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 .

Saturday, February 11, 2012

...Of Dargahs And Devotions

If I had a penny for every time someone's asked me variations on the following sequence of questions, I'd be a millionaire by now. The questions being...

"Where are you going ?"
"Data Darbar"

Rumors run rife among my friends and family as to what can my reasons be for frequenting Sufi shrines and Mazaars so often. According to some, I'm a hardcore dope-fiend who goes there to score. Others think I'm one of those multitudes who can be found 'maatha-taiking' and 'mannat maaning' at the graves of the Saints. Still others have the eerily accurate idea that a hardcore foodie like me goes there to sample the delights of the 'langar'.

My reasons are varied and even I'm not fully aware of them, but a few are very obvious. The places radiate peace and calm, there is an overpowering spiritual energy to them, they are perfect for contemplation and what people in my line of work call 'zeroing the bubble', and yes, the 'langar' food is brilliant. Another important reason is of course, the music. Almost invariably, the shrines that I've visited have had a tradition of regular musical performances that are carried out by a small, hereditary group of 'darbari' musicians. They vary from accomplished to inept, from crude to highly polished, but they share one common bond, the bond of devotion to their Dargaah and their 'Peer', and this devotion shines through in their performance, whether Qawwali, Kafi singing, Noha-khvaani or simple instrumental musical performances. Below is a selection of some of the many musical performances, both regularly held and impromptu, that I've come across in my travels around the various Sufi Shrines of Pakistan.

One of the first places I visited on my 'Great Roadtrip' across South Punjab was the Shah Rukne Alam (RA) shrine in Multan. One of the most easily identifiable landmarks of Pakistan, the beautiful shrine is normally a quiet, peaceful place. Music is generally not an important part of the 'Suhravardia' silsila's devotional practices, so it was a bit of a surprise for me when, sitting in the courtyard of the shrine, I heard a number of voices joined in a rather unusual chant. I immediately whipped out my cellphone and started recording. I found out later that it was a group of villagers from interior Sindh who regularly make the pilgrimage to the Saint's shrine to pray for bountiful crops, successful marriages and the birth of children.

Villagers chanting in prayer at the shrine of Shah Rukne Alam (RA)


Ucch Shareef is one of the most historically and culturally significant places in Pakistan, with Pre-Mughal tombs littering the landscape, nestled among scores of Sufi shrines, each with a unique history and a devoted flock of 'mureeds'. The birthplace of the great 'Pathanay Khan', the town also has a longstanding musical legacy. One of the many shrines in Ucch Shareef is the one belonging to the Naqshbandi saint Hz Mehboob-e-Subhani (RA), which was one of the noisiest, most interestingly populated places I've been to. There were children playing and crying, elders snoozing and eating, women knitting and chattering, and a group of seminary students reciting the Quran.In this astounding cacaphony were mingled the sounds of two local minstrels, a pair of wandering 'Noha-khvaans' who were singing a Seraiki 'Noha' or lament for the Shuhada of Karbala. An unusual style and beautiful language mixed with a unique 'takrar' based style make them two of the most unique performers I've heard.

 Two wandering minstrels performing a 'Noha' at the 'Mehboob-e-Subhani' shrine at Ucch Shareef


Around six months ago, a friend received a rather anguished email from a Qawwal in which he lamented the 'disastrous decline of Qawwali' in Pakistan. I informed my friend that the reports of Qawwali's decline were greatly exaggerated and the genre was in fact, pretty healthy and more or less chugging along smoothly. The reason was that there's still a large number of 'Darbaari' qawwals who regularly perform at shrines all over Pakistan to undiminished audiences and who are still carrying out the task of propagating and transferring the wealth of devotional and musical treasures that Qawwali encompasses. Case in point is the following video. On a trip to Qasur, I made a detour to the hilltop shrine of Hz Kamal Chishti (RA). One has to climb at least two hundred steps to get to the shrine which overlooks the city of Qasur, a fact that ensures that the crowd of devotees is often very thin. On the day I went there, there was a small party of Qawwals performing there. They weren't musically very talented, the instruments were in a state of disrepair and there wasn't a soul in sight for them to perform for, yet they were singing away like nobody's business. And when I asked them if they knew anything in Farsi, they readily obliged ...

