|A light breeze flowing across the Jamuna river mingles with a lonely voice. The musician recites a line from a Sufi poem -- it could be Amir Khusrao. The words float high above, supported only by a harmonium. Then a chorus of four others echoes the melody. Someone picks up the dholak, another begins clapping to the beat. Gradually, the singing gathers momentum and a gathering of devotees, mesmerised, starts swaying to the music. Cut to Lincoln Centre, New York. An orchestra makes its entry on stage and is applauded by the couple of thousand people seated in the magnificent air-conditioned auditorium. A rotund man puts one hand to his ear, raises the other evocatively and begins singing. Within minutes, hordes of people -- from Punjabi taxi drivers to punky Asian teenagers -- are dancing maniacally in the aisles.|
| Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took qawwali from the anonymous marble shrines of India and Pakistan into the global music circuit of fusion and pop. The intermediate phase could perhaps be seen as a combination of genuine improvisation and unabashed greed. But though part of the outcome was great -- like the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ (where he teamed up with Peter Gabriel) and Bandit Queen -- much of it was not agreeable to many, and infuriating to some. |
In his early avatars, however, the Lahore musician treated his listeners -- indeed overwhelmed them -- with his renderings of qawwali. Not surprising, for Nusrat came from a family of well-known qawwals. A recently released four-part recording of traditional Sufi qawwalis (performed live in London in December 1989), with a strong base in classical music, provides a glimpse of the asli cheez -- music which elevates the spirit, bringing both the performer and listener closer to God.
|In fact, contrary to what flashes on MTV or Channel V, qawwali was essentially spiritual music. There are various levels of interaction between religion and music, explains Ashok Ranade, well-known musicologist. You have litturgic music that accompanies rituals -- like the ubiquitous aarti -- and mystic music where there is a one-to-one relationship between the singer and God -- like the chanting of mantras. And finally, you have the public version of mystic music -- like the qawwali or bhajan-kirtans which, by definition, are sung in a place of worship. "Indeed, there is a direct parallel between bhajans and qawwali," says Ranade. He explains the characteristics common to both which are used to attract devotees. In both forms, you have the soloist juxtaposed with a chorus. The chorus reinforces the message in the music by constantly repeating a phrase, embellishing and emphasising it. And in both cases, the music is sung to a compelling rhythm -- always fast -- which immediately engages the audience. The drumming is supposed to merge with, and eventually take over, the heartbeat.|
|"By enhancing the message of mystical poetry, and by providing a powerful rhythm suggesting the ceaseless repetition of God's name (zikr), the music of qawwali has a religious function: to arouse mystical love, even divine ecstasy, which is the core experience of Sufism," writes Regula Burckhardt Qureshi, in her authoritative book on Qawwali, Sufi Music of India & Pakistan. The term 'qawwali' can be traced back to the ancient Arabic music forms Kaul and Kalbana. A Kaul or Qaul, literally meaning "aphorism", is a song in Arabic. Qawwali translates into 'utterance'. Interestingly, although Islam has a vast following all over the world, qawwali is only sung in India and Pakistan. Ranade suggests that when missionaries of Islam came to India, they found that music was an integral part of religion. So the qawwals flocked and thrived here, drawing heavily from the north-Indian tradition of Hindustani classical music.|
| A qawwali typically begins with an instrumental prelude on the harmonium, outlining the melody. Then the qawwal sings the introductory verse and finally he is joined by his chorus. Traditionally, it remained loosely within the parameters of a raga, and was considered a lighter genre of classical music. "Over the years, north Indian 'classical' music has been limited to mean khayal -- and maybe ghazal," suggests Shama Zaidi, scriptwriter. "Allied forms like qawwali, or even the tappa and thumri, were not considered classical." It is not surprising, therefore, that qawwalis were marginalised and gradually copied by Bollywood and Bhendi Bazaar. "What else do you expect?" questions Zaidi. |
| Among the first Hindi films to take qawwali out of the religious context and into popular cinema was R Chandra's Barsat Ki Ek Raat (1959). Interestingly the song, Na To Caravan Ki Taalaash Hai, was inspired by Nusrat's father, Fateh Ali Khan. |
Being a participative form of music, it gradually became popular and eventually vulgarised. As Raju Bharatan, an authority on Hindi cinema puts it, "By the '80s, music lost its relevance because action came into play." The characters in films would wear colourful scarves and topis, clap their hands and sing vapid songs that were passed off as qawwali.
The poetry on which qawwali was based also lent itself to corruption. It was the easiest thing to translate the Sufi verses describing metaphysical love between man and God into mundane love between a man and woman.
| "Qawwali music became a medium for sexual wrestling matches of sorts," says music director Naushad wryly. "A male singer sat across from a female singer, and they competed with each other, singing rhyming lines like Tera Mukhda Nainital and Tere Haat Mein Hai Rumaal. |
Zaidi recalls an incident in the '60s, when the late Urdu poet Niaz Haider heard Shakeela Bano Bhopali, a popular qawwal, performing at a numaish in Aligarh. Two light bulbs in her bosom flashed to the beat of the song. He was so incensed that he stormed up to the stage, publicly admonished her for insulting qawwali, and ripped out the microphone.
Today, apart from the anonymous fakir-musicians who perform at remote dargahs, there are only a few artistes --the Sabri brothers of Pakistan, Jafar Hussain from Delhi and Baroda's Noor Jehan, for instance -- who are still singing the authentic qawwali. And heart-felt outbursts such as Haider's have degenerated into colourful anecdotes about eccentric traditionalists, while the music continues to fade out.