By Shahwar Kibria
Over the week of 12-15 July, if you happened to venture into the rose-scented lanes of Nizamuddin Basti, you would be struck by the air of festivity. The Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, standing glittering and auspicious at the end of a miraculously winding lane lined with shops selling bangles, attar, incense, rose water, sandal, oudh, kohl, henna, and numerous Sufi trinkets, is currently observing a celebration of song. The dargah is celebrating the 713th urs(death anniversary) of Hazrat Amir Khusrau — disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and the guardian of the Qawwali.
The Qawwali, as part of the more traditional Mehfil-e-Sama, is a Chishtia Sufi practice to honour and invoke the glory of a peer. Chishtiya Sufism is a South Asian Sufi sect, where the Qawwali becomes the core of spiritual practice. Sufism represents “Ihsan” or the will “to do beautiful things”. Sufism represents the essential core of Islam and an all-embracing concept of ishq/love which links a seeker to the sought, the lover to the Beloved and the Qawwali becomes the celebratory core of this Sufi practice.
The history of Qawwali is a history of love, oneness and the unique pluralistic tradition of India: Love of a disciple for his saint, oneness of Persian and Indian musical, linguistic and cultural traditions.
Amir Khusrau trained a group of 12 resident musicians at the dargah, the Qawwal Bachche, in the art of the Qawwali, some of whom went on to form the Delhi Gharana of music. When Amir Khusrau put the Quranic hadith “Man Kunto Maula” to tune (a manqabat in praise of Hazrat Imam Ali, the first Qawwali of the Chishtiya tradition), he pioneered a musical form which would be popularised by the Sabri Brothers, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Begum Abida Parveen and Fareed Ayaz/Abu Muhammad in international music cultures.
With the coming of MTV, satellite television and digital technology the Qawwali has traversed immense distances with its popularity evident in the Qawwali renditions on Coke Studio Pakistan and closer home, in the works of AR Rahman. Rahman who has composed Qawwalis including “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” (Jodha Akbar, 2008) and the unforgettable “Kun Faya Kun” (Rockstar, 2011), has internalised Qawwali musicality as creative impulse.
Rahman equates the process of making the song to a prayer and the act of listening and repeating it, to an incantation, or zikr — resulting in a situation of calm. In the 1990s, Rahman was introduced to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and discovered Qawwali — devotional music of the Chishtiya tradition of the Sama, and the idea of spreading sukoon or peace through musical events. Though Rahman did not know Urdu, he could nonetheless relate to the feeling and the healing effect of music beyond the barriers of language, since the purity of the song is conveyed by the intensity of the vocals. “Kun Faya Kun” — picturised at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah — is most representative of the inspired musicality of Rahman.
Forsaken by love and disowned by his family, Janardhan arrives at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, in Nizamuddin Basti, Old Delhi — dazed, confused and angry. Janardhan dreams of becoming a rock-star, like his idol, Jim Morrison. But all he is left with is no love, no family, no inspiration and a broken dream. It is at this moment that Janardhan discovers the Qawwali at the dargah and is soothed, inspired and honed by it. In the two months which follow, Janardhan discovers home, acceptance and a reaffirmation of his dream, of becoming a rockstar, rematerialising in the Khanqahi space, which has given a home to the homeless, place to the placeless, a name to the nameless.
Aaja khalipan mein, pee ka ghar tera
‘Kun Faya Kun’, an Arabic phrase from Surah Ya-sin, the 36th chapter in the Holy Quran refers to the mystical creative power of the divine, ‘Kun’ — meaning, Be! and ‘Faya Kun’ — It Is! The Qawwali charts the becoming of Jordan from the unbecoming of Janardhan, as the disillusioned but gifted singer becomes one with the sacred song and the sacred space — inhabiting the serpentine alleys of the basti where he devours tandoori roti and dal, the rooftop where he has a cup of morning chai with pape (local, North Indian breakfast biscuits), or the inner sanctum — the shahi dalan facing the Beloved’s aasthana, where he consumes the Qawwali and through it, the sacred entity which inspires and nurtures the song, the soul and the seeker, and in the process becoming free of himself, becoming one with himself. It is in the dargah that a venerable classical singer played by Shammi Kapoor spots Janardhan singing the Qawwali and later refers him to a big music producer.
This is a very interesting trope which impresses on the aspect of the “karam/barakat”(blessings of the saint) which draws scores of artistes, film actors, businessmen and politicians to the dargah in lieu of similar favours of miraculous beneficence.
Woh jo mujh me samaya woh jo tujh me samaya
Maula wahi wahi maaya
Karde Mujhe Mujhse Hi Reha
In two distinct and powerful moments, Janardhan stares blankly, with awe-struck vacant eyes, empty and ready to be rekindled, at the magnificent, luminescent dome of Hazrat Nizamuddin, bright and blazing against the night sky. Janardhan becomes aware of the entity, the presence which has sheltered him, away from rejection and repudiation, the presence which overwhelms. In this moment, Janardhan is arrested in a quiet, subtle wajd/ecstasy and promptly gets up and walks to the aasthana (inner sanctum of the saint) of the Beloved, gently placing his head by the Beloved’s side in silent contemplation of the magnanimous majesty, compassion and benevolent love of the One who sleeps silently inside, one who hears the silent pleas of all souls that come to him and transfers these pleas to the One who answers them.
The Qawwali becomes a vehicle of this communication between the common worldly being trapped in his inconsistencies and the Divine. This bond evoked in the Qawwali evokes multiple associations — between Janardhan and the Sheikh and through him with the Al-Jamal/the Beautiful One. This linkage spills over and connects the audience who witness this Qawwali performed in the khanqah in cinematic tableaux, the reader of this work and the writer of the same, sublimated on the plane of faith and love.
Should you consider making your way to the dargah one magical afternoon, do not forget to get yourself a cream-roll and frothy, chocolaty coffee from the bakery nearby. Do not forget to smell the roses, marigolds and the sandal strewn delicately on the cool and reassuring marble of the dargah. Do not forget to peek into the glittering sanctum of Hazrat Nizamuddin, and whisper to him your secrets and your prayers. Do not forget to have faith and love in your heart. And please do remember to place a careful little flower on the tomb of Amir Khusrau who gave us the Qawwali — a musicality which interprets different cultures, religions, languages and sensibilities as one single language of Love.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. Her research interests include Sufism, Qawwali and contemporary media culture.