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The road for followers of the Path

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A colony of qawwals once existed on Panchkuian Road. Read on with R.V. SMITH to know more

Panchkuian Road collects a lot of rainwater in Delhi, otherwise it hardly seems to attract attention, except of those interested in new furniture. But besides this and traffic jams, the road contains much else. For instance, behind the school for the blind that goes under the name of Andh Mahavidyalaya was a colony (if one could call it that) of qawwals. But most of the big ones are now dead and gone.Qawwali singing was popularised in India by that genius Amir Khusrau. In the beginning they were mostly hymns in praise of Mustafa, the holy Prophet, and the element of love in them (mashooqi) was not actually romantic but spiritual. God was the beloved (mashooq) and the lover (ashiq) was the devotee who spent sleepless nights and days in search of Him. The wine (mai) was the wine that made one inebriated with divine love.But qawwali has changed with the times and films have imparted to it an element of mundane romance. The qawwali singers of Panchkuian Road were adept at both forms of the art. In these dilapidated houses dwelt some who had been abroad and sung in international gatherings too. Names just as famous as those of Hyatt Khan and Hamid Sabri of Suiwalan in the Walled City. Yet they eked out a humble existence.

Tears of ecstasy

One got the feeling of being transported from humdrum reality to the higher regions while passing by these rows of houses when the qawwals occupied them. It takes hours and hours of riyaz (practice) to capture the finer points of qawwali. In the last century a group of qawwals was sent to the court of Queen Victoria at the behest of her Urdu tutor, Munshi Abdul Karim, and their qawwalis made the queen shed tears of ecstasy. She had never heard that sort of music before, which had given birth to the legendary dance of the dervishes.Some such feeling gripped the passer-by through the back lane of Panchkuian Road. Mohammad Khan and party or Rehman and his troupe might have been unlettered as far as the English alphabet went, but Persian verse and Urdu ghazal came naturally to them. One heard the dholak and the harmonium amid the rhythmic clapping of hands and the mellow voice of a singer leading his son and heir through the nuances of the qawwali, for the art is hereditary and learning by rote the mode.One stood outside one such house years ago, enjoying the snatches of qawwali that came through the crisp November air, the shadows lengthening, and in the distance, the sound of the traffic. But above it all was the voice of the mureed (disciple) hankering for the love of the Almighty. When one visited the qawwal colony recently, one was informed that the younger generation had moved out to earn name and fame elsewhere. After all, they had learnt the art of keeping an audience enthralled by skilful juxtaposition of the choicest words and phrases that blend with the Sufiana kalam, which made the Sabri Brothers such a hit worldwide. Even others began to imitate their style though they may not have interspersed it with exclamations of "Allah, Allah".The qawwali has not attracted Muslims alone. Hindus, Sikhs, like the Singh Bandhu, and Christians have also become its exponents. The Shankar-Shambhu duo gained a near-legendary status before the partnership was broken by a tragic road accident. Among the Christian qawwals, Jani Babu, Walter and Massey made waves in the 1940s, with their "takia kalam", Nasaria, Nasaria, the Hindustani derivation of Nazarene (Christ - the only goodness that came out of Nazareth).The death of Benjamin Rehmat this past February was a big loss to those who sing qawwali with a Massihi theme. Rehmat was also a poet of note who wrote ghazals and nazms for half a century at his modest house in the St. John's Church compound, Mehrauli. Like Jani Babu, he sang the qawwali wistfully and one may not get to hear again such pensive strains as "Tujhe rukh-e-roshan se purdah uthana hoga". For that matter, even the basti of qawwals in Panchkuian Road now mostly resounds with the sounds of silence!

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