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Are newer incarnations of qawwali straying away from traditions of this revered musical form and, even if they are, does it matter?

Syed Hasnain Nawab
February 26, 2023

I only have qawwali to blame for my first and solitary act of childhood rebellion.

At the age of six, I disobeyed my parents’ orders and stayed up well past my bedtime, slipped downstairs and peered slyly into the qawwali mehfil [gathering] taking place at my home deep into the night. I was greeted by a melee of floundering limbs, raucous proclamations and repetitions of “Wah! Bohat Khoob”, a dizzying haze of kurta pajamas and sarees, adults firmly in the grips of haal [uncontrollable state of ecstasy] and, most of all, that rhapsodic, sonorous sound held aloft by the thunderous clapping of those oracle-like qawwals.

As I tip-toed into the gathering, I was accosted by one of those distant family acquaintances, the kind that always seem to come out of the woodwork for such congregations, as he heaved his lumbering frame towards me, ensnared me in his grasp and roared, “Let me tell you something, boy! I never found God in prayer, at the mosque or in any scripture. I found Him in qawwali.” I was sold.

But the qawwali which I was weaned on, that which abides by the tenets of the Chishti silsila [Sufi lineage] and upholds the traditional elements of a khanqahi mehfil [a product of the shrines at which qawwali was historically performed] has become increasingly rare, both in Pakistan and India.

Ustaad Saami rues the fact that only a handful of people are left in Karachi who know how to listen to qawwali | Shakeel Adil

Ustaad Saami rues the fact that only a handful of people are left in Karachi who know how to listen to qawwali | Shakeel Adil

As Pir Khwaja Ahmed Nizami Syed Bokhari, the sajjadanashin [hereditary custodian] of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, points out in the foreword to Jashn-e-Khusrau: A Collection, “When qawwali moved out of shrines and into hotels, clubs and wedding parties, its essential purpose was lost, and its essential characteristics acquired the colour of the market. In such a day and age, it is commendable that there are a few qawwals who have kept the tradition of khanqahi qawwwali alive.”

On the face of it, qawwali is more popular than it has ever been in Pakistan. But are newer incarnations of qawwali straying away from the established traditions of this revered musical form and, even if they are, does it matter?

This is their story.

The Forbearers

Whenever my fingers tire of practising the harmonium or when I become jaded by the incessant repetition of Raag Bhopali, I ask my ustaad [teacher] some perfunctory question. Today I ask him what it truly means to be a qawwal. After all, he would know — Ayaz Nizami was four when his father, a qawwal belonging to the Hapur gharana [musical lineage], whisked him away to Pakpattan to perform and give his haazri [to present oneself] at the shrine of Baba Farid.

His arms were so little then that they couldn’t even fully wrap around the harmonium, thus prompting accomplices to clumsily funnel air into the instrument through the bellow, while four-year-old Ayaz Nizami focused on playing the keys and deepening his pre-pubescent voice.

But the qawwali which I was weaned on, that which abides by the tenets of the Chishti silsila [Sufi lineage] and upholds the traditional elements of a khanqahi mehfil [a product of the shrines at which qawwali was historically performed] has become increasingly rare, both in Pakistan and India.

The story goes that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was in attendance at Pakpattan at the time and, when Ayaz Nizami locked eyes with him, he knew without a shadow of a doubt what his calling was.

“A qawwal is one who presents the qaul [saying],” Ayaz Nizami tells me, his tone shifting from that of an instructor to one of a soothsayer. “When at the hallowed ground of Ghadeer Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] held up Hazrat Ali’s hand and told the onlookers ‘Man kunto maula, fahaza Ali’un maula’ [Whoever accepts me as his master also accepts Ali as his master], he provided the pillars upon which qawwali would be built by Amir Khusrau. Khanqahi, Chishtiya and riwayiti [traditional] qawwali all start with the qaul.”

As he puts it, the music which proved to be the genesis of qawwali started out as a means through which people could be told about the message of Islam. In a world where stringent adherence to the notion of tableegh [proselytisation] has now become the primary instrument through which Islam is propagated, the notion of music being used as a tool to draw people into the fold of religion seems implausible to many.

This, however, was a necessary innovation at the time. When Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti left behind Sistan and eventually arrived in Ajmer in the 12th century, he was taken by the manner in which Hindus in the Indian Subcontinent had made music an essential component of their religious practice.

“Chishti observed how Hindus incorporated music in their worship and rituals, particularly their usage of bhajans [devotional songs],” says Ayaz Nizami. “He, therefore, used the power of music to draw people towards Islam. Decades later, Amir Khusrau expanded upon these foundations and codified qawwali as a musical form.”

