Sufi musical form alive by the Delhi-based Nizami Brothers, among the best-loved qawwali outfits in the country
Qawwali didn’t die with the demise of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This Sufi musical form has been kept alive by the Delhi-based Nizami Brothers, among the best-loved qawwali outfits in the country, whose repertoire ranges from contemplative, classically influenced compositions to catchy Bollywood numbers, writes Swati Singh.
Is there a gene for musical talent? Looking at the Nizami Brothers, a family of genius musicians which is also the most prominent qawwali outfit in the country, it certainly appears so. “Machlee ke bachhe ko tairana kaun sikhata hai [Who teaches a baby fish how to swim?],” says Chand Nizami, one of the three Nizami Bandhus, or Brothers, when asked about his musical education, hinting that it was all inherited.

Sufi music runs in the Nizami family. The group traces its lineage centuries back, linked as they are to the court singers of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. More specifically, they belong to the Sikandra Gharana, a school of classical music that dates from almost 700 years ago, and has produced some of India’s finest maestros.

“In the Sikandra Gharana we use khayal gayaki in qawwalis which is not done in any other gharana,” Chand Nizami tells Guardian 20. “In our qawwali, we have to take care of the ragas. In the past, our ancestors used to perform and teach classical music in several kingdoms and that’s how classical music influenced our qawwali. This is the reason why people listen to us with the same passion as they did in the past, and that’s why children come to us to learn music.”

Being a musician isn’t all about natural talent. It takes plenty of hard work, and many sleepless nights, to hone that talent. For his part, Chand Nizami understood the importance of riyaaz, or daily singing practice, at a very young age. “When I was eight years old, I started accompanying my father and my grandfather to qawwali sessions at Nizammudin Aulia’s dargah in Delhi. And at that time I used to spend at least four hours daily on riyaaz ,” he says.

This practice regime had a ritualistic colour to it. And this was indeed appropriate to the enterprise, since Sufi music is often considered a form of worship. Nizami Brothers, too, have had a similarly reverential approach towards their music. “Qawwali is like worship to us,” Chand Nizami says. “Sufi music is an expression of Sufi mystic philosophy. As the Sufis were often far removed from worldliness and material pursuits, sufiyana kalaam [Sufi compositions] became the vehicle of spreading their message of peaceful coexistence, human oneness, love and holiness.”

The Nizami Brothers are in high demand these days. Recently, this Delhi-based group performed at the DLF Cyber Hub in Gurgaon, playing, as always, to a packed house, and leaving the audiences mesmerised.

But its spiritual colour doesn’t take anything away from Sufi music’s secular credentials. For their songs, the Nizami Brothers use lyrics written by poets who belonged to different religions: the likes of Rumi, Kabir and Bulleh Shah; as well as Meera Bai’s ghazals and Surdas’ couplets. “When creating a mystic atmosphere with our singing, we do not differentiate between a Meera Bai’s bhajan from Rumi’s couplets,” says Chand Nizami. “They all consist of a certain ruhaaniyat [soulfulness], and when we sing from the heart, people also receive the music wholeheartedly. And that is all that matters, as the core Sufi belief is accepting with love everyone, without judgement, harshness or segregation. The Chishti Sufis of the Indian subcontinent created a shared space for all, irrespective of creed, gender, class and religion, for god truly lives in our hearts and not in structures, costumes or rituals.”

But unworldliness and philosophical seriousness aren’t the only aspects of Sufi music. Mainstream culture and Bollywood in particular have given a contemporary spin to Sufi melodies, generating a wide audience base for this genre. And musicians like Nizami Brothers have played their part in this campaign to popularise Sufi music not just across India but also overseas.

“My elders used to say that singing classical songs is like lohe ke chane chabaana [as painstaking as chewing on bits of iron]. Qawwali is also the same. If we sang qawwali in the old manner now, people will run away from it. This is the reason that qawwali has been simplified by mixing languages such as Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu,” says Chand Nizami.

The Nizami Brothers themselves shot to fame after doing superhit qawwali songs for Hindi films. Their best songs have all acquired the status of classics. “Kun Faya Kun” from Rockstar (2011), “Bhar Do Jholi” from Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) can be found on almost every playlist. Chand Nizami has a typically sufiana on fame. “Our job,” he says, “is to serve the revered saint. We know nothing else. If this service gives us some recognition, what more can we ask for? As far as popularity is concerned, some people say that Rockstar has given us fame. We tell them that we have been rock stars for the past 700 years, as our ancestors have been serving the saint for that long,” he says.”

Unlike the Nizami Brothers, however, the Sufis of the past were usually averse to the idea of giving their music to films. Chand Nizami tells us, “My grandfather and father got numerous offers to sing in films, but they were against the idea as according to them it was forbidden to sing a qawwali for any film. But now perceptions have changed. Artistes are interested in singing for films, since films get them the recognition. In the last 12-15 years, the popularity of qawwalis has also increased in Hindi cinema.”

Sohrab Faridi Nizami, another member of the group, shares this view, but he also emphasises the centrality of Sufi music to the culture of the subcontinent. “Wherever we go,” he says, “people take time out to come and see us, to listen to us. Because the Sufi qawwali brings peace not just to the mind and the body, but to the soul. Sufi music has been the soul of Indian soil for generations now. The older generations have been true followers of it. However, we are now seeing a huge chunk of the younger generation being drawn towards Sufi music and accepting it as well. The number of Sufi music lovers is increasing day by day in the country.”

The Nizami Brothers are in high demand these days. Recently, this Delhi-based group performed at the DLF Cyber Hub in Gurgaon, playing, as always, to a packed house, and leaving the audiences mesmerised.

The Nizami Brothers performing live.

The Nizami Brothers performing live.

For Sohrab Nizami, though, the authentic sufi experience is linked to performing at shrines. “Performing qawwali at shrines gives me immense pleasure and satisfaction. But unlike earlier, when qawwali was confined to shrines, now we also perform at events and concerts which helps us to reach out to more people,” he says.

What we’re witnessing, in Bollywood tunes and popular concerts, is not merely a Sufi revival. Chand Nizami terms it a Sufi revolution. “There has been a Sufi revolution in the last one decade,” he says. “And this trend is not just observed in India. People living abroad also like to listen to Sufi music because it gives relief to the soul and is way better than any other type of music. The only difference is that in India we sing the oldest of Sufi songs, and people understand. But while performing abroad we need to tone down the lyrics a bit, so that the people there can relate to and
understand it.”

But does this seem like passing fad? Sufi music reduced to an in-vogue genre that may soon go out of fashion? Chand Nizami had the perfect response to this query: “Zameen nahi badla karti; mausam badalte hain [The earth doesn’t change; only seasons do]. Qawwali has been there for hundreds of years and will be there for hundreds more.”


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