Their story could very well be just another case study in the debate between tradition and modernity. But what Qawwali singers Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi and Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi, more popularly known as the Warsi brothers do differently, is approach both tradition and modernity with a sense of honesty and simplicity that is rare.
The Warsi Brothers are proud custodians of a grand musical lineage that traces its roots all the way back to the Delhi Gharana founded by Poet Amir Khusro. In fact, they are possibly the lone soldiers fighting the battle to keep alive an ancestral tradition of Sufiana qawwali that took root in Hyderabad after their ancestor Muhammed Siddique Khan came to the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad as a singer. In the coming week the Warsi Brothers will be in Chennai for the first time to perform and train students as part of the 2nd International Convention organised by SPIC MACAY.
Despite the mighty heritage that they are a part of, what strikes one during a conversation with the duo, is the sheer humility in their speech and actions. One gathers that the genesis of the simplicity in their utterances is in fact a deep sense of awareness of current trends in music, audience preferences and a consciousness of what is required to keep alive traditional music forms like theirs in the present context. In other words, if the Warsi Brothers have one foot safely rooted in their inheritance, they are ready to place their other foot in the opportunities that the present has to offer.” Today, there are various ways in which our audience is accessing music. We want our music to reach them as well. So why not use the means that are popular today to make qawwali popular?” they asked.
So, will they be willing to perform in fusion music platforms like MTV’s Coke Studio, for example? “We have thought about it and are definitely considering it. Fusion music meets the requirements of the present-day listener. Of course, we prefer singing our original Sufiana qawwali compositions and will not stop singing them. But if a sitar were to accompany us, then we do not have a problem. The point is that in one way or the other, our music reaches the audience,” they replied.
The Warsi brothers realise that it is not just enough to be able to perform in front of a young and modern audience but it is also equally important to be able to communicate the essence of their art form to them. “Most of the time, the audience actually understands the essence of the composition on their own but sometimes we make it a point to supplement our performances with explanations that convey the meaning of the composition. For example, a 700-year old bandish will need some commentary to make it relevant to the audience. We even opt to sing compositions in Hindi rather than the Persian ones to make meaning-making easier,” they explained.
The brothers, however, give the present day audience enough credit as listeners. “Today’s audience is already so aware about music. They know about ragas and understand compositions and their structures. In fact, we believe that they are more informed than the audience of the past,” they opined.
The need to double up as performers as well as promoters of the music form comes from a crisis of sorts. The Warsi Brothers acknowledge that promotional aid and Government support will go a long way in keeping traditional art forms like the Qawwali afloat. “The Government has done a lot already. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has instituted awards and organises concerts but a little more effort towards art forms like ours whether it is in terms of funding or more concert opportunities would be mighty helpful,” they confessed.
For their own part, the brothers continue to teach the music form to those willing to learn. “We have not restricted the form to our family alone. We have students coming to learn from us on a regular basis. We insist that they train in classical music first. The raag and khayal is crucial. Only then, can they proceed to learn the Sufiana qawwali,” they argued.
Qawwali for the Warsi brothers, even to this day is a means to reach the divine. “We tell our students this too. That Sufi music and its foundation is in the relationship it shares with the divine. Traditionally, Sufiana qawwali is a composition that is sung exclusively in front of the Sufis. It was Amir Khusro that decided that the pleasure of listening to these divine compositions should be everyone’s,” they added.
So, what is their take on qawwalis that are used in films? “Music directors like A.R. Rahman understand the essence of the qawwali when he uses it in his films. It is just a matter of using the qawwali appropriately. One cannot have the qawwali serve as background to drunken debauchery, for example,” they said.
In all their responses, one can see the age old debate between tradition and modernity play out. However, it is the frank and straightforward nature of their replies that sets them apart. In the coming week, The Warsi Brothers plan to conduct a workshop as part of SPIC MACAY’s ‘Intensives.’ “We will try and convey to the students the essence and style of the Sufiana qawwali and its regional nature. It will be our first performance in Chennai and we are definitely looking forward to it,” they concluded.