The Biographical Dictionary of Delhi – Meraj Ahmed Nizami, b. Nizamuddin Basti, 1927
The last great living qawwal.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In his eighties, Meraj Ahmed Nizami, the patriarch of Nizami Khusro Bandhu family, is one of the few classical qawwals left in India. He is one of Delhi’s great living landmarks.
“Meraj 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 Hazrat Nizamuddin’s shrine. Meraj’s family, who daily performs in Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah, has been performing qawwali, Islam’s sacred music, every Friday in Inayat Khan’s shrine for 40 years. “I have witnessed him creating a dynamic spiritual atmosphere of mystical haal (ecstasy),” Ms Ali says.
The man who is considered a 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 the home, 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 Hazrat 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 qawwal families that sing in the dargah, only Nizami Khusro Bandhu and the family of Nizami Bandhu, who are related to Meraj by marriage, live in the dargah’s vicinity.
A classical Sufi singer who 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.
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 dargahs. “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.
During stage performances, 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.
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.”
About 20 years ago, Meraj had twice the energy. He led the mehfils during the Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusrau. He also 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. Dhruv Bilal, a Delhi-based Sufi singer who trained under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Pakistan, says, “Every time a scholar from the West lands in India to understand qawwali, 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 author Qureshi, who is also 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.”
Meraj is usually spotted in Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah during the mornings. He is seen sitting quietly amid the younger qawwals in the shrine’s courtyard.
The last great qawwal