Wednesday, June 20, 2018

...Of Yusufi Saheb

I am somewhat notorious for prevaricating when put on the spot, especially when asked to give my opinion on a given subject. The prevarication doubles when the given subject is something close to my heart, for I try to keep my likes and dislikes to myself unless I am absolutely sure that I am either preaching to the choir or have found someone who is, in the immortal words of an 18th century missionary in Africa, just one hearty Hallelujah away from seeing the Light. Ask me about my favorite anything, and I'll either hum and haw, or provide a Top-5, Top-7 or Top-10 list certified to throw anyone off the scent. The reason is probably that it's very hard for me to settle on a single favorite in any of my favorite things. Depending on the occasion, the mood or the company, there is a lot that I can watch or listen to and consider it my favorite for that particular time, place or set of persons.

The only thing I have never prevaricated about are my favorite authors. My favorite author in the English language, for as long as I can remember, has been P.G. Wodehouse. My favorite author in Urdu has been, for as long as I can remember, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. The former had passed away 12 years before I was born. The latter has passed away today. 

I discovered both of them in my early teens, digging up their books from the Big Red Trunk that I have written about previously. Now that I think about it, both share a number of remarkable similarities. Both of them were universally acknowledged in their lifetimes as the inimitable masters of humorous writing in their respective languages. Not only that, both were acclaimed as the finest craftsmen of their respective languages, able to produce sentences and passages of surpassing beauty and delicacy. Both outranked everyone else when it came to producing an epigram that could retain its freshness outside the pages it was published in. The wealth of literary allusions in their work belied the depth of learning and scholarship that formed the bedrock of their comic edifices.

Both had a past in the banking profession (a checkered and brief one in case of Plum, a long and distinguished one in case of Yusufi Sb). Both shared an uncanny physical resemblance, both in youth and especially so in old age. From their writing, from their interviews and the recollections of those who had known them, it was clear that the warmth, the joy and the light permeating their writing emanated from a personality that was warm and joyful despite the prevalent cynicism of the age. Finally, with Yusufi Sb's passing today at the age of 95, he also shares with Plum the long innings that saw them outlive friends, competitors and detractors to become the grandest of Grand Old Men.

That is where the similarities end. While I have extolled the virtues of Wodehouse previously on the blog, Yusufi Sb's paeans have remained unsung. Where Plum stayed well clear of anything resembling seriousness, Yusufi Sb portrayed both the joys and sorrows of life, couching the blows in such superlatively beautiful Urdu that the impact was felt subliminally, a crucial moment or so after the reader had marveled at the sprightliness and alacrity of the prose. For me, the emotional impact of some of his 'humorous' essays has been greater than any passage written by the more 'serious' Urdu authors. The fact that he was terribly impecunious in publishing his writing  also gave each passage the quality of rarity and painstaking craftsmanship.

The fact that Plum passed away 12 years before I was born prevented me from ever being able to perform the ultimate act of idolatry, namely to see my favorite author in person and perhaps to express my gratitude for being a constant source of joy. Perhaps one day I might be able to make the pilgrimage to Remsenburg, Long Island and pay my respects to Plum, but for now that's still an unchecked item on my bucket list.

On the other hand, I can rest in the comfort of the memory that I did in fact personally pay homage to Plum's Pakistani counterpart, a day that will count as one of (if not THE) greatest of my life. On the occasion of the centennial celebrations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I was able to not only see Yusufi Sb speak, but was able to gather the courage to talk to him, get his autograph (for the younger readers, an autograph was an earlier, less infuriating alternative to the celebrity selfie) and finally, ask my father to take a photograph of me and Yusufi Sb. 

His speech that day is etched in my memory, the autograph is one of my most prized possessions, and the photograph is a visual reminder that I needn't constantly ask myself if I was dreaming or if I actually did meet the finest Urdu writer of the 20th century.

In one regard, Yusufi Sb's limited literary output puts him at an advantage over Wodehouse. While Plum's publications number more than a hundred, making the ability to own his Collected Works something of a daydream, Yusufi Sb's Collected Works are currently right in front of me on my bookshelf. I shall now stop writing and pick up the volume, open it at random and reacquaint myself with the Master.

Rest in peace Yusufi Sb.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

...Of The Punjabi Blues

The last two posts were devoted to an exploration of the Ghazal, a centuries old poetic form popular across the Indo-Persianate region, including the states of modern-day Central Asia. A number of famous ghazals were sung by ghazal singers and traditional Qawwals, allowing for an interesting comparison between the two musical forms. The distinct qualities of the ghazal; it’s nuanced and multifaceted meanings, its rich store of similes and allusions and its sensitive evocation of love and longing (both spiritual and temporal) are self-evident in the hands of skilled musicians, regardless of their preferred musical style. This post is somewhat similar to the last two in that it deals with a very specific musical form and its interpretation by Qawwals. That is where the similarities end.

The “Mahiya” is a distinct and very popular musical form in the Punjab. It has been sung for centuries and is an integral part of the region’s folk culture. It differs from the ghazal in several key aspects however. The most important difference is that like most other folk musical traditions of the world, Mahiyas aren’t written down and compiled in the form of Diwans. They’re part of the oral tradition, passed down from performer to performer, ever changing and ever evolving. They do not aspire to literary greatness, with an absence of complex similes and allusions, alliteration and nuanced meanings. The Mahiyas are written mostly by the people who sing them; itinerant folk musicians. In fact, they’re a popular literary pastime in the Punjab; I personally know at least half a dozen men and women in my village and the surrounding areas who regularly write Mahiyas and either sing them themselves, or pass them on to the ‘Mirasis’; members of the traditional Punjabi musician clans.

In the last post, I used an excerpt from Stephen Fry’s book to describe a ghazal to the readers unfamiliar with it. Unfortunately, Mr. Fry hasn’t written much about the Mahiya so I’ll have to use my own execrable rhyming skills to construct a prototype English Mahiya. The word “Mahiya” means “My beloved”, and has been ascribed to this musical form because it occurs very frequently in it, as a recurring coda at the end of each verse. The verses themselves follow a set pattern of three verses per stanza, with the first and third verses rhyming. The first verse is thematically unrelated to the next two, it’s main aim is simply to provide a rhyming counterpart to the third. It’s usually an everyday observation, a random phrase or a non-sequitur, something the singer has picked up from his everyday life. The second verse begins expounding the main theme and the final verse is the pay-dirt, the punchline and the soul of the entire stanza. So it goes, stanza upon stanza, three verses unrelated to the previous ones as far as rhyming is concerned, but in the same metre and expounding more or less the same theme. They’re sly, full of lovely vernacular wordplay and rooted in the everyday slangs and idioms. Here’s an example off the top of my head:

Two birds on a wire my love.
It ain’t any fever that I’ve got
I’m just burning with desire my love!

The sky’s so blue my love.
You wouldn’t ignore me this way
If your heart was true my love!

Fresh fruit on a cart my love.
I don’t know how I’ll survive
If you break my heart, my love!

Children play with a ball my love.
I’ve been staring at my phone all day
Waiting for you to call, my love.

P.S. the last stanza is a literal translation from one of this year’s most popular Punjabi folk tunes.
The Mahiya has a number of similarities with the blues, based on its interesting rhyme scheme, its use of everyday phrases and its origins among the rural itinerant singing community. Blues like Robert Johnson’s 32:20 blues, Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning and even songs like Dylan’s Buckets of Rain remind me of Mahiyas. Like I wrote earlier, Mahiyas are written solely in Punjabi/Seraiki. I don’t know of Mahiyas in any other subcontinental language, with one remarkable exception. Fawad Zakariya has written a wonderful post about it on his blog which saves me from waxing too eloquent about it. Suffice to say it’s one of the most famous and most beautiful pieces of Pakistani music ever recorded.

