Qawwali is a revered and refreshing musical tradition that dates back to the 8th Century Persia (today’s Iran and Afghanistan) . During the first major migration from Persia, in the 11th century, the musical tradition of Sema migrated to South Asia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Amir Khusro Dehelvi of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today in the late 13th century in India. The word Sama is often still used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama.
The word qaul refers to an “utterance (of the prophet)” and the first Qawwals (qawwali artists) repeated these quals by making them the subject matter of their qawwalis.
The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are mostly in Urdu and Punjabi (almost equally divided between the two), although there are several songs in Persian, Brajbhasha and Saraiki.
The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular, or outright hedonistic. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).
Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories:
Hamd – Arabic for praise, is a song in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd
Naat – Arabic for description, is a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. The opening hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.
Manqabat – (plural manaqib, which means characteristics) is a song in praise of either Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints
Marsiya – Arabic for lamentation for a dead person, is a lamentation over the death of much of Imam Husayn’s family in the Battle of Karbala
Kafi – devotional poem in Punjabi, Seraiki or Sindhi themed around heroic and great romantic tales from the folkfore, often used as a metaphor for mystical truths, and spiritual longing characterized by a musical refrain that sets a mood much like in a Ghazal
Munadjaat – Arabic for a conversation in the night or a form of prayer, it is a song where the singer displays his gratefulness to Allah through a variety of linguistic techniques
Ghazal – Arabic for love song, is a song that sounds secular on the face of it. It is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Although the ghazal is most prominently a form of Persian and Urdu poetry, today it is found in the poetry of many languages.
A group of qawwali musicians, called Humnawa in Urdu, typically consists of eight or nine men including a lead singer and a chorus of four or five men who repeat key verses, and who aid and abet percussion by hand-clapping. The performers sit cross-legged on the ground in two rows — the lead singer, side singers and harmonium players in the front row, and the chorus and percussionists in the back row. Women used to be excluded from traditional Muslim music, since they are traditionally prohibited from singing in the presence of men. These traditions have changed, however, as is evident by the popularity (and acceptance) of female singers such as Abida Parveen. However, qawwali has remained an exclusively male business.
Here is one of the most famous qawwalis from Indian cinema – Na Toh Karvan Ki talaash hai from Barsaat ki Raat
And another famous one from Mughal-e-azam – Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat Aazma ke hum bhi dekhenge…
Our monthly Mehfil this month at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, would present a selection of Qawwalis with insights by Javed Siddiqi saab, Shama Zaidi , Salim Arif and Suhail Akhtar. This would bring forth nuances of a truly indigenous form that is unique to Urdu and the Sub Continent.
Date: 8th October; Time: 7pm; Venue: Prithvi Theatre, Juhu
Entry is free.