‘As an art form, qawwali is a spiritual and cultural force’

November 19, 2023

‘As an art form, qawwali is a spiritual and  cultural force’

London-based qawwali aficionado, banker-turned-producer Kamran Anwar, took it upon himself to preserve what he feared would have become a lost story. A year-long sabbatical to channel his passion for classical qawwali resulted in a 53-minute documentary titled Songs of the Sufi, directed by Shahrukh Waheed. The film showcases the 800-year old tradition of mystical music in the subcontinent and how it connects with a personal story of displacement at the time of Partition. The film puts a spotlight on compositions by Amir Khusrau, preserved through generations in the repertoire of the descendants of his pupils, especially the qawwals who migrated from Delhi to Pakistan.

The documentary was shown in the UK at the BAFTA venue and at King’s College, London. In Pakistan, it premiered in Karachi at the Gandhara Independent Film Festival at the National Academy of Performing Arts. It was shown recently at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and has been selected to screen at the Washington DC South Asian Film Festival and Cambridge University in December; and at the Jaipur International Film Festival next year.

The News on Sunday spoke recently to Kamran Anwar. Excerpts follow:


he News on Sunday: What made you produce the Songs of the Sufi?

Kamran Anwar: It was a labour of love, a cultural preservation project of my favourite song genre. It was meant to be a thorough documentation of qawwali as an art form and a spiritual and cultural force. I used a personal lens to explore it with the support and participation of experts and academics. I was inspired by my own passion for art, music and my cultural background shaped by migrant parents. For my mother, qawwali and sufism were her utopia; her sanctuary in a displaced life. For my father, it was literature and poetry; and stories about ‘home.’ I grew up with these stories, brimming with everyday events, traditions, folklore and facts. I wanted to preserve those, along with the inherited culture and tradition that influenced my thinking and which my parents had experienced directly.

TNS: How did your interest in qawwali develop/ grow over the years?

KA: Early exposure to music - at just five or six years old – and a home steeped in the culture of listening besides a love for poetry and sufism could not fail to make one a qawwali buff. Finally, there was the generational relationship with Qawwal Bachay or the Delhi gharana performers – many of whom have performed since they were in Hyderabad, Deccan. This has been a real blessing. It made access easier and impromptu interactions comfortable.

I have cherished memories of monsoon afternoons in Karachi with Toufiq Mian (Javed Toufiq Niazi) and his ensemble performing Abdur Rehman Jami and Amir Khusrau. I got warm messages every birthday when I was in Karachi. The phone would buzz at midnight with the audible beat of the background tabla and harmonium, one or the other wonderful qawwal would wish me from some dargah or mehfil.

TNS: A documentary allows you to present a slice of life hitherto unknown to the viewer. In what aspect is your film unique?

KA: We wanted to pay a tribute to qawwali as an art form and honour its practitioners while showcasing the symbiotic relationship between the listener and the performer. We did it organically, without a script or speaking points. We were also conscious that the role of women in this system of transmission does not get the focus it deserves. So, they lead in the film and speak about their experiential knowledge and academic experience.

TNS: How did Dr Katherine Butler Schofield help?

KA: What we know about qawwali comes from both the oral tradition and the written word. Most of us know the oral tradition. Academic scholars like Schofield have devote their lives to studying, analyzing and interpreting treatises, musical books and theories of melody. Her insights reinforced what we had learnt from the oral tradition and its practitioners. Her work at King’s College, London, puts the genre into context historically and culturally.

TNS: Who are the qawwals that take the front seat in your film? How easy/ difficult was it to coordinate with the troupes featured in your film?

KA: The qawwals come from the Delhi gharana, possibly the progenitor of all gharana. It has its roots in the Delhi Sultanate period – a time of syncretic cultural evolution. Their families have been singing qawwali for 25 generations from the time this art form took its formal structure in the 13th Century.

The qawwals in the front seat are the sons of Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal, a doyen of classical qawwali and a cousin of the other two masters, Manzoor Ahmed Khan Niazi and Munshi Raziuddin. Manzoor Mian’s children and grandchildren, including Abdullah Niazi and Habib Manzoor, are also in the film. Finally, we also have two other great singers, Subhan Nizami and Ustad Ghulam Khusrau. Ustad Ghulam Khusrau and Tauqeer Ahmed Niazi are from another gharana called Nuharbani. They claim to be the original dhrupad singers of the subcontinent. Coordination was not an issue as we shot on different days and the qawwals of this gharana all live in the same area within minutes of one another – with their families of singers, support performers and musicians. It’s fascinating.

TNS: How far do you think this film goes towards preserving the past and enriching our understanding of qawwali?

KA: We have given an overview of some of the foundational aspects of the genre. Where and how it started; the enabling culture that allowed it to blossom; the locational and spiritual aspects and the various elements that bring qawwali together like the qaul and tarana (the use of secret syllables).

TNS: What do you think has been lost along the way in terms of the proper appreciation of the classical subcontinental music and qawwali in Pakistan?

KA: Tastes have changed. That’s just the nature of the human condition. With increased exposure to the range of classical melodies, it is our hope that the appreciation of this art form is more informed and the appreciation deeper and richer. Classics have an important role in a society. They are the bedrock of evolution. Revisiting our roots and trying to preserve those can only strengthen the foundation upon which innovation and experimentation can take place.

The writer is a freelance journalist and editor who has worked in senior editorial positions at Hello! Pakistan and Newsline magazines. She writes about people, arts and culture.

‘As an art form, qawwali is a spiritual and cultural force’