Qawwali is related to Sufi philosophy. And in it, music is an important part of the remembrance of the absolute truth. In this tradition, devotees try to overcome the limits of physical existence and concentrate on the Universal essence through music.
In the beginning, a ritual called Sama was practised by the Sufis. They used to recite verses (which is called Qaul in Arabic) related to their practice after dusk in their prayer halls. They used to perform this ritual to feel the oneness of all existence.
The ritual was in vogue among Sufis in central Iraq, Egypt and Morocco from the very beginning. This idea was later linked to specific features of Indian thought, philosophy and music. The idea of Sama came to India and took a definite form, which is now known as Qawwali.
However, it would be a mistake to consider Qawwali just a form of music. In India, Sufis started spreading their message of love, in parallel with the conventional form of religion based out of the court or monarchy. Sufi saints, especially from the Chistia order, were in touch with the people. The traditional thought and music of people were later incorporated into the form of Qawwali.
Amir Khusrau is popularly known as the father of Qawwali in India. However, no specific music or concept is usually invented by a single person. They usually give a definite form to traditions or practices already common among the masses. Most probably Amir Khusrau also gave a definite form to the existing trend among the Sufis of India. Gradually he became known as the father of Qawwali in India.
Amir Khusrau himself was a disciple of the Chishtia Sufi sect. He was a great poet in Persian language and lived in Delhi. He was also a great musician and a great historian. His mentor was Nizamuddin Auliya.
It is said that once Nizamuddin Auliya was very upset. Amir Khusrau tried to relieve his sadness through music. He selected some Qaul or verses with deep meaning and set them to music popular among common people. He did try to use the traditional Dhrupad musical style, which was the most prevalent form of classical music in India at the time. Dhrupad was very formal and full of strict rules. There were a few options to do something new in this form.
So, he used verses which were also written in the spoken language of the people around Delhi. He selected some children and taught them the new composition. Later, he arranged a performance with the children for his guru Nizamuddin Auliya.Thus, Qawwali was born.
The later Qawwals, singers of this gharana (specialised schools or methods of classical music or dance), started to associate themselves with these children both musically and genealogically. A musical genre named Khyal (or Khayal) was later developed by these children who participated in the first performance of Qawwali. This gharana is also called Delhi gharana or Qawwal Bachcha gharana.
There are some unique characteristics of Qawwali. A lead singer performs the songs along with some backing vocalists and percussionists. One or more harmonium players also join the ensemble nowadays. Rhythm plays a very important role here. There is also a chorus that backs lead vocal. The chorus repeats the verses after the main singers in the same melody and rhythm.
Qawwali is not only sung in Urdu. Rather, it is also sung in Persian, Punjabi and Arabic. It is sung in Brajabuli and Awadhi language as well. Qawwali basically spreads the message of love. The main theme of Qawwali is to ignore all the conventional ideas and knowing truth through the message of love. The desire to become one with the truth is the main theme of Qawwali.
Conventional systems, institutional restrictions enchain people and their spirit. Qawwali is the message of transcending these constraints and embracing the absolute truth through love. It is sung in the durbars (courts) of Sufi saints. With the expansion of the entertainment industry in the 20th century, Qawwali has spread around the world through recordings, films and concerts.
But Qawwals who belong to certain gharanas still keep their message and singing style in line with the history of Qawwali. They associate themselves with the tradition that originated from Amir Khusrau in India.
The great Qawwals we know – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers, Warsi Brothers – each have their own style not just in terms of form but also content.
Qawwali does not follow a definite path of any stagnant scriptural belief. It did not accept the form of music that was in the royal court, rather it embodied the common ideas, musical styles and the features that were popular among the common people. It also incorporated a tendency to find the meaning of life through music.
Ordinary people who struggle through the seeming insignificance of existence feel the urge to associate themselves with something eternal, something larger than life. Qawwali is a clear expression of that longing. It is a very powerful part of the eternal urge for human emancipation through music.
Javed Hussen is a writer