The art of musical mysticism


A day-long qawwali symposium, will explore the origins and traditional transformation of the art form

Even though the word qawwali derives itself from the Arabic word qaul—meaning “to speak”—metaphorically, it attached itself to my grandfather and morning routines. Growing up, mornings began with the deep voice of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan echoing from my grandfather’s room. Subconsciously, the day started with serenading one’s own inner being. Over the years, the 13th century Sufi tradition has lingered into family gatherings, weddings, birthday parties, and more commercially-into the Hindi film industry. Its origins, metamorphosis, and nuances, are now being explored in a day-long symposium.

Exploring the spiritual

Conceptualised by kathak dancer, and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, Manjari Chaturvedi, the fifth edition of the symposium (the previous editions were hosted in Delhi), is slated to host lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, photographs, and a live performance of Khanqahi Qawwals led by Danish Husain Badayuni. In association with Avid Learning, Chaturvedi has organised talks on poetry and sufism by Dr. Saif Mahmood; the commercialisation of qawwalis by lyricist Dhruv Sangeri, and The Hindu’s music columnist, Narendra Kusnur; and exploring sufi shrines in Punjab with Professor Yogesh Snehi. The symposium’s highlights include a film screening of Paigam-E-Mohabbat, by Muzaffar Ali, which documents the musical, spiritual, and poetic traditions of the sufi saint, Amir Khusro.

“The form of qawwali that exists today, can be largely attributed to Amir Khusro, even though scholars believe that similar musical devotions existed even before him,” explains Chaturvedi. The qawwali enthusiast is concerned about the decline of the 700-year-old musical tradition, and questions the purity of the form as newer generations incorporate more “filmy,” performances. “Today, everybody knows ‘Kun Faya Kun’, and ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’, but 20 years later, will the art form only be seen as entertainment?” she asks.

Chaturvedi strongly reiterates the divine power of the qawwali, used to transcend beyond the limitations of the human body, and social existence. She carefully enunciates the words ishq, pyaar, and mohabbat, and pauses to explain how the love is often seen as romantic, when in reality, it’s for the Almighty. “Ae Ri Sakhi More Piya Ghar Aaye. The ghar refers to your own soul, while piya refers to God,” she informs.

Documenting tradition

Over the years, Chaturvedi has asked qawwals to share photographs of their ancestral mehfils. However, most of them only returned with passport-sized photographs of family members, or posed studio pictures. “This made me want to begin a visual documentation of the devotees and their art. We might have visually lost an 80 to 100-year-old history, but we can always start now,” she says. In 2013, Chaturvedi conceptualised the ‘Qawwali Photo Project’ along with photographers Dinesh Khanna, Leena Kejriwal, and Mustafa Quraishi.

Each photographer picked an area to document, which showcases the diversity and inclusivity of the art form. While Khanna follows stories of families in Nizamuddin and Punjab, Quraishi photographs qawwals in Uttar Pradesh. Kejriwal divides her time between Delhi and Mumbai, while also shooting the lesser-known women qawwals. The photographs will be curated in a digital presentation at the symposium, with insights by the photographers themselves.

Lost in the moment

Khanna will present an array of close-up and wide photographs from the Nizamuddin dargah, where he has been busy documenting the Nizami family. The family has been performing at the dargah for over 700 years, and are continuously faced with the dilemma of staying true to the original musical form, or commercialising it. While describing his 25-30 visits to Nizamuddin, Khanna says, “Often, I’d find myself putting my camera aside and just soaking in the mahaul. I was so mesmerised, that in some moments, I really didn’t feel like shooting.”

Khanna remains fascinated by the dargahs in Amristar that are looked after by the Sikh community, but where Muslim qawwals sing Punjabi qawwalis.

“It’s the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that prospers in the state today,” he emphasises. As qawwal Saqlain Nizami, from Nizamuddin aptly describes it, “Rooh ki joh bhook hain, woh qawwali hain (Qawwali can described as the soul’s hunger).

Understanding Qawwali, The Royal Opera House, November 30. For more details see

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 6:02:46 PM |

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