I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, June 17, 2011

....Of Leaving Lahore And Long Overdue Admissions.

When I was in Med School, a yearly trip to Lahore was an almost sacred ritual. For a few days every year, spending a sizable chunk of my meager allowance/stipend, I'd grab a bus to Lahore, happily explore the city on rickshaw, meet the few friends I had there and get some shopping done. Summer or winter, I'd make it a point to visit Lahore, even if it meant using false pretences to goad out a permission from my parents. Even though I had lived a sizable chunk of my life in Rawalpindi and hadn't ever LIVED in Lahore, I considered it my , erm my spiritual home if you will. However, when my five years in med school ended and it was time to decide where I wanted to do my house-job, I was in a fix. My family was in Rawalpindi (they'd planned to eventually move to Lahore in a year's time) and I knew and liked the city, but somewhere in the back of my mind was the voice that said, "Go to Lahore!!"

In the end, it was the advice of a friend - a friend of otherwise highly dubious character traits - who implored me to choose Lahore, that, coupled with my parents' decision to bring forward their planned Lahore move ahead by one year, made me decide for Lahore. Looking back, it was probably one of the smarter decisions I've made in a rather checkered decisionmaking history. After spending one whole year in Lahore, I can safely say that I haven't regretted it one bit. I had come here primarily to do my housejob and that I did. It was the most intellectually rewarding one year I could hope for, even better than what most of my coursemates in Rawalpindi had spent. I got the chance to learn at the feet of some of the best teachers in the country and substantially improve my practical and clinical skills. On the personal side, I was lucky to have two of my closest friends -make that three, with the third a recent addition - living literally next door. That meant I was never too hard pressed for companionship.

The exploring/photographing bug bit me at just the right time as I scoured the backroads of Lahore in search of amazing places. If summer had delayed itself just one or two more weeks I'd have visited and photographed just about everything I'd set my sights on. Unfortunately the oppressive Lahore heat (probably the only thing in which Lahore loses brownie points to Pindi) and my tight schedule meant that I still haven't visited or photographed a few very important landmarks - Masjid Wazir Khan for example. Some other time perhaps. It's also been a year where I've indulged almost all my rather varied intersts. I've been to Qawwali performances by the dozens, watched plays and stand-up shows, attended concerts and conferences, and in what must certainly be the highlight of my life so far, met Yusfi sahab. And I've eaten, by God have i eaten. The extra tonnage that I've put on over the last year doesn't do justice to my culinary exploits. In short, I've lived it up - at least according to my definition of living it up.

My one year is now up, and it's time to leave. I'll be moving to a rather remote location in two or three days, as diametrically opposite to Lahore as you can imagine. Even though I knew that I was gonna have to leave Lahore at the end of one year, that still doesn't make the departure any easier. I may be able to live without the food, the exploration or the 'ronaq' but there's one very vulnerable chink in my armor, one that I don't usually let show to others,but one they might notice if they are attentive enough.

When we were completing our training, a newly graduated psychologist joined us for six months. The poor guy had to spend all day dealing with idiots who'd shout out,"Yo shrink, come here and tell me about my personality." And being the nice guy he was, he'd provide them with a rather detailed and unflatteringly accurate description of themselves. One day, when he and I was alone, he asked me why I hadn't ever bothered him with the usual request. i replied that I pretty much knew who I was and didn't need further analysis, thankyouverymuch. He said he'd still tell me one rather important thing he'd noticed about me over the course of six months, it was that I had a 'dependant personality'. I needed people, friends around me to function properly. Without a proper social support structure, I was constantly in danger of collapsing inwardly into a coccoon. I simply nodded my head in assent and left, slightly unhappy that he had discovered my most important weakness.

And that is the chink in my armor that must now confess to. I'll be going to a new place, with a new set of colleagues, which is something I would've been fine with were it not for the fact that the remoteness of my location might make it impossible to establish any contact with the folks back in Lahore, or for that matter anywhere else in Pakistan. Without my 'social support', I'd be a fish out of water, which is a rather frightening proposition. But what gives me some hope is that I've been in a similar situation before. Five years ago when I joined med-school, I was thrust into a group of strangers. It took some adjusting, but after spending five years, I count that group of strangers among some of my very best friends. Maybe this adventure'll turn out the same way too. I can only hope.

