Down Memory Lane: The lure of Qawwali

History shows that Qawwali was not just a form of performing art but a means to touch the unknown

March 01, 2015 11:54 am | Updated May 23, 2016 05:32 pm IST

Mehrauli, Nizamuddin and Old Delhi are the main venues of qawwalis in Delhi, but for some time Yashwant Place in Chanakyapuri began to be counted among them, thanks to Pushpa Dogra, the classical dancer. Unfortunately she died young and Qawwali lost an enthusiastic patron. Syed Mohammad Irfan of a TV channel recently produced a programme with a view to reviving interest in the new generation in this genre of Sufiana music and Pushpa’s soul must have rejoiced.

It was on summer evenings that one got to hear qawwalis at Yashwant Place, with the hostess treating friends to chilled melons and sherbet. Sometimes the danseuse obliged with an elegant “thumka” that added to the “wah, wahs”.

Khushwant Singh once visited the place and enlightened an American on “wah, wahs” by narrating this incident. At a qawwali in London, an English friend asked him “Who’s that little chap who jumps up whenever the singer repeats a line and exclaims, “Bow, wow?” Khushwant told him that the man was the writer Mulkraj Anand and he was uttering “wah, wah” (hear, hear) as an encore. After that the American heard the Chanakyapuri recital with renewed interest, except when Pushpa brushed past him and he couldn’t help giving a sly pinch with Khushwant Singh looking amused and remarking, “That’s the spirit. In olden days the saqi or cup-bearer used to be pinched so often at soirees in sarais that she had to take time off to nurse herself, while her mother, the innkeeper’s wife, felt elated at the windfall of offerings she anticipated.”

Qawwali, which comes from the word “qual”, began as an incantation to the Prophet in Arabia and was popularised and expanded upon by Amir Khusrau (b.1253), the chief disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. It was the Aulia’s mentor, Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki who had inculcated the love for Qawwali in him. As a matter of fact, the Khwaja and his friend, Qazi Hamiduddin Nagauri, both enjoyed the “sama” or atmosphere created by qawwalis.

It is said that Khwaja Sahib went into ecstasy four days before his death in AD 1236 on hearing this verse by Sheikh Ahmed Jam Chisti of Afghanistan: “Kushtagan-e-khanjar-e-taslim ra/Har zaman az ghaib jane digar ast” (translated by Sadia Dehlvi, it means: Those who are slain by the dagger of submission/Each moment from the Unseen receive a new life). The Khwaja, successor of Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, imbibed love for devotional music and the trance it induces from him. After the death of Qutub Sahib, qawwalis were banned at his mazar because of an incident when the hallucinatory verse was being sung and the saint’s hand suddenly slipped out of the grave. The singing, however, takes place in the attached courtyard.

One remembers the “sama” created at the shrine of Hazrat Kalimullah in Jama Masjid’s Azad Park. Among those who went into a trance there on Thursdays was a Brahmin widow who came with a basketful of laddoos from Chandni Chowk. Known as “haal”, the affected women threw off their burqas, pallus or dupattas and started rotating their heads in maenad-like frenzy until the effect of the highly emotional lines wore off. Qawwal Chunnu’s wife, Accho Bi, a big-built hypochondriac woman with several children, preferred to sit in her shack near the mazar lest she started getting “haal”, offering halwa-puri instead to sympathisers like Mayor Nuruddin’s pretty daughter, Ameena Ahmed. Only once did one see a woman going into a trance at Pushpa Dogra’s qawwali sessions. And believe it or not, she happened to be a student from Australia, who had come to study mysticism.

Going back to Qutub Sahib’s dargah , a day before his urs or death anniversary, an ornamental “chadar” from Ajmer is offered to the resonance of qawwalis while women try to touch it to obtain blessing. At the mazar of Shah Abul Ullah in Laksharpur, Agra, it is offered amidst soulful singing and application of mehndi (henna). Something which the Pir Sahib of Hyderabad State, Kasim Rizvi used to do with great pomp in pre-Partition days. Mercias at nearby Kazi Shustri’s shrine however, create a different sama of Shia devotion in which attending pirs go into abandoned ecstasy, akin to the dance of the dervishes. And so what Amir Khusrau introduced 700 years ago continues to grow in universal popularity

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.