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The ghazal and the qawwali

Print edition : Sep 06, 1997 T+T-

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan attempted to globalise the Sufi mystic experience by collaborating with musicians from other countries.

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN'S death at the age of 49 is a matter of sadness, a great tragedy. He was a true artist, inheritor and practitioner of a vanishing musical heritage: the qawwali. This musical form of the Sufi mystic tradition has been sung for many centuries and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan came from a family or dynasty of qawwals.

In the Indian (this includes the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi) schools of Sufi mysticism which permit countenance and encourage the sama or seance, the qawwali is used for the design, creation and cultivation of techniques that induce ecstasy (haal or wajd) in the listener. Qawwali is thus an essential ingredient of worship as practised by Sufis, their disciples and the devotees who flock to the shrines of Sufi saints.

Sufis, like the aiyanars and other bhaktas, love God with an all-consuming passion which leaves no room in the heart for either the world or worldly pursuits. Qawwals using words from poetry embellished by notes and percussion from the classical and semi-classical tradition of Indian music serve the needs of Sufi dargahs or tombs by creating the atmosphere for a seance. They verbalise and point with music the yearning and suffering of the lover separated from the beloved.

Their call to love is given through verses selected for poignance from lyrics. The ghazal in Urdu or Persian and the geet in Hindi verses become canvasses to absorb and radiate colour from the note patterns of the modes chosen to render the songs.

These modes (ragas and raginis) transform the verses into mantras or chants, incantations or formulae. Magic arises from the fusion to make the multi-layered meaning of the words manifest itself. The drumming (tabla) targets the heart by first merging with and then taking over and regulating the heartbeat. Variations in speed, decibels and the quantum of sound produced - from the almost-inaudible to the eardrum-splitting crescendo - obliterate the outside world with its insistence on objective reality and focusses the sensitivity of the listener inwards and just into the region of the heart. The one feeling that survives is the capacity to suffer.

Newcomers and casual visitors to qawwalis are sensitised as if by osmosis from the overflow of immense feeling exuded by others in the audience. The novices react to the level and extent of emotion their hearts are capable of experiencing. Tears well up to pulsate on the tip of the eyelash or flow incessantly from the eyes; lumps rise to choke the throat and breathing is in intervals and takes the form of short, sharp gasps.

It is, increasingly, a rare qawwal who can deliver this formula every time he performs and Nusrat Fateh Ali never failed. Farewell, Nusrat Fateh Ali, farewell!

AS the centre of the qawwali art form is the lyric or the ghazal, perhaps it would be illustrating to go into its origin and development. Since the arrival of the Turkic and Afghan tribesmen in India in about A.D. 1000, a most important place, a power base or shakti sthala has been occupied in Indian poetry and music by the lyric form called ghazal. This word, of Arabic origin, is now common heritage to all Indian languages and many Indian poets use it as the preferred form.

In Arabic, ghazal means a lover talking to his beloved amorously. The ghazal was developed further and to its maximum potential in Iran and in India where Persian was the court language of the Turcomans, Afghans and the Mughals who ruled in the North and the Bahamanis and their sucessors in the South. Of the Persian poets, Hafiz of Shiraz enjoys the highest reputation. The Indian poets held in esteem for Persian verse are Amir Khusrau (13th century) and Mirza Bedil (18th century). Khusrau also wrote in Hindi and was devoted to the great Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrau's Persian and Hindi verse is sung at Sufi shrines even today, some seven centuries later. On the anniversary of the saint's death, the Urs festivities start with qawwals singing a Khusrau verse.

The ghazal and the geet both found the qawwali their natural habitat as they represent a lover talking to the beloved amorously. The status of love was very high in the Athens of Socrates and Plato and the Dillee of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusrau. Their belief was that God was the only true male and that all of creation was female. Just as the female yearns for the male so also does the finite soul yearn for the Infinite. Life on Earth is separation and exile. Death is reunion with the Beloved. The anniversary of the death of a saint is celebrated as would be a wedding. It is called 'Urs' which means "Nuptial Union". The Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin commences with the qawwals singing Khusrau's verse written at the death of the saint. It reads:

"Goaree soawaiy seij purra, mukha purra daareiy kaiys; Chull Khusrau ghurr appuney, reiyn bhuyee chahoun deys."

("The fair one is asleep on the bed and her hair covers her face; O Khusrau! Wend your way home, for the world has become dark.")

When this verse is sung again and again and portions of it are "lifted" into the higher octaves, the hearts of the listeners are plunged into grief. Khusrau's sorrow at the death of his beloved Master envelops all present. Tears well up in many eyes. Some get up and gyrate in the tight circle of their seat walled in by the huge crowd. A great catharsis occurs and all pilgrims return lighter and fulfilled.

The Sufi shrines were active all over India, from Srinagar to Chikmagalur. The kind of world which developed around the ghazal and the qawwali has now all but disappeared. When an echo occurs it can still come alive. This can perhaps be invoked by a story.

In the early 1980s, the Pakistani Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz made his first visit to Hyderabad (India). Deeply affected by a verse of Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, a 16th-century prince of Golconda in the Deccan, he returned repeating it and echoing it in a brand new ghazal of his own. (Interestingly, Ahmad Faraz is a Pathan and Muhammad Qui Qutb was a Qara Quinloo Turk from Central Asia whose grandfather Sultan Quli had emigrated to India from Hamadan in Persia in the 15th century.)

The Deccan (Dukhkhin) is synonymous with Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, which encompasses in history the cities of Golconda, Bhagnagar and Secunderabad. Urdu poetry originated in some area vaguely called Deccan (or Dukhkhin).

A pioneer in writing Urdu ghazals from somewhere near Ahmedabad in Gujarat is known as Wali Dukhkhinee. His name suggests that anyone from outside the twin capital cities, Agra and Dillee, or the North of India was called Dukhkhinee or some kind of an outsider.

This is the Urdu verse with which Ahmad Faraz regaled his audiences in India and Pakistan on his return from Hyderabad:

"Quli Qutb hoa, ya kay Ahmad Faraz, Piyaa Baaj such hay jiyaa jaayay naa."

(Be it Quli Qutb Shah or Ahmad Faraz, it remains an eternal verity and an abiding truth that a lover cannot pass his days and live in any real sense if he is separated from his beloved.)

This tribute from a 20th-century Pakistani poet to the 16th-century Qutb Shahi Sultan of Golconda stems from and echoes a verse of the Sultan:

"Piya baaj piyalaa piyaa jaayey naa; Piyaa baaj ik pal jiyaa jaayey naa."

(It is impossible to quaff a measure of wine in the absence of the beloved. O! How can I survive for one single moment without the beloved!)

A great poet creates a new space which he fills with his own fresh, newly minted verse and in the process creates a brand new tongue. Although Urdu/Reykhtaa/Dukhkhinee had been in existence for a few centuries before the birth, life and times of Sultan Quli Qutb Shah, his cascade of 50,000 verses gave the critical mass necessary for a new dynamism and viability for the new language. His leadership by precept and example made the poetry of the Dukhkhinee language not only acceptable but fashionable among the elite and his generous patronage helped draw fresh talent into its fold.

Perhaps the 21st century will witness the birth of a poet who will enable Urdu to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the great holocaust caused by the communal divide. It is possible that this genius and innovator will freely use words from English and other European languages - besides, of course, the Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam - which help give precision in meaning to new images and concepts.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was attempting a globalisation of the mystic experience by collaborating with musicians from other countries and performances in countries with no Urdu. Such experiments may well breathe new life into the ghazal and the qawwali.