The Rest is Noise

The struggle for the soul of qawwali.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Dama dam mast qalandar. Qawwali, Islam’s sacred Sufi music offered in the shrines of the Indian subcontinent, is facing a moment of unease. It is best reflected in the gentle discord between the two leading qawwal families in Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, one of Sufism’s most important pilgrim centres. The rivalry illustrates how the 750-year-old tradition that strives to bring divine rapture to listeners is struggling to adapt to a secular world.

At 84, Meraj Ahmed Nizami, the patriarch of Nizami Khusro Bandhu family, is one of the few classical qawwals left in India. “He renders Persian Sufi verses most fluently in the old tarz, or melodies,” says Farida Ali, director of the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan, which is in the same neighbourhood as Nizamuddin’s shrine. Meraj’s family has been singing here every Friday for 40 years. “I have witnessed him creating a dynamic spiritual atmosphere of mystical haal (ecstasy),” Ms Ali says.

At 44, Chand Nizami of the Nizami Bandhu family is a consummate performer. “His powerful voice electrifies the soul,” says Sadia Dehlvi, author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam, who invites Chand to sing at her living room mehfils (gatherings). “He gauges the listeners’ mood and intensifies their emotions by the repetition of the particular verse that is affecting them.”

The two families belong to different musical gharanas but are related by marriage. The sister of Chand’s father was Meraj’s mother. His own sister was Meraj’s wife. That is the only thing common between these two qawwals, whose larger-than-life reputations define the characters of their clans. Each treats music differently. If one has focused on keeping the purity of his art, the other has artfully manipulated it. There is no dispute on who among the two is superior. “Among all the qawwals in all the dargahs of Hindustan, Ustad Meraj is the most special,” says Chand, before adding in a deadpan tone, “He is antique.”

The man who is considered a living legend lives with his five sons, one daughter and two grandchildren in a one-room house in Nizamuddin Basti, the historic village in central Delhi that sprang up around the 14th century Sufi shrine. Inside, there is one bed, which is taken over by Meraj and his books. A corner of the room is stacked with two harmoniums. The floor is laid with a mattress on which the family sleeps. The wall is decked with a “likeness” of Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. A cardboard box of squawking chicks is kept below the TV stand. The steel almirah is broken. The window looks on to the Barakhamba monument, across Mirza Ghalib Road.

This is the home of a qawwal whose grandfather’s grandfather was the shahi gawayya (royal singer) in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal. Ustad Tanras Khan, founder of the Delhi Gharana, taught music to Zafar. His lineage is traced to Mian Samad bin Ibrahim, the leader of the Qawwal Bachche, a group formed by Amir Khusrau that is believed to consist of the world’s first qawwals.

Khusrau, a court poet to seven Delhi Sultanate kings, was closely associated with the evolution of Hindustani classical music. A disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, he was buried close to the Sufi’s tomb. The tradition is to first pay respects to Khusrau before entering Nizamuddin’s grave chamber. The two tombs are separated by a marble courtyard, the venue where Mian Samad’s descendants have been singing qawwalis through the centuries, right down to Meraj and his sons.

Every day the qawwalis are offered here. Thursday evening is special because it precedes Friday, the week’s holiest day in the Islamic calendar. Out of the several families that sing in the dargah, only Nizami Khusro Bandhu and Nizami Bandhu live in the dargah’s vicinity.

“Our family has been blessed by being able to sing in Nizamuddin Dargah for hundreds of years,” says Chand in the guest area of his five-room house, the entrance of which lies at the shrine’s courtyard. He is flipping through a leather-bound edition of Hafiz’s verses, which was presented to him by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In late March, Chand’s team flew to Tehran to perform at the Nowruz festival. After the death of his father in 2003 and, four years later, of his elder brother, Chand became the family head, with his two nephews singing under him.

