Qawwali is Sufi
devotional and mystic poetry that promotes a tolerant form of Islam.
Yet as rock and Bollywood music have taken hold, many have forgotten about the ancient tradition.
From Old Delhi, the birthplace of the unique poetry, Asia Calling correspondent Naeem Sahoutara has the story of on one group that is working to preserve the classical form.
It’s a humid Thursday evening in historic Old Delhi.
Dozens of devotees are here at the shrine of 12th century Muslim saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
The narrow streets are buzzing with vendors selling fresh rose petals and incense.
It’s here at the shrine that a group of traditional mystic singers are preparing for tonight’s performance.
They start with the Persian Islamic poem, Kun Faya Kun, written by the subcontinent’s famous poet, Amir Khushrau.
Qawwali is a Sufi form of devotional music that depicts a mystical and tolerant form of the Islam.
The Sufis preached about humanity and their emphasis on treating everyone equally is the reason why Muslims and non-Muslims visit their shrines.
And their poetry is something like meditation, explains the lead singer, Tahir Ali.
“Qawwali has a connection with the soul. It touches the heart of the listeners. Once it touches their hearts the whole body feels it too. That’s why many people ask us to sing Qawwali in Persian language. While many people don’t understand Persian, they still enjoy the music.”
Followers of different religions flock to this place every week, seeking fulfilment of their wishes. Some from as far as Europe and America.
For Qawwali singers, performing at this shrine is like a dream come true.
Singer Tahir Ali and his two brothers are visiting from Pakistan.
“Although Qawwali had long been sung even from the times of the Prophet Muhammad. At that time the style was different. It was sung with Duff, a Persian frame drum, only,” explains Ali.
“After that the saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusrau took Qawwali to its peak. So, this place is the birthplace of Qawwali.”
Khusrau is known as the “Parrot of the subcontinent” because of his great and melodious poetry.
And his addition of music to the mystic poetry has immortalized the form, says the shrine’s caretaker Syed Nizam Ali Nizami.
“Hazrat Amir Khusrau invented different musical instruments like the sitar (guitar-like three strings instrument) and tabla drum. His master Nizamuddin Auliya once asked Khusrau to develop a common language that people from different religions could speak and understand. So, he invented the Urdu language by including words of various languages including Arabic and Persian. Today, this language is largely spoken,” Ali Nizami says.
Over the centuries the mystic music has also made its way into the film industry of India, Pakistan and other regional countries.
But shrine caretaker Nizam Ali Nizami, who is a descendent of the saint, says the classical Qawwali is not often heard today.
“To be fair, whatever you are listening to these days is not original qawwali. Before the singers used to sing the poetry of mystic poets. Today, some of it could turn listeners into infidels,” Ali Nizami says.
As modern generations lose touch with the origins of the form, and rock, pop, and Bollywood music take over, one group in India is pushing to revive classical Qawwali.
“It was getting diminished, it did not vanish altogether because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to retrieve it. So, it was getting diminished and what we’re trying to do, is to promote it,” explains Ditti Ray, the program officer for the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, or the AKTC.
As part of a Qawwali revival project, Ditti and her team have been documenting different forms of Qawwali.
“There are quite a few groups and there are only two groups still staying at the Nizamuddin Basti and three or four groups have shifted to the old Delhi area, says Ditti Ray.
“So, they are still considered to be the custodians of the traditional music of the Dargah shrine and they sing a lot of Hazrat Amir Khusrau poetry.”
And the team is also exploring outside Delhi.
“So, we have documented in three different genres of music like Qawwali, classical and folk. In all these three genres, whosoever was singing, whatever style of Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s rapporteur, we tried to document them from far off places like Jaipur, Agra, Punjab, Kashmir and we did a lot of shows with the international performers, especially from Pakistan,” Ditti Ray says.
As part of the initiative, a dedicated website has also been launched, where the entire works of poet Amir Khusrau are available in the voice of famous singers.
Leading Bollywood star, singer Chand Nizam, is doing his part too, by helping to train young singers in classical Qawwali.
From a small family house adjacent to the shrine, his Sikandriya family, he says, has been performing for the last 700 years.
From the birthplace of Qawwali, Chand now has the opportunity to share his knowledge with young people who want to continue the tradition.