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Mystical music

Print edition : Jan 02, 2009 T+T-

Two fine books on Sufism and its famed ritual, qawwali, which is getting debased in modern times.

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo

- T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Seene pe ghazal sara chalatey hain churi/ karte hain suron se shairon ki khana puri (These ghazal singers pierce my chest with a knife/ covering the mediocrity of their verses with musical notes).

What the great poet Josh Malihabadi said of versifiers who chant their verses at mushairas (gatherings of Urdu poets) in tarannum (chant) applies even more so to qawwali which has been much debased in recent decades.

Gone are the affluent ones who held private mehfils (gatherings) to which a select few were invited to listen to qawwals of distinction. They sat on carpets which facilitated interaction between the qawwals and the audience and among the knowledgeable ones in the audience as well.

In their place has come the performance in crowded halls into which anyone can saunter by buying a ticket. The singer has only his own standards to live up to. The audience, particularly in Mumbai, does not expect much. It knows no better. Bollywood, predictably, played a big role in the debasement. Even singers such as Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali compromised with the Mumbai audience. So do some qawwals. Qawwali suffers.

It was very refreshing, therefore, to attend a Sufi and mystic music festival in Mumbai recently at which qawwali was sung in good taste. And the occasion was not unduly marred by the exhibitionism of some members of Bombay society whose incapacity for appreciation was vividly reflected in the crudeness of their flamboyant gestures. There was more than Sufi music from India. Bektashi sufiana songs were sung by Latif Bolat of Turkey. But the prince of them all was Sheikh Yasin Al Tohamy and his group from Egypt. A monument of dignity, he sang with a devotion that moved even those who did not know Arabic. It was a classic performance by a master of the art, unaffected by a desire to play to the gallery. The festival, an all-India event, is aptly entitled Ruhaniyat (spirituality).

That is the true test of qawwali which Regula Qureshi aptly defines as the song genre performed at the mahfil-e-sama, the Sufi assembly held for achieving mystical experience. The singing group is accompanied by the tabla or dholak and by rhythmic clapping; the stress-intense musical metre is played on the tabla or dholak, reinforced by clapping. Sufis identify it with zarb, the heartbeat, which witnesses zikr, repeated innovations of God. To the vulgar, the music and rhythmic clapping suffice for exhibitionist arousal.

Urdu poetry is rich in stylised metaphor. The qawwals sing the mystical poetry of the Sufi masters, which abound in imagery of the cup (paimana), wine (sharab), tavern (maikhana), cupbearer (saqi), the candle (shama), the moth (parwana), the rose (gul) and the nightingale (bulbul), intoxication, sobriety, lover and beloved, yearning for mystical union, and the pain of separation. This is often misunderstood by those unfamiliar with Sufi lore. The vulgar in the audience relish it.

In an essay written two decades ago Regula Qureshi lamented that the ghazal song of the traditional mahfil is hardly alive today. The qawwali, however, thrives at dargahs (shrines). It was invigorated by great qawwals such as the Sabri brothers and by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The qawwali in its pristine form continues to be sung at the dargahs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer, Gharib Nawaz (vide the writers article Patron of the poor, Frontline, June 8, 2001) and of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.

Regula Qureshis book, which includes a CD containing an hour of excellent qawwali music, is a pioneering and definitive study on a neglected subject, a work of remarkable erudition.

She distinguishes between the popular version for entertainment and the authentic spiritual song that transports the mystic towards union with God. Qawwali is the central ritual of Sufism.

Its founding father was Hazrat Nizamuddins favourite disciple, Amir Khushrau, whose verses and tunes form the core of the ritual to this day. Sama listening to mystical music is not free from controversy. Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandiya or the Suhrawardiya prohibit use of musical instruments. There is not an aspect, not a point, however esoteric, that the book ignores.

Amatullah Armstrong Chishti was trained as an art teacher and ran an art restoration business in Sydney. She travelled ceaselessly and embraced Islam in 1984 in the Algerian Sahara desert. She subsequently entered the Chishti Sufi order and is working with Mehboob Sabri to spread the Sufi message in Pakistan and abroad. Her travels took her to the shrines of all the great Sufi saints in India and Pakistan.

The Sabri brothers have an ancient lineage. The eldest, Ghulam Farid, the king of qawwals, died in 1994 followed by Kamal, leaving Maqbook Ahmed and Mehmool Ghaznavi to continue the tradition. The book is part autobiography and part monograph on Sufism and its famed ritual, qawwali. It is a good supplement to Qureshis book.