One final illustrative example of a Mahiya before I go into the meat of this post. The earliest recording of a Mahiya that I’ve been able to dig up is from a brilliant, brilliant 1951 Folkways record titled “Folk Music Of Pakistan”. Along with beautiful recordings of folk music from all regions of Pakistan (including the erstwhile East Pakistan), it has a lovely Mahiya duet by Munawwar Sultana and Ali Bukhsh Zahoor, two of the now forgotten pioneers of the early Pakistani music industry. Ali Bukhsh Zahoor is one of my favorite voices and I’m constantly looking for more recordings by him. The recording is Track 1 in the playlist embedded below.

With that, let’s get to the Qawwali portion of this post. As Mahiyas are a Punjabi musical form, most of the Qawwals featured here are Punjabi, with one rather quaint exception. Most of the Qawwals sing the same verses, or at least various permutations of the same verses. This signifies a shared wellspring of folk poetry that all of them draw from. Most of the recordings are snippets from Mehfils and aren’t professionally recorded, so be prepared for incomplete recordings, with scratchy, imperfect sound quality. Another interesting thing is that since most Mahiyas are directed towards a specific “Beloved” and the Qawwals are performers in the Sufi tradition, the Beloved here is either God, the Prophet (S.A.W) or a specific spiritual master or Pir. There’s only one performance per artist, as with most previous Qawwali posts. That’s enough exposition I think, let’s begin.

1. Koi Chittay Way Rupay Mahiya – Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

Ustad Salamat Khan’s voice would be considered divinely crafted for the Mahiya if not for the fact that it seemed divinely crafted for whatever he chose to sing, be it ghazal, kafi or classical. This Mehfil recording from the late 1970s is as perfect an example of a traditional Punjabi musical performance that you can get. The earthy beauty of Salamat Ali Khan’s voice as he sings the first verse of a beautiful Punjabi doha, Ustad Bakhshi Khan’s pathos soaked voice repeating the first verse, that makes even Salamat Khan utter an ‘Aha!’, and the powerhouse vocals of Mubarak Ali Khan as he hijacks the 2nd verse from Salamat Ali Khan, and then Sadiq Ali “Saddo” Khan’s sweet, melodious voice as he takes up the slack; all this happens in the first two minutes of the recording, before they’ve even gotten to the text of the Mahiya itself. Then Salamat Ali Khan says, “Now we’ll sing some mixed verses from a Punjabi Mahiya for you” and they’re off. With a non-sequitur about white banknotes, they launch into a beautiful Punjabi masterclass. As with the rest of the Mahiyas in this post, the theme is of the love of God, the Sufi concept of “Wahdat-ul-Wujood” along with pleas and remonstrances to the Pir.

2. Gal Kurta Shahiye Da – Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

When I wrote earlier that the Mahiya suffers from “an absence of complex similes and allusions, alliteration and nuanced meanings”, I didn’t realize that in the hands of an absolute master like Fareedi Sb, a Mahiya could contain all of the above and much more. In this recording, Fareedi Sb isn’t accompanied by his brother Agha Majeed, so there is a dearth of beautiful taans and sargams. Instead, the accompaniment is provided by a truly wonderful second vocalist who takes the lead in converting a simple Mahiya into a grand exposition of Sufi ideals including the search for God and the Truth, the concept of ‘Wahdat-ul-Wujood and the elusive nature of Divine love. The lovely ‘volte face’ by Fareedi Sb at the 12-minute mark takes the theme to a whole different place altogether. It’s a pure ‘Khanqahi’ performance with superlative, unmatched Punjabi girahbandi. It’s interesting (and very rare) to see Fareedi Sb take the backseat and let his co-vocalist drive the performance, but that’s exactly what happens in the first half of the performance, which is essentially a long series of stupendous Punjabi, Urdu, Purbi and Farsi girahs on a single theme. For someone like me who adores girahbandi, this performance is a diamond-mine.

3. Do Zulfaan Challe Ve Challe – Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal

Next is a fully realized “studio” performance of a Mahiya by Maulvi Ahmed Hassan, Maulvi Akhtar Hassan and Co. They are accompanied by a lovely Clarinet, with the voices of all the vocalists taking center stage one by one to expound on the theme of love of the Prophet (S.A.W). I’ve written at length at the unpolished beauty of Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s voice and I needn’t go into it again. He’s in top form here and is ably assisted by the entire party. The girahs here are again absolutely brilliant, in Punjabi, Farsi and Urdu. The themes are the same as those explored by the previous two performers and indeed by those that follow. It’s to the credit of Maulvi Akhter Hassan and Party that they imbue these themes and lyrics with an entirely unique freshness, vigor and vitality. The whole performance seems less like a series of Mahiyas and more like a Na’at written by one of the Classical Punjabi poets, an impression heightened by the use of the traditional Heer arrangement to deliver a number of lovely Girahs near the end. It’s a lovely performance, that leaves the listener amazed at the inventiveness and alacrity of the Qawwals.

4. Sonay Da Kil Mahiya – Bahauddin Qutbuddin Qawwal featuring Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal

The one Qawwali performance of a Mahiya by a non-Punjabi artist in this post is an anomaly in more ways than one. The Qawwal Party of Ustad Bahauddin Khan and Qutbuddin Khan included, for two decades, a young and rather precocious singer who would later go on to become a brilliant Qawwal in his own right. That young singer was Abdullah Manzoor Niazi who was part of his uncle Bahauddin Khan’s party off and on from the early 70s to the end of the 1980s. In addition to vocal duties, he was also part of the rhythm section, playing the bongos (or a miniature version at least) and sitting in the front row. So important was Abdullah in the greater scheme of things in the party that his uncles let him lead the party in several recordings, themselves hanging back as accompanists. This is one such recording in which young Abdullah is singing Mahiyas with the voice of Qutbuddin Khan clearly audible among the accompanists. There is a clear non-Punjabi accent which I find endearing, and there is no attempt at trying to elicit deeper, more spiritual meanings from the simple Punjabi poetry. Instead, the Qawwals do a straight sing-through of around a dozen Mahiyas. What the performance lacks in raw emotion, it makes up for in the sweetness of young Abdullah Niazi’s voice.

5. Har Koi Sohna Ae – Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

The Qawwals are already well into their performance when this recording begins, making the listener feel like they’ve jumped on a moving train. But what a train, and what a journey! This recording is from the tail-end of the venerable Muhammad Ali Fareedi’s career, when his son Abdur Rahim had come into his own and was calling some of the shots. We start at the takraar, and what a brilliant takraar, with the rhythm section chugging along like Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. It’s clear that this Mahiya is being performed as a Manqabat in the praise of a Pir. The themes are again those of ‘Wahdat-ul-Wujood’ with the Qawwals exploring the idea of discovering God through temporal love. The verses her are those that have been sung in the previous four selections, but it’s lovely to hear them embellished with new and interesting girahs by the Ustad as well as his accompanists, including Abdur Rahim Fareedi. It’s a testament to the elder Ustad’s command over the subjects being sung and his mastery of girah-bandi that, near the end of the performance, he successively uses an Arabic, Farsi and Urdu girah on the same Punjabi verse. The performance ends all too soon, with a resounding final beat of the dholak, leaving the passengers longing for further journeys on this wonderful locomotive.

6. Koi Jora Pakkhiyaan Da – Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA)

The final Mahiya in this post is also a journey well in progress when the listener joins in. Stretching the train metaphor from the previous selection, Haji Mahboob Sb is driving a steam locomotive at a leisurely pace through beautiful rolling countryside. There is a beautiful sway and an unhurried swing to the performance as Haji Mahboob Sb sings verse after verse in praise of the Prophet (S.A.W). The fact that this Mahiya is sung as a Naat may not be overtly obvious from the words, but the innate affection and love in the singing makes the fact abundantly clear. Haji Sb was fond of singing Mahiyas in his performance and there exist a number of recordings, with each performance distinct from the others despite the Mahiya verses being the same in most of them. The difference was down to Haji Sb’s superlative power to evoke a staggering number of Spiritual meanings from a single text by altering the tempo and arrangement of the composition as well as by using his matchless girah-bandi. Even though a few verses in this Mahiya are to be found in the previous five performances, the vast majority are totally unique, another testament to the vastness of Haji Sb’s repertoire. The recording fades out mid-performance, making the listener realize almost with a start, that the meandering locomotive has dropped him off at his destination and moved on, leaving behind a distant echo of its whistle.