The last time Meraj and his sons toured abroad was in the summer of 2010 when they were invited to Yangon to sing in the Urs, the death anniversary celebrations, of Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose tomb lies there. Since then Chand has been to Dubai, Sharjah, Kuwait, Muscat, Doha and Tehran. He has sung twice at the ticketed Jahan-e-Khusrau festival held annually in Delhi. Meraj hasn’t been invited to perform there once. “Ustad Meraj is a legend and the festival is poor without his presence,” says film-maker Muzaffar Ali, the festival organizer. “I have to work out a special and a more intimate way to celebrate his talent and repertoire.”

Chand also has CDs produced by music companies such as T-series. Meraj doesn’t.

While both families are civil to each other, occasionally tensions arise since various clans, or “parties”, have to compete for contracts at private functions—where the money is. There is stiff competition to get contracts. Nothing is taboo; neither soirées, nor devi jagrans, the all-night prayer gatherings in which devotional songs are performed in praise of Sherawali Mata. Both families have performed in the big cities of Europe, North America, West Asia and Pakistan.

In the race for business, it is clear who is ahead. In April 2011, Chand was booked to perform in Tikamgarh, Jaipur and Ranchi. Meraj’s appointment diary is empty. It might be because he is old and also because he has strong opinions against performing for what he calls “timepass gatherings”. “Qawwalis are offered as prayers,” says Meraj, “and not sung for picnics.”

A classical Sufi singer never takes his kalaams (verses) lightly. Meraj has a personal repertoire of poetry that has come down to him from his ancestors. He sings Rumi’s Masnavi fluently in its original Persian version, a rare feat among qawwals. Like Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen, his ability to add girah is legendary. Girah is a special aspect of classical Sufi qawwals where verses from various poems are seamlessly woven into one single qawwali. For instance, if Meraj sings a Khusrau poem, which has verses in Persian and Purabiya, he manipulates the composition by bringing in Kabir Das or Bedam Shah Warsi in the Purabiya portion, and Rumi or Jami in the Persian segment.

Comparing himself with Meraj, Chand says, “If I know three verses of a Persian ghazal, Ustad Meraj knows seven verses.” Meraj’s stature is matched only by classical qawwals such as the late Aziz Warsi of Hyderabad and the late Murli Qawwal of Lucknow. It was Meraj who introduced Kabir Das’ dohas, Meera’s bhajans and Bulleh Shah’s kafis in the Sufi shrines. “Meraj has imbibed an understanding of verses by keeping the company of great Sufis and poets,” says Farida Ali. “He has extensive knowledge of dargahs in India and Pakistan.” Meraj’s standards are not easy to follow, some say, not even by his sons.

“Ustad Meraj keeps away from parties that are full on sharab (wine), shabab (women) and kebab,” says Chand. “But our family is the badshah (king) of these parties. We know the weakness—or shall I say the strength—of the audience.” In such gatherings, Chand’s team—armed with electronic keyboard, tambourine and octapad—starts with qawwalis but as the mood changes and people get drunk, requests start coming to dedicate romantic ghazals for “Malhotra sahib, Sharma sahib and Gupta sahib.” After a pause, Chand says, “If I insist on singing Hafiz, Bedil and Khusrau, how will I feed my children?”

Meraj’s children gently move their father to the side of the stage if the audience demands blockbuster Sufi film songs such as A.R. Rahman’s Khwaja Mere Khwaja. A decade ago the father permitted the sons to start singing at parties as long as he didn’t have to go. He explains the decision with this verse:

Bhara hai pet to sansar jagmagata hai;
Sataen bhookh toh iman dagmagata hai

(If the stomach is full, then the world shines;
If the hunger torments, then the faith shakes)

Once Meraj deigned to shoot a qawwali sequence for a film, which turned out to be embarrassing. “I didn’t know the story.” It was Deepa Mehta’s Fire, a film about lesbians. In March, Chand says he performed with actor Ranbir Kapoor for the film Rockstar. “Ranbir came to my home and we served him nihari, biryani, korma and kebab,” he says.

The compulsion of Meraj’s sons to downgrade to less pure Sufi music is indicative of the change in the genre’s subculture. “People no longer listen to qawwali,” says Peerzada Farid Nizami, a traditional custodian at the Nizamuddin Dargah. “Till a few years ago, the crowd cared more for the verses. Now, they are interested in the way the qawwal is clapping and the musician is beating the tabla. Spirituality has disappeared.”

