Few musical traditions have the kind of history, and social and cultural impact, as the tradition of Qawwalis. Poems of devotion, sacrifice, and love, paired with ethereal music or just with the sound of hands clapping. Sung in voices which could transcend dimensions, qawwalis are another grain of proof to the fact that music is universal, and absolute.
The roots of this glorious musical tradition are traced back to Persia of the 8th century, and the Iran & Afghanistan of today.
The Sufi school of Islam is credited with combining mystic elements with Islamic theory, with the intention of not serving unjust rulers or living under strict Sunni laws, with no space for artistic expression. Qawwalis just happen to be the best known form of artistic expression of Sufism.
Breaking down the form:
A qawwali performance is the singing of devotional verses, in various languages accompanied by musical instruments. Qawwals (one who sings a qual -‘an utterance of the prophet) are usually male, and the stage is dominated by a leading singer (called mohri), with his companions on musical instruments or vocals seated around him.
Back in the day, qawwalis were performed using voice and the sound of hands clapping only. It was only with the advent of foreign influences that folk musical instruments were introduced. However, till date, no mics are used in an authentic qawwali performance.
A State of Divine Trance
While by nature, this is devotional music, and the aim, if any, is to sing praises of the departed and the divine, anyone attending a qawwali performance will vouch for something deeper at play. Qawwalis are used as a method to impart knowledge otherwise inaccessible by regular methods.
It has been documented that a definite motive of a qawwali session is to induce a state of trance in the audience.
Musically-induced ecstasy is called hal, and this state can be noted in a person by their bodily movements which range from the dreamy to the ecstatic. Qawwalis are the ultimate form of religiosity in music, with the audience reporting transdimensional states of being as ‘ego death’ while at a performance.
Qawwali in India
Qawwali made its way to the Indian subcontinent along with the Chishti order of Sufism, brought to Ajmer by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, in 1192. Legendary poet Amir Khusrau – also credited with the invention of sitar and tabla brought the tradition of qawwali from Persia, and collaborated with Pandit Gopal Nayak, relying on his expertise in Indian classical music, to form a more accessible kind of qawwali tradition.
The very first performance of qawwali in India can be traced back to 1315, marking 50 years since the death of Baba Farid- a renowned Sufi saint.
Khusrau’s performance at the royal court of the Ala’ al-Din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi, marked an important moment for the musical tradition, as it was the first time that qawwalis were being performed outside a shrine. An inevitable blending of styles happened once qawwalis were well-established as a musical form. Hindu & Islamic ideals merged to form musical bliss.
The wide range in qawwalis are narrowed down, based on their content.
Hamd > Naat > Manqabat
These three types of qawwalis usually follow each other in the above sequence, at all traditional programmes. A Hamd (Praise) sings praise of Allah, and marks the beginning of a qawwali performance. Next follows a Naat (description), which is sang to honour God’s messenger himself – Prophet Muhammad. A Manqabat, which are devotional poems penned in praise of the first Imam of Shia Islam, and the Prophet’s cousin, Ali, is sung after the Naat. Manqabats can also be written in dedication to any of the Sufi saints.
This is a song mourning the dead. More specifically, the death of Husayn ibn Ali, and his family and companions, at the Battle of Karbala, where they stood up to the tyrannical Umayyad caliph, Yazid.
Ghazals pass off as love songs at first listen, but qawwals go deeper. Ghazals in qawwalis are sung to talk about man’s need to ascend, to access depths hidden to the eyes, to touch the divine, and the desperate yearning that man has to reunite with his maker.
Songs sung in gratitude, or in secret invocation, to Allah, usually in Persian, are called munajaat.
With the spread of qawwali traditions in India, poems written in Indian languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, and Bengali soon started to be put to tune at performances. A kafi is a poem written in the unique style of North-West India, usually written in Punjabi.