What my two year stay at my next port-of-call will lack in friends, it'll more than make up in free time. From people who've served in similar places, I've gathered that killing time is the most important problem one faces. I think I have that covered. There's the extensive study that I'll have to start in order to appear for my specialization exams, then there's the Truckloads of Qawwali recordings that I've been assigned to edit and catalog. There's 160+ gigabytes on my harddrive that I'll devote substantial time to; so that at the end of two years, I ought've listened to all 19571 songs I've accumulated (a daunting task). A trunkfull of unread books goes with me too, none of them related to medicine. With such ample supplies, I think I'm pretty much covered as far as killing time is concerned. And if all else fails, I can still write.

I'll end here, I don't know when I'll get the chance to write again, so readers can consider this another one of my temporary retirements from writing. Consider this also, whether they can read this or not, a thankyou to all the many people who have made this year the most special year of my life. And finally, consider this a thankyou to Lahore, for being so good to me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

....Of Faded Voices And Silenced Chants

A week ago, a friend from 'Qawwali Central' in Islamabad was over for a few days. One of the subjects that we got talking about -in between the customary tape exchanges - was the fact that we only have recordings of up to two generations of Qawwals. Apart from one or two recent instances where the third generation of Qawwals has started carrying forward a gharana's name (Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the young Qawwal Bacchay for example), most of the recordings are from either one or at the most two generations of Qawwals. The earliest available recorded material dates back to the late fifties or early sixties, with the bulk of the recordings from the preceding era either lost or in the collections of some rather miserly collectors (a fact Farid Ayaz sb complained about when I inquired about some older recordings).

This is a pity, because there are a lot of names from the not too distant past that have legendary status in the world of Qawwali, yet the only record we have of them is through recollections of those who have heard them, or passing mentions in books or articles. We have for example, no recordings of the two great Qawwals Farooq Ahmed Nizami and Raees Ahmed Nizami. The earliest available recordings of the original Manzoor Niazi troupe are from the fifties. We know nothing of Meraj Ahmed Nizami's father except that he was called 'Pyaray Khan Sahib'. There are countless other examples of illustrious Qawwals whose music is lost to the ears of the world, drowned out by the ravages of time.

The preservation and dissemination of music from that bygone era is important for many reasons.First, as a window to the culture of the pre-partition era, the few surviving recordings are a brilliant time capsule of the musical styles, instrumentation, language and performance idiom of that time. Second, they represent, if not an ideal then a model from whence modern Qawwali in specific and modern folk music in general, has evolved. And third, as a sociological-anthropological study, the early Qawwali recordings provide an insight into the the arrival of modern recording techniques with all their benefits (wider listener-ship) and handicaps (the three minute time limitation) and their effects on a centuries old art form. What follows is a brief introduction to some of the Qawwals of the pre-partition era whose recordings have somehow survived. Some of them carried on in the tradition of the Khanqahi Qawwali, some made bold new innovations and some successfully achieved the rare distinction of fusing both modern and traditional Qawwali.

The Earliest Years 

The earliest Qawwali recordings were made at the time of arrival of recorded sound in India in 1902. Three artists were recorded at that time,Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and Fakhre Alam Qawwal. Contemporary records state that they 'achieved lasting fame and performed widely for audiences in the tens of thousands'. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

During the British period the record industry settled for solo songs of a popular devotional type with little evidence of the authentic sound character of Sufi music. Of course, the three-minute duration of these recordings could hardly permit the freedom to repeat and amplify musical portions which is so essential to that idiom. In fact, the early recordings share stylistic traits with contemporary urban entertainment music like charbaiat and nautanki as well as with the music that accompanied silent
films and was later incorporated into film songs . But ultimately the industry did not invent this idiom: it only promoted and projected it, thereby giving preference to what were essentially freelance urban entertainers over the tradition-bearing hereditary qawwali performers who were, and still are, affiliated with Sufi shrines in a quasi-feudal arrangement. Through this preference Pearu, Kaloo, and Fakhr-e-Alam became 'stars' who also performed widely before huge live audiences, both Muslim and non-Muslim
, and in settings ranging from open-air grounds to recital halls . They were often dressed in Western clothes and sitting on chairs; Kaloo is remembered for always appearing in an impressively neat Western suit . His photograph embodies a Western-Islamic image with tie, shirt and jacket he wears a Fez, the formidable Pan-Islamic head-dress favoured by elite Muslims at the time.

The recordings of Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and their contemporary Iboo Qawwal are interesting in that most of them are devoid of the takraar or even the handclap accompaniment that is associated with Qawwali. The texts are devotional (hamd or naat) and the singers sing solo, accompanied only by a harmonium (an occasional bulbultarang) and a tabla.