Monday, September 4, 2017

...Of The Two Streams - Part 2

This is the second part of a rather long post featuring recordings of Ghazals by mainstream ghazal-singers and Qawwals, offering a contrasting view of the pre-eminent Urdu poetic and musical form of the last two to three centuries. Here we go!

Poet: Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob/Majzoob Dakkani?
Ghazal: Saari Duniya Mujhe Kehti Tera Saudayi Hai
Gayaki Angg: Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami
Qawwali Angg: Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

The first ghazal in this second half is by a truly enigmatic poet. I was initially unaware of the poet of this ghazal. I contacted Subhan Ahmad Nizami, the grandson of Ustad Iftekhar Ahmad Nizami (and one of my favorite Qawwals) and he told me that the poet was one Majzoob Dakkani. I mentioned the name to a few gentlemen who are interested in some of the more obscure poets but they had not heard of such a poet before. The only Majzoob they’d heard of was one Sheikh Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob. Again, very little biographical information was available about him but I’ve been able to piece together a few facts. Majzoob passed away sometime in 1944. He had served in the colonial bureaucracy at several important positions in District Saharanpur, UP and had been conferred the title of Khan Bahadur by the Colonial government. In addition to being a government servant and a poet, he was of a mystical bent and used to sing his verses and occasionally break out in dance. A few of his ghazals that I’ve read are very good, but there are precious few available.

The first recording in this post is a bit of a cheat in that it is sung by someone who was primarily a Qawwal. Ustad Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami was, along with his cousins Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Bahauddin Khan and Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, part of the original pre-1969 Manzoor Ahmad Niazi Qawwal party (The Barri Party). He possessed a unique, rough-hewn and weather-beaten voice that possessed a virile, earthy beauty. In the Barri Party recordings, his voice is distinct and immediately grabs the listener’s attention. He passed away at a relatively young age, leaving behind precious few recordings. The few solo performances of his that remain were recorded at Mr. Zaheer Alam Kidvai’s wedding ceremony. Here he sings some lovely ghazals and a couple of really sweet dadras. The audio quality is iffy at best, however his unique style shines through splendidly. It really is a lovely ghazal, and sung by Iftekhar Sb, it literally sparkles!

The Qawwali rendition of this ghazal is by Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi. My deep appreciation and admiration of Fareedi Sb is not a secret. I consider him one of the greatest Qawwals of the 20th century and arguably the finest shagird of Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali. In this recording, the party sings the kalam in a lovely arrangement based on a Raag that sounds really familiar but one I can’t for the life of me seem to recognize (Bhairvi?). The tarz is perfectly suited to Rasheed’s hefty voice, allowing Majeed Ahmad Fareedi to weave his magical taans at will. Even though the tempo picks up as the performance proceeds, the Qawwals are in no hurry whatsoever, lingering on each verse, repeating it for good measure, building takraar upon takraar. There is no girahbandi here, not even an opening preamble. What it lacks in text, it makes up for in the quality of the taans; there’s mellow taans, ghamak taans, and lovely Pahari style taans. It’s a 20-minute express train-ride through the ghazal, with an expert engine driver at the helm.

Poet: Anwar Mirzapuri
Ghazal: Main Nazar Se Pi Raha Hoon
Gayaki Angg: Iqbal Bano
Qawwali Angg: Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhter Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal

One enigmatic poet follows another. I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Anwar Mirzapuri. The only description I’ve found for him is “A poet very popular in Mushairas in India in the 50s and 60s.” Let’s leave it at that I guess.

Iqbal Bano was one of the queens of Pakistani music, lending her distinctive voice to innumerable ghazals and film songs that have become standards. In addition, she was an excellent light classical singer; her thumris in Tilak Kamod are especially lovely. Like her great contemporary Farida Khanum, her ghazals are marked by immaculate ‘talaffuz’, an understanding of the nuanced meanings of the kalam, and selection of arrangements that did not overshadow the text. This ghazal is no exception. She sings each verse almost lovingly, interspersed with short but excellent taans. One can almost imagine sitting in front of her, listening as she waves her left hand, plucking at invisible notes around her, entrancing the audience. It’s a short piece but a really lovely one.

The Qawwals performing this piece are those wonderful, exquisitely unpolished gems from Faisalabad, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan, his phenomenally talented son Maulvi Akhter Hassan (a voice if ever there was one), accompanied by Muhammad Mohsin and Zahid Hassan Bheranwale, with the voices of Maulvi Haider Hassan and Zameer-ul-Hassan somewhere in the mix. I’ve always had a grudge with whoever recorded this party (the otherwise brilliant Haji Hidayatulah I’m guessing) in that they usually didn’t adequately mic anyone except Maulvi Akhter Hassan. The result is that the rest of the voices lose their power a bit. But all that does is put Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s lovely voice front and center. This performance is one of my very favorite ones. The opening minute-and-a-half of the doha alone is worth the price of admission, as are the lovely short taans where Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s voice cracks so beautifully. You won’t find proper Urdu ‘talaffuz’ here, nor will you find sweet, classically trained voices. Instead, there are voices straight from the earth, striking, rough-hewn, powerful and absolutely beautiful.

Poet: Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Ghazal: Dil Main Ab Yun
Gayaki Angg: Mashooq Ali Khan
Qawwali Angg: Muhammad Ahmad Warsi Rampuri Qawwal

Faiz is arguably the greatest and most popular Urdu poet of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, and one of the great poetic voices of the world. The beauty of his ghazals and the stark magnificence and tenderness of his nazms is known and loved wherever Urdu is spoken and understood. I don’t think I can do justice in one paragraph to the importance of Faiz’s poetry in my life. For as long as I can recall, there has been a copy of “Nuskha-haaye Wafa” at the side table and another in the bookshelf. There have always been half a dozen cassettes of Faiz in the car; his own recitations of his poetry, Abida Parveen’s renditions, Iqbal Bano’s renditions, Farida Khanum’s renditions and so forth. Some of the most important memories (and an extremely embarrassing one) of my life are associated with Faiz’s poetry. This lovely ghazal is an example of Faiz’s utter mastery over the classical aspects of this poetic form and his ability to imbue it with modern sentiment without violating its romantic core. Also, what a mat’la!

Mashooq Ali Khan sings the ghazal here. He was a Radio Pakistan artist from Karachi who performed from the 50s to the end of the 70s. His specialty seems to be ghazals and light classical pieces, although I have a qawwali recording of his which is rather lovely. His voice is somewhat similar to Nasir Jahan, the famous Na’at-khwan and Soz-khwan, it’s obviously aged and past its prime, but its flexibility and mild tremulousness is very endearing. In this recording the sarangi creates a lovely, wistful atmosphere and the simple Keherva taal by the tabla gives Mashooq Ali Khan’s voice a firm foundation to weave his magic, which he certainly does.

When I began taking a keener interest in Qawwali around ten years ago (Jeez! It’s been ten years!!) I was a tad nonplussed to find that Faiz’s poetry wasn’t represented at all in the Qawwali canon. This, despite the fact that Faiz had written a couple of pieces specifically as Qawwalis. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had sung a lovely version of his Punjabi geet “Kidray Na Paindiyan Dassaan” but not as a Qawwali. There is an appreciable difficulty in translating Faiz’s more political and revolutionary verses to Qawwali but that still leaves a large body of work that has been left largely unexplored by Qawwals. The performance I’ve included in this selection was actually part of an active attempt to correct this long-standing oversight.

