Just because one of my New Year’s resolutions is to try new and unfamiliar things, I agreed to accompany my friend to a special lecture “The history, art and practice of qawwali” at Aga Khan University. Since I grew up listening to One Direction, Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, my first reaction to the invite was: umm, no. I am not a qawwali person. Forget it! I thought qawwali was too loud, and the qawwals just kept on dragging the poetry that made little sense.
My plan was to grab a seat in the back and slip away as soon as I could. But who knew things would be different! As soon as the lecture started I was immediately transported to another world. While Ally Adnan a writer, cultural commentator and expert on qawwali weaved stories of love and compassion that left everybody in awe, the Ghayoor-Moiz-Mustafa Qawwal, the world’s leading young qawwal troupe gave audience the experience of travelling back in time to relive the beautiful qawwali sung by their forefathers.
It’s okay if qawwali is not your cup of tea, but it’s amazing to learn about how music enthusiasts in the 13th Century introduced this art form to the world. I realized how little we know about the art and culture of the region where we live and how as youth we belittle our art traditions and find joy elsewhere.
Celebration of love
According to Ally Adnan, everybody has this impression that qawwali is associated with Islam, but that’s not true. The oldest form of qawwali, the Vedic chants known as Srauta, is 32 centuries old. As the oldest vocal tradition, Vedic chants were mantras that were recited in praise of God, priests, or other deities people worshipped at that time. The chants were repeated so many times that people would achieve a trance like state. The problem was the mantras were lengthy and difficult to memorize. So special patterns (danda, dhvaja, ghana, jata, krama, mala, pada, ratha, rekha, samhita, sikha) were designed to make them easy to learn and perform. Before this, there are no records of music.
The goal of qawwali is very simple: to celebrate your love for someone with all your heart and soul. Qawwali is taking the name of one you love and that could be your partners, parents, children, mentors, spiritual healers, and in most of the cases it’s for the Creator.
The garden in full bloom
Qawwali became increasingly popular as Sufi saints, clerics, tradesmen, teachers and musicians started moving to South Asia. At that time Hinduism was the primary religion in the region. People strictly followed the Varna system which divided people into five castes.
While the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras enjoyed respect in the society, Dalits were completely marginalized. They weren’t even allowed to read and study Hindu scriptures, books or engage in artistic activities.
In this context, Sufi saints felt the best way to attract people to Islam was to give them what Dalits had been deprived of for so long. Those things were education, respect, equal treatment and right to enjoy art and poetry. So qawwali was one thing Sufi saints could offer to the people; it was not just a source of entertainment, but also a way of transferring knowledge and wisdom to common people. It was since then people started associating qawwali with Islam.
By 12th Century, qawwali was being sung all over the region. But there were no rules; everybody practised this form of music in their own way.
The Nightingale of words
Here begins the story of Amir Khusrao (1253-1325 AD), one of the greatest musician, poet and scholar of his time. Amir Khusrao is the one who took qawwali seriously and formalized it for everybody. His personal belief was if any art form has to survive in the society, it has to be standardized. So, he set rules and regulations, and determined the prerequisites of classical qawwali. He also ensured the people who practiced qawwali in the region followed the standards.
The qawwali we listen to today is exactly what Amir Khusrao invented and established for the musicians of that time.
Naik Gopal’s challenge
One day, Alauddin Khilji (1250-1316 ), the second ruler of Khilji dynasty was visited by Naik Gopal who was a very famous Hindu musician in South Asia. Naik Gopal came to the court of Alauddin Khilji with a challenge. He said, “I have written 28,000 lines of verse in six patterns: chand, dooa, geet, govind, matha, prabhand. Give me three weeks to recite them along with my 1000 students. If at the end of the three weeks someone else from your court or kingdom could sing better than me, I will become his student and if nobody could do that, then you would accept me as the greatest living musician of all time.”
The song Gopal and his large troupe wanted to sing was actually a series of 28,000 questions in Sanskrit and he wanted answers from his competitor.
Alauddin Khilji was really impressed by Gopal’s music! The music was indeed very powerful and magical, but he didn’t want to accept a South Asian Hindu musician performing better than other musicians from his kingdom.
He asked Nizamuddin Auliya for help. He said, “A Hindu musician has come to challenge me and he is such a brilliant performer that I am afraid I will have to accept him as the greatest musician here. I have heard that you have a student named Amir Khusrao who knows a lot about music and poetry. Why not ask him to prepare for Gopal’s challenge? He might be able to beat him.”
Amir Khusrao was a little apprehensive when he learned about this challenge. First, he doubted himself because he knew Naik Gopal’s music was incredible and if he failed to perform better than Gopal, his reputation as a great musician would be tarnished. Second, he was concerned about getting affected by Gopal’s magical spells if he listened to his performance.
So Amir Khusrao requested Alauddin Khilji to allow him to listen to Gopal’s performance from behind the curtains so that he could decide whether to take up the challenge or not. This way he would neither feel embarrassed nor get affected by Gopal’s magical powers.
After listening to the performance, Amir Khusrao felt he could perform better and answer Gopal’s 28,000 questions. He asked for three weeks to prepare.
Amir Khusrao came back with only 28 lines of verses in six different patterns: gul, khayal, naqsh, qalbana, qaul, tarana. Amir Khusrao brought with him 12 kids who performed the answers. Those kids were called qawal bachas — the first qawwal troupe in the world. Naik Gopal was blown away by the performance of qawal bachas; he went to Amir Khusrao and said he would like to become his student. But Amir khusro announced that Gopal was still a great musician. Everything got settled peacefully and qawwali was officially introduced to the world of music. The qawal bachas was led by Miyan Saamat bin Ibrahim, who was under Amir Khusrao’s training since childhood. Today, Ghayoor-Moiz-Mustafa Qawwal, the 27th generation of Miyan Samaat bin Ibrahim is able to keep the tradition alive.
I left the lecture with an appreciation for qawwali as an ancient art form even though I might not still be a qawwali person.
It’s absolutely amazing to see how generations of devoted qawwals have preserved Amir Khusrao’s Qawwali in exact shape and form with utmost reverence.
The young jogi boy was sitting in the dust,
face pretty as Laila’s, mind mad as Majnun’s.
His beauty was really enhanced by the dust:
a mirror is brighter when polished with grit.
- In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau