City Faith – Night-Long Qawwali, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah
The rest is noise.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is world-famous for its qawwalis, the sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The dargah’s most special night in the year falls tonight. The qawwalis will be offered at the marble courtyard from late night to early morning, to mark the 809th Jashn-e-Wiladat, or birthday celebrations, of the shrine’s patron saint. The performers will include all the eight chowkiya, qawwali troupes, of the dargah.
Visitors to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s shrine are naturally most thrilled on spotting Chand Nizami. Leader of the dargah’s Nizami Bandhu troupe, he famously appeared in a blockbuster cinema qawwali (“Kun faya kun”) filmed in this same courtyard with actor Ranbir Kapoor. But reader, as you tonight attend the classics of sufi music performed live in the dargah, remember to silently offer your regards to a legendary though less-known figure of contemporary Delhi.
Until his death in 2015, Meraj Ahmed Nizami would be sighted daily in the dargah. He was among the world’s greatest sufi qawwals; part of the greatness came from his scholarly temperament. Even the superstar Chand Nizami once declared to The Delhi Walla that “among all the qawwals in all the dargahs of Hindustan, Ustad Meraj is the most special.” Besides, the structure of scholar Regula Burckhardt Qureshi’s seminal book on qawwali, Sufi Music of India and Pakistan, is entirely presented through Meraj’s repertoire and performances.
As the elderly patriarch of the dargah’s Nizami Khusro Bandhu troupe, Meraj was among a very few classical qawwals left in India. He fluently rendered Persian sufi verses in the old tarz, or melodies. 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. Khusro’s tomb lies within the shrine.
Cultivating a steady intimacy with the classics, Meraj had a repertoire of poetry he inherited from his ancestors. He sang Rumi’s Masnavi fluently, in original Persian. His ability to add girah was legendary—girah is an aspect where verses from various poems are woven into a single qawwali. If Meraj sang a Khusrau poem, which has lines in Persian and Purabiya, he would sometimes seamlessly manipulate the composition by bringing in Kabir Das or Bedam Shah Warsi in the Purabiya portion, and Rumi or Jami in the Persian segment.
Always dressed elegantly in a pajama, achkan and topi, Meraj was artistically a great snob, and didn’t care for money. He lies in a graveyard close to his beloved shrine. Tonight, his qawwal sons will be among the performers. Last afternoon, his eldest son, Hasnain, was singing alone in the dargah. Meraj’s presence was felt as well as missed. See photo.