A few years ago, a rather interesting Qawwali mehfil was held in Delhi. The chief guest was the renowned Urdu scholar, Prof Gopi Chand Narang, with a number of luminaries in attendance. The aim was to recite a number of pieces by famous Farsi and Urdu poets. They couldn’t have chosen a better Qawwal than Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi for such a mehfil. Warsi Sb is an acquired taste. His style is relaxed, languid, a tad dishevelled and loose, which might put off anyone who prefers Qawwals who stick to the taal and laye and don’t wander into digressions. But I love him. His performance of this ghazal is the perfect example of his unique style. He strays behind the beat one moment, catches up and races past it the next. The performance is slow, methodical and measured, and his style of girah-bandi is like no other Qawwal I’ve ever heard. If there can’t be more Faiz kalams in the Qawwali canon, at least the ones that are present are being sung by Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi, and that’s fine by me.

Poet: Qateel Shifai
Ghazal: Garmiye Hasrate Nakaam
Gayaki Angg: Zahida Parveen
Qawwali Angg: Agha Bashir Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Qateel Shifai is rightly acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in the history of Pakistani film. However, recognizing him only as a lyricist is a great disservice to his career as one of the pre-eminent Urdu ghazal poets of the 20th century. This was a burden borne by a number of great lyricist poets, including Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi; the burden of their film career overshadowing their serious poetic aspirations. Qateel however was recognized early on as an important modern Urdu poet. His ghazals are modern and were popular amongst the masses despite being molded in the framework of classical Urdu poetry. He started reciting and publishing his poetry before partition and remained an important figure of the Urdu literary landscape until his death in 2001. Two of his ghazals are included here.

If I were to name the single greatest voice I have ever heard, it would have to be Zahida Parveen. She is rightly acclaimed as the Empress of the Kafi. No one has sung the kalam of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) with deeper understanding and more emotion. She was also a highly accomplished classical singer who had trained first under Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala and later under Ustad Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan of the Kasur/Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana. Her khayal performances are hair-raisingly good, though very hard to come by. Her ghazals, recorded in the late ‘50s and the ‘60s, are singular, incomparable to any other singer before or since her. There are flights across three octaves, there are taans of exquisite beauty and staggering dexterity, the bol-baant is perfect and there is an uncanny awareness of the taal and the laye. Despite all that, the text of the ghazal is never neglected, never overburdened with vocal calisthenics. Zahida Parveen’s power shines through in everything she ever recorded, be it Kafi, Khayal or the ghazal shared here.

The Qawwal performing this ghazal is the great Agha Bashir Ahmad Qawwal. Agha Bashir was the elder brother of Agha rasheed Ahmad and Abdul Majeed Fareedi and was an excellent Qawwal. After Partition, he was employed at Radio Pakistan Lahore and eventually became Station Director, becoming known in the process as Agha Bahsir Ahmad Lahore-walay. His style is characterized by a powerful, rough voice and his astounding ghamak taans. He performed regularly for more than half a century and recorded a number of excellent performances for Radio Pakistan as well as EMI. This ghazal is also taken from one of his 1960s Radio Pakistan recordings. He is accompanied by a rather lovely and striking voice that I’d love to be able to put a name to. He doesn’t resort to girahbandi or too many takraars, giving the ghazal a run-through from start to finish without too many distractions. His trademark taans arrive after the four-minute mark.

Ghazal: Tumhari Anjuman Se Utth Ke
Gayaki Angg: Fareeda Khanum
Qawwali Angg: Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

I’ve been listening to a lot of Fareeda Khanum lately, searching out deep cuts from the early decades of her career and every time I hear something new by her, I am stuck by the immensity of her talent. The sweetness of her voice, the perfection of her talaffuz and her mastery over ghazal singing are universally acknowledged, the result of her own innate talent coupled by years of rigorous training under her sister, the legendary Mukhtar Begum as well as Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala. Since her arrival at the musical scene shortly after Partition, she has been at the very top of the Pakistani musical hierarchy, and one doesn’t need to wonder why. As just one example of her many talents, notice her exquisite and effortless sense of rhythm and tempo in this recording. When she sings, she seems almost oblivious of the tabla, but never does she lose the thread of the ‘taal’, landing each note perfectly on the rhythmic cycle. It’s a lovely performance by a superlative artist

Few Qawwals have had a longer or more impactful career than Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi. From the early 1930s till the late 1970s, he led a brilliant qawwal party that included his son Abdur Rahim among others. His influence is obvious on the generations of Pakpattan based Qawwals that share his surname, a nod to their devotion to and service at the shrine of Hz Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (RA). From his earliest 78 RPM recordings to the mehfil recordings he made near the end of his life, Muhammad Ali Fareedi’s distinct voice and charming talaffuz remained distinct from any other Qawwal. His recording of Qateel Shifai’s ghazal is taken from a 78 RPM disc released in the early 1950s. The voice isn’t as sharp as it used to be two decades ago and there aren’t any taans or takraars, but the Ustads meandering vowels and short tremolos lend the ghazal a lovely color. 

Poet: Qamar Jalalabadi
Ghazal: Kabhi Kaha Na Kisi Se
Gayaki Angg: Mehdi Hassan
Qawwali Angg: The Sabri Brothers Ensemble

A contemporary and friend of Qateel Shifai, Qamar Jalalabadi was also predominantly known as a lyricist. He started his career around five years earlier than Qateel, and scored an early hit with the wonderful songs of 1942’s big hit Khandaan. (One of my favorite film soundtracks btw). He was one of the leading lyricists of the 1940s and early fifties, but was later overshadowed by the next generation of lyricists including Sahir, Majrooh, Bedi, Rajinder Krishen etc. He was a regular presence at Urdu mushairas in India and abroad till the start of the 21st century. Unlie Qateel though, he is primarily known as a lyricist, with his poetical career overshadowed by his popular songs.

It is fitting that the final ghazal in this post should be by the King of Ghazals Mehdi Hassan. I needn’t go into any detailed analyses of Mehdi Hassan’s voice, his style or his career. Suffice to say that he does full justice to this ghazal, just like he did full justice to whatever he sang. The recording is from the early 80s when his voice had started mellowing and descending into the lower registers. The composition perfectly suits the sombre and resigned mood of the ghazal, and Khansaheb sings it wonderfully.

The commercially released Qawwali records of the late 60s and 70s are an odd proposition. On one hand, some of the greatest qawwals of the last century were being recorded using state of the art recording equipment in a studio setting, allowing them to record the ‘type’ specimens of their repertoire for posterity. On the other hand, these recordings were made using arrangements that were a tad too “filmi” and more often than not, overshadowed the kalam being recorded. This was the case with a number of recordings made in the 1970s by Bahauddin Khan as well as the Manzoor Niazi party. No one did this type of recording better (if that’s what you can call it) than the Sabri Brothers, who were the pre-eminent Pakistani Qawwals in the 1970s. Just take a listen to the opening ninety seconds of this recording. Once the opening salvo is over though, Les Freres Sabri jump into the kalam like nobody’s business. The opening doha is brilliant, the girahs are brilliant, the takraars are brilliant. The brothers sing the ghazal straight through until they get to the ‘hasil-e-ghazal- verse, which is then embellished with three or four really interesting girahs. It’s a perfect example of a Qawwali that is populist as well as respectful to the kalam being performed. In short, the perfect bookend to this post about the ghazal, an art-form that has strived for centuries to achieve the perfect balance between artistic excellence and popular appeal.

Monday, August 14, 2017

...Of The Two Streams - Part 1

I spent the last month atop a 9000-foot mountain in the middle of nowhere, for all practical purposes cut off from the rest of the world. Finding themselves in such a situation, I’m sure each person would react differently. Some would take to meditation; others, encouraged by the bracing mountain air (though too thin for an asthmatic like me) give in to the evils of physical fitness and exercise. Still others would be possessed by the creative impulse and begin painting, composing poetry or writing the Great Pakistani Novel (which in my opinion has already been written and is called Udaas Naslain). I, of course, did none of the above. There were no attempts at self-improvement, spiritual or physical, and there was no intrusion of the creative spirit. My pursuits were altogether more prosaic. The demands of an ongoing clinical residency meant that I should use this opportunity to study, which, surprisingly, I did. The rest of my time was devoted solely to listening to, organizing, editing and generally tinkering with my music.

