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Flavours of Sufi Qawwali

Stuck in a groove

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OLD GOLD: Traditionalists such as the Wadali Brothers (above) make it a point to retain the classical essence of sufi qawwali, refusing to pander to populist trends.

The sufi qawwali was once sung in a variety of styles, but today it follows a formulaic template. And worse, the rules of etiquette are not followed at concerts.

For sufis, the qawwali is 'food for the soul', a means of attaining union with God, the ecstatic culmination of a mystical experience. The music and kalam are a matter of the heart and the soul, rather than just entertainment.

One of the oldest forms of devotional music, the origins of qawwali probably pre-date the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Though the earliest Islamic scholars discussed the spiritual effects of music, it was the under the Chisti school of sufism - established by Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisti - that qawwali proliferated in Indian and Pakistan. Successive saints after him, most notably Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, used music in devotional gatherings, though qawwali would've been incomplete without Amir Khusrau's contribution. A legendary musician, statesman and philosopher, he beautifully blended various musical elements from Turkey, greater Persia and India. That curious mixture survives till date when we hear Persian maqams with Indian ragas.

But if Moinuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau were to hear what laptopwielding music directors are doing to the qawwali, they might want to weep. Yousuf Saeed, an independent filmmaker and researcher who has spent the last few years documenting the qawwali and sufi culture, rues the loss of indigenous styles.

"What has happened now is that after listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen - although they are great artists and greatly helped to popularise qawwali - people think qawwali can be sung or performed only like that, " he says. "They don't know what happened before Nusrat. A lot of styles have been lost. There was this qawwal from Aligarh, Habib Painter, who had a special style, which was very verbal. He used to write his own poetry but there's no one who follows that anymore. "

The incredibly successful Coke Studio in Pakistan kickstarted the craze for anything sufi and pushed into the limelight many names that were, till only a few years ago, known to connoisseurs. Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad Qawwal, established names on the circuit, though thankful for the exposure that Coke Studio got them, feel that there's little space for the traditional format.
"I feel traditional music is not appreciated as fusion music is. When Coke Studio approached us they said that we'll do a fusion song because people appreciate the form, " said the qawwals from Pakistan who performed on season four of the popular music show.

New-age sufism ignores the divine connect that was once mandatory in the philosophy. When the qawwali appeared on the silverscreen, it had to be styled differently - the actors had to dress garishly, wear gaudy make-up and usually sing compositions that centred around the war of the sexes.

The Sabri Brothers - Aftab Sabri and Hashim Sabri - come from a long lineage of qawwals, their father being Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan, the famous classical vocalist. "Khaandani sangeet wale, " as Hashim refers to himself, have had to adapt to the changing times. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan transfixed millions and transported them into a state of trance without ever having to 'sell-out' but for qawwals like the Sabri Brothers, who've also performed on Coke Studio@MTV India, that is not an option.

"We had to bring in changes, if we don't move with the times, people will get up and leave, " says Hashim Sabri, the younger sibling.

The Sabris regularly get asked to do shows where they perform the qawwali as a competition, in filmi style, with a woman singer, which as purists know, was never allowed. Requests for the traditional form followed by qawwals like the Wadali Brothers are fewer.

For fourth-generation qawwal Ateeq Hussain Khan Bandanawazi, however, old is gold. That his caller tune is set to Maula maula maula mere maula from Delhi 6 is the first sign that the Bandanawazi Qawwal Party is a stickler for the traditional format. "I've met many people who had no idea what traditional qawwali was about. Unke liye qawwali toh chamkili topi pehenke gaani waali cheez hai (they think that qawwali is what you sing wearing a sequined topi), " gripes the 35-year-old Ateeq. "Qawwali is supposed to take you closer to god. Hum nahin sunte, humari rooh sunti hain (it should reach out to the soul). "

Sufi music festivals have sprouted everywhere and today it's rather fashionable to attend a qawwali. While Saeed, who works for Ektara India, an organisation that uses the media to promote and preserve Indian culture, is all for popularising qawwali and sufi music, he grumbles about the lack of etiquette at such mehfils. "Today, people think that you can dance to sufi music. There's a strict rule that if in qawwali or kalaa the name of the prophet is mentioned, you can't dance. But I've seen that many qawwals don't follow this rule. "

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