Eager to impress, I abruptly chime in, “Of course, that’s fairly common knowledge, everyone knows that Amir Khusrau had 12 disciples to whom he imparted the knowledge of qawwali.”

My ustaad takes a breath as he processes my insolence before saying, “If you believe that, then you are just as misinformed as everyone else.” I retreat as he continues. “Khusrau had four students, not 12. He taught them the fundamentals of music, poetry and adab-o-adaab [codes of decorum and conduct]. These four students were the progenitors of the Qawwal Bachcha gharana and they went on to teach 12 boys what they had learned from Khusrau.”

In many ways, Khusrau, his poetry and his music embodied the transference of ideas, languages and cultures, which had been taking place across the Islamic world at the time, as exemplified by the likes of Ferdowsi, Saadi and Rumi. Khusrau’s ability to infuse qawwali with Persian, Hindi and Urdu is a testament to this.

As Shakeel Hossain points out in his essay in Jashn-e-Khusrau: A Collection, “The basic musical structure of traditional qawwali can be attributed to Amir Khusrau for several reasons: his spiritual friendship/association [nisbat] with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, his participation in the sama-i-mehfil at the khanqah [shrine], his genius as a poet, his claim of his mastery of music and, of course, the consistency of oral history as narrated by the 700 years’ lineage of qawwals and other Hindustani musicians.”

Many believe that qawwali began at the khanqah of Nizamuddin Auliya (which is located near Humayun’s tomb; in fact, the location of Humayun’s burial site near the Yumna River was chosen due to its close proximity to the Nizamuddin Dargah) in Delhi. Amir Khurd Kirmani also notes in his accounts of Nizamuddin Auliya, Siyar al-Auliya, that qawwalis would regularly take place at his khanqah.

For qawwals like Ayaz Nizami, upholding these long-established traditions and customs defines their central ethos and their relationship with the Chishti Order — as Ayaz Nizami puts it, “Riyazat mein ibaadat hai [Worship lies in dedicated practice].” For them, listening to qawwali is of no great importance if one fails to grasp the deeper symbolism conveyed by the music.

Ultimately, the power of any qawwali hinges on the bond that is formed between those sitting behind the instruments and those seated on the opposite end.

However, those who are desperate to cling on to the remaining vestiges of khanqahi qawwali are facing an uphill battle.
For qawwals like Ayaz Nizami, upholding these long-established traditions and customs defines their central ethos and their relationship with the Chishti Order — as Ayaz Nizami puts it, “Riyazat mein ibaadat hai [Worship lies in dedicated practice].”

Qawwals like Ayaz Nizami are of the opinion that the essence of qawwali is being diluted | Photos by the writer

Qawwals like Ayaz Nizami are of the opinion that the essence of qawwali is being diluted | Photos by the writer

Khandaani Qawwali

When I arrive at Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami’s lofty penthouse near Gandhi Gardens, I am greeted by a litany of adaabs as salutatory hands are raised to foreheads. I last met Ustaad Saami a couple of years ago at his son’s wedding, at which Ali Sethi had performed, owing to the fact that Saami is his ustaad. Ustaad Saami himself was a pupil of Munshi Raziuddin and his musical rigour and discipline is evident despite his advancing years.

Upon seeing me he instantly sizes me up from head to toe before turning to his cavalcade of boisterous grandchildren. A single look from him and they all file out of the room without a word. His sons, commanding qawwals in their own right, lay out a bevy of home-cooked dishes before us. But Ustaad Saami is rather preoccupied with his paan [betel] and is lost in deep thought. I genially pass him his spittoon.

Traditionally, qawwal khandaans [families] or gharanas have maintained and safeguarded their expansive knowledge by transmitting centuries’ worth of musical heritage and experimentation sina-ba-sina [from father to son]. But that knowledge has to be earned and serves as a rite of passage. Even as Ustaad Saami sits flanked by his sons, Rauf Saami and Urooj Saami, he tells me that there are still secrets of their trade which he has not yet revealed to them.

For those who still cling on to these classicist notions of qawwali, the manner in which qawwali is presented holds just as much weightage as which qawwali is presented.

“There exist three conditions which must be met before one presents a qawwali,” Ustaad Saami explains. “The first is zamaan, under which an appropriate time must be chosen for the qawwali and the qawwal must be aware of when to present which kalaam [poetry].

“The second is makaan — the qawwali must take place in an area which is clean and aids our spiritual ascension. Finally, ikhwaan must be taken into account. Attendees should be in a mental and spiritual state befitting of the qawwali and they should be aware of the etiquettes of such a gathering. Can the listeners present help in our spiritual, intellectual and moral growth?”