When I said that there were no intrusions of the creative spirit, I may have been selling the old c.s a tad short. It did nudge me towards attempting to find threads and patterns in the music I was listening to. As any music geek knows, the first step towards making sense of a heap of music is making playlists, which was my first step too. From these playlists emerged what I hope will be a series of rather interesting posts on a number of topics relating to what is apparently the raison d’etre of this blog, Qawwali. Here goes the first one:

For the last three hundred years, the dominant poetic form in the Urdu-Persian idiom has been the ghazal. The constant innovation and endeavor of generations of poets has made it a unique, exceptionally polished art-form within the wider purview of Urdu-Farsi poetry. So much so that it has gradually accumulated its own sets of idioms, similes, allusions, allegories and a syntax that has ensured its continued popularity while other, older poetic forms such as the masnavi and the ruba’I have faded from the popular imagination. Even in this era, when the perennial laments over the decline of Urdu poetry can actually be considered something of an understatement, the ghazal (along with Verse Libre) remains the main form of expression for poets in Urdu and Farsi as well as Punjabi and, in the diaspora, English.

I shall assume that my readers, or a sizeable majority at least, are aware of what comprises a ghazal. But for the minority who requires an explanation, I shall yield the floor to the “internationally tall” Stephen Fry. Quoting from his excellent book “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within”:

The lines in GHAZAL always need to run, IN PAIRS
 They come, like mother-daughter, father-son, IN PAIRS

 I’ll change the subject, as this ancient form requires
It offers hours of simple, harmless fun, IN PAIRS

 Apparently a Persian form, from far-off days
It needs composing just as I have done, IN PAIRS

And when I think the poem’s finished and complete
I STEPHEN FRY, pronounce my work is un-IMPAIRED

My version is rather a bastardly abortion I fear, but the key principles are mostly adhered to. The lines of a GHAZAL (pronounced a bit like guzzle, but the ‘g’ should hiccup slightly, Arab-style) come in metrical couplets. The rhymes are unusual in that the last phrase of the opening two lines (and second lines of each subsequent couplet) is a refrain (rhadif). It is the word before the refrain (qafiya) that is rhymed, in the manner shown above. I have cheated with the last rhyme-refrain pairing as you can see. Each couplet should be a discrete (but not necessarily discreet) entity unto itself, no enjambment being permitted or overall theme being necessary. It is usual, but not obligatory, for the poet to ‘sign his name’ in the last line as I have done.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

After partition, ghazal-singing was promoted to the top of the Pakistani cultural hierarchy along with Qawwali and folk-music, with North-Indian Classical music relegated to the lower ranks. The reasons for this shuffle were many. The abolition of the Princely States and their attendant system of patronage meant that music needed to be somewhat populist to survive. In addition, there was an active attempt by the powers-that-be to distance the new nation from the Sanskrit-infused strains of Classical music and move towards the musical forms that felt culturally more “Islamic”, more in tune with the centuries old Farsi/Urdu idiom and the rich traditions of the local languages of the new land as well as the philosophy of Sufism, all of which were considered the building blocks for the new Pakistani culture. (I must learn to write shorter sentences) A discussion of the pros and cons of this policy is something better left for people with inordinate amounts of time on their hands.

The result was that the musical forms of ghazal, qawwali and folk music flowered and flourished in Pakistan throughout the second half of the 20th century. The sheer number of truly superlative ghazal singers, qawwals and folk-singers that shone on the Pakistani stage is beyond belief. The advantage was that despite being somewhat populist as compared to Classical music, these musical forms served to improve and elevate the audience’s musical tastes, inculcating a newfound love and appreciation for Urdu poetry that ensured that even the lay-listener couldn’t help but be well versed with at least a few nuances and niceties of the ghazal.

The verse form of the ghazal is the largest and possibly most important part of the Qawwali canon. Ghazals in Farsi and Urdu remain the mainstay of most Qawwals’ repertoires. The main difference between the Qawwals and ghazal-singers is that (for the most part) Qawwals tend to sing ghazals whose literal or figurative meanings, allusions and idiom can be considered in the spiritual context. The open-ended nature of the ghazal ensures that a large number of popular Urdu ghazals have satisfied these criteria and have made their way into the Qawwali repertoire. These include pieces by the legendary Urdu poets of the 18th and 19th century (the Asateza) as well as the modern 20th century greats. Comparing renditions of the same ghazal by ghazal-singers and qawwals opens up new avenues into the meanings and context of the poetry and offers a unique glimpse into the evolution of these two art forms, the predominant art forms of Pakistani music.

In keeping with the previous posts, I have restricted myself to only one performance per artist. I have however, relaxed my self-imposed rules to allow for a poet to be represented more than once. I’ve excluded the ghazals of the recognized Sufi poets, e.g. Bedam Shah Warsi, Hz Shah Niaz, Zaheen Shah Taji etc. as they’ve been sung by a number of Sufi performers such as Abida Parveen etc. I’ve arranged the ghazals chronologically in terms of the poets’ lifetimes, starting from the 18th century, counting down to the 20th.  Here goes:

Poet: Siraj Aurangabadi
Ghazal: Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq
Gayaki Angg: Shaukat Ali
Qawwali Angg: Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers

The ghazal I’ve chosen to start off this post is a rather strange one, by a rather strange poet, and I’m not saying that pejoratively. Siraj Aurangabadi was a Deccani poet of the 18th century, a contemporary of Mir Taqi Mir. That in itself isn’t very strange. What marked him as different from his contemporaries as well as successors was the fact that he was a ‘Sahib-e-Tariqat Pir’, an ordained Sufi who accepted disciples and imparted Spiritual knowledge. I can think of Khwaja Mir Dard as the only other example amongst Urdu poets of standing. His spiritual bent is prominent in his poetry, including this enchanting ghazal. For me, this ghazal always evokes a strangely magical atmosphere, one with fairies, enchantments and evil breezes from strange lands. The theme is of Wahdat-ul-Wujood, of Fanaa and the subservience of logic before Love. There is a lovely ‘ghinaiyyat’ or internal rhythm to the ghazal which makes it ideally suited to be sung.

The first performance is by Shaukat Ali. Shaukat Ali burst onto the Pakistani musical scene in the early 1960s as a wonder-kid while still a student at Government College Lahore. His powerful, almost operatic voice made him perfect for the folk epics that he has continued to sing in his inimitable style. But “Shauki”, as my grandmother affectionately calls him, achieved his early renown as a very gifted ghazal singer. Over the last half century, he has sung a number of remarkable ghazals, all the while maturing from the erstwhile “Prince of Folk” to a senior statesman and an institution of Pakistani music. I love the arrangement of this ghazal and the fact that the power and heft of Shaukat Ali’s voice lends itself to the meaning of the ghazal rather than distracting from it.

The Qawwali performance of this ghazal is by Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers from their triumphant performance at the Kabir Festival in Bangalore, 2009. Farid and Abu Muhammad have the wonderful ability to capture the mood of an audience and use it to add to the performance. Farid’s charming spoken preamble and the spoken interludes within the performance itself (interspersed with an effortless smattering of Hindi words) serves to introduce the audience to the central themes of the ghazal, while the lovely girahs guide them further into its deeper layers. It’s a ghazal the brothers frequently sing, and considering this masterful rendition, one hardly wonders why.

Poet: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
Ghazal: Jahan Tera Naqshe Qadam Dekhte Hain
Gayaki Angg: Ejaz Hussain Huzravi
Qawwali Angg: Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal

One of the books I brought with me to my mountain sojourn was Maulana Hali’s landmark “Yadgar-e-Ghalib”. Apart from being an invaluable biographical resource on the great poet, the book’s detailed analyses of Ghalib’s literary achievements allowed me to deepen my researches into Ghalib’s poetry. A detailed exposition of said poetry isn’t warranted here, especially as I have devoted a previous blog-post to it at some length. This ghazal is one of Ghalib’s most famous, featuring subtle yet lovely word-play, nuanced meanings and an evocation of the Beloved’s beauty. It has been sung by many, with some of the greatest singers of the subcontinent attempting to interpret this charming ghazal, with varying degrees of success.

