City Legend – Meraj Ahmed Nizami, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Delhi’s greatest qawwal.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This winter marks the fifth death anniversary of Meraj Ahmed Nizami, the great qawwal of the sufi shrine of Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
The news of Meraj’s passing had gone unrecorded. Now, in this season of losses, one may as well commemorate the loss of one of the most accomplished, if little-known, figures of contemporary Delhi.
As the elderly patriarch of Nizami Khusro Bandhu family, Meraj was among a very few classical qawwals left in India. He rendered Persian sufi verses most fluently in the old tarz, or melodies. This frail erudite supremely elegant man lived most modestly, in a one-room house near the aforementioned 14th century shrine.
Meraj’s 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 comprise the world’s first qawwals.
Khusrau, a court poet to Delhi Sultanate kings, was closely associated with the evolution of Hindustani classical music. A disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, he is buried close to his tomb. The two graves are separated by a marble courtyard, the venue where Mian Samad’s descendants have been offering qawwalis throughout centuries, right down to Meraj, and now his sons, among other qawwal families.
Maintaining a steady intimacy with the classics, Meraj had a personal repertoire of poetry that came down to him from his ancestors. He used to sing Rumi’s Masnavi fluently, in its original Persian version, a rare feat among qawwals. Like sufi singer Abida Parveen, his ability to add girah was legendary. Girah is a special aspect where verses from various poems are seamlessly woven into one single qawwali. For instance, if Meraj sang a Khusrau poem, which has lines in Persian and Purabiya, he would manipulate the composition by bringing in Kabir Das or Bedam Shah Warsi in the Purabiya portion, and Rumi or Jami in the Persian segment. It was Meraj who introduced Kabir Das’s dohas, Meera’s bhajans and Bulleh Shah’s kafis in the sufi dargahs.
Always dressed in pyjamas, achkan and topi, Meraj was, artistically, a snob and a qawwal had to be truly skilled to earn his respect. Professionally, he didn’t care for money, more focused on keeping his form’s purity.
He might not have been a popular name among the masses, but it is said that every time a scholar from the West landed in India to research on qawwali, she headed straight to Meraj. The structure of Regula Burckhardt Qureshi’s seminal book on qawwali, “Sufi Music of India and Pakistan”, is entirely presented through Meraj’s repertoire and performances.
Meraj lies buried in the Panj Peeran Qabristan, a walking distance from his home.
Gift of Sufism