photo: iStock)

The Qawwalis performed at Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi on Thursdays have become incredibly popular. People throng the Dargah in large numbers, regardless of caste, community and creed.

Decoding the popularity behind the trend, Dhruv says,

This is because the Dargah acts as a third space which welcomes people without any discrimination. In fact, Sufism cannot be appropriated by a single sect or religion. A lot of it is coming from Islam, but somewhere it has also transgressed those boundaries. 

Dhruv’s Sufi sojourns led him down the path of Islamic mysticism somewhere along the way. He found his peer (Guru or teacher) on a visit to Dargah Sharif in Ajmer and that’s how Dhruv Sangari became Bilal Chishty.

But that’s his personal journey and certainly not a formulaic path for practitioners of Sufism. “The Sufi spirituality is participatory, which also explains why so many Hindus and Sikhs are even considered Sufi spiritual leaders,” he says, adding:

I get irked when people ask me if Qawwali is Islamic or UnIslamic. It is absolutely redundant because all religions point towards the same truth. In fact, in India, religions have influenced each other. Today, we have reduced our rich heritage to binaries almost as if there is no greater fight left.
It is in this context that Sufi music, particularly the Qawwali, preaches the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud, which translates to unity of all beings. Hence, the instant connect among the audiences.

Story of Qawwali

Singer Dhruv Sangari during one of his performances. 
Singer Dhruv Sangari during one of his performances. 
(Photo Courtesy: Dhruv Sangari)

“The story of Qawwali doesn’t begin with Amir Khusrau, but he brought it to a new level,” says Dhruv, countering the popular notion that most have about Qawwali and its origins. He adds, “Qawwals were actually early medieval storytellers who would travel places reciting folk tales. When the form arrived in India, it blended with the local culture, incorporating elements of Indian classical music, folk music, semi-clasical music and took its current shape.”

He is quick to add that “Qawwali would not have transgressed the boundaries that it did had it not been for Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s experimentations with the form and style.”

“Qawwali Is Like Jazz of the East”

The commonalities between Qawwali and Jazz are too many to overlook – the mellifluous melodies, the immense scope of improvisation, the spiritual undertones, the message of peace and humanity that both forms propagate.

People like BB King have actually said that Qawwali is like jazz of the east. And I think that’s a very good analogy because jazz means openness, experimentation, liberation, and progressive thought. This is exactly what Qawwali also stands for.
Dhruv Sangari

Qawwali is Just One Form of Sufi Expression

The dance of the whirling dervish.
The dance of the whirling dervish.
(Photo: iStock)

Contrary to popular knowledge, Qawwali is just one form of Sufi expression. In India itself, there are myriad forms of Sufi expression – the Punjabi Kafis, the Langa Manganiyars of Rajasthan, Bauls in Bengal, Refa’i and Qadri Sufis in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, the Kashmiri Sufi tradition of poetry and music – to name a few.

This heterogeneity of Sufi expression speaks volumes about its nature – engaging with and embellishing the local tradition of the place it travels to. You can see this in Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Turkey and other countries in the form of Naqshbandiya Tariqa, Qadiriyya Tariqa, Suhrawardiyya Tariqa, Chistiyya Tariqa and so on. 

The Mevlevi Tariqa founded by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is another form of Sufi expression as popular as the Qawwali. Having originated in Konya, the Mevlevi Silsila is popularised by the iconic whirling dervishes — a movement-based form of meditation, an act of remembering God, a celebration of creation.

Cameraperson: Athar Rather
Camera Assistant: Shivkumar Maurya
Video Editors: Prashant Chauhan and Ashish MacCune
Producer: Harshita Murarka

(This story was originally published on 12 February 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark World Music Day.)

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