Hailing from the small town of Huzro near Attock, at the border of Pakistan’s Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, Ejaz Hussain Huzravi was an enigmatic and deeply underrated ghazal singer. I had considered him (terribly unjustly) amongst the lesser Ghazal singers of Pakistan until my friend Nate posted a compilation of his ghazals on his blog. To say that the selection opened my eyes would be an understatement. I was awestruck by the sweet dolorousness of Huzravi’s voice, his excellent selection of Kalam and the understated style of singing. Here he evokes the resigned, tragic nuances of the ghazal, in a performance imbued with longing and a remembrance of Love’s beauty.

The wonderful duality of meaning in Ghalib’s kalam is evident from the Qawwali performance of this ghazal. Like the Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad performance above, this one too is taken from a triumphant concert in India. Ustad Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal gave several concert performances in India post-partition, including a magnificent concert at Bombay in 1958, from which this performance is taken. I’ve included this performance in my previous posts on Ghalib as well as the raag Kedara, but its so good that it bears sharing a third time. It’s a joyful, lively, ‘khilti hui’ rendition prefaced by Salamat Ali’s lovely harmonium. In stark contrast with Ejaz Hussain Huzravi’s performance, the Ustads turn the ghazal into a playful account of the adventures in the Beloved’s pursuit, cheerfully facing the travails of love. The Ustads’ trademark takraars, taans and vociferous style are in full display here.

Ghazal: Mazze Jahan Ke
Gayaki Angg: Ustad Amanat Ali Khan
Qawwali Angg: Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

I stated at the beginning of this post that after partition, Ghazal quickly supplanted Classical as the officially patronized musical form in Pakistan. The perfect example of this change is the career of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. The crown prince of the young and vigorous Patiala Gharana of North-Indian classical music, Amanat Ali along with his brother Fateh Ali Khan were seen as the rightful claimants to the throne vacated three decades earlier by Ali Bakhsh-Fateh Khan, the stalwarts of the Patiala Gharana. Possessing a deeply emotive voice that perfectly complimented his brother Fateh Ali’s gravelly and powerful baritone, Amanat Ali was the pre-eminent Pakistani classical singer. But he was aware of the changing trends and in the early 1960s, began his foray into ghazal singing. His classical excellence, coupled with the sensual emotiveness of his voice quickly made him one of the pre-eminent ghazal singers of Pakistan. Before his untimely death in the early 1970s, Amanat Ali Khan recorded a number of excellent ghazals, including this version of Ghalib’s wonderful kalam. He sings it in a light, melodious arrangement in which the simple beauty of his voice shines through despite the rather heavy instrumentation.

The Qawwali interpretation of this kalam is by Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal. It’s one of my most favorite pieces of music ever and that’s all the description I am going to write.

Poet: Ameer Minai
Ghazal: Tu Ne But-e-Harjayi
Gayaki Angg: Nayyara Noor
Qawwali Angg: Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

Ameer Minai was one of the younger contemporaries of Ghalib and an important poet of the 2nd half of the 19th Century in addition to being a lexicographer, jurist and Islamic scholar. The first half of his life was spent in relative ease in Awadh, but after the War of 1857, his condition become strained until he was accepted into employment as the poetry teacher or “Ustad” to the Nawab of Rampur – a position in which he succeeded his friend Ghalib. The last years of his life were spent compiling and securing financial backing for a comprehensive Urdu dictionary. He was able to complete the volumes pertaining to the first three letters of the Urdu alphabet before he passed away. His fame rests on his lovely Na’ats and ghazals. His “Zahir main hum fareefta husn-e-butaan ke hain” sung by Fareeda Khanum is one of my eternal favorites. The ghazal chosen here is a light piece in which the poet laments his choice of the object of his affections, and the various travails he has encountered on Love’s path. As with most of Minai’s ghazals, and most of the selections in this post, the decision whether the Beloved is temporal or spiritual is left entirely to the audience’s imagination.

Nayyara Noor is unique among Pakistani ghazal-singers. The startling quality of her voice has been acclaimed by none other than the late Anil Biswas, who wrote her a letter of appreciation which she considers her most prized possession. In the early ‘70s she was able to put a modern, youthful spin on the art of ghazal singing without compromising on its aesthetics or the quality of the performance or the choice of kalam. In addition to her forays into modernity and in collaboration with Producer/Writer Shoaib Hashmi and Composer Arshad Mehmood, Nayyara carried out a series of bold, experimental recordings. These involved rendering ghazals in a style that had flourished in the 1920s-1940s and had then gone extinct: the Parsi Theater style of ghazal singing exemplified by stalwarts like Mukhtar Begum. Her rendition of this ghazal is also in that style, and it suits the kalam very well, heightening its melodic surprises and giving it a long-ago-and-far-away feel.

The Qawwali performance of this ghazal is by Haji Mahboob Sb. There are just four performers. Haji Sb leads and plays Sitar. Haji Mushtaq accompanies and plays the harmonium. A third accompanist handles clapping duties while the fourth is on the tabla. Each of the four performers fulfils their duties to absolute perfection. The recording is from the early ‘70s, when Haji Sb used to perform choice ghazals in front of Hz Babuji (RA) without excessive girah-bandi or tazmeen. The lack of excess in this recording is part of its beauty. The talaffuz is perfect, the brief takraars are perfect, Haji Mushtaq’s mini aakaars are perfect, the two-man rhythm section is perfect. It is a perfect example of Khanqahi Qawwali.

Poet: Allama Muhammad Iqbal
Ghazal: Har Lehza Hai Momin
Gayaki Angg: Noor Jehan
Qawwali Angg: Manzoor Niazi Qawwal aur Hamnavaa

At the start of the 20th century, Iqbal was one of the brightest and most promising ‘shagirds’ of the recently deceased Mirza Daagh Dehelvi, the undisputed master of the light-hearted, playfully romantic ghazal. Over the next four decades, Iqbal’s poetry assumed the more imposing spiritual, political and philosophical mantle that made him the Poet-Philosopher of the East. But his poetry still retained the wonderful rhythms and internal rhymes he had learnt from Daagh at the start of his career. As a result, a large number of Iqbal’s ghazals, both political as well as romantic, have been put to music, to excellent effect. After partition, “Iqbaliyat” or the singing of Iqbal’s kalam was actively introduced as a sub-genre of Pakistani music, with a large number of artists singing his kalam on Radio and subsequently Television. This ghazal is one of Iqbal’s overtly political ones, defining what Iqbal believes are the essential qualities of a perfect Muslim. Despite its rather heavy political and revolutionary message, it’s not top-heavy. There is a lovely flow and lilt to it which is superbly exploited by the two artists performing it.

If the musical history of Pakistan is to be distilled into a single performer, it would most probably be Noor Jehan. From precocious film-star in the ‘30s to THE female voice of Pakistani cinema for four decades, Noor Jehan was a prevalent cultural presence in the subcontinent for more than 60 years. One of the reasons for her longevity was a remarkable career reinvention in the late ‘70s when she decided to fully exploit the opportunities provided by the medium of television. In a series of landmark programs titled “Tarannum”, she re-recorded her famous film hits and commissioned new compositions of ghazals by the best Urdu poets, both old and new. Then, she had these recordings ‘picturized’ on herself, employing all the charming techniques from her career as a cinematic leading lady. In doing so, she introduced herself to generations of new listeners, won legions of new fans and added a number of remarkable ghazals to the Pakistani musical canon. Her rendition of this ghazal is among her more famous recordings from that era, rendered in a sober yet powerful style, with perfect ‘ehteraam’ to both the words and the meanings of the kalam.