Qawwals at the shrine of Hz Kamal Chishti in Qasur


 While on the subject of Qawwali, I've been lucky enough to have attended a fair number of mehfils, both private and in a Khanqahi setting. Each has its own pleasures, but I've always been partial to the Sufi kalam that's performed in a Khanqah. And of all the places I've been to, the one place that has proven to be an almost textbook example of what a Qawwali mehfil in a Khanqah should be is the daily Qawwali that takes place at the afternoon majlis at the shrine of Hz Pir Mher Ali Shah Sb (RA) in Golra Shareef. In a tradition that goes back to Hazrat Sb's own time, a daily Qawwali mehfil takes place at the shrine just before mid-day. The late, great Haji Mahboob Ali Sb (RA) performed in these mehfils for around forty years, and after his death the tradition was continued by his brother (and accompanist) Haji Mushtaq Qawwal. The current darbaari qawwal at the shrine is Billa Qawwal, who makes up in choice of kalaam and use of 'tazmeen' and 'gireh-bandi' what he lacks in classical musical training. All the requisites of khanqahi Qawwali are adhered to; the mehfil takes place in the presence of a Shaykh, in this case, Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s grandson, Hz Shah Abdul Haq Gilani, the attendees are respectful and discerning, the 'nazar' to the qawwals is given through the hands of one of the many important spiritual personages who attend, and the atmosphere is one of a spiritual "wa'az" or instruction.

Nasima - Billa Qawwal And Party at the Golra Sharif Shrine

The next video was recorded at what I can safely call the greatest day of my life. It wasn't the day I graduated, or the day I got accepted into Med school, or the day I got engaged (apologies to the future missus). It was the final day of my Great Roadtrip, when after having visited Multan, Bahawalpur, Ucch Shareef, Derawar and Dera Ghazi Khan, I made my way to the town of Mithankot to pay my respects at the shrine of one of the greatest of Sufi poets, Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA). Pathanay Khan and Zahida Parveen were playing in the car on my way there, and a large number of Khwaja Sb's Kaafis were written on the walls of the shrine. The obvious step after payng my respects was to ask around for anyone who might sing one of Khwaja Sb's immortal kaafis for me. Somebody directed me to a group of Fakirs sitting in a corner of the shrine courtyard, one of whom was the current Khalifa of the shrine. I introduced myself and expressed my desire to listen to some of Khwaja Sb's kalam and the Khalifa Sb graciously consented to sing some for me, albeit making excuses for his voice. As I brought out my cellphone camera and he started singing, goosebumpy silence was quickly followed by a sudden gush of emotion as tears came to my eyes. I looked around and realised that I wasn't alone, very soon the entire circle of Fakirs was gently sobbing (some of which can be heard on the recording). This in itself would've been enough to make this an unforgettable experience, but somehow I plucked up the the courage to ask the gathered audience if  I could sing something too. they graciously consented and there, right next to Khwaja Sb's resting place, in the company of a group of Fakirs, I sang one of my favorite (and my parents' and grandparents' favorite) kaafi. When I ended, the teary-eyed assemblage very kindly appreciated me and we prayed together for a while before I took my leave. Nothing, and I mean nothing has come close to the sheer spiritual and psychological elation I felt that day.

 Kafi Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) sung by Khwaja Sb's Khalifa


So there you have it. The secret's out and now whenever you see me heading out for another Sufi shrine, you'll know why I'm going there. I'm going there for spiritual solace, I'm going there out of curiosity and respect for the personage buried there, I'm going there because I've heard their langar is good. But I'm also going there in search of music, especially when it mixes with the rarefied atmosphere of a Dargah and produces moments of absolute joy like this one ....


1 comment:

  1. i spend whole day with your lovely writings and music.i did nothing else...wish you good health .. simply awesome...