Kaloo Qawwal - Dua Me-kash Ne Di Hai (1920s)                                               

Pearu Qawwal - Mujhe Aap Ki Ik Nazar Chahiye Hai (1920s)

Iboo Qawwal - Jamal un Ka Noorani (1920s)

The Thirties

The success of the earliest Qawwali recordings paved the way for more Qawwals to try their hand at the new medium. The more commercial sound of the early Qawwals influenced the style of Qawwali being performed at the Dargaahs and a new style emerged. Again, Prof. Regula Qureshi,

 By the 1930s two recording artists emerged, Azim Prem Ragi and Waiz Qawwal, who also impressed Sufi audiences. While in proper Sufi settings they did not use studio instruments as was done for recordings, Waiz Qawwal used to intone a simple melodic accompaniment on the sitar. The recognition of these performers in Sufi circles is reflected in their names and special titles - Waiz( 'Religious Commentator'), Prem Ragi('Minstrel of Love') - which were bestowed upon them by Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a great Sufi and literary figure attached to Delhi's Nizamuddin Auliya shrine . This fame in turn influenced the diversification of qawwali recordings towards including some genuine Sufi classics, like Azim Prem Ragi's recording of the famous Persian poem Nami danam che manzil bud by the thirteenth century poet Amir Khusrau.

 The two Qawwals mentioned in the above excerpt are in my opinion, the two seminal artists in Qawwali history. They were the first to successfully fuse the classical Sufi repertoire and the traditional Qawwali performance style with modern studio instrumentation and the requirements of the gramophone age. Azim Prem Ragi was known for writing most of his own material and mingling it with the classical sufi kalaam. He was considered one of the favorite Qawwals at the Ajmer Dargah and it is said that the Fakirs and Saadhus would come down from the hills surrounding the shrine to listen whenever he performed.

Azim Prem Ragi Qawwal - Daras Bhikaran Hoon Teri Ajmeri Khwaja (1930s)

Ali Buksh Qawwal, also known as 'Waiz' Qawwal was the other important Qawwal of this era. He was a shagird of Tanras Khan (according to Frid Ayaz Sb) and included many of the kalaams preferred by the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana into his repertoire. He performed extensively at various dargahs as well as recorded in Bombay and Calcutta. Two of his greatest legacies are the popularization of 'Girah' - the inserted verse - and the use of Sitar in Qawwali. He held the distinction of being the first Qawwal to perform Pir Mehr Ali Shah's legendary na'at 'Ajj Sik Mitran Di', and Pir Sahab (R.A) was so taken with his performance that he gave Waiz the title of 'Sufi'. Later, Pir sahab's son , Hazrat Ghulam Mohyeddin (R.A) sent the young Mehboob Qawwal to Delhi to learn at the feet of Waiz Qawwal. Although Haji Mehboob spent very little time with Waiz, he picked up his two most important qualities - the beautiful Sitar acompaniment and the expert use of the Girah - from Waiz Qawwal.

Meri Nas Nas Haq Haq Bole - Ali Buksh 'Waiz' Qawwal (1930s)

The other great Qawwal to emerge in the thirties was Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal. He is considered the Jadd-e-Amjad of the modern Fareedi Qawwals - darbari Qawwals at the Baba Fareed shrine at Pakpattan, including luminaries like Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal, Mehr Ali- Sher Ali Qawwal, Miandad Hafiz Dad Qawwals and Sher Miandad- Badar Miandad Qawwals. He was one of the earliest popularizers of the 'Punjabi' Qawwali style. Another of his great innovations was the rearrangement of the Qawwali Party. As Adam Nayyar writes,

Traditionally, the master singer was placed in the centre and given the title of mohri, meaning "leading chess figure". The tabla-player was directly behind him, while the prompter (with the books and manuscripts for the words of the mystic singing) sat behind him at his left shoulder. The mohri was flanked to his right and feft by two singers with harmoniums (avazia), while the rest of the chorus was aligned on both sides in two rows, the better singers up front. Important changes were undertaken by (among others) Ustad Mohammad Ali Faridi. During this period, the mohri or lead singer was placed to the right of the stage. The avazia was to his left and another good siriger to the left of the avazia. The task of this singer was to support the lead singer, have sufficient knowledge of musical theory and to take the place of the lead singer in emergencies. The tabla remained in the central position and was now behind this "backup" singer. The other positions remained the same. This change in placement is generally followed to this day by all qawwal in the Punjab. The creation of the "backup" singer was prompted by the fact that qawwal groups were often named after a leading pair of brothers or a father-and-son pair.

