From Sufi Shrines to Films: How India Embraced Qawwali’s Pluralism

The actual words of the qawwals take us into a world of multi-culturalism, where living together was a fact of life.

7 min read

I first heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a bar in Brussels sometime in the year 1994. I hadn’t heard Nusrat’s incredible voice with its amazing range and variations ever before; he was not such a hit in India at that point in time. Though unbeknownst to me, he was already big in the US and making inroads in Europe. This was a bar with a pocket-sized dancing floor; possibly a barn or a warehouse once it had been converted into a high-end watering hole in a hip part of Brussels.

What I remember all these years later is that people around us were tapping their feet and dancing to the music, and possibly, they were people who did not understand a word of what Nusrat was saying, and perhaps only two people in the room, my husband and I, who could understand Nusrat, were neither dancing nor tapping our feet. Looking back, I see that as a moment of epiphany where I understood what Qawwali means to people like us, those of us who are born and brought up in South Asia.


Qawwali Needs Three Things to Create Magic

Qawwali is not background music against which you should carry on your conversation, nor is it something that you can get up and dance to. You might sway, yes, or beat your hands in unison with the Qawwals, but it is something you sit and listen to. Qawwali, to my mind, no matter where it is being performed or heard, be it in a Sufi khanqah or something you see on the screen or hear on a tape or, as in my case, hear in a bar, remains a devotional form of music. Of all the musical forms, the Qawwali is the hardest to disengage from its moorings in Sufi Islam.

There are three pre-requisites of Qawwali, namely, zamaan, makaan, ikhwan, that is time, space and occasion. There is a designated time for it that does not clash with the times of the five daily namaz. The Qawwali offered in the khanqah is usually between the Maghrib and Isha prayers in the late evening. The space must be clean, one that is conducive to leading to a state of sama, and ikhwaan refers to the gathering of like-minded people. The bar in Brussels failed on all three counts: it was neither the right time nor place, and certainly, the people gathered there had no commonality.

But what happens when all three conditions are met? Nothing short of pure magic. Let us look at how a Qawwali proceeds and exactly what is being sung. There is, always, always, the hamd to begin with: the Qawwal opens the proceedings with praise of Allah.

The hamd is followed by the naat, a panegyric in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, moving seamlessly to the manqabat, in praise of Ali or the Sufi saint in whose dargah a Qawwali may be recited, such as Hazrat Nizamuddin.

The 'Muqable ki Qawwali'

Let us now look at the kalaam, the actual composition that is being sung. In several compositions, the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Ali’ merge and the Qawwals sing them in such a way that the vowels fuse.

The tarana bol are words that are generally meaningless but leaven the singing with a special alliterative energy, for instance:

Fa Ali-un maula

Man kunto maula

Dara dil-e dara dil-e dar-e daani

Hum tum tanana nana, nana nana ray

Yalali yalali yala, yalayala ray

Man kunto maula...

(Whoever accepts me as a master,

Ali is his master too.)

The above is a Hadith, a saying of the Prophet Mohammad (PBH). The rest of the lines are tarana bol, which are used for rhythmic chanting by Sufis.

Coming now to the secular or non-khanqahi Qawwali popularised largely through Hindi cinema. Some samples are, “Nigahein milane ko ji chahta hai" (I feel like locking my gaze with yours), "Humein to loot liya milke husn waalon ne" (all these beautiful people have robbed me), "Main idhar jaaoon yaa udhar jaaoon(shall I go hither or thither).

The most memorable is the iconic Qawwali from ‘Mughal-e-Azam’Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge (today, I, too, shall wager my fortune in your assembly) sung by Shamshad Begum with Lata Mangeshkar – which is remembered even today for its archness and coquetry.

Hindi cinema also helped popularise another form of secular Qawwali known as Muqable ki Qawaali, whereby two teams, comprising men and women, are pitted against each other as arch opponents, or even two teams of the same gender (as in Mughal-e-Azam).

Having said that, the filmy Qawwali has taken elements from diverse traditions such as the mujra, which, in turn, is inspired by the bol batana tradition of Kathak. Interestingly, filmy Qawwalis such as “Nigahen milane ko ji chahta hai” lend themselves both as purely romantic or secular and also hark back to the mystic roots of the Qawwali.


The Enormous Possibilities of the 'Gireh'

Filmy or non-filmy, khanqahi or non-khanqahi, the Qawwali has two essential features: takraar which is repetitive, and a gireh, or a poetic knot. The gireh affords enormous flexibility and expansiveness to the Qawwal, allowing him to travel seamlessly back and forth. It is the gireh that allows the Qawwali to be free of the limitations of other poetic forms that lend themselves to singing, such as the ghazal.

