The Warsi Brothers Nazeer and Naseer take a walk in the cobbled streets of old city and delve into the history of qawwali and tell Serish Nanisetti the alternative meaning of spiritualism

“Let my brother come, we will wait here,” says Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi near the Patherghati Kaman as he dips into a small box of chuna (lime) and puts it into his mouth. Once Naseer reaches the place, the brothers cut a striking figure when they walk down the cobbled streets of Mir Alam Mandi wearing their black Kashmiri topi, black bandhgala and their lips red with paan.

“This area has changed. People think this is the old city. This isn't. It was created less than a hundred years ago,” says Nazeer, the elder of the two, as he leads us to the top of the Qadir Yar Khan Masjid that divides the Patherghatti into two. “My family has been living in the same area since the time my ancestor Muhammed Siddique Khan was invited by the Nizam to be his court singer after the demise of Mughal Durbar in 1857,” says Nazeer. Muhammed Siddique Khan was the nephew of Tanras Khan, one of the disciples of Qawwal Bachche of Delhi Gharana created by Amir Khusro.

Now the tradition of qawwal lives on through the efforts of the Nazeer Warsi and Naseer Warsi. A flight of steps in a bylane in Miralam Mandi takes us to the first floor house of the brothers, each has a different entrance and a different name plate. Inside the small room, from under the divan two harmoniums are pulled out and the brothers break into an Amir Khusro composition:

Chhap tilak sab cheeni ray mosay naina milaikay

Prem bhatee ka madhva pilaikay

Matvali kar leeni ray mosay naina milaikay

Lines in Hindi, that mean losing identity at a glance and gaining an insight into the divine. “Qawwali is not just a style of singing the subject remains the key. We keep the purity of our tradition alive by sticking to the sufiana qawwali. We don't pander to the competitive or filmi qawwalis which can earn us more money and popularity,” says Nazeer, the more articulate of the two. He dismisses out of hand popular qawwalis like: Chadta sooraj dheere dheerey dhal jayenga or Jhoom barabar jhoom sharabi. “The style and format is that of a qawwali but it is not qawwali,” he says sternly.

There are many paths that lead to the divine. One of them happens to be sitting down in a session of qawwali and letting the qawwal show the many facets of divine. “When we sing, people can be led into a divine trance (matval). People lose themselves. A few days back when we were performing at the Samarqand Sharaq Taronalari music festival many people in the audience didn't understand the lyrics or meaning of the qawwali but we could see they were swaying in beatific trance,” says Nazeer, as the younger brother Naseer prepares for their evening performance at a wedding in Masab Tank.

Wedding singers

“It was my grandfather Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi who started the tradition of qawwali at weddings in Hyderabad. He was just following the tradition of Amir Khusro who created the Delhi Gharana so that the word of God reaches more people and is not limited to the elite. The word qawwali has its roots in Arabic = qual (utterances) of Prophet Mohammed,” informs Nazeer.

Qawwali involves the lead qawwals and their nine accompanists clapping, singing and keeping the tempo has a quality of infectious rhythm. Listen and it can make the audience sway against their will. Opening with the notes of harmonium, that sets the dhun (tune). The lead singer's voice rises above the others to narrate Hindustani or Persian dohas (couplets) or poems and the humnawa (the voice accompanists) would repeat the phrase with instrumental support and the audience usually joins in if the quwwal is any good. This play with rhythmic and melodic parallelism forms the core of cadences that can move the listener into a trance like state.

The words which ordinary mortals associate with mai (wine), saaqi (cupbearer) and maikhana (tavern) get a different meaning among the initiated. The wine means the spiritual nectar, the cupbearer is shorn of fleshly delights to become the spiritual initiator and the tavern turns out to be a place where spiritual enlightenment is possible.

The performances show the different calling these artistes follow: “We wake up only at noon or even later,” says Naseer as he describes a different life of a performer. “At the wedding we are going to perform, the groom will arrive at 8.30 p.m. and the performance will go on till 11.30 p.m. or even later by the time we reach home and hit the bed it will be 4 a.m. or later. And when we are sleeping nobody wakes us up,” says Nazeer with a smile.

“We are Hyderabadi foodies. Biryani is staple diet, and no lunch is complete without khatti dal though we avoid sour fruits and cold foodstuffs as they affect the voice.

For someone who are the legatees of a rich tradition that spans generations and speaks across centuries, Nazeer and Naseer keep their humility intact. Like when the masjid's caretaker fails to recognise the duo and stops them from going on to the terrace, Naseer carefully explains the family history and his links with the past. “This city has changed. The façade of these buildings hasn't changed as they are made with stones but the people's behaviour has changed. Earlier people were more rough and ready to fight, now people want to go about their business. Guess it is because of more opportunities for work and livelihood and that is also the reason that there are so many more people willing to appreciate the spiritual qawwalis we sing,” says Nazeer with a note of optimism.