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the Sabri Brothers in Pakistan took the qawwali out of dargahs and into the concert halls. “Qawwali was understood only by those who were on the Sufi path,” says Dhruv Bilal, a Delhi-based Sufi singer who trained under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Pakistan. “Sabri Brothers were one of the first qawwals to bring out classical qawwalis like Man Kunto Maula, Chhap Tilak and Nami Danam chi manzil bood to a secular audience that had no knowledge of Sufism and whose experience of Sufi music was based only on the sensuous pleasures of the sound.” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan propelled qawwali further into the mainstream by making it more personal.

The current vogue in qawwali parallels the fascination with New Age Sufism, in which its Islamic connection is ignored. “We sell 15 copies of Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi’s love poems every month—a good figure,” says Mithilesh Singh of Bahrisons Booksellers, Khan Market, Delhi. “Rumi is the best-selling mystical poet in the West but most of his verses in those anthologies are usually devoid of his Islamic discourse,” says Ms Dehlvi. “Mohammed Jalaluddin Rumi is presented merely as Rumi, a mystic without the Mohammed and without the Islam.” This way, Sufism becomes accessible to a wider community.

On Thursday evenings, people who may or may not be into Sufism but are curious about Sufi music visit the Nizamuddin Dargah in great numbers and respond enthusiastically when qawwals sing crowd-pleasing compositions such as Allah Hoo and Dama dam mast qalandar. Chand and nephews also attend the special mehfil. Meraj’s sons too are present though old age usually keeps him away.

About 20 years ago, Meraj had twice the energy. He led the mehfils during the Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusrau (Chand would be sitting somewhere behind him). He headed the qawwali gatherings in other dargahs, in and outside Delhi. Always dressed in pyjamas, achkan and topi, the erudite qawwal didn’t just recite the verses, but explained their subtleties. Artistically, he was a snob and a qawwal had to be truly accomplished to earn his respect. Professionally, he never cared for money and was focused on keeping his form’s purity.

Now, Meraj is frail, his eyes are sunken, his voice has dimmed and he has reduced his public appearances. He still commands awe. “Every time a scholar from the West lands in India to understand qawwali,” says Bilal, “he heads straight to Meraj’s impoverished dwelling.” The structure of Regula Burckhardt Qureshi’s seminal book on qawwali, Sufi Music of India and Pakistan, is entirely presented through the repertoire and performances of Meraj.

What will happen once Meraj leaves the scene? “The loss of Meraj will be epochal,” says Ms Qureshi, now a professor of music at the University of Alberta, Canada. “In both his person and his art he embodies a lifelong commitment to the musical and poetic heritage of qawwali, enriched by his knowledge of the spiritual as well as cultural values of Sufism.”

Long after the fad with qawwali ends, the tradition will continue in the dargahs. Every night at 10, a couple of qawwals—including members from the houses of Nizami Khusro Bandhu and Nizami Bandhu—gather in the courtyard in time for the closing of doors of Nizamuddin’s tomb. They sing a Persian verse by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

Saba ba suein medina rookun Azin duago salam barkha
(O morning breeze, when you reach Medina, Convey my salaamto Prophet Muhammad)

At that hour the dargah is almost empty, save a few faithful. The voice of the qawwals, who no longer feel the need to display a theatrically charged performance, is soft, sincere and emotional. Soon the door is closed. The qawwals leave.

Meraj and sons in Hazrat Inayat Khan Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

Chand and nephews in Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

Chand in a private concert

The Sound of Qawwali

The Sound of Qawwali

Meraj in a public concert

Rest is Music

Meraj in Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

Maula Mere Maula

Chand at home

Portrait

Connected

Meraj at home

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

The legend and his successors

The Music Men

The Music Men

O morning breeze, when you reach Medina, Convey my salaamto Prophet Muhammad

Maula Mere Maula

Qawwali will never die

City Faith – The Qawwal Families, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

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