Perhaps it is the gireh that is also responsible for the longevity of the Qawwal. The fact that it has remained alive for over 700 years is possibly because the gireh allows the Qawwal to dip into his memory bag and pluck things. So, you can have a traditional composition by Amir Khusrau and you can have a kalaam by a contemporary Urdu poet all in the same Qawwali. And, of course, Amir Khusrau himself would have a fragment in Farsi and another in Hindvi, as in:

Ze-hal-e-miskiin makun taġhaful duraie nainan banae batiyan

Ki taab-e-hijran nadaram ai jaan na lehu kaahe lagaa.e chhatiyan

(Do not overlook my misery by blandishing your eyes and spinning tales

My patience brimmeth over, O my love, why do you not clasp me to your bosom.)

The Qawwal can stud, almost like a master jeweller, seemingly random couplets by Bulle Shah or Meera Bai or Kabir in a composition by Amir Khusrau. This is just another example of the enormous possibilities offered by the gireh.


Communication, or 'Qaul', Is at the Heart of Qawwali

At the heart of the Qawwali lies communication. It uses certain stock devices such as alternate voices, that is, two male performers and a backup, and within the lead performers too, there is an alteration. The stock device of more than one voice, that too two distinctly different voices, varies the tempo, but at the heart of it all, communication is the key. The word qawwali comes from the word ‘qaul’, which means ‘to speak’. Initially, it was used for the sayings of the Prophet. But over the years, it has become absorbed in Qawwali, thus reminding us of the oral, vocal element of this art form.

In much of medieval Sufi poetry, there are some stock images such as gori and panghat, matki kaa tutna or kahe ko byahi bides, images of girls married off and sent to live in an alien situation, of the dynamics between saans aur bahu. Borrowed from the folk, these elements allude to the hardships and obstacles in the path of true love, where the beloved is God, and how trials and tribulations, which are part of life, are a manifestation of the obstructions in the way of communion.

Then, there are the many references to festivals. Amir Khusrau’s compositions refer to Holi, Basant and various other festivals. So, you have lines like:

Aaj basant manale suhagan, aaj basant manale

Anjan manjan ki piya mori, lambe neher lagayi

Naino se naina milale suhagan aaj basant manale

(Rejoice, my love, rejoice, spring is here, rejoice.

Bring out your lotions and toiletries,take long swings on the swings

Lock your gaze with mine, my love, celebrate spring with me)

And elsewhere:

Mujhe apni hi rang mein rang de rangile tu to sahib mere mehboob-e ilahi

(Colour me in the colour of your love o my master you are the beloved of God)

Love for the Nijam (nizamuddin), who has been called 'mehboob-e Ilahi' (the beloved of God), is like a river:

Khusrau dariya prem kaa ulti baa ki dhaar

Jo utra so duub gaya jo dubaa so paar

(O Khusrau, the river of love flows backwards

He who descends in it drowns, he who drowns, crosses it)


Mecca to Kashi: Living Together Is a Way of Life

There is historical evidence that the Qawwali in some form or the other existed before Nizamuddin Aulia. Qawwali, as we understand it in its present form, emerged from the bylanes of Nayazpur, what we now call Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin, which is where Hazrat Nizamuddin set up his khanqah and which is where Hazrat Amir Khusrau would often come to spend some time.

The bulk of the repertoire of the existing Qawwals, regardless of their silsila, is actually composed by Amir Khusrau. There may be additions or alterations and an occasional new composition, but the bulk of the corpus has been written by Khusrau. Taken together, the actual sung words of the Qawwals take us into a world of pluralism and multi-culturalism, where living together was very much a fact of life. For instance, here is Hazrat Nizamuddin declaring the following after witnessing a scene beside the bank of the Yamuna:

Har qaum raast raah-e deen va qibl gaahe

Sansar Har ko pujey kul ko jagat sarahe

(Every race has a direction in which they face to pray

The entire world worships something or the other)

In response, Amir Khusrau would say something that encapsulates not just the musicality but the whimsicality of the Qawwali tradition, with its reliance on individuality and idiosyncrasy in mixing seeming contraries in its reference to the tilted cap of the beloved in the first line:

Man qibla raast kardam bar simt-e kaj kulahe

Mecce mein koi dhoondhe Kashi koi chahe

(I have turned my face towards the crooked cap [of Nizamudin]

While some look for Him in Mecca, others in Kashi)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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