I nod vociferously. Most qawwali mehfils in this day and age are characterised by the samaeen’s [audiences] inability to grasp the code of conduct (referred to as usul al-sama by Nizamuddin Auliya) which has defined traditional qawwali for centuries. Take for instance the process of presenting qawwals with money as a token of appreciation during their performance. The habit of chucking wads of cash callously at qawwals or showering them with money is fairly commonplace.

However, not only does this run contrary to the established etiquettes of such gatherings but it also comes across as both an ostentatious show of wealth and as being disrespectful towards the reciters. Customarily, if one wishes to present the qawwals with some money as an expression of gratitude then one must bend down courteously towards the qawwals, place the money discreetly in their palms and retreat without turning one’s back towards the musicians. Similarly, as opposed to clapping at the conclusion of a qawwali, the samaeen should ideally verbally express their daad [praise].

Now, some may consider an unbending observance of such customs to be bordering on snobbery, but we’ll come to that.

Subhan Nizami regularly performs in France

Subhan Nizami regularly performs in France

As the Saamis put it, the traditional khanqahi qawwali — which they have been exponents of ever since their ancestor Mian Samad bin Ibrahim first learned it from Khusrau — no longer draws an audience in Pakistan. Ustaad Saami recalls that, when his father migrated to the city after Partition, Karachi was filled with people who knew how to listen to qawwali. Today, only a handful remain.

“We are blessed in many ways, but we are struggling artistically because our fikr [inclination] is different,” Rauf Saami divulges. “Our work demands that we not only preserve that which has been handed down to us, but also expose and present it to the rest of the world. In Pakistan, it is being stifled and dying a slow death. Most people here can’t even tell the difference between khayaal [a form of classical music based on the technical presentation of varied compositions] and qawwali. This so-called ‘qawwali’ which is taking place these days is headed in a different, dangerous direction.”

Rauf Saami puts into words what I’ve been sensing for several years now. At its core, qawwali must aid in roohani islah [the correction of one’s spirit] and if it does not rectify the spirit, it does not fall within the parameters of khanqahi qawwali.

Since the Saamis hail from the Qawwal Bachcha gharana and wish to maintain the ethos which underpins the music which has been handed down to them as a sacred heirloom, they insist upon performing qawwali on their own terms. Rauf Saami stresses, “If there are two people out of 100 who are interested in listening to the qawwali that we present, a music that is steeped in our familial tradition, then we are happy with that two percent.”

They are not alone in this steadfast observance and preservation of traditional qawwali. Subhan Nizami, a globetrotting, French-speaking qawwal who has a penchant for starting each sentence with the term janab-e-aali [respected sir], maintains that, “The destruction of qawwali which has taken place today is largely due to the performers, and some listeners. I won’t name who they are.” I could wager a few guesses. According to Subhan Nizami, he receives more plaudits and adulation for his presentation of khanqahi qawwali abroad than he does in Pakistan.

The Gatekeepers

Many, however, view such a rigid adherence to the established customs of khanqahi qawwali to be nothing more than puritanical attempts at gatekeeping an art form which, like jazz or soul music, has always thrived on spontaneous, zealous innovation.

Furthermore, this begs the question that, even if performers and listeners derive pleasure and spiritual sustenance from a form of qawwali which deviates from the tenets which the likes of Ustad Saami and his ilk hold so dear, does that in any way cheapen or lessen their respective rapture?

After all, the instrument which is today intrinsically associated with qawwali, the harmonium, wasn’t even used by most self-respecting qawwals up until the mid-20th century. As Ustad Saami himself points out, the harmonium was banned from being played on the radio in both Pakistan and India, with Radio Pakistan only allowing the instrument on air after 1962.

Most qawwali mehfils prior to the surge in the usage of the harmonium only used to have a sitar, a sarangi, a tabla and a tanpura. In fact, the tanpura is infamous for weeding out faulty singers, whereas the harmonium’s bellow tends to provide shelter for even poorly trained voices.

Why then, given such recent inductions, are some qawwals so deeply wary of change?

When I ask Urooj Saami this he simply smiles knowingly, like a man who’s got an ace up his sleeve in anticipation of this very question. “Think about it this way,” he says as he forces a dollop of dahi phulki on to my already crowded plate despite my protestations, “does anyone dare tweak the established works in the canon of Western music? No. No one has the guts to alter a single note in the music of Mozart.”

“We are not opposed to innovation and change,” Rauf Saami chimes in, “as long as it enhances the music. Just don’t expect us to bring a keyboard to our qawwalis.”

At the end of the day, those qawwals who are cut from a similar cloth as the Saamis resolutely maintain that you can’t riff on that which you simply have no firm foundational understanding of. The way they see it, Charlie Parker wasn’t a revolutionary jazz artist because he disregarded the basics. He understood them so intrinsically that he could bend and twist them according to his will.

