Qawwali in Delhi by Shehnaz Parveen (2012)

Abstract: Qawwali is the traditional form of ‘Islamic’ song. Its root in Delhi lies in medieval times; it reached its peak with the compositions of Amir Khusrau. In recent times, Qawwali has come to fuse itself with new trends of music. It has not remained confined to the Dargah, but has reached the steps of temples and churches. The art of singing Qawwali has breached the walls of traditional Gharanas and traditional forms of singing.

Qawwali in Flux
Delhi forms the hub of qawwali music, with many traditional musical gharanas residing in the region. The Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya provides lucrative space to the Qawwal gharanas. Qawwali is performed everyday in the Dargah, but Thursdays are special because it precedes Friday, the ‘Holy Day of Islam’. Qawwali in the Dargah is dedicated to the traditional singing of Naat ( poetry that specifically praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad) and Manqabat ( a Sufi devotional poem, in praise of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad, or of any Sufi saint) in the name of their Pir (a title for a Sufi master equally used in the nath tradition) Nizamuddin and Prophet. All the gharanas come together in the evening for the performance and present a very thrilling experience of the age-old practice of Qawwali.All the Qawwali families related to the Nizamuddin Dargah trace back their musical lineage to around 700 years back, Most of the families claim that they were under the patronage of Bahadur Shah Zafar (Mughal ruler).. They are popularly known as the ‘Qawwal Bachche’. The two families that stay in the vicinity of the Dargah are the Nizami Khusro Bandhu and Nizami bandhu.Meraj Ahmed Nizami, the patriarch of Nizami Khusro Bandhu family, is in his late 80’s and is finding it hard to cope with the changing demands of the time. He only sings traditional Qawwali. However, Chand Nizami of the Nizami Bandhu family has managed to adept to the different trends of music. He has also recently featured with his two nephew in ‘Kun Faya Kun’ a song, of Hindi cinema ‘Rockstar’.

Another family who are related to the Nizamuddin Dargah is that of Qadir Niazi, who lives in his traditional house gifted by Bahadur Shah Zafar to his forefathers. He and his sons visit the Dargah every Thursday to perform in the Dargah for their Pir.

Similar to qawwali in the Nizamuddin Dargah, Qawwali is also performed in the Dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki, Mehrauli. The Qutbi brothers of the Sarawana Gharana performs in the Dargah. They live in the vicinity of the Dargah, and they have been singing qawwali since the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar itself. Here also Qawwali is held every Thursday and Friday.However the reach of Qawwali has crossed the threshold of Dargahs’s and traditional musical Gharanas. Most of the Qawwal gayak’s also perform in private parties, have performed abroad, sing in clubs and bars, and also sing in temples and churches.

The Christmas Qawwali has become a tradition at the Christ Church, in Shimla. The Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) invites Qawwals from Delhi, Ludhiana and Amritsar to sing qawwali in the church.

Qadir Niazi has sung the bhajan ‘tore bina’ a devotional song for Lord Krishna, that has gained quite popularity.

Many new music bands have come up that has blended Sufi music with other Indian and Western musical forms. One such effort is made by Sonam Kalra in her ‘Sufi Gospel Project’. She with her team mixes Sufi, with gospel, jazz, bhakti, contemporary and whatever flows into the music organically. Another effort is by Manjari who is the founder of what she calls ‘Sufi Kathak’. She has combined the divnity of sufi music with performances of Kathak.The demand for Sufi music has increased considerably, and it is well represented in the music that is being produced in the country. The credit of popularizing qawwali owes to the Hindi cinema, and popular music. Even Qawwals give credit to Bollywood for expanding the horizons of Qawwali and popularizing it.

It is interesting to note here that Bengali qawwali in Fakiri style (Baul fakiri music is folk heritage of the Bengal of the sufi heritage, they are the wandering minstrels) is popular in West Bengal. The bangla natak discovered that the popular notion that qawwali is the preserve of Northern bit of the subcontinent is not true. Qawwali once belonged to Bengal too. The only difference was that it was sung in Bengali and employed dhol and khol (also known as mridang), instead of tabla. This lost form of qawwali is being revived again, and various Qawwali groups have been formed who sung BAUL FAKIRI.

The most popular compositions in Qawwali are legendary compositions of Amir Khusrau, Baba Farid, Kabir, Mir Dard, and hafiz-e Shirazi. However, in recent times many new compositions have also come up. Chand Nizami often himself composes and writes. The writings of many new poets have also been included.

Project to revive Qawwali

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Aga Khan Foundation had started a project for Cultural Revival of Nizamuddin Basti in the year 2009. A part of this program is also to revive Qawwali, by training qawwals and providing them with due opportunities.
Two issues raised by this project are –

The poor economic base for most of the families
Lack of support and facilities for the art form.
The move is specifically aimed at boosting the talent of qawwals in Nizamuddin Basti as well as utilizing the Tomb grounds for public events. Qadir Niazi agrees that the project has been doing its best to put qawwali and qawwali artist to the fore. He has done several recordings for the project.

The project is known as ‘Alam-e-Khusrau’ and it seeks to document and revive the contribution of Amir Khusrau in the field of music – from the popular qawwali and folk genres to classical music. As a part of this project a festival was organized ‘Jashn-e Khusrau’ that brought together, an exclusive assembly of khanqahi qawwal with different dargah affiliations, each performing a repertoire of Amir Khusrau’s kalaam in their distinctive style.

As a part of the project, recordings of 8 groups of Qawwals were carried out. Qadir Niazi was a part of this recording. They have also done translation and transliteration of various Qalams of Khusrau, that were unpublished till yet (taking into account the oral sources).