Qawwali

April 17, 2010


Not many of us follow Qawwals and Qawwalies today, because you do not get to hear the classical Qawwali easily, and we are not initiated to Urdu accented Hindi. I consider it as my good fortune that I got initiated into this art form in my formative days.

Pakistani maestros Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parween, Sabri brothers have made this form some what acceptable. The rock group Joonoon then made history with their fusion “Sayyoni”. However, these are now called Soofiana renderings and marketed in that fashion as if Qawwali is not a separate art form. The Qawwali is distinguished by its beat pattern. It has Soofi roots, no question.

I am sure a lot of classical Qawwals must be living now a days in the abyss for want of publicity and on non-saleability account in a media dominated environment. The dargahs like AjmerShah and such others in Northern India have kept it alive in the classical form. But how long it will survive amongst westernized music scene is anybody’s guess.

In my childhood, there used to be Qawwali duels in a week long festival in our town. Ajit, the town’s  human loud-speaker used to distribute the hand bills and advertise through his hand held horn about the day’s Qawwals. Although there was unwritten prohibition for us school kids,  we friends used to attend these festivals. Qawwals were a respected community then – At least when they were on stage.  The festival used to start with local, district level Qawwals and then culminate into Aziz Naza, Shakila Bano Bhopali, Shakila Bano Punavi, Ismail Azad, Kalandar Azad et al, the then nationally acclaimed artists.

For me, the duel was very fascinating. The Qawwals used to have their Poets sitting next to them. They used to write answers to the riddles the opponents presented, on the spot. The dead line was the time required by the opponent to sing a stanza. Before it was sung by the opponent, the poets had to be ready with their version/ interpretation of the subject matter, the common lines both will render in the beginning and at the end of the stanza. Other attraction was the electric Banjo, the powered, electric guitar like string instrument, which could be heard live only in these festivals.

In comparison, the Gazal is quite popular now a days than Qawwalies. The Qawwalies, Soofi poetry and Ghazals talk of May (liquor), Maykhana (the pub), and the Saki (the waitress). Although many a listeners take these on their physical attributes and revel in those words, the May means the nectar of salvation, consuming and enjoying May is immersion of self in the thought of the Supreme Being, his love i.e. a Prayer. The Saki means Guru or the Teacher who serves/initiates  you to the Supreme, while serving the nectar and Maykhana indicates the place for likeminded people who have gathered for prayer, obeisance. If one reads/ listens to the Ghazal/ Qawwali with this understanding, it takes you to another plane.

The Qawwalies used to be about these Metaphysical aspects when I was in 7/8 th standard. In 3-4 years time, it totally changed to objects of physical desire and suggestive verses. Then came Marathee Qawwals who used to sing Qawwalies to the tunes of Hindi Movie Songs. I totally lost my interest in these Muqabalas/duels by the time I completed my high school. Although the transformed Qawwali attracted crowds in the beginning for novelty, they dwindled, Qawwali festivities stopped altogether in the course of time. My interest in classical Qawwali and Qawwals stayed. Those days, All India Radio and Radio Ceylon used to air Qawwalies past 1100 in the night hours for listeners like us. Sabri Brothers and even Salamat Nazakat were amongst the list of Qawwals that featured every night.

Ones I was visiting friends in Chandrapur. We were sullen because of the heat and the day’s work. After a tasteless supper, we decided on having Pan, the betel leaf, to forget the day. It was past midnight. We kept searching all throughout the city for a Pan Shop. Most were closed. Streets were deserted. And then suddenly, in distance, we heard this breath taking Qawwali rendering –

Raste Alag Alag Hain, Musafirkhana To Ek Hain,

Manzil Har Ek Shakhs Ko Pana To Ek Hain….

(The Roads are different, wayfarers’ Temporary Resting Place is One !!

Final Destination, Every Being has to strive for One !! )

We forgot the Pan and went in search of the Qawwali. Fortunately, it was being played in a Pan shop, with the owner immersed in listening to an antique record player. We joined him. There were no customers except us. So we waited until the 4.5 minute rendition concluded.  The owner came out of his meditation, laughed and asked, “Now tell me your prescription”. We said – whatever you offer.

Looking at our wonderstruck and inquisitive faces, he meticulously opened the display cabinets. Behind the display was a neatly stacked collection of hundred odd EP records – all of Qawwalies. The Pan and Qawwali then became a medium of sorts with our Teacher telling us for an hour all about the nuances, forgotten artists and the freaky current trends. Finally a policeman came and halted his sermon asking him to close business for the day.

Whenever I hear the beat of Qawwali, I wish that, that Musafirkhana and that Teacher is still there, like we saw him. Until he is there, the wanderers will have a night’s resting place and the Qawwali will live for ever.

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5 Responses to “Qawwali”

  1. Rajeev Says:

    And it is available on youtube – singers Shankar Shambhu. Surprised?

  2. Rajeev Says:

    Happy Listening!!


  3. You’ve taken me to a world which I’ve only seen in a handful of old movies.. have heard a LOT about.. and have always longed to be in!

    I didn’t know so many details about the Qawwali duels.. so that was new for me. Its no wonder though that the art has fallen into apathy nowadays with instant entertainment mediums like the TV and Reality Shows all over the place. A couple of reasons which I think went in favor of Gazals in terms of longevity of interest are –

    1) their inherent attribute of being easily modified into a film-situation-song scenario, maybe because of the arrangement of words, and

    2) availability of singers like Jagjit Singh – Chitra Singh and Pankaj Udhas who could lend their voice to it and in turn popularize Gazals in movies and even independent music-albums of late. I that same can be said about Soofi music which we hear nowadays. The original Qawwali, unfortunately, lost out for dearth of ‘great’ artists whom youngsters want to follow / emulate.

    Nonetheless, I can imagine how memorable your experience of the Paan Shop must have been. Pure bliss I suppose. Ironically they are, in their own peculiar way, one of the biggest connoisseurs of art and music!

    P.S. – Thanks for sharing the youtube link too!

    • rajeevelkunchwar Says:

      Thanks.
      There was one more fanatic Panwala that I have seen in Ahmednagar, who collected Lata’s records. Hindi music researchers used to visit him from far away places in Maharashtra as also other states – such was his collection.
      “Work while you listen to your favourite music” is today’s stress buster, “Entertain others while you work” was their motto. While entertaining, they became teachers.


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