The Niazi Qawwals, after whose father Moin Niazi Qawwal Street is named

The Niazi Qawwals, after whose father Moin Niazi Qawwal Street is named

As I listen to Rauf Saami I become increasingly disheartened and cynical about what the future may hold for khanqahi qawwali in Pakistan, and I get the sense that this subject is weighing heavily on his shoulders too. As I switch gears to ask him if he is excited to pass down what he has learned from his father to his progeny, he nods, grins, slaps his knee and raises his hands to the heavens in appreciation, “That is the first good question you’ve asked all day!”

We’ve been talking for over two hours.

The Harbingers of Change Make no mistake about it, qawwal rivalries can be fierce.

In a lane like Moin Niazi Qawwal Street in Garden West, which is inundated with qawwals, you have to be able to latch on to whatever opportunities come your way. Some gharanas view each other with great suspicion, while some even harbour disdain for one another.

Given the unending inter-marriages and complicated network of relations that exist between these qawwal khandaans, it is perhaps inevitable that certain disagreements over how one should approach, adapt and alter qawwali can boil over into family squabbles. One of the qawwals happily embracing this change is Taj Niazi.

He meets me at the mouth of Moin Niazi Qawwal Street, which is named after his father, before sleepily (qawwals usually stay up all night long and prefer to doze off during the day) leading me up a precarious set of stairs completely devoid of any light.

Once seated on the floor in his airy lounge, Taj Niazi happily proclaims, “Qawwali is currently at its peak, not just in Pakistan but across the world. I would know, I’ve been practising qawwali for 40 years. However, the khanqahi qawwali that you are interested in has a very limited audience. People nowadays want innovation.”

This is true. The rise and popularity of qawwals like Hamza Akram Qawwal, who are pushing a more fusion-based variation of qawwali, as popularised by platforms like Coke Studio, is increasing the demand for a form of qawwali which is stripped of its classical moorings and appeals to a younger demographic.

“Anyone who says qawwali is on the decline or losing its essence is simply wrong,” Taj Niazi asserts. “We have two to three events each night. All of Karachi’s qawwals are busy. Of course, we choose which kalaams to recite, depending on the audience, but there is no harm in that.”

The way Taj Niazi sees it, all the qawwals who came before him experimented with the form, so why should he be any different?
“Moin Niazi, Ghulam Farid Sabri, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Aziz Mian helped make qawwali easy to understand and accessible to the masses,” he says. “We hope to do the same. If qawwals are incorporating a guitar or a keyboard into their qawwali, then what is the problem?”

An Uncertain Future

Surprisingly, Taj Niazi isn’t too bothered about family lineage and one’s shajra [family tree] either when it comes to becoming a qawwal. “Khandaani qawwals have their own history,” he tells me, “but qawwali need not be limited to them only. This is knowledge, and whoever wishes to access it and derive its benefit is welcome to do so. It is not necessary for you to be khandaani. Qawwali can belong to anyone who chooses to practise and pursue it wholeheartedly.”

This is definitely a new way of thinking. Qawwals have traditionally approached qawwali as a way of life rather than a straightforward craft which anyone can master. Generations upon generations of qawwal children have been steeped in the ancestral knowledge of qawwali and groomed from their earliest years to one day take over the mantle from their fathers.

They view this as something which is in their blood and an undeniable and inescapable component of their genetic make-up. As Ayaz Nizami argues, others can learn the art of qawwali, but the predilection a child born in a qawwal household possesses for qawwali will always put him a rung above the others. “After all, you don’t need to teach the child of a fish how to swim,” Ayaz Nizami quips.

Ultimately, the face which qawwali will come to adopt in the near future will be determined by the listeners just as much as by the performers. As the etiquettes around how one is supposed conduct oneself during a qawwali are increasingly sidelined in favour of more garish displays of supposed spiritual fervour, and the appreciation for khanqahi qawwali becomes limited to a certain audience, something will invariably be lost along the way.

However, for many, such concerns are steeped in elitist, orthodox attitudes towards qawwali and reek of a dictatorial approach towards the realm of music. According to Nabeel Jafri in his article ‘The Lost Soul: Qawwali’s Journey From Ecstasy To Entertainment’, “A qawwali sung in a mainstream public arena will not be artistically better or worse than a qawwali recited without fanfare at a Sufi shrine.

“The two will only differ in how they are performed and how they are received. The dominant type of qawwali… is, however, reflective of the society that we live in and the choices that we continuously make as members of such a society.”

This last statement is undeniably true. All art eventually comes to reflect the society from within which it is produced. Hence, given the current state of Pakistani society, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about the future of khanqahi qawwali.

The writer is a member of staff.
He can be contacted at hasnain.nawab1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 26th, 2023


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