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News |  18 Aug 2018 12:00 |  By Tanmaya Vyas

700 year old tradition of Qawwali

MUMBAI: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left for heavenly abode  21 years ago, but the world members him for his electrifying Qawwali performances. On his 21st death anniversary, getting a glimpse of the art form that the legend performed through his life would be befitting. As audience we have seen Qawalli being an integral part of Hindi films, be it the iconic Qawalli Teri Mehfil Main in Mughal-e-Azam or Hum Kisse Kum Nahi from Hum Kisse Se Kam Nahi. However, the history of this form is traced more than seven centuries ago. Qawwali originated in Dargahs of South Asia, predominantly in the Punjab, Sindh regions of undivided India. A similar form is also found in Turkey and is called Sama or Mehfil-e-Sama. Delhi Dargah’s Amir Khusro is credited as the ‘Father of Qawwali’ as he brought this form of music to life in 13th century.

A music form of devotional genre, under what is broadly called Sufi music, Qawwalis are known for their energetic performances. The lyrics of Qawwali are philosophy or devotional inclined and usually in Persian, Urdu and Hindi. The verses could be penned by Sufi saints or even new age artistes.

What was initially only performed at dargahs as a tribute to the almighty, gained mainstream popularity in the early 20th century. Many of Pakistani singers can be credited for the propagation of this form and the most popular stays Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who went on to present Qawwali performances across the world. In India some of the most famous Qawwals are Nizami Bandhu and Munnawar Masoom.

Within the Qawwali sect, there are multiple forms  like Hamd, Naa’t, Marsiya, Kafi and many more. Most of them are in praise of almighty, barring Marsiya, which is a tribute to a dead person. Ghazal too, is a form of qawwali. However, the base of Ghazals are categorised into parts-either describing the joy of alcohol or longing of a lover. In India and Pakistan, Ghazal has found its own audience and has become a distinct form of art, known for its softer and subtler presentation.

Qawwali is presented in a peculiar format and usually in a group of no less than 10 people. A presentation that can span over 10-15 minutes is a high-octane performance that starts with an instrumental prelude followed by classical music like Alaap. However, the difference in classical music and Qawwali lies in the liberty that Qawwals can take while singing. Direct lineage of Nizamuddin Ahuliya (one of the most revered Sufi saints) and famous Qawwal Chand Nizami of Nizami Bandhu spoke to Radioandmusic earlier and explained the difference. “Like Thumri, Sufi can be classical based too. However, we have the liberty to change a raag while singing. For example, if I am presenting a piece in Raag Darbari, I can mid-way move to another raag. In Classical music we don’t have that option, as you have to stick to the notation of the given raag. The base is the same, but andaz (approach) is a little different.”

The alaap is then followed by improvisations of verses by the singer with just the harmonium. And soon after this comes the percussion and the signature-styled clapping. This usually ends in a crescendo and gains applause. The longest Qawwali sung is for over hundred minutes by Aziz Mian Qawwal.

Qawwali is principally a male oriented singing format; barring Abida Parveen no female ever took up qawwali singing. Even what Abida Parveen sang was the closest a female could get to that style of singing. Her presentations did not have the clapping or a troupe-major parts of Qawwali set-up. Traditionally, women have been barred from performing Qawwalis.

Hindi Movies have to be given due credit for familiarising the masses with this art form. However, due to generous usage of cinematic liberty, there have been certain tweaking in the portrayals of Qawwalis and is usually shown as a face-off between two groups.  Chand Nizami shared, “What we see in movies are Qawallis-a  type of Sufi Sangeet. But that’s not the only form of Sufi music. We have seen many of such qawallis which are shown in competition form, but the song in Rockstar composed by A R Rahman is an authentic one.” says Nizami Bandhu.” They later sang for Bajrangi Bhaijan Aaj Rang Hai an original by Amir Khusro.

With partition of India and Pakistan, this art form was divided into parts too, like many other things. However, for music connoisseurs, Qawwali is still known for the mystical feeling it evokes.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live in a Qawwali Party or Humnawa

Hindi film Qawwali from 'Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahi: