The Warsi Brothers believe in upholding the tradition of qawwali even in the face of change. They think qawwali and the mind takes a flight to Doordarshan days, and good old Hindi films.

Think qawwali and the mind takes a flight to Doordarshan days, and good old Hindi films. Of course, there was the wild and remarkable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who stormed our sensibilities taking the form to unbelievable heights; he upgraded our notion and understanding of the qawwali form by several notches. While many images of qawwali occupy our musical space – it is entertainment and prayer as well. It can scale the peaks of spirituality and the summits of love as well. If the good old Hindi cinema thrived on the entertainment aspect (and quite brilliantly at that), the likes of Nusrat immersed themselves in an ardour that crossed the threshold of the physical world. However, with a big comeback in new Hindi cinema, qawwali attains grandeur, and unites elements of the different Sufi idioms.

Amidst these several ideas of qawwali that fires our imagination, what do we expect from the Warsi Brothers who belong to a lineage of 850 qawwals? The brothers based in Hyderabad are the grandchildren of the qawwali genius Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi, and what they perform is “traditional” and “authentic” of Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana as it was passed on by Amir Khusro. “Nusrat saab belongs to our tradition itself,” say Nazeer and Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi, who came to Bangalore recently for an India Foundation for The Arts performance.

The brothers wear their legacy lightly. Simple and extremely modest, “We mainly sing Sufiana, but we sing ghazals as well. We have a big chunk of Ghalib in our repertoire. As far as possible, we sing the traditional pieces… it’s fast disappearing, we have to keep it alive, it’s our responsibility,” says the brothers who were trained by their nationally-acclaimed grandfather Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi and also their father Zaheed Ahmed Khan Warsi. Apart from Ghalib and other Sufi poetry, the brothers sing Kabir and Mira as well.

Both Nazeer and Naseer were taken along during concerts, and that’s where most of their training took place. Most qawwali singers have a basic training in Hindustani classical, but since the form demands equal attention to poetry it requires a far more specialised grooming. “It was never a classroom kind of training. We learnt many things by watching our grandfather. The way he chose poetry, the way he dealt with words, and the way he infused music into these thoughts,” they recall. They learnt more than music, say the duo. “We learnt that the only way you can master a form is through patience and persistence. We used to hang around and watch, and we did everything we were told to…,” they say, speaking about their early years. “Those days we were told to respect older people, and we did it unquestioningly. The younger generation of today must also learn to respect the artistry and experience of seniors. It will take them a long way,” adds Nazeer.

The brothers were definitely bowled over by their grandfather’s persona, but their father had an equal bearing on them. Zaheer Ahmed Warsi was a lovely human being and was always willing to help anyone who came to him. “Of course, my grandfather was very charismatic, well dressed and a charming man. He was a brilliant performer. My father was a quieter person, but an equally talented musician,” explains Nazeer.

Isn’t it very challenging to perform qawwali in these times, when music comes in an easily consumable format? “It is. Most people who come to listen to qawwali have a taste for it. We do have new listeners in our concert as well. But just because they are uninitiated, we are not prepared to dilute our form. We have to challenge the audience,” says Naseer. However, they have had to bring in changes. The Brothers say that they now replace Urdu and Arabic words with Hindi words, so that the audience understands. “However, our gayaki remains the same.”

Though traditionally a qawwali is sung for 15-20 minutes, some musicians extend it to an hour. “Yes, we also do depending on the audience. We introduce classical elements like sargam and laykari and extend it to enhance the value of the composition. Even though we have retained the essence of qawwali as it has been passed on to us by our forefathers, we have made superficial changes to suit the times.”

Times have certainly changed. Even in their own families, women are being taught to sing qawwali, however it’s strictly within the family. They are not allowed to perform on stage. Why is it so? “It’s not allowed. I don’t know slowly things may change…,” they say without getting into the details. What about Abida Parveen? “She is originally a folk singer, who took to Sufi later.”

They don their black long coats, the clappers-cum-chorus is ready, and their paan is ready. The eight member group, all from the family, step on to the stage remembering their forefathers.