The Qawwali recording of this ghazal is taken from a Radio Pakistan performance recorded for broadcast on Iqbal Day, the birthday of Allama Iqbal that was a major annual cultural event each year on the 9th of November. Radio and TV used to devote the day to Iqbaliyat and a large number of recordings were commissioned each year. Sadly, most of them have only been heard once or twice and remain stored away in the Radio Pakistan vaults. The rendition is by the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal aur Hamnavaa, sans Bahauddin Sb, which dates this recording to the early 1970s. The party is led by Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, accompanied by Manzoor Ahmad Niazi and Naseeruddin Saami. Raziuddin Sb’s ‘kharri’ enunciation and Manzoor Niazi Sb’s sweet, clear taans are the highlight of this lovely piece that is devoid of any girah-bandi except for a wonderful Arabic prayer near the end and the short preamble at the beginning. The recording fades out as Raziuddin Sb leads the party into the stratosphere.

Poet: Jigar Muradabadi
Ghazal: Iss Ishq Ke Haathon Se
Gayaki Angg : Begum Akhtar
Qawwali Angg: Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi Qawwal

Ali Sikandar “Jigar” Muradabadi is a giant of Urdu literature and one of the great poets of the 20th Century. He is recognized as one of the very few “Ustads” in modern Urdu poetry, a vital link between the romantic sensibilities of the 19th Century and the modernist, progressive attitudes of the 20th. His poetry has remained popular amongst all strata of society, from the Urdu-speaking elite of North and Central India to the Sufis and devotees of shrines dotted across the subcontinent. There is a striking spiritual element to his poetry, that makes his ghazals a mainstay of the Qawwali repertoire. In addition, his ghazals have been sung by almost all the great ghazal singers of the subcontinent. He was fond of reciting his ghazals in a unique ‘tarannum’ style which relied on the innate musicality of his kalam. He is a personal favorite of mine.

The year is 1952. The setting is the Bombay residence of famous businessman and patron of the arts Mr. Khatau Vallabhdas. An evening of music has been arranged for a small gathering of carefully chosen aficionados. The singer is 38-year-old Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, still some years away from completing her transformation into Begum Akhtar. The mehfil starts at 7 in the evening. What follows is utter and absolute magic. One astonishing ghazal follows the last, followed by a selection of choice Thumris, Dadras, Chaitis and Horis. Akhtari Bai sings magically, she applauds her accompanying musicians and occasionally bursts into a girlish giggle. Amongst her many renditions that night is this ghazal of Jigar’s, in a performance that defies description. Also, the tabla player is a genius.

Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi is unique among the Qawwals of the 20th century. He was a major Qawwal of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana who made Hyderabad his home, rather than Delhi. The majority of his repertoire comprised of Urdu ghazals rather than the more overtly spiritual repertoire of his contemporaries. His performance style was like no other, with a staccato harmonium and a similarly staccato style of singing that frequently teetered on the edge of the taal before returning to the ‘samm’ in a startling flourish. He has sung ghazals by the greatest Urdu poets and is a landmark figure in the Deccani culture of the second half of the 20th century. This ghazal is amongst my most favorite of his performances.

Ghazal: Shab-e-Gham Ki Daraazi
Gayaki Angg: Pandit Vitthal Rao
Qawwali Angg: Nazeer Naseer Warsi Qawwal

If I’m lucky, once every two or three years, I stumble upon a new Musical Discovery. An artist that I instantly fall in love with and begin obsessing over. My musical discovery of 2017 has been Pandit Vitthal Rao. In a way, discovering him has been the inspiration for this post. The ghazal posted below had been among my favorites, having been sung by a number of Qawwali artists. One day, while flicking through YouTube videos, Istumbled upon Pandit Vithal Rao’s rendition of it and I was hooked. I may be a tad biased considering he’s now one of my favorite artists but I consider him one of the better ghazal singers from across the border, a list that I can count on the fingers of one hand. His ‘talaffuz’ and phrasing is excellent, his voice is beautifully fragile and tremulous, and he sings the ghazal beautifully. Like Aziz Ahmed Warsi above, he was a fixture of the post-partition Deccani culture and was, until his death recently, one of the pre-eminent (though highly underrated) ghazal singers of India.

The tail end of this post has taken on something of a Deccani hue, as the last performers in this post are also from Hyderabad. They are the grandsons of Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi and are amongst the most sought after Qawwals currently performing in India. Their style has tinges of their late grandfather and they share his penchant for selecting excellent kalam to perform. Their repertoire includes a number of Jigar Muradabadi ghazals, including this mehfil rendition from 2002. Like their grandfather, they eschew excessive girah-bandi, focusing instead on the rendition of the kalam. Similarly, there isn’t an excess of vocal gymnastics. It’s an excellent rendition of an excellent ghazal, just the way I like it.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t realize that it would turn out to be such a large undertaking. If I’d known from the start, I would’ve balked and let laziness take its course. But now as I glance at the word count and realize that it’s crossed 4000 words, I guess I might as well pull up my socks and complete the darned endeavor. Writing another 4000 words is one thing, inflicting an 8000-word opus on the unsuspecting reader is entirely another. So, I’ve decided to leave the second half of the post (yes, you’ve only reached half) for the second installment, to be published two weeks from now. Till then, happy listening.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Of Eagles With Eagles...

کند ہم جنس با ہم جنس پرواز
کبوتر با کبوتر، باز بہ باز

Birds of a feather fly together
Doves fly with doves, Eagles with eagles

A word of warning. This is another of those "Pucca" Qawwali posts that feature scratchy recordings, obscure biographical details and other items that may not be interesting to the lay-reader but which - for me at least - are THE reason I fell in love with Qawwali. Let's begin...

Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal was born in Pakpattan in 1914 and died at Golra in 1992. Although young Mahboob was trained in manufacturing silver flake (chandi kay warq), his father was intent on making him a Qawwal and sent him to the legendary Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi (Mahboob 's brother-in-law) to be trained. Haji Sb spent seven years under the tutelage of Muhammad Ali Fareedi but was unable to imbibe much in the way of Qawwali, and was sent back to his father as a "gone case". On one of his visits to Pakpattan, Hz Ghulam Mohyeddin Gilani (Hz Babuji R.A) - the son of Pir Meher Ali Shah of Golra(R.A) was approached by Mahboob's father who requested that Hz Babuji take the youngster under his wing and train him to be a Qawwal. Hz Babuji agreed and took the young Mahboob with him to Golra. Initially, Mahboob was sent to the famed Sufi Ali Bukhsh "Waiz" Qawwal to learn his unique style of Qawwali with Sitar accompaniment, but Waiz Qawwal also found himself unable to teach the student to his satisfaction, and Mahboob returned to Golra. 

At Golra, Hz Babuji decided to train Mahboob himself and took him to Pir Meher Ali Shah (R.A) to obtain his blessing. After Pir Meher Ali Shah (R.A)'s blessing, Mahboob started practicing Samaa under Hz Babuji's direct training as the Darbari Qawwal of the Golra Sharif shrine. Throughout Hz Babuji's lifetime, he taught Mahboob the intricacies of music, thousands upon thousands of Sufi texts and their explanations, as well as the core Sufi concepts that - as the Darbari Qawwal - Mahboob's task was to transmit to his audience. The result was that Haji Mahboob was acclaimed - by his audiences, Sufis and other Qawwals - as THE Darbari Qawwal. He was recognized as the spokesperson of the shrine, who effectively educated his audience under the direct supervision of the custodians of the shrine. Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal performed almost daily at the Golra Sharif Shrine for more than half a century and his Mehfil recordings are a treasure for anyone who prefers Qawwali the way it was intended - as a form of spiritual instruction.

Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal was born in 1922 in Batala, (Gurdaspur) and died in 1985. He belonged to a traditional Qawwal family; he was the nephew of the great Muhammad Ali Fareedi, his elder brother Agha Bashir Ahmad was a famous Qawwal in his own right, while his younger brother Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi was one of the greatest accompanists in qawwali history. Agha Rasheed's journey to becoming a qawwal wasn't easy. He began his musical career as the tabla-nawaz with his elder brother Agha Bashir's party but became determined to become a Qawwal after being scolded (and reportedly slapped) by his elder brother due to a mistake in one of their performances. 