Thall Wich Khari Sassi Haakaan Maardi - Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal (1930s)

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Qawwals are probably the most important Qawwals to have emerged in the thirties. They were revolutionaries in the world of Qawwali. Members of a gharana that stretched back many centuries, they were the first of the Khandaani Qawwals to be successful recording artists. Performing pure sufi kalaam, infusing it with stylings from the classical 'khayal' style of gayaki as well as the traditional Punjabi
style, they played a huge part in popularizing Qawwali among the more high-brow listening audience. They were the first to perform Iqbal's kalaam in the Qawwali idiom, a fact that garnered praise and gratitude from Iqbal himself. Their recordings of Shikwa-Jawabe Shikwa are legendary and remained the template for all future recordings of the kalaam. The two brothers continuously performed till the mid-sixties when Fateh Ali Khan passed away and the mantle passed to a young Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sadly, I know of no recordings of theirs from before partition.

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals - Nasima (1952)

The final Qawwal from the thirties that I have recordings of is someone I admit having no information about. If anyone can enlighten me, I shall be exceedingly grateful. Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal seems to have recorded exclusively in Punjabi in the late thirties and early forties. The style is forceful, with simple but effective instrumental accompaniment. Two or three of his recordings are in the form of conversations, eg between Sohni and Mahiwal and Laila and Majnun etc, while the rest are hamds and na'ats.

Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal - Laila Te Majnu (1937)

The Forties

The final pre-partition decade saw a further change in recorded Qawwali with the arrival of the 'Bombay' or 'Narrative' style of Qawwali. Instead of the standard practice of melodic recitation of a selection of verses, artists like Ismail Azad Qawwal and Habib Painter Qawwal popularized the 'Narrative' or 'Storytelling' style of Qawwali. This style involved extended girah-bandi without musical accompaniment, in a narrative or storytelling style. Music was used only during the bridge and the chorus, while the lead singer weaved two or three narratives around them, accompanying himself on the harmonium. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

Musically, this narrative style is outstanding for its lack of melodic movement,except for melodic markers at structural turning points in the song. Most conspicuousamong these is the impending conclusion of the inserted girah recitative;it is marked by a conspicuously high register and a quick descent into the refrain. The verses contain a repetitive, even playful, oratory typical of other Indian oral narratives. Indeed, this style of qawwali became highly popular as a non-religious genre, especially in contests (muqabila) between two qawwal parties who, in live performances,outdid each other in improvised verses. In Bombay, such contests were favorite live entertainment in the 1940s, sponsored by Muslim neighbourhood associations. Essentially, the 'story-telling' qawwali represented an expanded influence of popular entertainment on record production; but its lower-class character evoked disapproval from the Muslim elite, begining with elite performers themselves.
Long-time HMV producer of classical recordings G. N. Joshi reports a telling incident from 1952 when the great classical ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar, was almost irreparably lost to the Gramophone Company because an unlettered official made the offensive suggestion that she model her natt recording on the qawwali style of Ismail Azad

Habib Painter Qawwal - Qadam Laghzeeda Laghzeeda (1940s)

The major departure from this narrative Qawwali style was presented by the last major Qawwal to emerge in the pre-partition era. Kallan Khan Qawwal was one of the darbaari Qawwals at the Kalyar Shareef shrine. He performed Qawwali the traditional way, with handclap accompaniement and based on mostly Sufi texts or na'ats. Incorporating all the innovations made in the preceding decades, he used girahs, takraars and alaaps, fusing the modern and traditional into something that closely resembled the Qawwali we are all familiar with today. He was accomapanied in some of his recordings by his nephew, a young and rather talented Qawwal who would later achieve legendary status as Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri Qawwal.

Kallan Khan Qawwal And Party - Madina Na Dekha To Kuch Bhi Na Dekha (1940s)


The purpose of sharing these recordings from some of the pre-eminent Qawwals of the pre-independence era was threefold. First, to trace the evolution of recorded Qawwali over the last century and understand the various changes it underwent before assuming it's current form. Second, to provide whatever information I possess about the various artistes that were once superstars but have now been all but forgotten. And finally, to give readers a chance to listen to some beautiful music that despite it's age, still has the power to move and entrance.

In the beginning of this piece I mentioned some 'miserly collectors' who can't stand sharing the enormous treasures of music they possess. I have accumulated a modest collection of 'my' kind of music and despite the protestations of some of my friends - and the dwindling readership of my blog, I can't seem to make myself part of that group.