He then went to the great Qawwal of the first half of the 20th Century, Fateh Ali Khan, and asked to be taken under his wing. The story of his first day under as Fateh Ali Khan's shagird is also very interesting. Fateh Ali Khan had told the young student to stand next to a wall and loudly practice the musical scales. While Rasheed was practicing in his (even then) loud and raspy voice, an acquaintance of Fateh Ali Khan's passed by and commented in earshot of Rasheed, "Who is this donkey you've got braying next to the wall?". Luckily for Qawwali, Rasheed didn't take affronts like this to heart and studiously learnt Qawwali under Fateh Ali, ultimately becoming - in the opinion of wiser heads than mine - his pre-eminent pupil and the most perfect exemplar of his Ustads' style of Qawwali.

The stories of Haji Mahboob Ali and Rasheed Ahmad intersect at several key points. For one, they were cousins. Secondly, Rasheed was a disciple of Hz Babuji (RA) - he had obtained 'ba'et' on Hz Babuji's hand. Third, even though Rasheed wasn't permanently attached to any specific Sufi shrine, he practiced the "Darbaari" style of Qawwali throughout his life, eschewing - either willingly or through a lack of opportunity - the more commercial style of his peers. Further, both Haji Mahboob and Agha Rasheed Ahmad considered it their sacred duty to bring about a spiritual change in their listeners. Haji Mahboob had once said, "If there is one "Sahib-e-Haal" in my audience, my job is done; otherwise dust upon my face and upon the audience!". Agha Rasheed had once expressed similar sentiments, saying "If it were up to me, my audience would leave the mehfil with their clothes in tatters." Another important similarity was that both Qawwals were accompanied by their phenomenally talented brothers; Haji Mushtaq Ali with Haji Mahboob and Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi with Agha Rasheed. Both these accompanists were superbly talented in their own right but kept their talents subservient to their elder brothers for almost their entire careers. It is a fitting (and touching) tribute to their association that after the deaths of both Haji Mahboob and Rasheed, both their younger brothers joined hands and took over the duties of Darbaari Qawwals at Golra, each performing regularly till they passed away.

The two great Qawwals, as a result of their spiritual allegiance to Hz Babuji (RA), were great friends and admirers of each other. Agha Rasheed would visit Golra regularly during the days of the Urs, and out of deference to Haji Mahboob's seniority in both age and as the Darbari Qawwal of the shrine, would sit in with Haji Sb's party as an accompanist. On the conclusion of the Urs, Haji Mahboob would return the favor by giving the entire sum of money collected as "Nazr" during the 'Chaadar' ceremony over to Rasheed. Very few recordings exist of the two great qawwals singing together, but the few that remain are phenomenally powerful. Even when they were not singing together, their repertoires often contained kalaams that were distinct from their contemporary Qawwals. Most of these unique kalaams were either written by succeeding generations of the Pirs of Golra Sharif or by devotees of the Golra shrine like Isa Amritsari. By listening to both these Qawwals renditions of a common repertoire, one gets a better idea of their contrasting styles. While Haji Mahboob preferred an emphasis of text over music (mainly because he confessed to being relatively untrained in the intricacies of classical music), Agha Rasheed fully utilized the superb musical tutelage of Fateh Ali with taankari, sargams and stupendous takraars. Haji Sb's style was more meditative, mellower and more explanatory. Rasheed's was dramatic, brashly powerful and exclamatory. Both Qawwals succeeded where most others have failed, in their ability to transfer the spiritual meanings of the kalaam to their audience effectively.

Haji Mahboob Ali (with Sitar) and Haji Mushtaq Ali (on harmonium), with Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi (extreme left) and Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi (6th from left)  in the 2nd row.

Baaz Ba Baaz - Haji Mahboob Ali and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

1. Aa Punla Mor Muharaan Ve
2. Khuda Ki Qasam Hai Khuda Jalwagar Hai
3. Arzooe Wasle Janaan
4. Apni Ghurbat Se Teri Shan Se

These first four kalaams are by Pir Sahibaan of Golra [the first by Pir Naseeruddin Naseer (RA), the next three by his father, Pir Ghulam Moinuddin (RA) who used "Mushtaq" as his takhallus] serve to highlight both Qawwals' approaches to Qawwali. Haji Mahboob presents these three pieces without much girahbandi or embellishment, as was his wont when performing the kalaams of Pir Ghulam Moinuddin (RA); adopting a beautiful, hauntingly melodic arrangement (especially in the latter three kalaams which are amongst my most favorite performances of his). What emerges is a series of performances steeped in longing, love and melancholy. Agha Rasheed on the other hand, uses long takraars to build up the kalaams to a series of crescendos. In between, there is lovely Punjabi girahbandi and superb taankari that highlights the Qawwals' musical credentials. The highlight is his rendition of the second kalaam, a masterpiece in the construction of a Qawwali performance. The performance builds in tempo and "zor" with each passing second, like a locomotive slowly gathering speed before whisking away the listeners to destinations unknown.

4. Diya Hota Kisi Ko Dil

This is a rather famous piece by Bedam Shah Warsi and both qawwals have sung it in its traditional tarz; un-embellished, with minimal girahbandi or taankaari.

5. La Ilah Di Ramz Niari

This is a beautiful Kafi of Hz Baba Buleh Shah (RA) which is rarely sung by Qawwals. It's message is of the One-ness of God and the fact that the belief in this One-ness - Tauheed - is the central tenet of Islam and Sufism. also explored is the Sufi concept of  'Wahdat-ul-Wujood' as expounded by Hz Ibn-al-Arabi (RA) and his successors. Here it is Haji Mahboob who expands the performance, performing a profound exposition of the test, using girahs from sources as varied as Guru Nanak and Rumi, Iqbal and Kabir. His 50 minute performance is the perfect example of Qawwali as 'Sama', Qawwali as 'Wa'z' and Qawwali as the means to spiritual education, with the takraars in the latter half taking the listener to strange places indeed. In contrast, Agha Rasheed Ahmad's recording is taken from a Radio Pakistan performance featuring musical accompaniment by Shehnai and Sitar, It's lovely to hear the younger voices of the Fareedi brothers, and Agha Majeed really shines in this performance.

6, Prem Nagar Ki Raah Kathin Hai

A lovely Poorbi kalam - almost a bhajan - by the poet Mehmood Shah again displays striking differences in the performance styles of the two Qawwals. Haji Mahboob Sb is in an absolutely sublime mood; mellow, meditative and contemplative. His style is languid, almost loving as he steers the kalaam into beautiful territory, making it an allegory for the events at Karbala. In between, he exclaims to the audience, "These are dangerous things that I am about to relate, not for everyone's ears!". It's a beautiful performance, one that sounds absolutely intimate and deeply personal. Agha Rasheed's performance is similar in many ways. He uses most of the same girahs that Haji Mahboob uses, even using the same introductory verses. His performance, though still possessing a certain languor, is more regal, more magisterial, more declamatory. The arrangement is really beautiful, as is the taankari and girahbandi.

7. Salaam Aye Fatima Ke Laal

This powerful Manqabat to Hz Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (RA) was written by Isa Amritsari. Isa was a mureed of Hz Pir Meher Ali Shah (RA) who wrote some beautiful poetry in Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. He perished during the partition riots on a train bound for Pakistan in 1947 at a relatively young age. This manqabat is regularly performed at the Golra Sharif shrine on the eleventh of every Islamic month (Gyarhveen). This kalaam was also significant in that after Hz Pir Meher Ali Shah (Ra) had bestowed his blessings on young Mahboob Ali, this was the kalaam that Mahboob had recited in front of Pir Meher Ali Shah. This kalaam is usually sung at the conclusion of Qawwali mehfils at Golra so it is fitting that I end this post with this wonderful manqabat.